What follows are three quick case studies on a favorite topic of mine: the knowledge differential, or epistemic gap that can sometimes open up within the player-avatar relation. I find all three of them fascinating for the questions they raise about narration in videogames, as well as the alignment between player and player-character.
What follows does not yet qualify as analysis. This is simply a critical appreciation of a few moments that have made me think. Perhaps it will act as a prolegomena to further, more properly analytical, writing.
A guy, a girl, and an “X” button
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (Atlus, 2006) is a massive game, combining JRPG battles (with all of the associated grinding) with the simulation of the life of a high school student over the course of one academic year. All in all, it took me a little over 100 hours to complete. But, when I think back on it, one moment, just a couple of minutes long, stands out for me, as so many dozens of hours fall into a haze. It occurs on August 20, 2009 of the game’s alarmingly specific in-game calendar.
(Just a note, to head off confusion: Since the player-character of Persona 3 can be named by the player, he has no canonical name. Official game guides usually refer to him simply as “the protagonist,” or “Main.” I’ll be referring to him as “our character.”[i])
Our character and his friends fight many enemies over the course of Persona 3. They fight demons known as Shadows, and a god of death known as Nyx. They also fight a gang of fellow teens, known as Strega. Over the course of the game’s enormous running time, these various antagonists are introduced slowly. Many hover on the margins of the story before engaging in direct conflict with our heroes. The nefarious actions of the Strega gang, in particular, are made known to players long before the game’s protagonists first encounter them.
One of Strega’s members is Chidori Yoshino, a quiet, red-headed girl. As players, we are first introduced to her on June 22, when a cutscene clearly shows her association with the villainous group. However, the character we control, and his allies, do not learn of this association until much later.
On the morning of August 20th, players, through a cutscene, witness our character’s best friend, Junpei Iori, meet Chidori at the Port Island Station. Junpei attempts to flirt with Chidori. Chirodri, drawing, is merely annoyed with Junpei. The scene creates suspense: players (here acting as mere viewers, with our interactivity limited to merely pressing a button to make the text advance) are aware of Chidori’s association with the rival group, while Junpei is not. Urgent questions bubble up for us: Will Chidori attack Junpei? Will she be won over by him, and defect from her group? Are we witnessing the birth of a doomed romance, in which two lovers will be unable to reconcile the differences between waring factions? The resonance of these questions for us, as players, is based on a knowledge differential that is quite common in fictions of all types.
Later in the afternoon of August 20, players are again granted control of our character, free to move around the city and interact with various elements of the game’s systems. We can even head over to the Port Island Station, if we wish. Once arriving there, we can do all of the usual things, including interacting with the flower seller … but there’s something else here, as well. Chidori is still seated on her bench, still glued to her sketchbook.
Our character can’t talk to her, or interact with her in any way. Walking up to her and pressing the “X” button on the PlayStation 2’s DualShock 2 controller will result in just one message popping up, over and over again: “She’s completely preoccupied with her drawing…“
And that’s it. That’s all we can do.
Persona 3 usually provides a rich array of possible interactions with the world. The game is, in effect, about learning to achieve work-life balance—specifically, the type of work-life balance that one needs to achieve within the rigid and high-stakes system of Japanese secondary education. (Even more specifically, the work-life balance that one needs to achieve when in Japanese secondary education, and battling monsters every full moon.) Usually, the game allows lots of fine-grained decisions: Do we grab a meal with a friend after school, or study in the library? If we do go out with a friend, and we discuss their romantic foibles, do we take a soft and understanding approach, or a tough-love approach? When the evening arrives, do we fight monsters, or go to the mall? Or study again?
But, standing here in front of Chidori at the Port Island Station, all we can do is press “X” to get the same message over and over again. We can’t summon our personae and do battle with her. We can’t grab a hold of her and demand that she tell us more about Strega.
And why would we be able to? Much like Junpei, our character does not, as of this moment, know that Chidori is a member of Strega. Although he’s seen two other members of the group, he has never encountered her before, and never seen her associating with them. He has no reason to attack this girl on sight.
