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Why games should play the player

4:00 PM on 07.14.2010 // Andrew Kauz

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People don’t really like to be f*cked with. I can’t think of a compelling reason why any person would want to be lied to, led on, or strung around on a regular basis. Sure, some people get off on doing this to others, but they’re also the types that are likely to get their windshields smashed in with golf clubs.

Yet in fiction, we can’t get enough of stories that mess with our minds, our perceptions of events, or our ability to trust the players involved. Some of the best pieces of fiction from recent memory (and many from history) have done this. Of note is Shutter Island, which presented a story from the perspective of a completely unreliable narrator/main character. The story was effective largely because of this single choice.

Games are in a unique narrative position, as they are able to play us as much as we play them. However, few games do this, and even fewer do it effectively. While games will always be at risk of pissing us off personally thanks to our personal involvement in the action, game narratives and game design are both in an ideal position to start f*cking with us, and some have already pulled this off to great effect. 

Forgive them, for they know not what they do

The unreliable narrator is a concept that has already made its way into videogames, though a lot has been lost in the translation from literature to games. Characters like GLaDOS have been cited as unreliable narrators, despite the fact that they aren’t actually narrating the action; they’re simply there to offer commentary and progress the story, much like any other major character.

BioShock takes this idea a step further. Its main voiced character, Altas, consistently spreads misinformation to the protagonist. Again, he is not a narrator in the most traditional sense. Narration comes from the person conveying the story to the audience. If we the players are the audience, we have to consider the character we inhabit to be the narrator, as his or her perspective is the vehicle for our own understanding of the events as well as the method in which we affect the story.

The true reliable narrator must be the player character, which presents an incredibly difficult challenge: how can the player play the character while the character is playing the player? It’s nearly as hard to say as it would be to implement.

Regardless, I think it’s more than possible. For instance, many games can support a main playable character that is mentally unstable, lies compulsively, or simply has views that unfairly taint his perspective on the game’s events. Maybe he's even too naive to understand what's happening around him.

For instance, imagine a game in which the main character’s mission is to infiltrate and destroy an evil organization. All the while, the player character keeps up a facade in all dealings with other characters. They’re treated like evil conspiracists who lie compulsively to cover up their true intentions, and they deserve to die for their crimes.

Yet at the game’s eventual conclusion, players would see the true intentions of the main character: perhaps all along he had simply been striving for power, or maybe it was all a matter of revenge for the corporation somehow ruining his life. Either way, the shock of realizing that nothing is what it seems can be incredibly compelling if the illusion is strong.

Braid pulled off a bait and switch similar to this, though the execution was far from perfect. Regardless, it serves as a proof of concept that it is entirely possible to create a game story in which you think you’re doing one thing, though you’re actually striving toward an entirely different, perhaps unsettling goal.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (spoilers will follow) utilized a sort of dual-narrator system, which at its conclusion not only revealed that the narrator and the player character were both quite unreliable but it also essentially changed the meaning of the entire story by revealing that you weren’t actually playing as the character you thought you were. It’s the sort of moment that can truly make or break a game, and in this instance, it turned a standard horror game into one of the best game stories of the year.

What these two games prove is that videogames don’t need to stop at just presenting the story from point A to point B, with one character who goes through it all just as Random Faceless Protagonist would. We’re given such specific objectives, such straightforward characters, and such typical scenarios that it can be quite powerful when we realize that we had no idea what we were really doing.

Humanity in a land of monsters

We’re programmed to kill. I mean, god, how many lives have we taken as consumers of interactive software? The best answer that any of us can come up with is likely something akin to “Uh, a lot.” We’re conditioned to see human figures on screen and believe that we’re expected to shoot them.

It’s really no wonder, is it? The worlds we’re placed into are constantly threatening, and it seems like any sense of humanity is better left at the door. If we want to survive, we had better be willing to abandon any reservations related to killing.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road presents a similar world, one in which human compassion has all but disappeared, replaced by the inhumanity of a post-apocalyptic wasteland where survival is accomplished through theft and murder. With no humanity left, how can there be any other response?

At least, that’s the conclusion that we’re meant to come to during the events of the novel. The father teaches his son that they are the good guys, while everyone else they meet is simply out to take their food or perhaps cannibalize them. Nothing throughout the events of the story seems to hint that there is any other option than this.

However, (spoliers follow) after the passing of the father, the son is left alone in this hostile world, only to meet a man on the beach. Of course the boy is skeptical, though we soon learn that a group of survivors has been following the man and the boy, waiting for the man’s death so they can take care of the boy. It is in this moment that we realize the tragedy of the man’s intentions: his desire to protect his son has been keeping them from the salvation they sought all along.

It should be obvious where I’m going with this. We’re dropped into so many hostile worlds and expected to repay all of that hostility in kind. Occasionally, we’re asked whether we’d like to be good or bad, and we get to either bring a little light into the world or add to the darkness.

Rarely are we unaware of the expectations of a hostile world. We’re either told to kill everything, choose whether we want to be bad or good, or told to simply be good and make a difference. The variety provided by these three choices really isn’t enough. We've come to expect even those choices, and we know how we're supposed to respond.

If a game were to shatter those expectations, the effect upon gameplay would be immense. It has happened at least once before; Chad wrote about a moment like this a few months ago. Of course, in a God of War game, you wouldn’t think twice about killing anything in your path (unless it happens to have its tits out, in which case you either twist its head off or have sex with it. Never both.). But this simple moment succeeds in changing all of that, and it’s one of the most memorable moments in the entire series. It didn’t exactly make players ask questions first and kill later, but it at least made us pause and consider the carnage we were creating.

Imagine this idea taken to an even greater level. Let’s say someone’s playing a game like Fallout 3, killing nearly everyone he meets in the wastes. Soon he come across a woman in rags, who quickly raises a rifle at him. Of course, not wanting to die, he shoots. The woman falls, and behind her stands a little boy, cowering and crying.

There’s absolutely nothing to this moment in terms of complexity, yet it and moments like it could change our very understanding of our role in a game. Above, the player has just shot a terrified mother doing nothing more than trying to protect a child in a world of constant danger. It’s what any player would be expected to do given the basic situation: person with gun trying to kill you. But just because we’re conditioned to do it doesn’t make it any less monstrous.

There are so many different ways to present a story that it’s a shame that game storytellers have largely fallen into a sense of complacency. Plenty of minor risks can be taken that don’t detract from a game’s marketability but still affect how we play a game and experience a story.

In other words, let’s see some games that have the balls to fuck with us.

Andrew Kauz,
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