For those of you who aren’t in the know, “whoami” is a command that was first implemented in Unix-based systems, allowing the user to see what account, with which types of access, they are currently recognized by the machine as being logged in under.
This post offers two quick takes on two games. (They both happen to be from 2012, for whatever reason—something in the water?) While playing both of them, “who am I?” is a surprisingly rich one. Sometimes, they keep the player’s role vague, surprising them with the amount of agency they have, and the degree to which they seem to be inside or outside the game’s story. Other times, they are quite clear on who the player “is,” but leave plenty of room for interpretation as to what occupying this role means. Take care below: spoilers aplenty.
There are several ways a game’s interface can abuse you.
On the far experimental end of things, there are works such as Tekken Torture Tournament (Eddo Stern, 2001), which require you, as a player, to contractually accept a certain amount of pain in order to get the full experience of the work. Games like Fignermukcre (Trollcore Enterprises, 2014) are content just to be difficult and exceptionally un-ergonomic. And then there are games such as I Am Bread (Bossa Studios, 2015), that blend an absurd premise with a punishing control scheme to wring comedy out of a mixture of frivolity and sadism.
And then there are games like Simmons (Ashton Raze, 2012).[i] Simmons is a piece of interactive fiction composed in Twee, the command-line version of Twine. Being text-based, it doesn’t offer much in the way of control scheme beyond clicking through highlighted hyperlinks, so it can’t abuse you ergonomically, as Fignermukcre or I Am Bread do. Instead, it resorts to good old verbal abuse.
Simmons is a game that offers players choices, for the sole purpose of allowing them to fuck up. It’s a game that knows better than you, you see. Sometimes, players just need to be put in their place. Simmons makes this clear from the very first screen, where it offers a stern course correction for those who might attempt to shirk their responsibilities:
Once players have been curtly—and necessarily—corrected, the game goes on to describe what being Simmons means for us. “Simmons is not a nice man,” the game’s text tells us. “You are not a nice man.”
The first choice the game offers is a false one, but at least it that’s better than the next two. Offered the choice between whether we, Simmons, work at a library or a grocery store, the game corrects us if we chose either option: “No he doesn’t. He works for a successful magazine in the city.” If we say that we, as Simmons, care about “love” or “power,” we are told “No he doesn’t, he cares only about himself. Which means he cares about you, too, because you are Simmons now. So that’s nice.” This is not some namby-pamby character creation screen. The game does not abide by such things. Simmons has standards, damn it. He doesn’t let just anyone into his psyche.
On paper, there is significant overlap between Simmons and The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013). Both games present their players with binary choices at regular intervals. Both games use narrators to harangue players if they choose the option that the narrator deems out-of-character for their respective titular protagonists.
The two games end up in quite different places, however. The Stanley Parable is content to remain a parody of rhetorics of choice in videogames, expanding its central theme into dozens of jokes and Easter eggs. Simmons is undeniably simpler. It lacks the forking paths of Stanley Parable. But in place of myriad hidden endings, it offers a meatier investigation of the triangle of player, character, and narrator. The Stanley Parable uses its gimmick to poke fun at pompous theory. Simmons uses its gimmick to plumb character psychology.
There’s a nastiness to the narration in Simmons, an acidic bluntness that Stanley Parable‘s more resourcefully imaginative narrator lacks. Stanley‘s narrator might be a blowhard, but Simmons‘ is a bully. The player’s false choices arrive with a petty, “stop hitting yourself!” cruelty. The Stanley Parable‘s narrator is clearly annoyed with players if they disobey him. Simmons‘ narrator, by contrast, outright despises us, from the outset.
And then there’s the fact that we are Simmons, and that we are denied agency in this casting decision. Most games offer their players a chance to become someone else, but few offer you so little autonomy when inhabiting a character. An acute sense of anxiety builds throughout the early moments of the game. We are told, again and again, that Simmons is “not a nice man,” a “terrible person,” a “very bad boy.” What has Simmons done to deserve these designations? What are we, as Simmons, going to do over the course of this game? Should we be fearing for the safety of the woman Simmons chats up at a bar in the game’s opening scene? Just what is Simmons guilty of, anyway? Is this going to become the interactive fiction analogue to Maniac (William Lusig, 1980—or, perhaps Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 remake would make a better analogue, given its more literal eyes-of-the-killer conceit): something that places us uncomfortably into the consciousness of a psychopath, asking us to momentarily make sense of the world as he does?
No, it is not. Because, during the time that we spend being him, Simmons never does anything worthy of being designated a “terrible person.”
