Monday, April 4, 2011

"Wait, that's not what happened": A discussion on games and the unreliable narrator

In the wake of the release of BioWare’s latest opus, Dragon Age II, I’ve found myself thinking a little bit about narrative techniques and structures seen in games.  Whereas the majority of games stick to a relatively traditional format of providing the player with the story in a linear, first-person perspective format, BioWare have, for better or worse, seen to break free from that mould in Dragon Age II by offering up both a frame narrative and an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narrators aren’t anything too new to games, but their use has been fairly limited in the past, and tends to deviate from what we see in film and literature.  Most often, unreliable narrators in games take the form of a protagonist who can’t remember certain plot-critical details, such as in Fallout: New Vegas or Max Payne.  Second most common is a character that intentionally misleads the player in order to provide a “gotcha” moment later on.

It’s very rare to see a traditional unreliable narrator, one who serves as the main storyteller.  BioWare’s take on the unreliable narrator is rather unique in the world of gaming, and BioWare deserve a lot of credit for attempting to tread new ground in this fashion. 
The more I think about BioWare’s implementation, however, the more I see it as an unsuccessful experiment – though an experiment that was well worth trying.  In the following article, I’d like to outline why I think so many games have shied away from unreliable narrators in the past, but perhaps more importantly, why the unreliable narrator as a storytelling device is fundamentally in conflict with videogames as a medium.

Interactivity at odds with linearity

Videogames represent a form of storytelling wherein the player is able to, at least in relatively superficial fashion, dictate the course of the story: its pacing, and in some cases, order of events and ending, will change dramatically based on the decisions the player makes.  The best that game developers can do, given real-world development limitations, is try to anticipate what players will think and do, and build a game that responds to that.  Despite any limitations imposed by budget, however, one thing sets gaming apart from any other form of storytelling, and that is the ability to interact with the story in a game at the fundamental level of action (i.e. controller input steering an avatar in electronic space).  Other mediums, like hypertext, do interactivity well, but no other medium does it in a way that feels like the player is truly in control in the same way that gaming is able to.

The unreliable narrator, meanwhile, comes from an opposing world of narrative, one where the story is fixed, metred and well-paced for maximum impact.  The unreliable narrator is an attempt on the storyteller’s part to subvert the audience’s expectations, and provide different insights onto characters and the story.  This can be novel, and sometimes even genius, when employed properly.  Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a story built around multiple unreliable narrators, for instance, and only by reading the whole story and making some logical leaps is the reader able to gain a clear picture of just what is going on over the course of the story; furthermore, seeing characters from both the inside and out allows the reader to understand them based both on others’ perceptions, and on intention.

Although such forms of storytelling can work excellently in both literature and film, gaming doesn’t just represent a greater challenge, it presents, possibly, an insurmountable one due to the fundamental interactivity required by the medium.  In The Sound and the Fury, the audience is on the outside looking in: there is a distance between the reader and the characters which is enforced as much by their distinctly different personalities as it is by the medium itself.  We can become involved in a book, and we can feel tremendous emotions for the characters involved, but we are rarely “drawn in” by the story in the sense that we feel it is happening to us, that we have control over our destiny.

While the tension in a novel comes from the question “what happens next?”, in a videogame, it comes from the question “will I be able to succeed?”.  When the game suddenly wrests control away from us to tell us “sorry, what you just did didn’t happen”, the player feels alienated because the fantasy of being within the game world has been perforated.  There are many ways to make the player feel like he/she has no say in the course of the game, stemming from both game mechanics and narrative elements, and resorting to unreliable narration is perhaps one of the ultimate ways of denying the player authorship over his or her own fate.

 Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me

The introduction of Dragon Age II is a prime example of this: the player starts out in control of a nigh-unstoppable character, able to kill dozens of foes with ease.  Halfway into this sequence, a character interrupts the gameplay and calls the version the player has just played “bullshit.”  Immediately after, the player is shunted into “the real thing”… and proceeds to witness the same events all over again, with minor variations.

Now, this sequence has some upsides.  It’s a great tutorial and abilitease, since it gives the player a hint at the sorts of powers they’ll be able to attain later in the game, it teaches the player the combat fundamentals in a completely non-threatening environment, and it immediately brings the player into the game by allowing them to do some serious damage to enemies right from the beginning.  Functionally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what BioWare did here.  It’s both novel and effective.  To their credit, BioWare really do nail it, and don’t go overboard during the remainder of the game.

