Writing archive

Guestblog: William Hughes on “When Games Lie”

— Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

My friend William Hughes returns with another fine guestpost in my hour of need.

You may know him from his crit work on his Necessary Information blog, and may have also seen his Minecraft project “Tales of Woot,” or his podcast The Expertcast.

Past the cut, games playing with their own reality and identification. Thanks, Will.

Games are uniquely suited to audience identification. As players, we directly control our characters, the movements of our hands corresponding to their movements in virtual worlds. Multiple genres literally place you in your protagonist’s head, looking out, while the world and characters address you directly. The stated goal of many games is to provide an accurate simulation of a fictional scenario – to make you, the player, feel like you’re experiencing an alternate reality.

Which makes it all the more effective when games lie to us, instead.

Important, maybe-obvious distinction: I’m not talking about characters within the game lying to the main character. That’s just deceiving the protagonist, and that’s a trope that’s as old as fiction – even if our increased identification with our character does increase the emotional intensity of the lie. I’m more interested in the game itself, the systems put in place by the designers, actively attempting to deceive the player.

I do, however, make an exception for one class of character – one whose encoded trustworthiness has ironically made them inherently betrayal-prone in modern gaming.

“I hear it’s amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hara-Kiri Rock. I need scissors! 61!”

Tv Tropes calls them The Voice With an Internet Connection – a character that acts as an unseen adviser and guide for the player. They pipe into your character’s ear, provide new objectives (and maybe some banter), and then disappear until the next dribble of exposition is needed. They’re cheap, resource-wise: a few written lines of text, some voice-over, no need for animations or character models. Rebellious players can’t shoot them or blow them up or trap them in corners. They’re an efficient way for the game designer to tell the player what he or she is supposed to do next, and, as such, they act as narrators, agents of the narrative whose word is law.

And, 9 times out of 10, in a “stunning” twist, they betray the protagonist. Sometimes this is for cheap shock – “My god, Atlas was evil all along! My mind is blown!”* But there can be more subversive reasons for turning the central narrative voice of a game against the player.

Games are, fundamentally, about doing what you’re told. If a game can be won, it must be won by following a path laid out, directly or indirectly, by the game’s designer. Disobedience (real disobedience, not simply choosing the “Disobedient” path) leads only to dead-ends or game-breaking bugs. With that over-arching message hanging over everything the player does, how can a designer make a game about freedom and free will?

It’s probably not surprising that Hideo Kojima was the first designer to toy with these ideas, given his obsession with forcing players to actually pay attention to what they’re doing when they play his games. In the original Metal Gear, the guiding voice of Big Boss gradually grows sinister as the player progresses through the game, culminating in giving an order to the player to shut the game off. He must, of course, be ignored to continue the game (which eventually reveals Big Boss as the ultimate villain). I have no idea how many kids back in 1987, indoctrinated by years of following on-screen instructions, actually turned their games off when ordered to. Maybe none. But the idea is still potent – progress through disobedience against the Omnipotent Voice of The Game. (Portal achieved something similar 20 years later by making rebellion against the tutorial-esque GlaDOS necessary for further progression).

Kojima referenced(? parodied?) this scenario years later with the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2, where “Mission Control” is revealed to be a buggy AI copy of the real people who guided the real Solid Snake in the original game, that proceeds to spout nonsense and mock the player for wishing they were Solid Snake. Here, the deception underscores the futility of trying to be a crappy copy of the real thing – (themes like that are why MGS2 is a brilliant thesis on game design and kind of an unfulfilling drag as a game).

At the end of the day, though, these are still characters within the game lying – not the game itself, no matter how directly identified the character in question is with the narrative of the game.

What happens when the game itself starts lying?

“You are carrying nothing of importance”

“On the whole, it was worth the trip. The plains really were broad and grain-gold, if scarred with fences and agricultural crawlers. The mountains were overwhelming. And however much of the capital city is crusted with squat brick and faceless concrete hulks, there are still flashes of its historic charm. You’ve seen spires above the streets — tiny green parks below tenements — hidden jewels of fountains beyond walls. Any bland alley can conceal balconies wrought into iron gardens, fiery mosaics, or bed of flowers nurtured by who knows who.

This alley, however, is a total washout. It ends in flat bare dirty brick, and you’ve found nothing but a door which lacks even the courtesy of a handle. Maybe you should call it a day.”

These are the opening paragraphs of Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin’s Interactive Fiction game, Spider and Web. They are lies.

You are not a weary tourist. You do not care about the architecture of the city you are in. And you have absolutely no intention of leaving that door unopened. You are a spy, captured in enemy territory. And you are being interrogated.

That interrogation makes up the majority of the game. Pulled into memories of your infiltration of an enemy base, you must present plausible scenarios that explain the physical evidence you left behind. Blood stains on the ceiling? You jumped up there to retrieve a mysterious package. A piece of your equipment left behind? You must lay out a course of action that would have led to it being discovered by guards (without being caught yourself). Instead of directly giving commands, as in most IF, you are instead telling a story to an interlocutor who will kill you if he suspects you are lying.

You are, of course.

Spider and Web lies to the player at every turn. Because the central gameplay takes place within a deceptive story, the player’s senses (represented in Interactive Fiction through written descriptions of locations, objects, and events) are constantly being deceived. The protagonist has perfect knowledge of what he ACTUALLY did, of course, but he’s working to keep it from his enemy, and, consequently, the player. The only hints you get are occasional remarks about a door being unimportant, or how it’s not time to perform a particular action yet. It’s easy to play through the first half of the game believing that all of the actions you’ve taken, dutifully typing them into the parser, were true.

Until the moment where your interrogation catches up to the present, and your enemy brings all your captured equipment in – and you realize a piece is missing. At that moment, the game’s brilliance comes into focus. Because if you were lying about that… what else were you lying about?

The rest of the game becomes a race to decipher your character’s true actions, to understand both the lies and the motivation behind the lies. By setting the perspective of its playable portions within a network of lies, and then forcing the player to unravel them to progress, Spider and Web causes the player to re-evaluate how they respond to the perspective the game forces on them, as well as their relationship with the character they supposedly “are.”

We assume, when we play games, that the information we’re being provided with by our screens is equal to the information being given to our characters, that our sensory input and background knowledge are the same. By lying to the player, Spider and Web causes a disconnect between player knowledge and character knowledge, forcing us to re-examine our assumptions about the relationship between the player and the character, reminding us that, for all that we wish to immerse ourselves in our simulations, the characters we “control” in these scenarios are always going to exist as separate beings.

(The DS puzzle games 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors and Ghost Trick both execute similar acts of deception, forcing players, very near the end of the game, to question the fundamental point of who they are actually controlling with their actions).

Why Lie?

Lying in games must, of course, be used responsibly. If overused, at best we descend into cliche, with every SHODAN and GlaDOS and Atlas taunting the player with their inevitable deception. At worst, we lose our ability to trust that the screen is giving us useful information to let us actually enjoy our past time. But with subtle implementation, games can lie to us in ways that enhance the gameplay experience, causing us to re-examine the reasons we play, and the assumptions we make about the characters we “control.”


*I’m being unkind to Bioshock here. The game’s actual, interesting twist, that the player character is a brainwashed blank puppet, a “real-life” video game character with a few plastered-on memories and motivations, is actually quite clever, and fits in more with the games in the final part of this essay.