He is calculating, yes. But it is the type of calculation that speaks more to social awkwardness than Machiavellian manipulation. He has a bad attitude towards others, yes. But who among us doesn’t, from time to time? Really, he seems lonely. And sad. And afraid that he’s incapable of bringing happiness to others. Afraid that they’re all going to leave him, to disappear from his life—and with good reason, because he will only fuck things up for them. He’s someone who suspects, deep inside, that he has nothing to offer anyone. He wanders through life stealthily, avoiding others not so much to protect himself, but to protect them from a terrible, imagined version of himself, always lurking in the shadows.
Simmons hates himself. Simmons is a game about deep and toxic self-loathing. By its conclusion, it has less in common with The Stanley Parable than it does with something like Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight (2013).
By the end, we understand why the narration is as abusive as it is. Because we are Simmons. This is what it means to be Simmons. Simmons doesn’t get to not be Simmons. He has no choice. Every day when he wakes up, he is still Simmons. He looks in the mirror, and sees himself: a man who is not nice, who is a terrible person, who is a very bad boy. A man who is selfish, vile scum. An indefensible man. A man who does not deserve to live. This is what it is to be Simmons.
Most games offer their players a chance to become someone else. But few offer have offered me so much understanding of the inner life of my character. Few have placed me so firmly into someone’s mindset and, by the end, provoked such sad compassion.
Pull the string and I’ll wink at you
Home (Benjamin Rivers, 2012) is an odd duck. Its heavily pixelated art style suggests that it might be a low-rez, side-scrolling survival horror game, much like that Lone Survivor (Jasper Byrne, 2012), released earlier the same year. But it’s not really a horror game, by most metrics. The player is never in any danger, and the focus is on unravelling a series of escalating murder mysteries, rather than fighting for one’s own safety.
Really, it is better considered as a piece of visually-accentuated interactive fiction, much like Simmons, rather than something that exists in the same lineage of horror games as Lone Survivor. (This has, unfortunately, probably taken a toll on the game’s reception.) But, as a piece of IF, it is additionally odd.
To take one seemingly tiny detail: with its roots in the text adventure game, IF typically addresses its reader in the second person present tense. (“YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.”) Home, by contrast, addresses its reader in the first-person past tense. As players, we’re not being asked to imagine something happening to us in real-time. Instead, we’re listening to a story recounted by a narrator.
Who is this narrator? Well, it’s a little hard to tell. In the game’s opening moments, he complains of headaches and memory loss. He has hurt his leg, perhaps quite severely, but can’t remember how. All he can remember is that he misses his wife Rachel, and wants to go home to her.
It’s not clear how long after the events recounted the narrator is telling them, but it is clear that memory continues to be a persistent issue for him. It is his foggy memory that provides the motivation for the player’s exercise of agency. Every now and then, the narrator will confess to forgetting a particular detail about his night’s journey. It’s here that players are given a binary choice, prompting him to remember his night one way or another. (In the clip embedded below, the UI gives no indication, but I first choose “N” for “no,” and then “Y” for “yes.”)
The clip above is fairly neutral in presenting its question, but not all such questions in the game are like this. Often, the narrator will editorialize. Even as we, as players, are being given a choice as to how to guide him, he tries to assert some limited amount of agency, at least letting us know what he would consider to be out-of-character.
Sometimes, the question will even be framed as a negative. You half-expect the narrator to groan upon being told that, yes, he did in fact do these things:
All of these questions are just an hors d’oeuvre for the real centerpiece of Home: its endings. Upon finally returning to the narrator’s titular home, we find his wife Rachel dead, wrapped up in a pile of rags and hidden behind a newly-erected wall in his basement. After this, the player can guide the narrator through their house, interacting with any items they collected during their journey home. In this section, the distinction between “reader” and “author” begins to bleed, as players are presented with the opportunity to cross the line between the former and the latter. Much as in any mystery story, we are making guesses, based on the evidence that we’ve picked up on (or, in this case, literally picked up.) But there’s no detective figure here guarding a stable, definitive answer. Instead, there’s only our narrator, who by this point is putty in our hands, passively conforming to any suggestion we toss his way. Earlier, we were deciding seemingly insignificant details, such as whether the narrator pushed a box or not. Now, our decisions form the his—and, seemingly, the game’s—final verdict on who committed the string of crimes we’ve discovered throughout the game.
Here’s one demonstration of how the ending can play out. In the clip below, I successfully cajole the narrator into pinning Rachel’s murder on his friend, Norman, who he discovered was having an affair with Rachel. (Again, since the UI doesn’t make it clear, my responses to the questions below are “Y,” “Y,” “N,” “Y.”)