And yet despite the success here, it’s very easy to look at this with a cynical eye, thinking “how would this fare in the hands of a developer with less time or resources than BioWare?”  Maybe it’s just me being jaded, but I can easily see a game where an unreliable narrator is used not so much for narrative impact, but as an excuse to draw out the same small amount of content over and over.  We’ve all played games that feel like they’re a slog, have filler, etc., and resorting to the storytelling BioWare has attempted almost invites extensive “copy and paste” design.

A deeper problem also rears its head here, however.  BioWare seem to have a knack for these sorts of “fooled me once” devices, and in fact, many of the games which we tend to praise for their excellent stories rely on the same “trick plots”.  The problem with a trick plot, however, is that as soon as it’s been done, it can rarely be done again without coming off as derivative, or worse, predictable and lazy.  Knights of the Old Republic?  Jade Empire?  Mass Effect?  Braid?  BioShock?  Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time?  As good as they are to experience the first time, their narratives all rely on gimmicks, and in my mind, a story that relies on a gimmick in order to be compelling isn’t one that necessarily deserves praise.  How many times can we use before such narrative tricks become tiresome, predictable, and even annoying?  As entertaining and effective as these stories are in the short term, we can’t rely on those gimmicks as a justification for the integrity of gaming as storytelling forever.


The more I see games attempting to integrate unreliable narrators into their stories, the more I see games trying to be something they aren’t.  The Prince in The Sands of Time sums it up perfectly whenever he meets his untimely end: “no, that’s not right, let me tell it again.”  When you try to put together form of storytelling that depends upon linearity, with a medium whose defining trait is interactivity, you’re going to run into problems.  The fact that the role of Varrick in Dragon Age II is more or less resigned to providing vague comments on the story shortly into the game, suggests to me that BioWare ran into this problem themselves.  When the player is given choice, or at least the illusion of it, it’s very hard to have a narrator who is able to deceive the player: at best, you’re telling the player that those choices he or she made didn’t actually matter.


  1. I really think that Varric-as-unreliable-narrator is getting a little bit more attention than it warrants, given that it really only comes into play twice--the intro and the section where you play a solo Varric in his brother's mansion. I don't think the former works beyond the (for this game) unnecessary abilitease--other than the fact that Hawke is more powerful than he really is, the story plays out functionally the same--battle with Darkspawn, Dragon. (I didn't notice Bethany's larger breasts until it was pointed out to me, but then again I'm gay and not predisposed to noticing that sort of thing.) I don't think there were enough differences to justify it.

    The section at Bartrand's mansion is much better done, partially because it features a secondary character--therefore not falling into the trap you note of alilenating the player from his own avatar's actions--and partially because it sets up a subtle bit of characterization. Casting himself as a lone badass who dominates his brother into tears and apologies on sight makes it clear how ashamed he is of this chapter in his family's history--that he feels guilt over what his brother has become. This is a family matter that he's not particularly proud of, and he's hoping that a simple entertaining pulp tale will allow him to get out of telling the full story.

    Other than that, there's no real indication that Varric is lying or exaggerating beyond the normal demands of storytelling. I think it was Hitchcock who defined drama as "life with the dull bits cut out"--we assume that every story we experience cuts out uninteresting meals, bathroom trips, and time spent waiting for something to happen, and that doesn't invalidate the story. Unless the game is a lot more clever than I believe it is--and I don't believe it's very clever at all, frankly--the timeskips between chapters aren't filled with things that Varric is deliberately skipping over--they're just dull years. The significant bits of Kirkwall's history are all seen in game, and we're given every indication to believe that the events occur more or less as we experience it.

    I've seen a few examples of games with good unreliable narrators, mostly in the interactive fiction scene. Andrew Plotkin's Spider and Web and Adam Cadre's 9:05 are both excellent examples of how to do it right. They're less based on the "no, you didn't really do that" concept and more about exploring gaps in knowledge between player and protagonist. I think that's the most successful way of tackling the concept. But you're right--no matter what, in a game, we're inside the story. William Faulkner and Gene Wolfe and Edgar Allen Poe can get away with a character lying or hiding information or being incapable of grasping the situation fully because we as readers take it as an opportunity to experience an unusual character and to approach the narrative as a sort of puzzle to find out what "really" happened. We're not being told that what we did was a lie.

  2. I see what you are saying and agree to a degree, I just don't see Varric in DA2 as being especially illustrative of the bad side to the unreliable narrator. To me Varric's narrative served more as a tool that allows for the use of storytelling, a traditionally linear expression, in such an open medium as video games.