Again, we are confronted with our knowledge differential, but it is one of a different sort. Before, we simply knew more than characters on a screen—a situation familiar to us from cinema. Now, we know more than a character we are actively controlling. If we find ourselves fight against the game’s controls—wishing that the “X” button could do more than prompt the same message, over and over again—it is really a fight against the epistemic gap between us, as viewers of the game’s cutscenes, and the character we are granted control over. We are alerted in this moment to the fact that we only ever have partial control of this character. We can only guide him to do things that would make sense for him to do. Attacking or interrogating this girl would make no sense, from his perspective. So the controls account for his lack of motivation, forcibly preventing our expanded knowledge from having any effect.
Foreshadowing in the foreground
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, 2009) has slicker production values than Persona 3. Its cutscenes are fully voice-acted, with character animations created through motion capture. These cutscenes are often quick, and interspersed seamlessly with gameplay: the game uses careful, sometimes subtle cues of camera angle to let players know when they’re back in control of its protagonist, Nathan Drake.
There’s another stylistic difference between Uncharted 2 and Persona 3 that’s important to mention here: the game’s cutscenes rarely, if ever, slip out of alignment with what Nathan Drake knows. Unlike Persona 3, we, as players, don’t see cinematic sequences where we become privy to the machinations of antagonists he hasn’t even met yet. We could say that the game’s narration is limited in a way that Persona 3‘s isn’t.
The usual limitation of the game’s narration makes the moment I’ve captured in the YouTube video below all the more memorable to players. As they explore an ice cave, Drake and his guide Tenzin are vaguely aware that there are dangers lurking about. First, in a cutscene, they spot some wolves, which makes Drake nervous. In the clip below, they discover the wolves dead, indicating that an even more dangerous predator is afoot. Then, something else happens, which I won’t spoil:
Naughty Dog uses a blend of tactics to foreshadow the encroaching danger here, and ratchet up paranoia. The sound of the wolves being attacked and killed, and Drake’s subsequent line “What the hell was that?” are both delivered during gameplay, as players navigate Drake up the icy wall of the cave. As the player approaches Tenzin, after he has discovered the wolf carcasses, the game switches into a cutscene, giving us some medium shots of the characters’ facial reactions to this development. Then, we slip effortlessly back into gameplay, as the camera swivels behind Drake to allow the player to do some light platforming.
As Drake ascends the rock wall, the camera pulls back. This is not an especially unusual occurrence in Uncharted 2; Naughty Dog frequently plays with camera positioning to give a sense of the environments’ scale. But here, the camera motion has a special motivation: to set up a startle scare, in which we realize that the rock formation in the foreground is actually the beast that is tracking Drake and Tenzin. This is not a cutscene. As I see and hear the lurking beast in the foreground, I am still controlling Drake in the background. (At the 1:20 mark, you can actually see me fumble the controls a bit, failing to get Drake to ascend, and instead making him repetitively flail his arms.) The game switches to a cutscene again immediately after this brief moment, but Naught Dog clearly wanted the shock of this moment to occur while the player was actually moving the analog sticks around to control Drake.
It is worth noting that the knowledge differential that opens up between players and Drake here will be a brief one. Naughty Dog seems profoundly uncomfortable letting the player know more than Drake does for any significant length of time, and closes this epistemic gap within a couple of minutes, when the monster attacks Tenzin and Drake. But they must have decided that if they were going to open up this gap, they would be flashy about it. It’s one of the best “shout at the screen” moments, so common in horror cinema, that I’ve ever seen during a fully interactive portion of a game.
If you see something, say something
Using cutscenes to present information to the player that the player-character doesn’t have, manipulating the camera of a third-person game to provide a bit of extra information to the player: these are clever uses of the usual tricks of the trade of videogame storytelling. My final example is one that I find a bit more flummoxing.
Valve Corporation’s Half-Life games are well-known for their trailblazing approach to game storytelling, and for their adherence to two central formal rules. The first rule: the games are entirely told through the first-person perspective of the player-character, theoretical physicist postdoctoral fellow turned alien-invasion freedom fighter Gordon Freeman. Although there are plenty of scripted sequences, in which non-player characters recite dialogue, there are no cutscenes. The player remains in control of Gordon’s body, and his first-person point of view, at all times. As NPCs chat, delivering exposition, the player is free watch and listen, or to wander away, inspecting the mise-en-scène for bits of spatial storytelling. As several critics and theorists have mentioned, this creates something like the feeling of being involved in a theatrical production (Sleep No More-style immersive theater might provide the best analogue).[ii] Deciding where to place Gordon’s body while viewing the dialogue scenes feels a bit like making decisions about theatrical blocking—a feeling enhanced by the time the franchise had reached Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007), in which NPCs adapt to player movement, re-positioning themselves and re-blocking the scene if you happen to place Gordon’s body on one of the marks they are normally animated to hit.
