Most people are familiar with the idea of an unreliable narrator and most likely you’ve either heard of, or played, the game The Stanley Parable. In that game there is a narrator telling your story and guiding you to where you should go. Yet, you quickly get the inclination that this narrator really doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Playin this game quickly brings the player consciousness to the theme of player agency within a designed game space. Questions border-lining philosophical thought, like “What does it mean if I choose not to play the game as it’s being narrated?” or “Why have I been playing games the way designers always want me to?” start to crop up. Of course, The Stanley Parable isn’t the only game that does this kind of work and there’s a list of games with unreliable narrators being curated here starting with Portal.
What I was thinking would be interesting would be a game that seemed totally fine in many respects, but rather than having an unreliable narrator, the system itself was unreliable. I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this idea, but it’s still fun to explore. I did a quick google check (right here in the middle of my writing of this) and indeed there is an intriguing Gamasutra article by a fellow named Chris Solarski titled “The Unreliable Gamemaster: Player Motivation in Story-Driven Games“. First off, this article has a much more succinct description of how The Stanley Parable does its special thing. Solarski actually has a pretty well thought-out criticism of story-driven games, rightfully putting Uncharted 4’s story along side The Avengers movies. He explains that the drama of many stories is the tension between the protagonist’s wants (to get something specific) and their needs (to grow on a personal level). In the case of a narrative game, its the player’s wants (usually to win/finish the story) vs their needs (of some subjective higher experience). The ending of a good narrative game is kind of like the ending twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but in game form, where for the player experiences a qualitative meaning that is beyond simply winning. The example he gives is from Firewatch, which is a spoiler… so go play it or spoil it for yourself.
In my metroidvania game design idea I actually addressed the need of a player to think about the themes of perspective and truth, not knowing that this is basically good narrative design 101. Now I know, thanks to this fellow Chris! Go check out his amazing article, and totally don’t finish mine!
Anyhow, where was this post going? Right, it’s a game design idea exploration. So rather than actually having a narrator be unreliable, I would have the mechanics and the system themselves be unreliable. Perhaps the game would appear to be a little buggy, but if the player is paying attention it becomes increasingly buggy. The bugs themselves will turn out to be another system in themselves, but they only appeared buggy because the player started in a different and unreliable system of mechanics. The players can play the original game, ignoring the bugs, but it results in a “wow, mechanics game, sooooo mathematical” kind of experience, or they can choose to chase the bug.
I had this idea when I was watching someone talk about how trends in AAA gaming were too hand-holding and had Assassin’s Creed as an example. The video quickly showed the player pick-pocketing money and showing how much money they stole, in text form pop-up. I remember where I saw it, it was in No Clip’s amazing short documentary called Rediscovering Mystery and it was I believe Jonathan Blow doing the talking. I thought how it would be funny to poke fun at this hand-holding, this overuse of overhead maps and data stuff, to covertly confuse the player. While The Stanley Parable draws overt attention to its unreliable narrator, I wouldn’t make it obvious that there is something unreliable in the game. At least at first.
It can be more of an abstract strategy game, where they are playing and a bug happens. The game might give them data on points or whatever, but they are actually not getting those points on maybe their menu. They can keep playing the game, but as this misinformation builds up they might be thinking, “what the hell is going on here? Is this just a shitty game or is there something else here?” As they pursue this mystery, it should eventually become apparent that this was done purposely. The questions the players might then start to ask are then “Why would they design this in such a way? What is the designer’s motivation?” Perhaps inside of the strategy game if you follow the bug, is a story game.
Of course, it’s to poke fun and to get players and designers alike to examine their expectations of how a game should be played/designed. It’s almost like the counter-argument to player entitlement while simultaneously being another foothold in the ludo-narrative design battle, (itself a smaller version of the quantitative/qualitative paradigms struggle in academia). Of course, the shell strategy game, whatever it is, has to be a good enough game. It can’t just be a shambling pile of crap. It has to draw them in, before it can spit them back out. The joy would hopefully be going back into the game to explore and investigate the meaning of it’s “bugs” which are themselves the mechanics of the “true” game.