You know what I love? Unreliable narrators. I love stories where I can’t trust the storyteller. I love how such stories draw attention to the way they are presenting me information, the way they insist that I be critical and suspicious, and the way they show me that every story is presented from a particular point of view. In videogames in particular, I love how this unreliability of the narrator (usually the playable character) feeds into everything I experience in that world.
I love being forced to wonder if I am seeing this world as it really ‘is’ — or just how my character wants me to see it.
Most videogames try to make the relationship between the player and the playable character as synchronised and transparent as possible. Ideally, in most cases, you are meant to feel like you are the character. Ideally, in most cases, the character is almost meant to disappear. They are meant to just be this gateway through which the player can make their intentions tangible in the game world.
But increasingly, we are seeing more games play around with this relationship, with the inevitable distance between the player and the playable character. This is most explicit in those games where the playable character is someone who, for one reason or another, you can’t completely trust.
Unreliable narrators are a literary device that have been around for about as long as literature itself. In novels, it’s not rare to find out that the objective view you thought you were getting on the events were being skewed by the very narrator narrating them to you, that your view onto this world was partial. In films, we might discover at the end of the film that events that we took to be objective fact were figments of the protagonist’s imagination.
In videogames, this can be translated to how we understand the world around us through the playable character: through either what they tell us about the world, or simply how the world feels as we navigate the character through it. It doesn’t have to be something as simple as the character ‘lying’ to the player. Maybe the character doesn’t even know that they are lying.
Bioshock is probably the most well-known example of this, where certain things about the character are revealed halfway through the game that paint the player’s every choice made in Rapture in a different light. More recently, games like Far Cry 3, Spec Ops: The Line, and Hotline Miami call into question our character’s sanity. We aren’t just looking at a character on screen who can’t distinguish between real and fiction, we are that character. Our only window into this world is filtered through the mind and body of someone we can’t trust. The unreliability of our main character makes us question the authenticity of the world we are moving through.
Then there are the literal narrators, such as Bastion’s Rucks. In videogames, Rucks is an exception as he is the narrator but he isn’t the playable character. Often, he isn’t around while I’m off with the Kid having adventures, and I’m led to wonder if this is what ‘really’ happened, or if it is just what Rucks imagined must have happened. Indeed, towards the end of the game, Rucks’s narration doesn’t actually match what you are actually doing, and you have to wonder what else he got wrong.
Or, more recently, Max Payne 3 is played as a series of snippets of something that has happened to Max in the past tense. From his constant narration, you get the sense that everything we are going to do has already happened, that Max is telling us about this adventure after the fact. Max never lies to the player, per se, but he still withholds important information — who betrays who — for the sake of the story. In this way, Max becomes unreliable in the way any good storyteller must become unreliable. But then there is another layer of unreliability with Max, as an alcoholic and drug addict. Did these events really happen the way he is telling us they happened? Even if they did, am I approaching them in a different light because of how Max has framed them? At every point of Max Payne 3, Max has the chance to offer his excuses for the violence he commits before he/I commits them.
And that is why I love unreliable narrators: subjectivity. Our ability to move around freely in a videogame world often leads us to assume we are getting an objective view of that world, seeing it from all angles. Unreliable narrators and playable characters challenge this. They show how we are always anchored to the particular point-of-view of our character, and that we are always seeing things how they want us to see things. They force me to be critical. They force me to think and to wonder what I’m not being told, what I’m not being shown, and—most importantly in videogames—what I’m not being allowed to see.