Depict1 featured

Depict1 review: Untrust Us

Depict1 - the arrow keys

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.

Depict1 - don't walk into the light

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.)

Depict1 - I know why the caged bird burns with an unholy black fire

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.

Depict1 - do as Mario taught you

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.





34 responses to “Depict1 review: Untrust Us”

  1. ahobday Avatar

    Is it just me, or is there no link to play the game in this review?

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Oh man, rookie error. It's at and I will go and add a link now…

  2. Dylan Avatar

    Nice article. I should look it up now that I am trying to be a PC gamer again. Although, I've been trying to be a PC gamer for a week though but every time I turn my laptop on, I just watch Haven or Treme, or look at my game collection with disappointment and switch it off again.

    Another favourite example of metagaming for me is Eternal Darkness on the GameCube, which emulated the TV switching off or the memory card/controller being removed from the console if your character got hurt enough whilst on a low sanity meter. I read somewhere (always a promising way to introduce some trivia – who's the unreliable narrator now?) that Nintendo patented the concept of a game pretending to screw around with the physical hardware in that manner, and then went on to never use it again after Eternal Darkness.

    Shame, you could do interesting things with it. Particularly if the people at Sony who make the Playstation had words with the people at Sony who make the TVs and implemented actual mindfuckery into games for who those who own both, like changing the channel (to the Xbox input, for lols), or muting the TV and then giving you key information over audio moments later so you have to scramble for the remote to un-mute it again.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      I always meant to give Eternal Darkness a go and then never did. Now I don't even own a GC or Wii. Sigh. I still laugh every time I see Eternal Darkness appear on Consolevania's "Death of a Console" GC roundup and be described only as "a mental illness simulator".

      I should probably just buy a GC for a fiver on eBay and pick up some of the few great titles that existed for it, huh? I didn't know that ED employed this sort of trickery. Would've been a good example to include in my roundup!

      Also, I like your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

      1. Dylan Avatar

        As it happens, I have a Wii that I can't currently use because it's a Launch console and so can't play dual-layer discs, so I have borrowed a mate's Wii in order to play JRPG dual-layered nonsense, and I also have a copy of Eternal Darkness. So you can borrow both console and game if you fancy it.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          Well… sure, thanks!

  3. Harbour Master Avatar
    Harbour Master

    I played this when it was out originally (last year?) and got featured on RPS. I thought it was interesting and kept things ticking along nicely. But the "abusive anti-protagonist" was already starting to get old. I can imagine if I looked at it in 2012 for the first time it would feel old hat.

    I sometimes think Deceit1 is about subverting the developer/player relationship: what happens when the developer lies? And perhaps the grand reveal in the end, is that the two are always in it together: a sign that this multiplayer game needs both to participate. Once you rid yourself of the developer, then there's no game any more. Or something. Hey! Who knows! My WANK HAT IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.

    I'm not sure I can be sold on approaching the game as an example of The Unreliable Narrator, but it's an interesting line to take. If a game lies or deceives you: is it really an unreliable narrator? Or merely more like a mystery novel where key facts are withheld? See also… shit, an article which is no longer available online! Ah, I'll forward a link if it ever re-appears.

    For the record, I thought Time Fcuk and Second Sight were delightful (the twist in the latter was brilliant).

    1. Simon_Walker Avatar

      I think I'm with Harbour Master here, this seems more in the line of messing with player expectations than unreliable narration. I approve of both in any combination, though: mainstream games maintain a delightful naïveté about player-game relationship that's just begging to be taken advantage of. All sootel-like, obv. Depict1 by description seems blunt enough to be an educational tool.

      *Second Sight spoilers*

      I wasn't best pleased by the twist in Second Sight. Sure, it was clear there was something going on, and putting past event in a new light is alright, in principle. And I do like the conceit of learning to use psychic powers in a hallucination of a future and applying them in the present; very Dark City.

