My first exposure to Haruki Murakami was last year, when I was absentmindedly scrolling through the AV Club when I stumbled across a positive review for a book by an author I’d never heard of. The book was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and the author was Haruki Murakami. My copy arrived on my front door two days laters, and I’d finished it one day after that.
For the unfamiliar, Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author with 13 internationally acclaimed novels under his belt. Murakami books tend to be stories of fairly mundane protagonists who play the straight man to their own weird story. Mysteries are often presented and never explained, and characters tend to operate more in emotion and tone than action. I highly recommend Tsukuru Tazaki as a jumping in point for his works.
I bring up Mr. Murakami for one of the main features of his work, one that sort of permeates Japanese culture as a whole, and that’s his lack of explanation. Some people dislike Murakami’s more recent works for an egregious amount of this, but I always like it. Murakami will present his characters with situations, characters, and moments which are simply never explained.
Here’s an example. During Tsukuru Tazaki, the eponymous protagonist is being told a story by his classmate and friend, Haida. In this story, Haida’s father is taking a break from his studies and visiting a rural hot springs, where he discovers the mysterious pianist Midorikawa. The two become friends, and Midorikawa eventually reveals that he has accepted a mystical contract to die in two months, in exchange for having a wonderful time during those last two months, and being able to perceive people’s colored “auras”. Also, he might have had an eleventh and twelfth finger.
What does this have to do with the main plot? On a direct level, nothing. Tsukuru Tazaki is the story of a man trying to discover why his high-school friends cut off contact with him. Hell, Haida, the person telling the story, disappears a few chapters later, never to re-emerge.
This sort of ambiguity permeates the entire book, and all of Murakami’s books. Some things will just happen, and never tie directly back to the main story. Characters love to focus in on tiny, ephemeral details in scenes. Despite this, characters still feel grounded. Despite having their quirks, they grow and react and think like people do, but like people stripped of practical worries and allowed to think on a more spiritual level than we actually do.
Games haven’t completely forsaken ambiguity in their storytelling, but I feel like too much of it takes the form of the cliffhanger ending. What does the ending of Bioshock Infinite mean? How about the final level of Condemned: Criminal Origins? These games like to explain every aspect in their setting up to those final climactic points, then leaving on a single mystery, framed in a game full of facts. Condemned as a standalone game does leave quite a bit of mystery, but it’s defeated by it’s sequel, which feels the need to explain everything.
Even games we praise for not explaining things actually do. Dark Souls has a very descriptive and detailed explanation for everything in its world, it just hides it very well. If you want games that don’t revel in explaining every oddity in their world, you’re basically stuck in the horror genre.
Murakami books aren’t horror novels, though. Sure, there are scary moments (the subterranean chase in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comes to mind), but the books as a whole aren’t horror, their objective isn’t to scare you. They just, have mysteries in them. These mysteries aren’t the focus, they merely provide interesting situations for interesting characters to inhabit.
Games, I think, need more of this. Why must we know exactly where Alma comes from in F.E.A.R, or why people have turned into amorphous monsters in LISA: The Painful? When you present these moments as mysteries and don’t solve them, players have to think on their own to draw conclusions, forcing them to interact with the story and setting on a deeper level than before.
In Tsukuru Tazaki, Tsukuru is presented with a series of surreal moments, some dreams, some stories, some real moments, none of which receive a clear explanation. What Murakami does correctly here is ensure that all of these moments tie back to Tsukuru’s personality: they are either drawn from his memory or subconscious, or guide his decision-making in the future. These moments are moments where the singular point is to explore an element of the character.
Because Haida’s story about the twelve-fingered pianist aren’t grounded in anything, we can’t question its effects on characters, on the plot, on setting, or even anything that happened in the scene itself. The singular question that’s on your mind when Haida finishes the story is “How does this tie back to Tsukuru?”. That moment of the story is a prompt for readers to think back through everything they know about the story and characters, and try to draw their own conclusions. I think this is really interesting, and gives readers a little bit of authorship over the story, in that they can draw their own conclusions from these moments. Either way, reader investment in the story increases.
I think games should implement this. By providing scenes which have no grounding in reality, where characters are forced to deal with ludicrous situations, we as players are forced to ignore any questions of context, of plot significance, of consequence, and simply ask “What does this mean to the characters?”. If you pull it off wrong, it will come of as pretentious nonsense. But, connect your scene well enough to the characters themselves, and avoid being too random, and the audience will dig deep into their own knowledge of the setting and draw conclusions.