Why the Best Video Games Lie to You
Creators are using misleading, forgetful, or deceptive protagonists to force gamers to think about subtext — and ask more questions as they play
In the 2016 action adventure game Uncharted 4: A Thief’s Legacy, the rakish series protagonist Nathan Drake learns that reports of his older brother’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Samuel Drake tells an astonished Nate that he has spent most of the last 15 years in prison, and then the game transitions to a flashback in which the player controls Sam as he embarks on a daring escape with the help of his cellmate, Hector Alcázar. But later in the game, the primary antagonist Rafe Adler reveals to Nate that he was the one who freed Sam from prison. That whole playable story was a lie.
Sam Drake is a classic unreliable narrator. Examples from literature include the likes of Gone Girl, Fight Club, and Life of Pi, but this narrative device has also been used in film, television, and video games. In some games, like Uncharted 4, the unreliable narrator forms just one part of a wider story, but in others it is the central conceit around which the game is built.
In 2015’s Her Story, the player tries to piece together the truth behind a murder, searching a virtual database for full-motion video clips from seven police interviews with a particularly unreliable interviewee. The game’s creator, Sam Barlow, characterizes the unreliable narrator device as somewhat interactive even in linear fiction like books, because it makes the reader take the more active role of questioner. But in games, he says, “That antagonism that almost exists by default… becomes more tactile and more real, because there is actually some push and pull between you and the game that you’re playing.”
Barlow made Her Story almost completely by himself, but he used to work in bigger teams with bigger budgets. He recalls a “constant frustration” at the expectation that characters should be transparent deliverers of information for the player. “So when I set out to make Her Story, and make it as an indie game and therefore be free to do what I wanted, one of the things I wrote down was, ‘I want to make a game about subtext.’”
As a narrative designer, I really enjoyed playing with something that fundamentally you try to avoid with making a game, which is frustrating the player.
A more recent game about subtext is 2019’s Astrologaster, a comedy title with unreliability at its core. You are Simon Forman, a real-life Elizabethan era self-taught doctor and astrologer who claimed to have cured himself of the plague, and your task is to gather enough letters of recommendation from satisfied clients that you can obtain a medical license. Clients come to you with their problems, and you choose a response from the stars.
“Astrology is arguably a giant sort of unreliable meta-narrator,” says the game’s narrative designer and writer Katharine Neil. “It’s a storytelling device.” The player decides what particular reading Forman should offer each client based on the potential consequences: “Judging whether to tell the truth, or what kind of truth, or what kind of lie, is core gameplay.”
Of course, Forman’s clients can be unreliable too, so you must read the subtext of their complaints: Why do Emma Sharpe’s husbands keep dying? Why doesn’t Venetian merchant Riccardo Ferraro seem to understand Italian? For Neil, the unreliable narrator is a comedic device; the humor comes from filling in the gaps.
The unreliable narrator is also often used in horror games, presenting the player with visions that may or may not exist outside of the protagonist’s head. Unfortunately, these games often suggest that mental illness itself is horrific, but that’s something Chella Ramanan wanted to avoid with the unreliable narrator she wrote for upcoming narrative game, Before I Forget. The game takes place in the soft pastel-colored home of Sunita, a woman with early onset dementia, and is a gentle but unflinching representation of life as someone whose memories and grounding in reality are, as Ramanan puts it, “kind of shifting sands.”
The entire game is built around her unreliability: “We have a scene where she’s looking for the bathroom, and she can’t find it, and every door the player opens turns up in the same place, no matter which door you open.” Predictably, this unachievable goal confounded some players who tried an early version of the game. “They were trying to see a system and a logic when dementia doesn’t have any,” Ramanan explains. “And I, as a narrative designer, really enjoyed that — that I was playing with something that fundamentally you try to avoid with making a game, which is frustrating the player.”
Traditionally, video game protagonists are puppets to make the player feel powerful. But one who withholds information, whether intentionally or not, negates that power.
This frustration may lie in the nature of the relationship between player and player character. Traditionally, video game protagonists are puppets designed to make the player feel powerful. But one who withholds information, whether intentionally or not, negates that power. This can be especially frustrating if the information being withheld is revealed all at once as a twist ending, as when players of 2010’s Heavy Rain discover that a character they have been playing as a detective trying to find a serial killer… is actually the killer.
“I call it Rumsfelding,” says Neil. “You know how Donald Rumsfeld talked about known knowns and known unknowns, during the debate about the invasion of Iraq? I think that if the player sees something that the player character knows, that they don’t know, it has to be very clear that it’s a known unknown.” In Her Story and in Barlow’s most recent game, 2019’s Telling Lies, the unreliability is known, and trying to turn that known unknown into a known known is — as Barlow puts it — “part of the actual gameplay loop.”
Both Neil and Barlow agree that games with unreliable narrators ought to give their players some clues, and Barlow says that “one of the beautiful things about video games versus movies” is how much easier it is to sneak those clues past the player. But it has to be done right. “Heavy Rain, I think, breaks the contract between the audience and the game in some of the information it withholds to do its surprise reveal of an unreliable narrator,” says Barlow.
This year’s Draugen, a Scandi-noir adventure game in which players explore 1920s coastal Norway looking for answers to multiple mysteries, is so upfront about its unreliable narrator that it’s in the marketing materials. And yet some players were still shocked — or even annoyed — by one of its biggest twists. “We were convinced that most players would guess,” says the game’s writer Ragnar Tørnquist, “Because we did seed a lot of hints.” He points to twists that are “earned,” like the ones in the 1999 horror movie Sixth Sense, where afterwards you can look back and see all the clues you missed.
The challenge, says Tørnquist, is to find a way to surprise the player without the experience feeling cheap. “I think there’s a certain frustration with being lied to, right?” he says, citing his own anger when he saw the 1990 horror movie Jacob’s Ladder, in which the entire film turns out to be the protagonist’s deathbed experience. Then again, Barlow thinks Jacob’s Ladder was an influence for the influential 2001 survival horror game Silent Hill 2, so clearly not all game developers felt that way. With games, too, some players respond better than others. “You risk splitting the audience,” says Tørnquist, “But there’s something positive about splitting the audience, too. It’s taking a certain amount of risk.”
Using an unreliable narrator provides an interesting framework for stories in games just as in other media, and as long as there are enough clues to get players asking questions then it can be rewarding. “You still have to execute well,” says Tørnquist. “It is more challenging, and you open yourself up for controversy, open yourself up for people being dissatisfied, absolutely. But I would do it again. Just do it better next time.”