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Complications Ensue:
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Monday, September 14, 2015

I played a game that did some interesting things with narrative, which I won't name, so hopefully I won't spoil anything.

The game is meant to be a narrative puzzle. Oddly, it is not a puzzle so much about "what exactly happened" or "who done it," but "what is the nature of the main character?" Are they who they say they are, or are they lying, or are they deluded themselves?

It's usually a rule that the protagonist of a story, or a player character, shouldn't know anything important that the player doesn't know. Otherwise it alienates the viewer/reader/player: how can they feel engaged emotionally with a character that's partly withheld from them. It feels like a cheat if the narrative holds back something that the story later hinges on.

However, in this case, the player character is not the main character. The player character is interrogating the narrative, but never appears in the game, while the main character is the person whose story the game contains.

So it's a legit mystery. The game is entitled to set the goal, and is entitled to set the obstacles to achieving that goal. It's okay that the player character has no way to establish something that, at another time and another place, could have been reasonably easily established. That's the setup. The narrator is entitled to define his or her terms.

What bugged me, I think, is a tone problem. Odd that a tone problem would mess up a mystery story, but I'll tell you why.

There are two main explanations of the narrative in the game.

  • One is that an extremely implausible series of events happened.
  • The other is that the main character has an extremely rare (and, some argue, nonexistent) mental disorder

But these two extreme, stylized interpretations come out of a series of gritty video clips of an actor acting in a naturalistic, human way. The actor isn't brilliant, but the performance doesn't come across stagey or forced.

So do I set my suspension of disbelief on "high" or "low"? I can look at interpretation one and think, well, that's an extremely implausible series of events. If I heard that in real life, I wouldn't believe it. I'd think I was dealing with a crazy person or a scammer.

But this isn't real life, this is a video game. I've believed crazier stories in video games.

So I go look at the other interpretation. If I met someone manifesting this particular mental disorder, I would pretty much assume they were faking something they saw on TV.

But again: this is a video game. Video games are entitled to heightened reality. And maybe the game makers don't know that this mental disorder doesn't look like they depicted it, and possibly doesn't exist at all.

After all, early on in the narrative we keep hearing about fairy tales, so maybe this is all meant to be interpreted as a fairy tale.

Okay but -- I'm supposed to be choosing between two interpretations, aren't I? So if I'm judging by the standards of fairy tales, how can I possibly call shenanigans on one interpretation and not the other? And if I'm judging by the standards of the real world, I have to call shenanigans on both, and then I got nothing.

So the lesson is: you have to define your tone. If something is meant to be a fairy tale, then you should introduce some magic into your story. It's dangerous to present your fairy tale as a completely naturalistic true-crime story, because it will get judged by the wrong standards. And the flip side of that is that if you intend your player (or viewer or reader) to call shenanigans on a character or a series of events, then you need to make clear that any inconsistencies are the results of the character lying rather than metaphorical story telling...

... or sloppy writing. When the audience doesn't know the story teller, they won't necessarily trust that everything in the story is there intentionally. Does the game maker know his mental disorders, really? Or is he just following what he's seen on TV?

Take Dexter, the TV and book serial killer who only kills Very Bad People. Such a person probably does not exist, but it's the premise of the series, so we accept it, and we also accept that we are not watching a truly realistic portrayal of a serial killer, we're watching a pay cable TV drama.

But that means you couldn't hang an episode on the audience suspecting that he's lying because he's showing empathy that a real serial killer isn't capable of -- because he's not a real serial killer.

And you really couldn't hang a spec episode on that, because how is the reader to know whether you are intentionally writing a character that is inconsistent with reality, or that you don't know what you're doing.

You have to ask yourself if your narrative depends on the audience being sure you know what you're doing.

This is where "hanging a lantern" or "addressing" the plot comes in handy.

If you have a character like Dexter behaving uncharacteristically for a serial killer, you could have two characters arguing about him. One could say, "no real serial killer has empathy." The other one could say, "this one does."

Now the audience knows that you do know what you're doing, and the inconsistency in the episode is intentional. Depending on where you take the scene, you can then leave us pretty sure that the Dexter-ish character is pretending, or that he really has a heart, or you can be ambiguous about it. But at least you're not being muddy.

Because of the way the narrative is told in this particular game, the game maker didn't have an opportunity to tell us whether he means his mental disorder to be a fairy tale mental disorder -- in which case it could be "real" or "true" within the world of the game -- or a real mental disorder -- in which case we'd reject that interpretation. And no actually impossible things happen in the extremely implausible series of events that is the other interpretation, so we can't tell if we're supposed to reject that interpretation as really unlikely, or embrace it as a fairy tale.

Telling a story isn't just about the story. It's also about who's telling the story, and to whom. You have to be aware of who you're telling your story to, and who they think you are.


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