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Lie to Them

A discussion of the possibility of applying the concept of the "unreliable narrator" and distorted concepts of reality to game design.

Everything I say is a lie.

When we read books, we tend to think that the perspective we're reading is telling us the truth. It's not something we ever doubt; we make a subconscious social contract with the work's narrator: we're reading through your story because you're our window into this world. We have no way of knowing whether the narrator is willfully or ignorantly lying to us, we just have to take their knowledge and sincerity on faith alone.

Albert Camus' The Fall is the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence as told by Jean-Baptiste Clamence through a series of interactions with a bartender at a bar in Amsterdam. To this man, Clamence tells stories of his life, his sins, his hypocrisy, his lies, and his general philosophy on life. There's never any reason to really trust what Clamence says, but the readers, through the assumption of the role of the character to whom Clamence is talking, do. Why would he be lying about some of his most mundane observations and his deepest insecurities and darkest acts? The answer: why not? Clamence applies his own philosophy of universal guilt upon the bartender by, essentially, making him accomplice to a crime. Not for a particularly malicious reason, just to illustrate the absurdity of life.

The Fall is my favorite literary example of the unreliable narrator. A term which is much like it sounds: the point of entry into some fictional world is solely through a person who is willfully (or not) deceiving readers. A more well-known example of this device is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, but The Fall resonated with me like few other books I've read. The concept of the unreliable narrator is superb; much like the arrow present in the FedEx's logo, once you're introduced to the concept, the reading and interpretation of every book to follow is tainted by the knowledge.

A similar concept is employed in film to the same effect. Jacob's Ladder is the story of a Vietnam veteran coping with life in the real world after he gets back from Vietnam. Except it's not. It's the slow realization of the central character and the movie's viewers that what we accept to be a shared conception of reality may be nothing of the sort. And when what we accept to be real and tangible is disproved, what's left?

The manipulation of truth, reality, and sanity is one of those thematic elements that I've always loved exploring and consuming. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been trying to figure out a way to represent the sensation of distorted reality or the unreliable narrator through gameplay mechanics -- the emphasis being on mechanics. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty attempted to manipulate its players' concept of reality, but it was solely through narrative devices. It made no attempt, to my memory, to actually alter any portion of the core gameplay which the player relied on up to that point in the game. And that, to me, seems to be such a critical portion in the implementation of this concept.

One of the inherent side-effects of manipulating a player's concept of reality within a video game seems to be the inherent frustration attached to most of the ideas I've had thus far. Sure, a game could consider tangible objects to be completely different entities than the ones which are rendered to the screen. The problem comes when a player walks over a floor of spikes in a game that he thought was a field of lilies -- that isn't an intelligent manipulation of his concept of what is real, it's a test of his tolerance for frustration. And maybe some level of frustration is inherent to the concept to begin with; when Tim Robbin's character in Jacob's Ladder is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because everything he believes is falling apart, anger and frustration is a natural response. It's a logical response to the realization that what we see and hear may be radically different from what everyone else sees and hears.

That's not an idea that is readily transferable to any game I've played or any design I have thought up. Tom Clancey's H.A.W.X. (yes, I would not have expected to ever write anything critically relevant about this game either) attempts to make players rethink their understanding of the game by causing a major interface element to go haywire in the last half/third of the game. Instead of relying on technological elements to aid players in their execution of the game's missions, players are called-upon to rely more on what they see and observe rather than what their on-plane computer tells them. Unfortunately, instead of playing more with this concept, the game just reduces the window in which a missile lock will persist, but it's still a relevant design choice: make the player rethink the way they interpret the commonly unchanging interface that he/she typically relies on.

I provide no answers in this piece, only musings on a set of devices that I've always found fascinating. The benefits of successfully employing a design which calls into challenge everything a player takes for granted seems, to me, well worth the time spent exploring the idea.

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