Story in Games and the Unreliable Narrator

Although I now hold a minor grudge for spoiling a specific quest I might not ever get to in Oblivion, I recommend reading Nayan’s editorial on HDRLying about story in games and the use of the unreliable narrator. It was thought provoking enough that I even passed this around to a couple people at work today. For me, the missing example here that everyone could easily relate to would be using the somewhat obvious and darling-of-everybody game for interesting story and with a unreliable narrator: Portal. Although, this might be the most accessible of examples, there are some flaws with using Portal as a concise example. The reveal and impact–and subsequent questioning of one self and one’s surroundings–aren’t as compelling as the Oblivion example. In Portal, the unreliable narrator, GLaDOS, is revealed as such far too soon. At least too soon to grow some level of trust before you realize the diabolic nature of your unseen guide and narrator.

I mentioned this to Nayan, who unfortunately hasn’t had a chance to play Portal yet. Talking a bit more, lead to the following bit of exchange:

  • me: max payne is another good one.
  • Nayan: Is max an unreliable narrator? there’s a lot of doubt that you see in his dreams
  • Nayan: like, in Max Payne 1, you kill yourself after you kill your own family…but i always thought that was a metaphor for essentially killing your family for being married to your job
  • me: if only you take it far enough to question whether his dream sequences have affected his judgement in reality.

That was just the start of it. It was nice to read something last night that got me thinking a bit more about some of the games I’ve played with, ones that I especially hadn’t considered from a more critical point of view. Even better was that Nayan’s post generated discussion between me and a few other folks about storytelling in games.

2 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. Ryan O says:

    Cool post!

    I see GLaDOS revealing herself early as a form of advancing the drama of the story to hook gamers into playing for a longer session. While the unreliable narrator does play a part, it is quickly established that the man (in this case woman) vs. machine plot device is used to give purpose to continue rather than the “because it’s there” design to complete a puzzle game. In the case of Portal, I think that the faster reveal actually helped suck people in their chairs because the gradual reveal is something that could be a detriment to video games because they are based upon instant gratification (press a button, something happens). There are exceptions, like RPGs which stem from pen and paper games which are different beasts altogether. Hope I didn’t ramble on too much!


  2. arne says:

    I absolutely agree that the pacing of Portal benefited the game overall and would have affected the enjoyment of the puzzles and the story. I am guilty of taking a very narrow view in my opinion. I was only looking at it with respect to the vehicle of the unreliable narrator versus the bigger picture of how to make it work within the game mechanics, length of game and so forth.


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