      But… revealing at the exact dramatic highpoint of the narrative that none of it is real? "I know something you don't", or equivalent is a good badass line to deliver to the big bad. When it's followed by "You're not real." it just becomes sad.

      Hmm… I don't recall the game well enough to say whether my problem is with the nature of the twist or how it was played.

      1. Harbour Master Avatar

        *Serious Second Sight Spoilers Continue*

        That's not the way I read Second Sight. You were constantly "changing events" as you progressed through the game anyway and I thought the twist – that it wasn't real events changing – was grand clever. To some extent, it is an unreliable narrator game. I interpreted it as thus: the protagonist had to experience all of the "predicted" events so as to prevent them from happening.

        I'd heard it had a clever twist that you just didn't see coming, and I was surprised that it managed to pull the wool over my cynical, seen-it-all eyes without hideous cheating. The twist doesn't break the story but puts the whole thing in a different light (rather like the "Would You Kindly" moment).

        That said, I'm not going to tell you "you're wrong" – I'm just explaining what I got out of it. If you didn't enjoy it, you didn't enjoy it and that's that.

        1. Simon_Walker Avatar

          *Slight spoilery content*

          The twist was clever; it doesn't break the story, just my interest in it (much like the movie Identity, though that was less clever), though overall I'm glad I played the game.

          There was just something about the way it was played out in Second Sight that wasn't emotionally satisfying to me, but I don't recall the game well enough to dissect it in detail. The fact that it didn't make a bigger impact on me says something about my reaction, I suppose.

      2. Simon_Walker Avatar

        Maaaan… I should have written "as depicted". Anyway, I just played it. A cute and educational puzzle platformer.

      3. ShaunCG Avatar

        I'm not sure that subtlety is the best approach to take in something short and to the point, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

        I enjoyed the narrative twist in Second Sight but it was a wee bit of a shame that it all played out in a cutscene. So it goes, I guess… it was 2004 after all.

        1. Simon_Walker Avatar

          No no, the focused approach is exactly right for a game like Depict1. I was talking more generally, which may not have been entirely clear.

          1. ShaunCG Avatar

            Ah, my apologies – on re-reading your comment I should have grokked that.

        2. Harbour Master Avatar

          Shaun, I'm pretty sure it didn't completely play out in a cutscene. There was this amazing bit where reality kept switching back and forth, reinforcing the point.

          1. ShaunCG Avatar

            You are quite right! Just peeked at a vid on YouTube and parts of it came flooding back. All of the ghosts! Sorry, I mean "psychic echoes" no doubt.

    2. ShaunCG Avatar

      The unreliable narrator as a narrative concept only requires that the narrator lie to the audience, which is exactly what happens here. One might argue that what we have here doesn't constitute a narrator but I think such an argument would be splitting hairs. It's not comparable to all instances of the unreliable narrator elsewhere, though, and there are ways of looking at what is going on in Depict1 other than what I've explored. Still, this is what piqued my interest so this is what I wrote about. :)

      Chances are that it was through you that I came across this. I deliberately didn't look on RPS or ED because I didn't want to skew what I intended to write.

      I'm not so sure that this is a game where the developer lies. The developer gives you everything you need to succeed and, beneath the deceit presented to you by the narrator/shadow protagonist, there is nothing present which will unfairly catch you out. The only exceptions might be the spike/cherry danger/utility inversions, I'll give you those. There are also subtle hints about the correct course of action, e.g. on level 3 (Suicide) the narration text hangs on the letter J a beat longer than it needs to, suggesting the actual key you need to use.

      So, yeah. Maybe your fabulous wank hat can convince me on this latter point.

