One of my favorite film tropes is the Mindfuck. That point at the climax of the film where it’s suddenly revealed that nothing is as it seemed, that we were actually watching something else the whole time, that the protagonist was missing or misremembering some crucial piece of information that casts every single thing that’s happened in the story in a very different light and has dramatic repercussions for everything that follows. Memento, Fight Club. The Sixth Sense. The Matrix, though there they get to the Mindfuck very early and the rest of the film is given over to shooting things in slow motion. There are many instances of it. It’s a trope because it’s common.
Not so much, as this post from Problem Machine observes, in games.
The post itself makes a very important point: games, for the most part, can’t pull the Mindfuck like movies can because of the nature of the kind of storytelling to which most games are confined, which is predicated on a particular kind of interaction. Watching a movie may not be an entirely passive experience, but it’s clearly more passive than a game. You may identify with the characters on the screen, but you’re not meant to implicitly think of yourself as them. You’re not engaging in the kind of subtle roleplaying that most (mainstream) games encourage. You are not adopting an avatar. In a game, you are your profile, you are the character you create, and you are also to a certain degree the character that the game sets in front of you. I may be watching everything Lara Croft does from behind her, but I also control her; to the extent that she has choices, I make them. I get her from point A to B, and if she fails it’s my fault. When I talk about something that happened in the game, I don’t say that Lara did it. I say that I did.
So a video game, by its very nature, is going to have a hard time fucking with the player’s head regarding who they are in the context of the game. Nothing about the character’s history can easily be called into question. To do so does violence to the exact sort of player engagement that the game is trying to maintain:
[I]n games, if [players] are told to question the false history they are given, they are working directly at cross-purpose to the game’s attempt to establish a believable world. Attacking the false history, calling the character profile into question, calls into question the very basis of the player’s engagement with the game. It is shaking the experience at its core.
There follows the question: Are games just not good at this kind of thing? The conclusion the post arrives at is not necessarily, but there are hardly any that do it well.
This naturally got me thinking about potential examples, and I came up with two recent games that are built on Mindfucks that pull them off to different effects, to different ends and with different results. What their approaches reveal is what’s possible with the particular kind of storytelling that games enable, and what the consequences are when our selves become deeply wrapped up in this kind of digitally mediated narrative.
The games in question: BioShock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line. Massive spoilers follow.
Set in an alternate history early 20th Century on an ultra-nationalist and secessionist (and violently racist and fundamentalist, while we’re ist-ing) American flying city called Columbia, BioShock Infinite wavers back and forth between clunky and razor sharp storytelling, and one of its gutsiest moves comes toward the end of the game, where it’s revealed that your character – the fabulously named Booker DeWitt, a PI with a past littered with wartime atrocities and Man Pain – is in fact an alternate universe version of the game’s villain and the father of the girl he was sent to rescue. All his motivations, his reasons for being where he is, everything you’ve experienced as him and everything that proceeds from it, must be understood in light of that revelation.
It’s a major Oh My God moment. It also only sort of works.
At least, it only sort of worked for me, and here’s why: while thematically it fits with the rest of the game’s story, it feels like a brick dropped into the narrative itself, taking everything I had consciously and unconsciously been putting into my particular adoption of Booker and tossing it down an infinite series of multiversal wells. As a storytelling device, it serves the story but only when divorced from the medium; it assumes a watcher, not a player; you don’t play through the reveal with any particular agency but instead are led through it by your daughter, and your experience as a player doesn’t especially bolster the method of revelation. It’s a twist that would work quite well in a film, but in a game it come across as a bit forced. It feels like the game is saying “Yeah, you know what? Screw you, because this is happening now.”
A Mindfuck in a video game has to be constructed with the assumption that the person participating in a story is a participant. The positive example in the post linked above is Final Fantasy VII, in part because the twist is related to the player in such a way that the player’s participation is a key element; the player plays through the event that the protagonist, Cloud, “misremembers”, which “presents it as part of the work itself, to be actively parsed and digested, instead of just being offered as an assumption to the player.”
Which brings me to Spec Ops: The Line.
In Spec Ops, you play as Captain Martin Walker, leader of a Delta Force team sent into sandstorm stricken Dubai to locate a US Colonel who has gone rogue along with his battalion (it’s based loosely on and makes heavy reference to Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness). As you proceed through the game, Walker/you undergo a downward spiral into paranoia, brutality, madness, and murder, culminating in a reveal that actually confuses things more than it illuminates them but which calls into question every choice you appear to have made throughout the entire course of the game, as well as casting doubt on the question of whether Walker/you have ever been completely in his/your right mind. Nothing you have done is worth anything. You haven’t saved anyone. You haven’t accomplished any of your objectives, official or unofficial. You’ve become a broken shell of a man and the very foundations of your life are essentially meaningless.
It’s no accident that many reviews of the game noted that it appears to quite literally loathe the person playing it.
The reason why Spec Ops works is that it incorporates the direct involvement of the player even as it denies that player agency means anything at all, and that juxtaposition of direct involvement/lack of real agency has been a crucial part of every step of the game. The player walks Martin through his awful choices, through the hallucinations that cast doubt on everything he’s done, and in the end through the reveal that turns every experience on its head. Not only does the delivery of the story recognize the participatory nature of this kind of storytelling, it depends on that participation to deliver its nasty emotional punch.
A movie couldn’t do that. It wouldn’t make sense for a movie to even attempt it. It isn’t part of the medium.
The Problem Machine post notes – correctly – that games make this kind of narrative violence against the player difficult. But video games – and potentially other kinds of games as well – also offer a unique way of performing that violence.
We’ve argued on this blog for a recognition that engagement with digital technology isn’t less real or less legitimate but is, rather, piercingly and often painfully real for the people involved. The self becomes profoundly wrapped up in the experience; the experience is incorporated into understandings of the self. Storytelling of all kinds does the same when the story is well told. What video games allow for is a different, more aggressive kind of storytelling, an experience every bit as real and powerful as a well crafted film or book.
Video games are still a young medium, and as tools for storytelling they’re still fighting for recognition and legitimacy. They’re also still working out what they can be, and game makers are still figuring out what’s possible and desirable. But they’re more than capable of fucking with minds. I’m looking forward to more games that fuck with mine.
Caernon — August 30, 2013
Try Planescape: Torment. Where you are the hero, except not even remotely. And where the game goes into tons of great, painful detail telling you how precisely you messed up the lives of everyone and everything you touched, how their destinies are tied to yours for reasons an impartial observer couldn't possibly agree with, and how your ultimate battle has to be with yourself. And your ultimate release is to go to Hell where you belong.
If ever there was a roleplaying game that made me think thrice of every possible conversational and moral choice I had to take, that would be the one.