We are connected, each day to the last, by the path of our history. Your memories are the map, and every so often you compare the landmarks of your life against what you see on that map and, invariably, if only ever so slightly, you find the two do not align.
Did something move the landmarks? A silent earthquake, someone constructing their own path, or the mischievous whim of a wanderer or deity?
Or: Is there something wrong with your map? Was it damaged, or censored, or sabotaged without your knowledge or your consent? Did you just draw it wrong in the first place?
These maps, our memories, are never perfect, and that is inherently discomforting. We cannot see the path behind us, nor in front of us, and if our map is wrong we can predict neither where we’ve been nor where we’re going.
Some of us see a path so terrible that we redact or modify our maps so that we may pretend they were never there.
In games, our memories start when the experience does – however, in the narrative of that game, your history frequently extends back through the years. Games hand us fragments of memory piecemeal to allow us to construct a map, or they show us our characters’ past effects upon the world, landmarks, by which to trace their steps: Neither of these can, necessarily, be trusted, but they never seem to lie.
This is somewhat ironic, because in our own lives our memories so rarely tell us the truth. The truth is, we can’t handle the truth. Our memories aren’t just a record of events, they’re a part of the story that you tell yourself about yourself. And, just like the stories that we’re raised on, certain roles need to be filled: Friends become Companions, enemies become Villains. Everything becomes bigger and simpler and more important in the Story of Who We Are.
Most of us achieve a degree of emotional maturity and are able to recognize that these personal narratives aren’t always reliable, but in games they are simply seldom questioned. Oh, there are twists and turns, enemies turn out to be friends, friends enemies, someone is not who they seemed to be, you’re working for the wrong side, etcetera. None of these affect your character’s history before the game starts. That map of the past may be vague, but it is set in stone.
Games have to work so hard to build a convincing world in the first place. Every facet of the world is crafted to be convincing, feel real. Their sense of verisimilitude created is dependent upon the player believing what they are told about their character. The salient difference between games and other media is that, in those other media, the audience isn’t expected to directly inhabit the character, to treat them as an avatar: Under those circumstances, forcing them to question that character’s perception of the world in no way makes that world itself less believable. However, in games, if they 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.
The player’s response to being told their memories are lies could go in one of two obvious directions:: First, “Well, why did you lie to me then?” or, second, “Of course they are, I’m just a dude in a chair playing a video game, duh”. Neither are especially conducive to a compelling gameplay experience.
Is it good enough to say that this is just something games aren’t good at? Is it satisfying to declare that this is territory that our medium cannot explore due to its nature?
There has to be a way to frame the narrative of a game such that a player can be fed unreliable information about their character’s history without calling into question their entire basis of interaction.
Well, in point of fact, I can think of a single good example of a game that does it well: Final Fantasy 7, of all things. In FF7, the main character, Cloud, tells his story relatively early on in the game, in the form of a playable flashback. Much later in the game, he realizes that he, oh, shall we say, ‘misremembered’ the specifics of the events, and we watch as the changes ripple through the flashback we played earlier.
I believe that there are two reasons why this works: First, the back-story is couched in a gameplay section instead of being passed directly to the player. This 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. Second, the information is being offered up by the character instead of by the game itself. Because the player relates to the character as a person, to one degree or another, he or she understands that that character may end up injecting bits of their personality into the narrative, and doesn’t feel betrayed when, ah, misrememberings occur.
It’s curious, though, that despite Final Fantasy 7 being a massive hit, very few games have seemingly sought to emulate that particular bold narrative stroke. Though games have their own intriguing narrative experiments, they tend to erect a wall between the present and the past, and to treat their pasts as we wish we could treat our own: Immutable. Untouchable. Sacrosanct. Eternal.