"That's not what happened": A discussion on unreliable narrators

"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.

Conclusion

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.
 
Originally posted at Critical Missive

2 Comments
3 Comments
Posted by sear

"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.

Conclusion

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.
 
Originally posted at Critical Missive

Edited by Ubik

Fantastic blog! You present a really insightful argument here that was as informative as it was fun to read.  A spot-on analysis of Dragon Age II, in my opinion.

Sidebar: This is kind of my pet theory, but I tend to think that most instances of "unreliable narration" are really instances of characters grappling with cognitive dissonance and attempting to justify their actions to themselves; often I don't think that the characters are truly unreliable in the sense that they're lying to you, but that they're simply telling the truth from their own perspective (even if their version of events differs from reality).  In other words, those characters aren't authentically unreliable because they believe what they're saying.  This is probably just me drawing a fine distinction where I don't really need to, though.
Posted by BitterAlmond

This was a cool read for me, too. Until this, I didn't realize that Bioware is responsible for so many great RPGs. I mean, I knew they were behind them all, but I never really lined them up next to each other mentally, you know?


Anyways, as I see it: unreliable characters are an integral part of a good narrative, and if you have a narrator who is constantly telling you a story, you have to have their bias and opinions trickle into their storytelling, otherwise they're a dull character.

However, when a game goes way over the top and goes Deux Ex Machina and jumps the shark on the player like Baten Kaitos did (haven't played a JRPG since; that game was just too much Japan for me), I immediately lose interest in the plot.