      1. Harbour Master Avatar

        Where I break with your narrator theory is precisely the question of narrator. I've always perceived the narrator as the person whose story it is, whether it is explicit first-person or implicit third-person. The gameplay is the narration, while the spoken text is simply an element of that story. From your point of view, any character who is giving you instructions that has an ulterior motive or not being truthful could be classed as an unreliable narrator: and that's not really, to me, what the term is supposed to relate to. You could also argue that System Shock 2 is an unreliable narrator game, because Dr. Janice Polito who gives you instructions is not exactly reliable. Or Bioshock's Atlas (although there is some truth that the game falls under unreliable narrator due to the protagonist's silent interpretation of Atlas' requests as orders).

        The narrated tale is not unreliable in depict1: what happens, is exactly what happens. Someone lies to "you" the player-character, and you respond to the player-character's lies/taunts through action. If is unreliable narrator, it depends on how you interpret the character giving orders. If it is "you" ordering yourself about then, yes. You're fooling yourself; you're in some sort of crazy headworld. But I don't particularly like that explanation of the game.

        To me, an unreliable narrator is when the game is making you play a version of the story which is bending/obscuring the truth of what is actually taking place or leaves a mighty grey area over what actually transpired. Braid's final level does something like this: what you thought you were doing is then turned around and given a completely different spin. But one of the most incredible and moving implementations I have ever seen of this is the tower defence game "Immortal Defense"; I don't want to say any more for fear of spoiling this, because it is awesome and mindblowing.

        WANK HAT removed.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          "I've always perceived the narrator as the person whose story it is"

          This is an interesting argument. I'm not sure I agree with it, but it's food for thought. So with a game like Bastion, would you regard that as the story of the narrator, even though you're playing as The Kid and the narrator is mostly talking about what The Kid does?

          I have a simpler definition of a narrator: the source of storytelling structure. (This is ambiguous and vague but it allows for a broader mechanical understanding of narrative structures.) With Depict1, I argue that the context for player actions is primarily derived from your shadow-self who functions as a narrator; this same character lies and deceives and thus by definition is an unreliable narrator.

          The other examples I gave don't fall into place neatly; I should have considered my categories. Most of them are not unreliable narrators so much as instances of deceptive antagonists. Although this is perhaps an area where the concept falls apart when applied to gaming. Your early time aboard the Von Braun is lent structure and meaning by Polito and so even though the game could easily proceed without her (gloomy abandoned spaceship full of monsters and no one will talk to you! Never seen that before), she's simultaneously filling a narratorial role. I wouldn't want to really compare this to something like Depict1, though, and so I regret not making my original piece more clearly defined.

  4. BeamSplashX Avatar

    I skipped the bit about Second Sight, since I've yet to play it. Maybe you could denote which games there will be spoilers for beforehand? Though it would be funny if you lied about which games had what twists.

    I sometimes feel like games with hidden complexity have unreliable narrators. Popping open an FAQ for most JRPGs reveal a depth that the game usually doesn't bother with, which is what makes ridiculous low-level runs and the like possible. I can understand why you wouldn't want to give that all away ("Guess what? The grind-to-get extra equipment we added is worse than some joke weapon in a random shop!") but some kind of method of earning this information would be nice. Perhaps in building in the trust that you are playing a game with some kind of depth or choice.

    Something in me hurts to imagine someone replaying Final Fantasy VII just for the story and not messing with the mechanics. Even if that's what Squaresoft wanted.

    1. Harbour Master Avatar

      Sid- Second Sight is okay. The gameplay is definitely interesting but it's not the best game ever. The narrative is clever though. Simon says in his spoilery comment (above) he didn't like the ending, but I'm one of the people that did. I was told in advance that the game is "cleverer than you think" and I agree – totally fooled me.

      1. Simon_Walker Avatar

        Part of my problem was that the point I was referring to wasn't the ending. It was downhill from there. As far as I can recall, anyway.

      2. ShaunCG Avatar

        I remember that back in 2004 everyone I knew seemed more excited about Psi-Ops because you could pop heads and engage in other grisly psychic tomfoolery. Second Sight seemed less exciting by comparison.

