Who Do You Trust?

Who Do You Trust?

Examining unreliable narrators

Opinion by osubluejacket on 18 November 12 at 20:02

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?
The opinions and statements expressed in this article are solely those of the author, osubluejacket.
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Chris8875
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Posted on 18 November 12 at 22:30
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.
Spot on. Well said.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 00:46
Want to read this but still have two missions TP go I'm halo 4. Plus afraid to come back and check for response for fear of spoilers.
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Tara Wrist
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 12:25
I really enjoyed reading this article, and it does bring up some good points to think about. As a female gamer, I think the developing qualities of the storyline are imperative for keeping me focused on the game (not to say that male gamers don't feel the same). I also think that game developers are realizing that gamers are looking for something more than surface level for the storyline, and they're doing a great job delivering a deeper experience to the game.

On a side note, shouldn't Fight Club be attributed to the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, rather than the director of the movie?
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 12:54
Tara Wrist said:On a side note, shouldn't Fight Club be attributed to the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, rather than the director of the movie?As a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk, I went back and forth with it, but felt that the film had more broad recognition than the book. Dollars to donuts, though Invisible Monsters might be a BETTER example of an unreliable narrator, though.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 13:41
Trust no one!
BrumtownMangler
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 13:46
Feel like i'm back at school:
"analyse and contrast the use of personas with regards to narrators in the novels 'Vanity Fair' and 'Gulliver's travels' "

Fight Club was a book first by the way and was written by Chuck Palahniuk.
Good read, thanks for posting!
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 13:58
You make a valid point, I'm not sure when Game-Writers decided to add layers of emotion into their characters, seems like a subtle change but I'm glad to see it's a standard at the moment.

In this changing world it's good to see the notions of: Honor, Love, and Strength are not forgotten even if now it's not spoken by real Men but instead Characters. There are some stories that have stuck with me (Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood) that defined the struggle in all of us to do what is right rather than what makes us happy.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 13:59
Master Chief, Halo 5. It will happen.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 14:05
Confused Shelf said:Want to read this but still have two missions TP go I'm halo 4. Plus afraid to come back and check for response for fear of spoilers.Same.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 15:01
liked reading this article most people see past these things however the part about Angel in borderlands 2 is bound to cause a interesting debate.
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Mo the Surfer
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 15:04
Good read. The narrators - good and bad - allow me to immerse myself in the storyline and make the experience much more enjoyable.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 15:07
Interesting read.

I don't think gamers are expecting unreliable narrators anymore than they used to. The idea isn't a new one, which you proved by bringing up older media with them present.

I think most people eventually grow weary of who they are trusting. Betrayal is always in the back of the minds of many. They may not notice that, but it's there, so I don't think a lot of people are as surprised as they could be about it. Kind of a cynical outlook, but it's how I feel.

Tara Wrist said:I really enjoyed reading this article, and it does bring up some good points to think about. As a female gamer, I think the developing qualities of the storyline are imperative for keeping me focused on the game (not to say that male gamers don't feel the same). I also think that game developers are realizing that gamers are looking for something more than surface level for the storyline, and they're doing a great job delivering a deeper experience to the game.

On a side note, shouldn't Fight Club be attributed to the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, rather than the director of the movie?
I really can't figure out any reason you had to bring up gender other than for the sake of bringing up gender.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 15:57, Edited on 19 November 12 at 16:00 by ChewieOnIce
Great read obj. Ian McEwan plays around with this theme alot. His books (and films) Enduring Love and Atonement delve into the subject.

I find 'unreliable' narrator stories to be some of the most compelling to the point where I question how reliable narrators are in stories where their reliability isn't even necessarily thrown into question. But that's mostly because I don't trust anyone.

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Posted on 19 November 12 at 16:39, Edited on 19 November 12 at 16:48 by L1E
osubluejacket said: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.Have you seen the legendary ending? Don't want to spoil anything, so just watch it.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 16:45
I was unable to read the whole thing due to the spoilers, but I have been thinking on this a bit a lately. The problem is instead of coming across as a dramatic twist in the story telling, I have been finding it points out the limitations of the media. In the moment, I can't tell if what I'm seeing is intentional or just poor production (the physical appearance of the Joker in Arkham City) and I get removed from the moment and made acutely aware that it is just a game and the subtlety of the story telling gets lost beneath the medium used.

Sometimes it works because it is strictly character-driven like in BioShock 2 (don't believe weverythign you're told) but it really seems to break down when you're challenged to pay attention to what you're seeing (Arkham City) ie don't believe your eyes.
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 16:47
Xiao1inSty1e said:Master Chief, Halo 5. It will happen.Considering that there's been no attempt to even begin to hide the fact that Halo 4 is the first game in a new trilogy...
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 16:53, Edited on 19 November 12 at 17:02 by Opproperaar
*warning spoilers for RDR, L.A. Noire, FarCry 2, Halo Reach and Bioshock 2*

Good read. I don't consider unreliable narrators quite overused yet though. At the moment I think the death of the protagonist (usually through means of self sacrifice) is more overused than anything else. It was original, even genius at first, when used in the context of a story (be it film, books or video games) but especially in video games it's been overdone the past few years. Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock 2, FarCry 2, L.A. Noire and Halo Reach to name a few off the top of my head. GTA IV doesn't kill Niko, but neither ending is what I would call cheerful. I fear more of this in future video games just because these types of depressing endings are an easy and quick way to elicit an emotional response from the gamer. They can even be used to end a storyline that you otherwise wouldn't know how to bring to a close.

So in short, unreliable narrators are used from time to time yes, but not so much that I'd consider it a cliché (yet). The death of the protagonist on the other hand is and I'd like studios to cut it out already. I can see protagonists dying in certain video games in the first half hour of playing them.

Also, what tyrannikos said about expecting betrayals in some shape or form. I always do, every video game, book and story. I dislike doing so because it ruins the surprise when it happens, but it happens so often that you can't help but do so.
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L1E said:osubluejacket said: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.Have you seen the legendary ending? Don't want to spoil anything, so just watch it.Mask comes off and it's Samus Aran?
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Posted on 19 November 12 at 16:55
Tyrannikos said:Betrayal is always in the back of the minds of many.Absolutely, whether i'm playing a game or watching a TV show, I'm always evaluating each character as to whether they are going to screw either the main character or me over.

I think i've probably come to expect some form of betrayal in a story, yet i'm always pleasantly surprised when the person I expect to betray me doesn't, or it is someone I didn't expect.

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