The unreliable narrator is a device used by storytellers across all mediums, setting up a revelation that at times feels like a magic trick and at others more like cheating.
With movies, people tend to silently berate themselves for not having seen a twist coming, or loudly shout about having "called it" moments after the opening credits. Although not without a sense of head-swimming satisfaction, you generally leave the theater damning the director's deft misdirection. As in the great realization of having been duped by the devil himself in The Usual Suspects. The clues were all there, we just failed to put them together.
In The Prestige the illusionist Alfred Borden asks, partly to the audience: "Are you watching closely?" A eureka-like moment — when the moviegoer sees through the unreliable narrator to figure out what’s really going on — occurs inside the viewer’s head, detached from a narrative they can only ever observe.
But in video games, being unfairly manipulated by a narrator is taken more personally.
Players are complicit in a twist's repercussions, sharing the weight of a protagonist's lies. If a narrator can no longer be trusted in a film, your perspective on its events will change. When you're playing rather than watching this lightbulb moment switches from "Hey, I thought I knew that character!" to "What have I done?" Video games look you in the eye when they lie to you.
Published by Bandai Namco and developed by The Farm 51, a new psychological thriller, Get Even, has a title that makes clear its story is a personal one. Although that's pretty much where the clarity ends and a disorientating mystery begins. How do I get even? What did they do to me? Who am I?
Well, you play Cole Black, a man reliving past events through a VR-like headset, untangling his twisted memories to uncover the truth behind one particularly haunting moment.
Black's memory of preceding events is, like the player's, nonexistent. Shortly after the opening a girl sits tied to a chair with a bomb strapped to her chest. Save the girl, you're told. There are echoes of BioShock Infinite's "Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt," and you should be similarly suspicious of such didacts here. "He’s a simple creature. He just needs an objective," a female voice says in Get Even's trailer, chipping away at the fourth wall. Already we begin to feel manipulated, but by whom and to what ends?
Upon reaching the kidnapped girl the bomb goes off; a slap in the face for believing you ever had any control over the situation.
Watch the latest trailer for Get Even:
While some of the detective work is reminiscent of Condemned's methodical gameplay, Get Even's story is anything but slow-paced. The game plays with your emotions like they're disposable toys, lurching from one scene to another, forcing you to constantly reassess the true nature of reality.
You're not alone in figuring out this brutal and beguiling mystery. Black's anonymous captor, presumably in control of your headset's memory recall function, is Red. Black and Red share a complicated history, a fraught relationship between player and narrator that's been explored to great effect in the past.
Do / Don't Listen To The Voices In Your Head
Many games rely on an ear-piece narrator to keep you moving through its story, sometimes used as a sort of tutorial personified making damn well sure you understand how to crouch.
As one of gaming's most beloved characters, Portal's GLaDOS is more of a tutorial-turned-psycho. She guides you through Aperture Science's testing chambers with no promise of a collectible, experience point, or reward beyond that of cake: The sweet, frosted carrot dangling at the end of the game designer's stick. The cake turns out to be a lie, as does much of what GLaDOS says. But she is sincere about her insincerity, a truly reliable unreliable narrator:
Our previous statement suggesting that we would not monitor this chamber was an outright fabrication. As part of a required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in three, two, [static].
Valve's writers and designers mislead with transparency, making it clear that they're just as duplicitous as GLaDOS when it comes to manipulating "test subjects":
The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it. Quit now and cake will be served immediately.
Most players quickly realize how to subvert this puzzle and solve it, which encourages a rebellious mindset. Portal's designers want you to reject authority and go hunt out the truth for yourself, to discover a reality behind the facility's pristine surfaces. The point is, you won't fully understand the narrative without poking behind the scenes where the Rat Man scribblings are found. These notes from a previous test subject warn against belief in alluring desserts and cubic companions.
Here the unreliable narrator is being used as it is in film and books. If you're not paying attention to the right source you won't be able to parse truth from fiction. A film reel's linear unravelling ensures every viewer is given equal chance to connect the narrative dots, whereas games are somewhat unfair in that foreshadowing, dialogue and key clues can go unnoticed or be bypassed entirely.