        I never played Psi-Ops, and I only actually played through Second Sight two years ago – it still held up well enough. Although Free Radicals' game engine? It doesn't handle character animations on stairs very well.

        1. Simon_Walker Avatar

          Psi-Ops was pretty cool, they got plenty of fun out of the powers, and there was some overall good design, even if things got pretty stupid at times. ("Or course! It was your identical twin!" Obviously his telekinesis can't deflect one bullet, even though he just MOVED THE MOON; though in fairness, I suppose that can tire a man out.) OTOH, the straight-to-video action movie/comic book vibe was somewhat charming. I regret not owning a copy, and I regret there was no sequel.

          Though The Force Unleashed was rather similar, now that I think about it.

          1. BeamSplashX Avatar

            The difference being that Psi-Ops made a standard special ops guy more interesting with psionic powers, whereas The Force Unleashed made a Sith warrior less interesting by giving him baseball bat lightsabers.

    2. ShaunCG Avatar

      Sorry chap. I did wonder about the spoilers, but Second Sight is eight years old now, and all of my other examples (except possibly Time Fcuk) are well-known features of well-known games, so I figured it was safe. I'll try and be less blase about it in future.

      JRPGs are an odd breed and I can't pretend to really understand the thought processes that drive their design. I wonder if their designers deliberately create games which are superficially simple but possess substantial depth to those who choose to delve? And can that approach be sustained for the full duration of a game? Does that represent some kind of effort to appeal to both the hardcore and casual markets? Is it a facet of the supposed East/West divide? And so on…

      1. BeamSplashX Avatar

        8 years? Damn. Oops.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          All the same, I think in future I will make spoiler warnings more clear when I'm talking about something that can't be assumed to be common knowledge. (E.g. everyone knows about Bioshock and MGS now… unless they're too young to remember MGS I suppose.) :)

          1. Simon_Walker Avatar

            Well, everyone who cares, I suppose. I haven't played a Metal Gear game since Snake's Revenge.

            I have been meaning to finish Bioshock some day, though.

          2. ShaunCG Avatar

            This is a good opportunity to see if my assumptions are way off, then: had you previously heard about the elements of MGS, MGS2 and BioShock which I mentioned above?

          3. Simon_Walker Avatar

            I had the general gist of the BioShock thing, though not the details. I hadn't heard about, or at least not registered, the MGS capers; but I rarely pay attention to PS land, as it has little relevance to me.

          4. ShaunCG Avatar

            Well… I resolve for the second time in these comments to be less blase about spoilers in future.

  5. AlexP Avatar

    Ah, the narrator is unreliable! When I started reading the piece, I resolved to click the link and have a go at the game first, so i could form my own opinions and experience the game as it was meant to be experienced. But then I got stumped! I returned to your post with my tail between my legs to figure out what was really going on here. I had my suspicions about what this game's hook might be, but certain habits have become so engrained in my psyche (Listen to the voice in games. It will tell you what to do) that I was immediately stumped when I was told "the beam resets you, there must be another way out." How foolish of me! I guess I haven't seen many games use the unreliable narrator trope in this way. I've seen it plenty in the narrative sense like in the games you've mentioned, but I can't think of another example where I'm lied to about the controls. It's really a brilliant idea actually. Fantastic writing, by the way. This was a fascinating read.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Heh, I'm glad to know it wasn't just me who was successfully duped. I swear, I must have hit the space bar thirty times on the third level before I tried other keys. At first I thought "oh, I'm immortal… maybe I use my suicide to, er, knock a hole in something?" Old gaming habits die hard.

      And thanks very much – I'm pleased you enjoyed it!

      (Oh yes: I also considered talking about games which pull tricks like inverting your controls, e.g. the final boss of Beyond Good & Evil. But I decided not to as it was too tenuous a connection to the unreliable narrator concept, even though it was closer in terms of those lies about the correct keys to press.)