['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. The latest column examines a Flash-based RPG for lessons on story.]

Krinlabs' Sonny is a Flash RPG which consists of a lot of tactical battles interspersed with chances to level up. It's like Monster's Den: the Book of Dread, only with a more eclectic setting and smaller parties.

Sonny is clearly the result of a lot of love and attention. The animations are sweet and smooth. The interface is easy to use. There are some occasional spelling errors, which irk me (maybe hire a proofreader next time?), but they're relatively infrequent. There's even some decent voice acting and the beginnings of a story about illicit government experimentation gone horribly wrong.

Only the beginnings, though -- and here is where Sonny turns seriously disappointing. The first few scenes set up relationships between the characters and hint at narrative revelations to come -- but they don't. Instead of explanations and discoveries, the end of the game turns into a long, grueling, stats-oriented fight against four special boss levels. The ending of the story never arrives -- and in fact before we reach the bosses, there's a helpful note which explains that "the next part is not part of the story".

Now, from the forums over at Krinlabs, it's clear that the makers of the game intend to create a Sonny 2, which will pick up the dropped narrative strands from earlier in the game. But there's nothing in the original game that hints that it's really episode 1 of a longer series. The story just stops going forward, jilting the player, who came along in hope of hearing the end.

Maybe it's wrong to feel quite so annoyed by this, but I see the beginning of a story as a promise. If you hook me in with a mystery, then I'm trusting you to tell me the truth if I play the rest of the game. That's the deal.

I get the strong impression, in the case of Sonny, that the designers just ran out of time or energy for the story aspects of the game, and put off the rest for the sequel, without signalling that very well in the finished piece.

But I bring it up because I see the broken promise to the player as an example (admittedly extreme) of a slightly more widespread trend in game narrative development. Ken Levine, talking about Bioshock, urges authors to "trust the mystery" and not answer every question that a story raises.

I understand where the impulse comes from: we've all seen horror movies where the horrific thing was disappointingly lame after a great build-up (I'm looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan); played games where the big boss was not nearly as bad-ass as we'd been led to expect; seen TV shows end with attempted explanations that totally fail to handle the loose ends up to that point (hey, X-Files). In fact, Levine says this explicitly: ""Think of 'Lost'? What is their entire stock in trade? It's asking questions they don't answer," Levine said."

So maybe it's better just not to answer the questions raised. A non-answer has got to be better than a bad answer, right?

No. Not necessarily. Not even most of the time. Not if you've gotten the player to play this far on the premise that truths are going to be revealed. Certainly not if you leave the player thinking that maybe you didn't have an answer planned at all.

There are a small handful of stories that have the form of a mystery but get away with not answering the question. Usually it's because, along the way, they've convinced the reader that the truth is not the important thing, or is too subjective to identify, or that a state of uncertainty is actually better. This is not an easy trick to pull off.

What's more, most of the ones I can think of, from the classic "Lady or the Tiger" story to John Sayles' movie "Limbo", leave the reader/viewer/player with a specific set of options for the ending. This thing happens, or that one does. The domain of uncertainty is not large. This is completely different from leaving the reader with no idea why key things in the story happened.

No, what makes the end of a mystery story good is not that the answer gets left off. It's that the answer is interesting. Maybe it makes you feel differently about the characters. Maybe it makes you question some of the moral decisions that led up to that point.

Maybe it makes you wonder about the applicability of the story in your own life. Most of the best mystery authors in static fiction have already caught on to this one (and authors of related genres, such as science fiction with a strong mystery element). Discovering who did what in Gaudy Night, or what's really going on in Mote in God's Eye, isn't disappointing. On the contrary, it's meaningful for the characters and challenging for the reader.

I see nothing inherent about this kind of story-telling that puts it beyond the reach of games. It does require the storyteller to have some sense of the themes of his work, some awareness of the issues it might raise, and the willingness to explore those. But why would that be a bad thing?

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]