How video game design embraces the ambiguous

From a young age, uncertainty is a state of being the human mind wants to avoid.

In 1972, Jerome Kagan proposed that one of the leading factors in human nature was the need to resolve these uncertainties. When we couldn’t immediately satisfy this desire for understanding, we became motivated to reach a solution. In searching for this cognitive closure, it can be suggested that when presented with ambiguity, we were more likely to become engaged with discovering a resolution than if we were simply presented with one.

So, the idea of using ambiguity as a resource to promote engagement, reflection and interpretation is not as entirely unfounded as the HCI community appear to believe.


This underlying principle was used in videogame ‘Dear Esther’, where an ambiguous and fragmented narration is the only mechanism used to compel the players to complete the game. With no interactive elements, no combat and no physical happenings, the game relies entirely upon this sense of ambiguity and the player’s need to reach a cognitive closure. Coupled with randomly selected audio recordings of an unseen narrator, each playthrough was designed to change, never presenting the same sequence of the story and designed with the idea this would provoke discussion among players who had arrived at their own ‘cognitive closure’ in determine the true story Dear Esther represented. The game was a cult hit and sold over 750k units, has been translated into over 15 languages and now has a nationwide live tour.

Another game which uses ambiguity to intrigue its players is ‘Abzu’. In complete opposition to Dear Esther, there is no dialogue at all, and all narrative is driven through interactions with the environment. It follows the ‘human-like’ (but definitely not quite human) ‘Diver, who explores a subaquatic environment with no clear goals beyond this exploration. During this exploration, the Diver encounters various marine life, underwater statues and ominous mechanical tetahedrons, and from this begin to piece together their interpretation of what occurred to render the environments increasingly inhospitable. The developers admitted that these interpretations were key, and that they didn’t want to prescribe an intended experience but allow the narrative ambiguity create an individualised story for each player. Abzu has over 650k players in total and was nominated for a BAFTA.

So, with such a successful example of how ambiguity can be used to create and foster engagement in video game design, could the same ambiguous approach be used in research to foster engagement, discussion and interpretation?

In the paper ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’, Blast Theory put forward the suggestions that ambiguity can be used to encourage speculation around the validity of information to provoke independent assessment. Just like in Dear Esther, which encourages players to determine their own storyline and results in users deciding what credence to place in the information they are presented.

The virtue of ambiguity is that it can help to engage, inform ideas and provoke thoughts without designers having to impose a singular, concrete experience for their users.



Author: Megan Venn-Wycherley

One response to “How video game design embraces the ambiguous”

  1. Simon Bowen says:

    Thanks for this, Megan. I’m not a gamer, so it was interesting to read about Dear Esther and Abzu – and have my assumptions of the typical character of videogames challenged! You also make an interesting link between the ‘playability’ of these games and a human desire to resolve ambiguity – via Kagan (reference, here?). Towards the end you suggest similar tactics might have value in HCI research, and left me wanting to read more… How might you use the urge to resolve ambiguity in research, and which aspects of research – in working with research participants, say?

    Gaver et al.’s paper discusses the value of ambiguity for design (rather than research, specifically). You might consider further what else design ambiguity enables and for who. E.g. designers often impose a ‘use’ (and set of assumptions, values, etc.) in what is designed. Leaving aspects open and ambiguous provides more room for users to appropriate and make their own sense and use.

    A couple of smaller notes: Be careful of claims such as “the HCI community appear to believe” – ok in a ‘blog post, but would need some evidence in an academic paper. You quantify the success of the games in terms of units sold – but what counts as success here? I.e. 750k units seems a lot (to me, as a non gamer), but how does it relate to the sales of other games?

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