A Mistrust Earned
If you go into the browser game Depict1 blind, you might find your initial moments with it a touch confusing.
Let me backtrack a bit: Depict1 is a game that someone, or somesite, recommended to me last year. I’m not sure exactly when. I found it in a bookmarks folder by accident when launching all my current Iron Helmet games, and this happy accident reminded me that a browser game does not have to be an epic strategy affair spanning days and weeks in order to entertain or provoke. It also meant that I remembered nothing of the game.
The splash screen exhorts you to “not press X and C”, and to “press no button” to proceed. This should give you some idea of what’s coming (although I, with my characteristic and unquestioning enjoyment of quirkiness, thought nothing of it – some days I have the mental agility of a lolcat).
Then you begin, and the game presents you with a challenge that seems too simple. “Use the arrow keys to move”! Moments later you think this grand challenge is completed, only to be restored to your starting point. “That’s not the exit!”
Something fishy is going on. The third level is called “Suicide”. That is not your objective.
Never Trust a Man Without a Horribly Embarrassing Secret
The unreliable narrator is not a new innovation in gaming narratives. As a literary device it’s older than many hills. Two of the first known instances of the unreliable narrator can be found in Arabian Nights, a collection of traditional Arabic and Islamic stories gathered and written down between the 8th and 13th century. It would be trivially easy to get snarky and cast a sideways gaze at any number of religious texts as well, but let’s just stick with the idea that this unreliable narrator shit is old. It’s little surprise that gaming has been toying with the idea for many years.
What’s most interesting are the different forms that the unreliable narrator has taken. Gaming is not a medium as bound to a linear narrative as traditional literature or film (yes, I know there are exceptions, but bear with me here). The ways in which we can be lied to, and what we can be lied to about, seem to me a broader range of possibilities within gaming as a medium because of the way in which the audience participates.
Let’s look at a few examples – and be warned, there are spoilers for old games in this section. There are no shortage of obviously lying and manipulative narrators. One of the joys of the original Portal was the process of discovering that GLaDOS was not all she seemed and then undertaking the journey to peer behind her mask. Another browser-based platformer, Time Fcuk, which I wrote about in pre-AR days here, features a narrator who seems to be a half-crazed lunatic but later turns out to be, well, yourself, at a different point in the cycle into which you may or may not be locked. I’m being deliberately ambiguous here because I’ve already spoiled part of the joy of Time Fcuk, and you really should go and have a play of it. It’s a better game than Depict1, although it didn’t provoke me to write anything as interesting as this. So come back when you’re done!
In 2007 BioShock caused a lot of excitement with its reveal: that the protagonist had been unwittingly psychologically conditioned to follow instructions preceded by a coded phrase simultaneously reframed the preceding narrative retrospectively (i.e. it justified the linearity of the choices made and objectives pursued, an act in which the player had no choice beyond ‘continue’ and ‘stop’) and satirised the identical linearity of so many game structures and plots. Sure, it subsequently failed to capitalise on this superb idea, but for those of us excited by gaming’s narrative as well as mechanical possibilities it seemed a strong indication of an increasing maturity in videogame writing. And sure, it was effectively the same plot that had driven System Shock 2 eight years previously, but the way in which this plot was framed and justified was fresh and even thrilling.
There are also what you might describe as invisible unreliable narrators – no one is talking to you and yet the narrative you are experiencing may be a lie (beyond the lie inherent in all fiction). The intertwined past/present narratives of Second Sight are a fine example of this: the game’s conclusion retcons one of the two narratives as a possible future that never was. And yet you were there, and you fought, and you probably died and tried again. It’s halfway between the famous Dallas “dream season” and waking up from an actual dream; your participation makes those memories partially real, even if – like Second Sight’s supporting cast – no one else can remember something that never happened.
Perhaps the most surprising instances of the concept of an unreliable narrator in the context of a game are where the developer, game and characters come together to engage in what literary theory might describe as metafiction – a commentary, ironic or otherwise, upon the work of fiction itself. Since ‘metagame’ is a term with a quite different meaning around these gaming parts, allow me to describe this as ‘metaludic’ instead. And yes, don’t worry, I am wearing my wank hat here. Fancy terminology aside, what I’m referring to are instances such as the famous moment in Metal Gear Solid where control is wrested away from the player by Psycho Mantis, whose psionic powers extend outside the game and into the player’s console itself. He did not, however, predict the possibility of the player using the second controller port to bypass his powers. Metal Gear Solid 2 tries something similar when it presents a false Game Over screen that appears almost identical to those experienced elsewhere in the game – until the player realises that their character, Raiden, is still fully under their control and under attack by swarms of enemies in a small snapshot of the game in the top left. (This one was actually rather more obvious thanks to the spoonerism “Fission Mailed”, but the fact that people initially fell for it says a lot about how we recognise and interpret the familiar.)
Man Without Faith or Trust
Let me be honest for a moment. (You can trust me.)
Depict1 is not a game that does anything as fresh, exciting or grand as the examples I’ve described above. It is, ultimately, a nicely thought-out and well-executed Flash game that can be breezed through in under ten minutes by an experienced player. This is of course no bad thing.
The gimmick here is that Depict1’s unreliable narrator is the protagonist, the plot and the tutorial all at once. As you begin the game they’re telling you what to do. The only problem is that they are lying through their teeth, and wherever possible giving you instructions that will lead directly to your death.
The game, of course, is complicit. Most platformers would use a harmless-looking gem as a source of points or health; spikes on the ground are almost universally considered a danger. Not so here.
Once the player has figured out that the instructions they’re being given are lies, and starts to work out how the game really works and what the actual controls are, the narrator shifts tactics to trying to persuade you that certain tasks are impossible. Later, they tell you the truth. Don’t you see that we’re friends now?
Towards the game’s finale things get a little crazier. The game is once again complicit, but this time nothing that you can see is as it should be. To reach the level’s exit involves guesswork and memorising positions with misleading visual references. You’re whistling in the dark.
Wild Times, Outrageous Lies
Depict1 is a lot of fun. Few of its ideas feel particularly new or fresh, but it does delve deeper into its core concept than most games care to. That it does so in such a compact experience is even more laudable: at no point does anything feel repetitive purely for the sake of extending the game’s length.
Depict1 knows that you have played platformers before. All that it is trying to do is trick you in a different way each level. It lies to you in as many ways as it can to force you to unlearn and abandon assumptions that are conventions of the genre.
The platforming is good fun, of course. It would have to be to support what the game is doing with the genre. It’s not going to blow you away but it’s more than serviceable. If you experience irritation, it’s probably because you’re believing in a lie.
I feel some regret that I’ve essentially pulled down the curtain and revealed the Wizard in all his deceitful glory, but it’s almost impossible to talk about a game as concise and focused as this without doing so. I suggest that you take a look at the game over on Newgrounds despite this, because I’ve not talked about everything and really, it is very short, and really, it is good fun.
You can trust me.