Flipping the Narrator the Bird
I’ve always been a master of “selective hearing.” As a child I was precociously opinionated—a trait that’s transformed into adjectives like “headstrong” and “assertive” as I’ve aged—and my innate love for contradiction meant there was a cold chance in hell that I would follow directions without asking at least one question (or spitting out my fair share of backtalk). I was always a good child, but I’d never say that I was an easy child.
Video games often encouraged my type of bullheaded nature. Growing up with games like Final Fantasy X and the Pokémon franchise taught me that the best treasure was always down the least traveled path—ignore which way the story (and the map design) is telling you to go, and you will be rewarded with new characters, better gear, and additional story content.
Over the years, video games have trained an entire generation of malcontents. It’s no surprise that as video games grow as a medium their narratives have begun to explore the consequences of player actions.
Here are a few of my favorites that take a look at what happens when you flip your narrator the middle finger.
The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013)
The Stanley Parable follows the story of Stanley, an office worker who has spent his life mindlessly pressing buttons at his computer until one day his screen suddenly goes blank and the door to his office swings open. The game’s narrator, a nameless voiceover with a mild British accent (Kevan Brighting), quickly begins guiding a confused Stanley through the empty office building. Stanley follows the cubicle-filled halls until he comes to a set of doors, where the player is given the choice to accede to the narrator’s will and take the door to the left, or to rebel against the narrator’s counsel and take the door to the right. From there the narrative spirals into a series of choices, with the narrator attempting to goad, plead, and threaten the player into acquiescing to his version of the storyline.
The narrator in The Stanley Parable is polite, humorous, and, in the beginning, willing to adapt to the player’s sudden flights of fancy. He often makes excuses for the player’s disobedience by attributing Stanley’s defiance to a healthy sense of exploration or an overly inquisitive nature. Throughout all of his frustration, he truly seems to have the player’s best interest at heart—he provides encouragement, words of advice, and door codes. There’s no reason not to believe that following the narrator’s orders will lead to anything but a positive outcome.
Unfortunately, the narrator’s almost suspiciously helpful attitude doesn’t work in his favor. Despite the fact that The Stanley Parable’s narrator truly did wish to lead me to a land of beauty and freedom outside of the confines of the stuffy office space, I wasn’t prone to following his instructions. Like the girl I had a crush on in the second grade, his jovial attitude inspires me to pull his metaphorical pigtails; I spent the entire game exploring ways to incite his irritation and enjoying every line of dialogue where he tried to cajole me back onto the right track.
The Talos Principle (Croteam, Devolver Digital, 2015)
The Talos Principle puts the player in the body of an android living in a simulation after the end of human civilization. A disembodied voice called Elohim directs the player through a series of puzzles that will supposedly lead the player down a path of enlightenment. Meanwhile, a forbidden tower looms in the distance and a being known only as Milton encourages the player to disobey Elohim’s directives and leave the puzzles behind in favor of climbing the tower’s ominous facade. Messages from other androids cast doubt on Elohim’s wisdom, and soon the player is faced with the decision to ascend with Elohim or find answers by going against Elohim’s wishes.
Unlike the narrator in The Stanley Parable, Elohim’s dialogue does inspire feelings of melancholy obedience. His voice is slow and wise, and his words often strike the tone of an enlightened figure whose advice is worth listening to. When he says that you shouldn’t go up the tower, his words carry a significant weight. The player feels inclined to fall in line… but Elohim’s also a little pretentious. It harkens back to your teenage days, when your father told you to be home by midnight or else, but didn’t really explain what the consequences would be for your transgressions.
It took me several levels worth of puzzles before the urge to explore the tower won out. Needless to say, I felt incredibly guilty when I made it halfway up the tower only to have to come crawling back to Elohim with my tail between my legs. He was gracious and understanding—after all, every child has to touch the stove top once before they learn their lesson—but that didn’t stop me from climbing back up the tower the moment the option was available to me again (a choice that was later rewarded with a successful “independence check” for my android).
Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, Sony, 2005)
The Shadow of the Colossus is an enigmatic game with very little in the way of a forthright narrative, so here’s the cheat sheet: the player controls a man name Wander, who, after a very long journey, comes to a forbidden land where he places an unconscious (dead?) woman on an altar and receives council from Dormin, a dark, echoing voice that agrees to heal the woman in return for the destruction of thirteen powerful colossi whose likenesses are displayed in the temple as giant idols. Every time a colossus is killed one of the idols collapses into rubble and Wander receives a clue guiding him to the location of the next colossus in line.
(Dormin, by the way, is obviously evil. He’s been sealed away inside of a temple in the middle of an abandoned peninsula filled with the ruins of a foreign civilization. This guy is bad news.)
Unlike The Stanley Parable and The Talos Principle, Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t present the player with an explicit choice: either the player intentionally plays right into Dormin’s hand by slaying the colossi keeping him contained in the temple, or the player… well, doesn’t kill the colossi and instead rides around the peninsula looking at the scenery and avoiding conflict with the various guardians strewn about the deserted landscape by choosing to jump Agro the Horse off cliffs and hunt white-tailed lizards until hours of fruitless exploration have passed (thereby never finishing the game).
In the solemn, solitary land of Shadow of the Colossus, it’s hard to feel anything except resignation. When Dormin started giving me orders, I knew he was leading me down a self-destructive path. I knew I shouldn’t listen to him, but after a couple of hours of bombing around on Agro (and learning how to stand on/hang off of my saddle, not to mention do cool rollback turns that had me galloping off towards the sun) I followed his instructions anyways. I couldn’t see any other way to give Wander what he wanted (his girlfriend/sister back?)—plus it was a little lonely and Dormin was the only one to talk to.
Players Gotta Play
Each one of these games approaches the idea of the player defying the narrator in a different way: The Stanley Parable gives us a narrator designed to be preyed upon; The Talos Principle gives us a narrator whose wisdom is always in question; and Shadow of the Colossus gives us a narrator whose motivations we know to be malicious, but whose will ultimately cannot be denied. All three present the player with choices (though some may be murkier than others) and all three of them provide consequences for the player’s actions.
There’s an inherent delight that comes with outfoxing a video game. Players take immense satisfaction in finding cheats, glitches, and exploits that allow them to “outwit” the game’s creators. And yet, even when they’re designed to be defied, we still find ourselves drawn to video games that provide a fake sense of rebellion.
So what lends these games a sense of authentic insubordination? What ties each of these games to a bigger theme of player choice and allows them to highlight the intoxicating effects of free will within the confines of an art form that’s forged out of a rigid structure of 0’s and 1’s?
It comes down to one of the tenets of great storytelling: characterization and a tight script. The satisfaction that comes with defying the will of a character whose dialogue has been so meticulously crafted is undeniable. When the writing’s been done right, I can’t help myself! I have to keep poking and prodding (or struggling to find away around the narrator’s orders). Even though the nature of the video game medium means there will always be a finite number of choices to make, a powerful, player-aware script combined with a creative team that is cognizant of their audience’s less than obedient proclivities makes for a more immersive experience.
After all, it’s part of our ingrained nature to want to bite the hand that feeds, right?