Incluing and the unreliable narrator: Unavowed's cold open

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Tagged: unavowed, wadjet eye, writing, interactive fiction, craft, if, unreliable narrator

Usually when I write a game design post, I am careful to explain that I'm not writing a review; I'm talking about specific areas of the game's design. So, you know, when I spend paragraphs judging the player's shadow in The Witness, I'm not panning the whole game.

So that whole disclaimer? Consider it written, because in this post I am going to talk about the first two minutes of Wadjet Eye's new adventure game Unavowed. That's how much of the game I have played to date. Technically six minutes, because I played the opening three times over. Research!

(I am absolutely going to play Unavowed. But openings are their own topic, and I reacted so strongly to this one that it gets its own blog post.)

This is a spoiler, but, look, it's a spoiler for literally the first thing that happens. If you want to stop reading here, no sweat. Play the game, I hear it's good.

Unavowed starts with what TV-land calls a cold open. You have no idea what the scenario is, who the characters are, or what's going on. You're on a rainy rooftop; some rat-faced guy is in your face, alternately zapping you with lightning and shouting at a demon. His partner has you in an armlock. "Are you a man, a woman, or a demon?" he asks. "Demon" is not an acceptable answer.

This is a perfectly recognizable adventure-genre convention; the game is asking if you want to play as a male or female avatar. The guy goes on to ask your name (free text input) and your job (choice of three options). Then Rat-Face is all happy, because you're "starting to remember" and "the demon is losing its grip" and so on. And then the game pulls a cut to "One year ago", showing you, with your selected avatar, at your selected job, and that's how the story starts.

(Yes, binary gender option. Which maybe isn't any more limiting than the trinary job option? Having a choice of exactly six specific player characters feels like a weird compromise between "well-defined protagonist" and the "play yourself" model. But that's another whole discussion.)

So. Why am I making this face? Well, here's how I would react to being arm-locked on a rooftop and a shouty guy is zapping me with lighting: that guy is an asshole. He is not the good guy. He is the problem! I'm not going to tell him anything! I'm certainly not going to spill my name, job, and OKCupid profile.

The entire shape of the scenario is supposed to be conveyed by Rat-Face's dialogue and your potential responses. (Plus his partner, another asshole who threatens to break your wrist.) But these are exactly the people I shouldn't believe! Do I have amnesia? He says so, but who trusts that guy? Maybe I remember the past year just fine.

Furthermore, why should I (as the player) trust the protagonist's responses? Lying is perfectly reasonable in this situation. So I say I'm a bartender named Belford, but for all I know I'm a game designer named Andrew.

A step farther: why shouldn't I be the demon? If I were a demon, I'd totally say I were a bartender named Belford. Why should I believe Rat-Face has any power over demons at all? He can throw a lightning-bolt, I admit, but his exorcistic powers seem to consist of saying "Get out!" in a loud and non-sectarian way. Maybe he's an idiot and I'll finish out the game by devouring his heart and having a good laugh about it.

All of these scenarios are consistent with the opening. Every word is unreliable.

Sure, you can say that unreliable narration breaks any story opening. ("Moby Dick is about a computer programmer who just says he's a whaler called Ishmael..." Granted.) Normally, an unreliable-narrator story uses indirect clues, or a distanced or limited narration, to indicate that you should keep an eye open for tricks. Is Unavowed doing that? Or has it just fallen into a trap of relying on genre conventions which don't hold as much weight as it thinks?

Let's be clear: I've played three minutes of this game. These may be intentional ambiguities! That would be awesome. And if they're not, it's hardly a serious flaw; I get what the game is trying to convey. I can play on like that. I'm just... uncertain. And not in the good way.

This sort of cold open is familiar in books. (There's probably a stack of urban fantasy novels which start exactly like this.) However, a book -- or a pure-text adventure game -- would give you much more framing for your situation. Even a few paragraphs of text would clue you in about your mental state. Are you angry? Scared? Do you remember how you got up to the roof? Do you know what you did last summer? Do you have a raging desire for the taste of human flesh?

But a graphical adventure wants to convey everything through art and sound. There's no text except dialogue, and so all of that incluing is omitted.

("Incluing" is a term from sci-fi writing theory. It refers to all the tricks that authors use to orient you to a new world or time, in the background, as the story moves along. "The door deliquesced" is a widely-quoted example.)

In fact this game medium does have a way to do background incluing. You can mouse over objects to see their descriptions, which are always written from the protagonist's point of view. So they convey all sorts of stuff about the protagonist's life, attitudes, history, and so on. Once you reach the "One year ago" flashback point, the game starts using this freely! But there's none of that in the cold open. Those first two minutes are locked in dialogue mode.

(And is that on purpose, or...?)

Okay. I can't wrap this up neatly because I don't know what comes next. I'm off to make blueberry muffins and play more of the game -- I've made myself insensately curious about what it's really doing.

If I'm right about any of this unreliable-narrator stuff -- or if I'm wrong, for that matter -- for Verra's sake don't tell me. Something in this post is bound to be a spoiler for the ending of Unavowed; I just don't know which bit yet.