As you may have noticed, I didn’t put up my usual post on Tuesday. The reason is that this week I’m swapping posts with Chip from Games I Made My Girlfriend Play. Chip is a fellow blogger, UWG contributor and awesome writer/gamer and GIMMGP was borne from his desire to share his passion for games with his girlfriend Laura. They keep their blog updated with musings, reminiscences and opinions about games both old and new. Make sure to check out his blog for more posts like the one below! Also, I’ll reblog my post here, so remember to check back for it! For the rest of October I’ll also be swapping posts weekly with a couple of other writers from UWG on the topic of horror. Basically it’s the blog swap month! Not to worry though, you’ll still be able to check out my weekly posts on their blogs, which I’ll reblog here.
The perspective within video games can be a blessing and a curse. Players have the ability to immerse themselves directly into events, to slip through the fourth wall and become the main character of a story. This level of control can provide engagement and suspend disbelief for hours on end, but it comes at a narrative price: the story being told is no longer uniform between players. Where I choose to turn left and hide in the shadows, you may opt to turn right and walk into the spotlight with guns blazing. Throughout the course of play there can be a variety of choices that will change the tone of the story and intentions of the main character. With so much power in the hands of the player, how can a developer craft a mysterious and haunting plot that will truly shock people?
One answer is through an unreliable narrator. The main character of a game can be written in such a way that key points of information will be hidden from the player. This may be a deliberate choice made by a devious narrator who is twisting story details for his/her own devices, or the involuntary actions of an amnesiac or a character who suffers from past trauma. When this plot device is well executed, a game with an unreliable narrator can make for an excellent horror experience.
The best examples of unreliable narrators in horror gaming will endear the player to a main character, often in his/her search for the truth. In Silent Hill 2, players take control of James Sunderland, a man who has returned to the sleepy town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife, asking him to meet her there. The problem with this scenario is that James’s wife died from an illness over three years ago. Our hero is understandably perplexed but determined to reunite with the woman he loves.
When I first led James through the foggy streets and derelict buildings of the twisted town, I began to admire him for overcoming such gruesome situations to get to his wife back. I was so certain that the curse of Silent Hill was working against him at every turn, an ancient evil that would stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. When the truth of the story came together during the final act, I was shocked. [SPOILER ALERT] Frustrated and tired of taking care of his sick wife, James murdered her three years prior and the trauma of the event had altered his memory. The letter he received was a complete fabrication, a figment of his own tortured mind that sought out punishment in the form of Silent Hill and its terrible creatures. In an odd way, I had helped a murderer try and make peace with the awful crime he had committed. [END OF SPOILER] I felt betrayed and the lingering unease rattled me far more than the jump-scares of so many other horror games.
Unfortunately, the unreliable narrator is a device that has become a bit of a cliché in the gaming world, particularly in the Silent Hill series. Developers have tried to emulate the critical success and legacy of the second game, often to poor results. It’s almost as if no main character in horror games can be trusted, and the entire experience transforms into a lateral thinking puzzle instead of an immersive story. The game becomes akin to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, drudging through a lackluster experience while waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There is still hope for the unreliable narrator in horror gaming. The plot of Amnesia: The Dark Descent is predicated on the idea of a hero who cannot remember the circumstances that brought him to a castle in eastern Prussia. But instead of trying to ignore this fact or sweep it under the rug soon after the intro, Amnesia turns this into the player’s motivation: just what horrible things must have transpired to make the main character, a demure Englishman, want to murder the castle’s owner? The goal of an unreliable narrator should not be to trick the player with obviously withheld information, but to create an air of mystery and suspense in a world where reality is not quite what it seems. At the very least, don’t make the twist so obvious.