The very best games, mysteries and mysteries within games are perhaps those that mystify their own creators. "I don't know," Bethesda's Todd Howard recently confessed, shrug-shouldered, when Game Informer asked him how one creates an RPG people adore so much that they're prepared to name their kids after it. The interview doesn't end there, but none of Howard's subsequent remarks about under-estimating core players quite dispels the shock of that opening line. This man has spent the past half-decade assembling a million-selling juggernaut, another half-year fielding questions about it, but he's still, on some level, fighting blind.
Howard's not the only one. For all the exposure before and since Skyrim's release, for all the hours fans have spent scouring its peaks and valleys for secrets, its lure remains the lure of the unknown. "I don't know" what's over the crest of that hillside. I don't know whether that Draugr is truly dead, or spring-loaded to pounce the second I turn my back. I don't know who killed the man I found on the way to Winterhold, or why Bethesda won't let me throw away his dagger. I don't know why this Khajiit dude keeps telling me porkies.
And I certainly don't know what to make of these insect jars, each with a strange rune carved into the underside of the lid. A prop artist's inner entomologist coming to light? Would that the truth were so frivolous, Dragonborn. After much fine-toothed combing of Skyrim's countryside and wrestling with made-up languages, a party of Elder Scrolls sages have come forward with details of a Thalmor plot to abolish existence.
You heard. I can't speak for the labyrinthine small print, but the gist is that Tamriel's snootier Elves are bored of mortality, and have been labouring for centuries to fill the breach between divine and material planes. Wiping out mankind and bringing down Talos - mortal turned god, and thus a bit of a touchy subject round Altmer breakfast tables - are vital prerequisites. And the bug jars? Those runes supposedly allude to eight mystical towers that must be destroyed before the Thalmor can "unbind the Dragon" otherwise known as Akatosh, the originator of Time ("Tosh" to friends). Six of those towers have already been levelled or deactivated; one has gone a bit Bill and Ted thanks to Dwemer meddling with the Heart of Lorkhan; and one is defended by the Greybeards at High Hrothgar. Also, Skyrim may be a giant wizard's pentagram.
Reading it all back, struggling to fit it all into one paragraph, I'm simultaneously amused and compelled. It's possible that the bug jars are assets Bethesda forgot to remove after canning a quest. It's possible that they're no more than decorative fodder, like the ruined books and embalming tools. But there's just something about a mystery, however fruity its components. Whether the publisher deigns to provide answers or not, the riddle of the jars has already served an important purpose, ensuring a bit of additional community buzz long after the last Skyrim ad went to press.
Entertainers have always known the value of suspense, of course. Tom Hardy wrote the definitive "cliffhanger ending" back in 1873 to foment interest between instalments of a serialised novel. Latterly, the film industry has tapped into the rise of social networking with guerilla marketing tactics that invite audiences to play amateur detective: Warner's "what is the Matrix?" billboard campaign from 1999 is the earliest example I can think of. But entertainers have never had access to tools as chimerical as game worlds, banquets of detail and diversion that, given the will to persist, never stop giving in turn.