Other choices will implicate other culprits. (Although it’s impossible to ever get the narrator to fully admit that he killed Rachel, one can stack the evidence against him quite persuasively, and to get him to commit suicide out of a mixture of grief and guilt.) A complete survey of the evidence offered by the game’s environments and collectable items reveals a startling amount of ambiguity: repeated playthroughs make it obvious that there is not one “true” answer to the game’s puzzles. During any given playthrough, finding one particular item will frequently lock a door behind the player, preventing them from finding the conflicting evidence that litters an alternate route. In this way, the game does nudge the player in the direction of certain conclusions during any given run of the game. Still, though, the player has an enormous amount of agency in the game’s endings to interpret what they have come across in different ways during these final questions, pulling the narrative in very different directions.[ii]
Including one very strange one. But in order to get to that, we’ll have to back up a bit.
Remember when I said that upon returning home, the narrator finds his wife Rachel dead? Well, about that … it’s actually another decision the player has control over. Here’s what happens if you pick “no” on the first question that pops up when the narrator finds the crumpled rags in the basement:
Choosing this option is the only way to encounter IF’s usual address of “you” in Home. Suddenly, we are expressly implicated as characters in this drama, named by a pronoun that until now hadn’t been uttered. Sure, the narrator had been asking someone questions throughout the game, but those plausibly could have been questions muttered to himself. No longer. In this path, the narrator fully acknowledges our agency.
And what an agency it is! We have effectively rendered our narrator mad. Through our toying with him, we have transformed him into a supremely unreliable narrator, whose perception of reality is drastically out-of-whack.
The final denouement of this particular path makes it clear that the narrator knows that we’re deliberately tormenting him. “But now you’ve got me all mixed up,” he sighs, “I’m not even even sure what makes sense anymore.” And then, in an accusatory turn: “Did you know, before the end? Did you mock me when you finally showed me the truth? You don’t know what it’s like, to have everything ripped away from you in a heartbeat.”
The implication is clear: our narrator may be a narrator, but he is still just a character in this story. We have the privilege of existing outside of this story, and this affords us the ability to toy with him.
If you will allow me an indulgence, I’d like to turn to a classic text in the study of electronic literature (nearing its 20-year anniversary, in fact): Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspecitves on Egrodic Literature, for a bit of definition-play.
Cybertext includes one chapter on text adventure games, where Aarseth embarks on an in-depth analysis of Deadline (Infocom, 1982). Given its close investigation of the norms of 1980s-era interactive fiction, the chapter perhaps hasn’t aged too well. But, luckily enough for us, Deadline has enough similarities to Home (they’re both narratives of investigation, for one) that we can actually bounce off of Aarseth’s ideas in a productive way.
Aarseth proposes the above model to describe the communication structure of text adventure games. Aarseth uses the term “voice” to describe a text game’s linguistic narration, “the simulated correspondent that relates events to the implied user.” A game’s “intrigant,” meanwhile, is not a linguistic function but an author function: it is the “architect of the intrigue,” the “mastermind who is ultimately responsible for events and existents.”[iii]
Those terms, for Aarseth, describe what’s happening on the game side of things. On the user side, you have the “intriguee” (the “target of the intrigue”), and the “puppet”—the character that the player uses to interact with this linguistic world.[iv]
Home scrambles these categories quite thoroughly. The terms themselves are still useful, but the through-lines that Aarseth uses to connect them are re-routed, and new possibilities emerge.
By its conclusion, Home affords its implied user the opportunity to step into the role of intrigant. Suddenly, we are the mastermind, the one playing the tricks. From this collusion, a “reader-author” hybrid emerges.
Meanwhile, the usually distinct functions of puppet, intriguee, and voice blend together into a sort of “character-victim.” The implied-user-turned-intrigant goes rogue, and plots their own helpless puppet’s downfall. His confused voice echoes in our ears as we shut the game down. He’s going to have to work out the mess we’ve created for him on his own.
[ii]. Although the game presents an enormous amount of ambiguity in its evidence, and although it doesn’t have one “true” solution to its central mysteries, there is one bit of information that is privileged above other bits. Those who purchased a special edition version of the game were given the combination to the narrator’s safe, allowing them to open it during the game’s final sequence. (It is also supposedly accessible from this page on the game’s website if you piece together the names of the files in the correct order, but even knowing the code I can’t fathom how one could ever do that. It’s not just a matter of the number of permutations, it’s also about knowing which digits to throw out!) Since people are generous, it has been subsequently easy enough to find online. (In fact, I’ll repost it here: it’s 4R3UHER3.) Anyway, all of this is to say that the contents of the safe, which include a printout of an MRI scan, push a privileged reading of the game’s narrative—one that leans toward neurological illness being the explanation for the narrator’s headaches and memory loss, and toward the conclusion that his relationship had soured and Rachel had left him some time before the events of the game. The contents of the safe do change, however, depending on certain decisions the player made earlier on, so even here there is instability in the narrative’s notion of “truth.” The safe is not, as it were, safe from the player’s decisions.
[iii]. Aarsth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Pg 114.
[iv]. Ibid, pg 113.