In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
The whole idea is just a path towards reaching your ultimate goal – finishing the game. All roads lead to fault; no matter what your decisions, you’re still heading for the same fundamental ending. It’s a moot point. In every videogame, your ends justify the means and everyone will love you for it. You could act like Clint Eastwood’s ruthless protagonist in High Plains Drifter and people love you because they need you.
You are the empowered (anti)hero and morality is an illusion.
So let’s talk about a little thing called “trust”.
What if you were to play a Western RPG like Fallout 3 or a survival horror like Resident Evil: Outbreak and the people who tag along are going to betray you at any given time because of greed, a survival instinct or something deeply personal that’s been randomly assigned to their characteristics?
How would you cope with knowing that the same people you pick up might panic in bad situation and turn on you?
In the ye olde times of 2002, Computer Artworks tried out this idea with their ‘sequel-to-the-movie’ game The Thing. They implemented a trust system where your protagonist finds survivors and is treated with suspicion. To earn their trust, you have to share vital equipment or give yourself a blood test to prove that you don’t have a giant mouth for a ribcage under your coat.
On paper, it’s a great idea. As much as you know you’re human, you’re uncertain about your teammates and eventually paranoia runs amok. In reality, it’s basic because it relies on an ‘emotional light switch’ effect. Give them weapons and they’ll love you; take them away and they don’t. Repeat ad infinitum without penalty.
It’s also broken because teammates change into aliens at scripted events. Even if someone passes the blood test, you’ll find that further along, the same guy is puking all over you with his head like an inflamed anus with tentacles.
So the problem with trust stems from the limitations of AI.
A computer program cannot process the unpredictability of human nature. Paranoia can only be as random as the pre-scripted choices within; like with the identity of the killer in Ripper and the Replicants in Blade Runner. As much as it would be shocking to see, it would be equally frustrating for the player to have L.A. Confidential’s Rolo Tomassi twist pulled on them by a randomised character, unless they were really good at keeping one step ahead of the mystery.
I mean, like Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder kind of good!
So as a way of counteracting that justifiable act of betrayal with a handicap, what if you make the protagonist as unreliable as the people they’re interacting with?
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth does this extremely well for such a linear game. Jack Walker is your typical Lovecraft investigator, a schizophrenic gumshoe coping with mental and physical horrors. The first half concentrates on warping your perceptions. You can’t trust yourself as much as the aggressive, toad-faced residents of Innsmouth. Yet, the first two humanised allies you meet are just as untrustworthy; with the morally good characters being killed early on and FBI having unclear intentions for you. Meanwhile, terrifying visions of creatures haunt your every move.
All this and you forget to bring a gun!
While linear narrative can achieve those unnerving goals, there a lack of unscripted representations of survival instinct on the market. Let’s say, you were in a disaster game like SOS: The Final Escape/Disaster Report and the helicopter was leaving, but one of your fellow survivors decided to fold due to time and leave you behind. Yet, the next time you play it, they’ll stick by you no matter of any ‘moral’ decision. It’s that kind of uncertainty that undermines perfect leadership skills.
The idea of trust doesn’t have to stop solely at survival horror either. What if your paranoia is stemming from things you’ve done but haven’t realised as wrong? Maybe playing up to your beliefs because the game’s manual and intro video told you otherwise? Basically, everything The Bourne Conspiracy failed to achieve.
There should always be seeds of doubt in dramatic videogame narrative.
Morality cannot be changed because there are no consequences; you do what the game requires of you. Though, from those basics of black, white and grey, a whole complexity of trust issues can be cultivated.
Probably one of the best online examples around is Kane & Lynch: Fragile Alliance; a multiplayer game that thrives on grievances. Of course, it frustratingly doesn’t work when you have people playing for the “wrong” reasons, e.g. achievements. Though when it does work, it’s an amazing test of resolve. Helpful teammates can just as easily put a bullet in your head for greed and vice versa. Then again, you could go through the entire session without double crossing.
There’s a concrete way of playing against trust through online anonymity during tense situations; we’ve seen the exact opposite with Left 4 Dead too. Sadly, for now at least, technical limitations are holding offline betrayals back and leaving them as mere concepts in favour of ‘the topical subject of the month’.