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Is Your Notion of Unreliable Narration Reliable?

The term Unreliable Narration shouldn't be used as a replacement for story inconsistency. The former is a storytelling technique, the latter is a design flaw.

Altug Isigan, Blogger

April 7, 2011

3 Min Read

Communication between Game and Player at the expense of the Narrator

The issue of unreliable narration in video games has been addressed many times. Often the given examples revolve around  game instances in which the player was deceived by an in-game character or a narrator’s voice in a rather non-sensical way.

Other examples are marked by the player’s perceived discrepancy between the actions that he believed himself or his avatar to have carried out and the rather non-sensical way in which the actions were framed by the narrator.

However, most of these instances are not valid as examples of unreliable narration and we need to understand the concept better to find more reliable ways to discuss it. 

Theoretically, unreliable narration should not result in the story feeling flawed since it is a storytelling technique aimed at enhancing the joy of the experience rather than destroying it.

Unreliable narration embodies a consistent story that simultaneously develops (at least) two versions of itself of which one  (told by the narrator) loses credibility as the other one (resulting from the established norms of the narrative) crystalizes.

Unreliable narration can only emerge against the reliable version that is communicated to the reader via the broader lines of the narrative. What takes place is a secret communication between implied author and reader at the expense of the narrator. It is irony that is achieved: a consistent story about someone whose version of the very same story isn’t reliable.

This is quite different from a story feeling inconsistant because of flaws in narrative design. If the story we experience doesn’t seem to add up, it is not because of unreliable narration: it is because of bad narrative design.

Two Interesting Instances

In a recent gamasutra blog, Eric Schwarz threw up the question whether it is possible at all to use the technique successfully in games. While I would refrain from answering the question with a "no", there are two instances that show that the technique might not yield always the expected results or may emerge unexpectedly:

The "Stupid AI" case: We said that in unreliable narration the narrator's version of the story loses credibility as the norm of the narrative suggests the existence of a credible one, as the discourse continues.

What might happen here is that the player may interpret the unreliable narration as the AI being incapable to interpret the situation rather than seeing it as the "distorted" version of a narrator who was designed as a character who suffers from such incapacity. The technique then could turn against the believability of the story.

Cheating: In the case of cheating we can speak of some sort of secret communication between player and implied author. They "share" an information that changes the truth in regard to the story.

In other words, the version of the narrator (unaware of the cheat) loses credibility in regard to the second and true version of the story that was brought into circulation with the very act of cheating. When the narrator praises the success of the player who cheated, it starts to feel ironic, because the narrators "naive" version of the story is no no longer credible and has turned unreliable, since he is incapable to see the truth.


You played Mario I guess, so you know that the princess is in another castle. Well if you took the time to read until here, then don't be surprised if there is no conclusion: the truth is in another article. ;)

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