Trust No One
This week, William Hughes stopped by with an On The Level in praise of 2013’s Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine and the way it directly involved players in the slow reveal of its big crime-caper twist. That moment, William argued, is especially admirable because it borrows a fun trope from the crime fiction of other media but uses it in a way only a game could pull off. Down in the comments, that got Wolfman Jew thinking about why more games don’t take inspiration from film genres outside of the usual action and adventure fare:
Isn’t it a bit odd how so much of that influence comes strictly from genre or blockbuster action movies? It makes sense to an extent—the easiest point that distinguishes games from other media is their interactivity, so why not draw from movies that most of your audience has either seen or would enjoy specifically because they’re exciting—but it does feel odd that inspiration rarely reaches any further than a few easily digestible action pictures. I find it weird that someone as fetishistic of cinema as David Cage seems almost exclusively inspired by ’90s crime thrillers, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. When you’re so invested in just taking surface elements, pretty soon that’s probably all you care about. Even Uncharted feels at times like its attempts at aping Indiana Jones put it closer to Dan Brown territory.
Something like this shows the potential value in taking concepts and core ideas instead of just baseline aesthetics and recapturing its pleasures through a different medium. Maybe instead of shooters all looking like Aliens, developers could try to look at films that are sort of like it and try to make their work more unique? Or maybe Old Hollywood, Howard Hawkes-style action movies to get better character arcs or narratives, since those often have more solid structure behind them?
Vandermonde thought this wasn’t giving developers enough credit:
I think it’s a somewhat false premise that games aren’t drawing from a wider variety of movies and other media. Dating sims exist; mystery adventures exist; weird sci-fi settings as metaphors for various aspects of humanity and relationships exist. (Although, admittedly, they only rarely integrate their gameplay particularly smoothly. There are a lot of abstract puzzles and barely related platforming in that niche). Big-budget first-person shooters might only draw from a pretty narrow subset of influences and vary almost only by setting, but one genre of game mirroring one genre of movie doesn’t seem like a failing to me.
Monaco uses the old “unreliable narrator” trick to set up its plot twist, and, in William’s eyes, this is a case where it’s put to great use. Down in the comments, Bakken Hood mentioned a few other games that used it well:
Maybe we could get an “Unreliable Narrator” Inventory? In a medium that generally lends itself to straightforward narratives, some game designers have done some pretty clever things. A few players interpreted Mass Effect 3‘s original ending as an indoctrination-induced hallucination, which—assuming that’s what BioWare was going for—is a ballsy amount of faith to have in your audience, for all the abuse it got them. Assassin’s Creed IV had some fun with the weird sci-fi meta-narrative, presenting its version of the 17-18th century West Indies as a fictional set created by computer programmers, rather than the real thing. And then there’s Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, which doesn’t use its unreliable narrator for character development or world building or anything, just as a self-consciously half-assed joke. As in, the half-assedness of its narrative justification for having a New Game+ mode is the joke. It probably says something about the quality of the game that that’s one of its best gags.
I feel like it’s becoming a bit of an overused device. That may just be a natural phenomenon, though, given the way that games are created. In a traditional work of fiction (books/movies/plays) the narrator sets up the action and then animates the characters to act according to the narrator’s whims. Basically, there is little distance between the “narrator” and the “author.” But in games, the focus is on interactivity, so there’s this awkward disjunction between the narrator and the main character. The player probably has a certain level of natural skepticism toward the narrator/game world, because that level of skepticism is often warranted in the real world. (How often do you take your boss’ rhetoric at face value?) I feel like the growth in the use of unreliable “narrators” in games is a recognition of the fact that the player must know that their relationship between themselves and he game world is way more dynamic than the relationship between a narrator and a fictional character in books and movies.
Velleic had another explanation:
There are also a lot of games that have twists that follow the “treacherous advisor” trope. I think it’s one of the most interesting aspects of video games as a medium. Since it’s you completing the actions and driving the story forward, the sudden punch of a twist becomes much more powerful, particularly when it’s exploiting the “gap” between the player and their character. It’s the difference between “I thought I knew that character, but I don’t” and “I thought I knew who I was, but I didn’t.”
If you put the same twists in a different medium, I don’t think they would work as well.
And wykstrad remembered their favorite unreliable narrator:
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time is still probably my favorite, because every time I die, I imagine the Prince narrating my actions as his own. “As I ran along the wall, I looked for a convenient platform to jump to; not realizing that I was supposed to jump to a protruding iron bar instead, I looked around for too long and plummeted onto the spikes below, where I quickly died…wait, that’s not how it happened. Let me go back a bit.”
For the record, Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger is my favorite example of a game toying with unreliable narrators—just an old, inebriated cowboy in a saloon telling tall tales for drinks.
And that does it for another Gameological week, my friends. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week.