    It would disrupt agency more if players were left with the story-book conditioning that they were seeing through "God's eyes" in a video game... thats the way it happened, press rewind or read it twice, it still happens that exact way because you, the reader/viewer, are accepting the position that you are defintiely NOT part of the story... just a priveleged witness. Seems almost opposite to what a video game attempts.

    Varric's narration seemed more to excuse the possibility of variation in the details of what takes place during the story. Basically validating the fact that people can take 3 or 4 different roads to the end of the story and that while the ending is pretty static, it can have a few different flavors based on what the player does to get there and keeping that flavor is more important to video game agency than the "faux pas" of narrating is to storytelling.

    Though there is always room for improvement, and your point about the ability to exploit this for the sake of underdevelopment rings true... a good warning.

  3. I think that one of the things that really worked well in this game.
    I don't really understand your point, because you seem to agree... yet you mark it as "unsuccessful experiment"? You warn about overusing it, that this game does not; and about using it in every other, that doesn't have anything to do with this game.
    So, why unsuccessful?

  4. There was an unreliable-narrator game that worked really, really well. Have you heard of Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin? Award-winning interactive fiction (aka text adventure) from 1998. Have a look - you'll quickly discover why the narrator is unreliable - I don't want to spoil it :-)

  5. On the flipside, unreliable narrators used right could allow for greater freedom within a heavily storylined gamed. If Bioware has shown us anything throughout the years then it's that it's not about the canon playthrough. It's about your own story within their framework.

  6. The perforation of the world is part of what makes unreliable narration compelling. It can alienate a player/reader but it can also make them value the character more (pathos).

    Unreliable narration is hardly an insurmountable task in gaming, especially when you've been given some examples already. In addition to those examples, I played Penumbra with under spec hardware and wrote a review treating the graphical errors as a deliberate presentation of a well done unreliable narrator:

  7. I just got bombed by RPS! Sorry about the lack of responses, guys. I really appreciate the comments, though, and they're all quite insightful.

    Some quick thoughts while I'm still up:

    It's worth pointing out that when I wrote my original article, my intent was to discuss a particular type of unreliable narrator, namely, a narrator who takes on the role of "storyteller", either in the form of the detached, omniscient figure separate from the story, or as a character within the story retelling what has happened. Although there have been many games which have featured protagonists with unreliable memories, and indeed, have even made it the crux of the story (see Planescape, and I hear Silent Hill did just this as well, though I haven't played them), I can't recall many, if any games that have featured characters separate from the protagonist which act as unreliable narrators, and do so in a way that doesn't feel cheap or dissonant with the player's interactivity. You might look at someone like SHODAN in System Shock 2 as an example, but those strike me less as narrators and more as simple traitors. I don't look at denying the player or player character knowledge the same way I do as the presence of an unreliable narrator.

    @evilteq: My point is that while to some degree this sort of technique can work in a game, it's a trick in the same way that finding out X in Jade Empire is a trick. This sort of thing only works once, and rather than really adding to the narrative "as-is", instead it tries to leverage novelty for the sake of a one-time gag. There's only so many of these types of plots you can do, and BioWare seem to have damn near a monopoly on them. One wonders what will happen when they run out, and those brilliant twists give way to bad soap opera characters.

    Regarding interactive fiction, I'm not very familiar with out outside of some studying I did during my university days (as a general arts student, not an English student, my exposure was probably more limited). However, one thing I found very clear was that interactive fiction is not the same as a videogame. Games are able to break down that barrier between reader and character in a way that other media just aren't capable of by offering simulated 1:1 control in a digital world. Interactive fiction doesn't really get that far, by virtue of the medium itself. In fact, I'd love to see a game that really toys with our expectations around that 1:1 relationship. I know Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness did this, but I'm not sure of other titles off hand.

    Thanks for the comments, guys! I might try to write a follow-up piece in the near future, but I'm pretty dedicated to my mod project at the moment... when you're writing 2500+ words of dialogue a day, it's hard to sit down and write a lengthy essay as well.

  8. I think the best example of an unreliable narrator in games is Deadly Premonition; York is clearly insane, so no definite set of events can be determined. However, this is handled in such a way with the York/Zach relationship that the player feels as if he is experiencing the unreliability first hand, and perhaps providing some guidance for York to a real version of the events. Since no serious attempt is made at defining your experiences as "bullshit," you never feel left out or alienated.

    I could talk about Deadly Premonition for hours and hours, so I won't bore you. :D