The second rule? Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist. The entire time players spend controlling him in the franchise (which must add up to a week or so of his life, if we’re keeping track), he does not speak. He is a man of action—a man, as his companion Alyx Vance notes, of few words.
Even when he sees something odd.
Half-Life 2: Episode Two added a new enemy to the franchise, the Hunters, notable both for their toughness and pack-like group attack patterns. The game builds up to the introduction of this new enemy type gradually: Valve, like Naughty Dog, is clearly a fan of foreshadowing. Here is Gordon and Alyx’s first encounter with a Hunter … if the the player is attentive:
There are a few things to say here. I’ll begin with the matter of storytelling. Just a few moments after this encounter, Gordon is trapped by a Hunter, and Alyx is attacked. Since Gordon is unable to move, players must watch this attack play out, without being able to intervene. Alyx’s injuries are near-fatal, and the player spends a good chunk of the game’s running time assisting with the care she needs to recover. It is only after Alyx recovers that players finally encounter the Hunters again, in a context where they can actually be fought and defeated. The storytelling here has expertly built up the threat of the Hunters, while also setting up this moment of combat as a chance for retribution. This adds an extra layer of thrill to what is to come.
So that’s the storytelling function of these early Hunter encounters. What about their actual implementation? What is fascinating about this first moment is that Valve is quite happy to allow an inattentive player to miss it. Yes, they use the flight path of birds to direct players’ attention to the location of the Hunter (a trick that they uses extensively in their games, and has been recognized by many critics and developers, to the point where I can even link to a blog post by someone else that analyses this exact same moment). But the flight path of birds isn’t foolproof. If a player is charging through, willy-nilly, it is quite possible for them to only hear the Hunter’s song and hear Alyx’s reaction to it, without themselves catching a glimpse of it.
And here’s the thing: Valve seems to want even the most attentive players to only barely catch a glimpse of the Hunter. It is supposed to be something that players miss, or perhaps just barely see, not being able to fully register. On subsequent playthroughs (especially if you’ve played through the game as many times as I have), it is easy to stare at the Hunter for a few seconds, but the first time players play through this moment, there is an obvious attempt on Valve’s part to construct a moment in which the player is uncertain what, exactly, they saw.
Because Gordon Freeman is presumably unsure of what, exactly, he saw. And that, presumably, is the fictional reason concocted for why he doesn’t say anything to Alyx in this moment, why he doesn’t confirm her suspicion that something’s out there.
So far, I’ve been considering moments of epistemic dis-alignment between the player and player-character. This is, by contrast, a moment in which Valve is attempting to expertly craft a moment of true alignment: We aren’t sure what we saw, and neither is Gordon Freeman. I love this moment, because one can ask so many questions about it that butt up against the game’s more artificial formal devices. Gordon doesn’t say anything here because he’s unsure of what he saw, right? Right? Surely, that must be the case. Surely, he wouldn’t deliberately hide danger from Alyx. But, if we’ve established that … does Gordon, throughout the rest of the game, regret not saying anything to Alyx? Is he paralyzed with guilt, wondering if, if only he had said something, Alyx’s injury could have been prevented? What is going on in his head?
One might, following Kendall Walton, call such questions “silly.”[iii] But they are questions that Episode Two itself seems to invite, in its very flaunting of its own craft.
[i]. If you must know, my Persona 3 player-character’s name was Nobukazu Takemura. My Persona 4 character was named Yashushi Yoshida. Both of these names evince my deep and abiding love for Japanese electronica and pop-leaning post-classical music.
[ii]. For instance, see Nitsche, Micael, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp 105–107, 216–217.
[iii]. “Silly questions” is Walton’s name for questions that interrogate conventions of genre or medium as if they were actually part of a work of art’s fictional world, which a media-literate viewer/reader/listener will clearly understand them not to be. See Walton, Kendall, Mimesis and Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp 174–183.