Myth, Rituals, & Language in the game “Quell”
DESIGN RESEARCH, GAME DESIGN
The Design of Games, Part II
A Brief Background of Play
What is a game, really? In some of the earliest classifications of play, Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois present similar aspects of games in their definitions. They both argue that games are free — that people “play because they enjoy playing” (Huizinga, 103). They also agree that play is limited or separate, that it is “engaged in with precise limits of time and place” (Caillois, 125). Additionally, play is governed by rules “that govern the correct playing of the game” and creates order — any deviation from the rules “‘spoils the game,’ robs it of its character and makes it worthless” (Caillois, 126; Huizinga, 105). What Caillois calls the “make-believe,” Huizinga describes as the “extra-ordinary” nature of play, in which there is a secrecy and otherworldly quality to the games we play. Caillois doesn’t include competitiveness (or as Huizinga calls it, tension) in his formal definition, but instead includes it in his categorization of games as agon. Huizinga’s definition doesn’t include the aspect of chance at all, though Caillois has it both in his definition and as a category of play.
Huizinga’s writing on the history of play is very interesting. He mentions three types of cultural “activities” that are founded on aspects of play. The first is language, where “in the making of speech and language the spirit is continually ‘sparking’ between matter and mind…playing with this wondrous nominative faculty” (Huizinga, 100). Every language is governed by its own sets of rules, and every one of us plays with these rules in interesting ways to communicate and express our thoughts and feelings. Language is one of our first experiences of play, and this is why there are so many games based on words, from Scrabble and crossword puzzles to charades and popular mobile games like Draw Something. Playing with our language’s rules to create puns or a play on words, or even a witty comeback, all falls within the realm of play that incorporates rules, imagination, and sometimes competitiveness.

Myth, which is often an important aspect of world-building in games, is itself based on play, as Huizinga argues. By transforming our own world into a magical space, or imagining another world entirely, mythology is “playing on the border-line between jest and earnest” (Huizinga, 100). Myth activates mimicry and imaginative play. Finally, rituals are almost like rules that must be played within for certain desirable outcomes, “in a spirit of pure play” (Huizinga, 100).
In a sense, every game has its own myth, rituals, and language. If we think of language as a structure with which to interact with our surroundings, then we can think of games as having a language, or structure with which we can interact with and engage in the game’s world. And similar to the way Huizinga describes “playing” with language, players can “hack” games to play with their structure without breaking the rules, like a play on words. Myth is also an integral aspect of many games, because without a compelling story that engages with your imagination, the game would be just a series of mechanics. Even a physical game like chess, has a “myth” to it. With names like king, queen, knight, and bishop, the pieces are transformed into characters and the board becomes a battlefield of politics. Games also often start with rituals, whether it is setting up the board, shuffling cards, or in the case of digital games, a loading screen. There are also rituals within the game, like checking on the objects you have bought within the game, or talking to certain characters every time you play.
Myth, Ritual, & Language in “Quell”
Using these ideas, I analyzed the game Quell. It is a puzzle game with fairly simple mechanics — the player uses their finger to move a raindrop up, down, right or left. Elements like stone, spikes, switches, or blocks have different effects on the raindrop, and players must use logic to complete each maze.
Myth & Ritual
The narrative, or myth aspect, of the game is that the player is uncovering old memories in an old attic. As you go along, you swipe away dust from faded photographs to reveal past memories and construct the story of the man who used to live there. There are also pictorial elements included in some of the levels, like the silhouettes of a soldier proposing to a woman, and the background imagery depicts various landscapes (mountains, houses, brick wall, etc). These elements encourage the imaginativeness and otherworldly aspect of play, in which the “individual ‘plays’ another part, another being (mimicry). He is another being” (Huizinga, 107). The visual narrative of the game also sets it apart from the real world, with its secrecy and mystery surrounding the old memories.
Language & Ludic Play
This contrasts the actual gameplay, which relies on rules and logic to complete the mazes and puzzles, and is very ludic. The player has to find a way to collect each golden ball without getting stuck or “dying” by hitting a spike. The raindrop is stopped when it hits a wall, but if it reaches the edge of the screen, it goes through and loops back around on the other side (here is a video of this). This adds a small element of disorientation or ilinx, and at first it’s hard to wrap your head around this mechanic, which plays with our perception of the edge of the screen being physically solid.
The game slowly introduces other elements and game mechanics, like ice blocks that have to be broken to move through, roses that open to become spiky thorns, portal rings, switches that send rays of light, and movable spikes. Each of these adds a new level of problem solving to the mix. Along with these rules, there is also the aspect of tension, or competitiveness/agon. Every level has a set number of moves in which the player must complete it to get a “perfect” score (you can still finish it with an imperfect score, though). Another competitive element is that every level has a gem hidden in one of the stone blocks, which only reveals itself after being hit by the raindrop three times. It could also be thought of as chance/alea, as these gems sometimes are revealed by accident in the course of trying to solve the puzzle. There are also so many stone blocks in each puzzle that it is a guessing game to try and find which one it would be in.
In analyzing this game in terms of its ludic qualities and definitions of play, I found it very interesting that the game designers chose to create such an imaginative and richly layered narrative for a very logical, problem solving game. Perhaps it is because of these two characteristics woven together that this game was so fun and satisfying to play!
Footnotes
  1. Huizinga, J. Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.In K. Salen and E. Zimmerman (Eds.) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology (pp. 96–120). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  2. Caillois, R. The Definition of Play and the Classification of Games. In K. Salen and E. Zimmerman (Eds.) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology (pp. 122–155). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.