That's okay for some and indeed part of the medium's appeal, though Get Even understands that interactive fiction becomes more interesting when you are part of the mystery. Like Valve, The Farm 51 wants players to reject authority figures in search of the truth, but what happens when the player character can't be trusted?
The Banality Of Evil
When it comes to withholding information, a more surprising and unique power of video games lies in disguising a player's own villainy from themselves — you now become unreliable, and not just at executing Ryu's quarter circle forward + punch. This is very much the game Get Even seems to be playing, forcing you to doubt your own motivations, even your own memories.
Crucially, some combat encounters allow you to avoid enemies entirely. There's no reductive morality meter to be found here, though don't let that fool you into thinking you'll escape judgement. Early on in the game you're given the option to kill a guard talking on his cell phone. If you do you’ll have to listen to a voice speaking to the now lifeless body about where to take their children on Sunday.
Playing the unreliable narrator is much more troubling than taking orders from one. Developer of Papers, Please Lucas Pope has urged other game designers not to "tell or show something when you can make the player do it instead." We learn through doing and being rather than watching and reading.
In Papers, Please you control an immigration officer at the Grestin Border Checkpoint, regulating entry to the fictional dystopian country Arstotzka. You are tasked with inspecting passports, entry permits and work visas for any contradicting information. At the end of each day you then allocate your wages to spend on your family's food, heating bills and rent.
As the bureaucratic complexity of the paperwork becomes excessive — multiple documents filling your screen as more gameplay considerations and rules are introduced — so too do you become more incensed with the strict immigration policy and oppressive working conditions. The game's reward system is money, but makes it impossible to earn enough while doing your job diligently. Pope offers alternative, illegal ways for the player to support their family, like taking bribes from arms dealers or imprisoning innocent civilians to meet the state's detainee quotas.
There’s an overall sense that you're a good guy working under a corrupt system, fed misinformation and left to make the best of a bad situation. Nevertheless, when you've waved a small pixelated figure across the border only to watch them self-detonate a bomb in a crowd full of civilians, you wonder whether that bribe was worth taking.
Granted, Pope has designed the game so that players come to view the authoritarian regime as the real evil. And so you take action to protect your family. But what stories are you telling yourself to justify these actions?
A Lie For The Best Of Us
Although the Uncharted series is often regarded as the pinnacle in character action games, many of its detractors cite a jarring disconnect between its character and action. How can Nathan Drake, a jovial, bright-eyed everyman, murder countless henchmen with such flippancy, the argument usually goes.
Naughty Dog's The Last of Us seemed like a direct response to that criticism. Joel's violence is necessitated by the game's desperate post-apocalyptic setting. Killing is justified because, above all else, both the player and Joel must survive, entering into a kind of moral pact. As the primary lens through which we view the game's tragic events, Joel is faced with many tough decisions. And his choices are always easy for us to condone, except for one.
Despite the fungal virus in The Last of Us having obliterated most of humanity, Joel sacrifices the chance to find a cure in order to spare Ellie. After all the murder and bloodshed, this one life proves too precious to give up. Ellie, not knowing Joel has cut through countless bodies to free her from the responsibility of saving mankind, asks him if he has told her the whole truth. “I swear,” he lies.
A tense distance is created between the player and Joel as you ponder whether his actions were indeed justified. Rare for a game, this deception doesn't compromise the character Naughty Dog has built but does force you to reassess your opinion of him, and your role in leading him down this questionable path of destruction.
We come to video games, as in films, always believing we are aligned with the good in the story. Jonathan Blow's thoughtful puzzler Braid exploits the well-understood tropes and common language of video games to mislead the player about their role within it.
Initially, the level design and enemies appear to invoke Super Mario. “I'm sorry, but the princess is in another castle,” you’re told. So you push on in anticipation of saving her. It's not until Braid's masterful reversal do you understand it is she who needs saving from you, and suddenly you're left empathizing with Bowser.
On its surface Get Even's premise is the same: Save the girl. Of course, there's much more to it than that, including twists and turns too good to be spoiled here. "What is real?" Get Even asks, and it seems to expect an answer.
The Witness, Jonathan Blow's follow up to Braid, took great pains to point out that truth is only ever a matter of perspective. I'd argue that there is no real truth to be found. But then again, how can you trust me?
Get Even is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.