This Op-Ed will contain spoilers large and small for Halo 4, BioShock, and Borderlands 2 as well as David Fincher’s Fight Club, Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Consider yourself officially warned.
My job-job used to require me to drive to the backwoods areas of Kentucky and West Virginia on a semi-regular basis. While these areas are full of natural charm, beauty, bootleg liquor and kind people, they are also void of most modern technologies. Cell phone signals are hit and miss and your GPS is just as likely to say you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean as it would if you were in Blennerhassett. These trips always made me question my directions, “Am I really going the right way? Will this unpaved farm road really lead me to my destination? Is that the blue car on blocks the one I was supposed to turn at?”**Seriously… you’ll get directions like that.
Such nerves are caused by a lack of certainty, the fear of the unknown and the lack of confidence (or even outright distrust) in my directions. These themes have reasserted themselves this gaming season in two of the biggest fall titles, Halo 4
and Borderlands 2
, both of which play on the uncertainty of gamers by using unreliable narrators.
The notion of an unreliable narrator is not a new one. Famous works of literature like The Catcher in the Rye
and The Cask of Amontillado
feature unreliable narrators, as do films like Fight Club
, The Usual Suspects
, and The Sixth Sense
. The nature of this unreliability can take many forms. Holden Caulfield is an unreliable narrator due to his limited life experience. “The Narrator” in Fight Club
is unreliable due to his mental state (although the audience doesn’t realize it until the last quarter of the movie). On the far end of the spectrum, Verbal Kint is unreliable due to his duplicitous nature and is actively trying to mislead the audience. In almost all forms, the audience is unaware that the voice they have put their trust in is unreliable until a critical moment in the plot, thus creating a “twist”.
This gaming season has given us not one, but two unreliable narrators in the forms of Angel and Cortana. While they both have similar influence on the player, they are not backed by the same unreliability.
Gamers (at least the ones familiar with the first Borderlands
) had an instant trust of Angel, having remembered her as the disembodied guide from the first game. If you’re anything like me (and who’s to say you’re not), you followed her blindly until the moment she turned on you and were unwilling (or at least less willing) to trust her thereafter. The continued reveals about her character worked to re-establish that trust and create a deeper emotional connection to her and (antithetically) Jack.
Cortana, on the other hand, suffers from the same kind of instability issues that plagued “The Narrator” in Fight Club
. While she might have been the rock of the first trilogy, keeping Master Chief on course, her return in Halo 4
is anything but solid. Gamers were well aware that one of the major themes of the game would be Cortana’s descent into rampancy. As the game marched along, I grew less and less comfortable with her ability to perform necessary tasks. Every time I inserted her into a system, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the straw that breaks her?” Seeing her struggle and fail at various points in the campaign was absolutely excruciating and 343 did an amazing job setting her up as one of the most empathetic gaming characters in recent years. After the final moments, with the battle over and a (small) notion of relief sweeping over humanity, you could feel the emotional toll that the game’s events took on Master Chief, even if you couldn’t see it on his face.
The biggest thing that Angel and Cortana have in common, however, is their vulnerability and the emotional need to protect/save them from their weaknesses and fallibilities. These are HUGE psychological drivers in the human experience. The fostering of an emotional bond and the need to protect those about whom you care is one of the strongest reactions a human can have (i.e. soccer moms pulling cars away from toddlers). Even in the animal kingdom, this reaction is hard-wired into most creatures. Don’t believe me? Try messing with some bear cubs.
The flip side of this coin is that of Atlas/Frank Fontaine in BioShock
. In what was perhaps the most masterful of heel turns in this generation, the revelation that the man whose voice you’ve been following from the outset is in fact the darkest villain of the city was not only a gut-crunching twist, but also an amazing way to kick the stakes up a notch. Instead of fighting to take down someone who you thought to be a murderer and totalitarian objectivist (oxymoronic, yes, but also quite accurate), you were now seeking revenge on someone who manipulated you like a puppet in one of the greatest coups in gaming history.
At the core of the Fontaine Twist is the violation created by his deception. So often we’re ingrained to trust the voice in our ear and games (the good ones, anyway) set up a clearly defined set of rules for the world: “Trust this person,” “Kill that thing,” “Do this mission,” etc. When one of those rules is suddenly snapped, that foundation of trust is shattered and we’re set back on our heels, questioning everything we’ve done up to that point. In short, an unreliable narrator is a fantastic way to keep the stakes of a game high while also injecting tension, stress, and emotion.
With Hitman: Absolution
on the immediate horizon and BioShock Infinite
in the not-so-distant future, the odds of finding another unreliable narrator seem quite good. The question is, has it become expected? Are we, as gamers, now so jaded to trusting those in power (in a gaming setting) that we can see the twist of duplicity coming from a mile away? Going even further, is there a gaming character that you will always
trust, and, if so, how would you feel if that character shattered your world and stabbed you in the back?
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The opinions and statements expressed in this article are solely those of the author, Jonathan Barnes