I’m not going to detail the plot beats here except where necessary to explain what I’m talking about. If you need to refresh your memory, you can read Rami Ismail’s excellent synopsis and his thoughts on the story here. First, I’m going to go a bit into my interpretations of the events of the game– probably, admittedly, for reasons largely self-indulgent– and then discuss a little bit how powerfully the game supports the story through its aesthetic and gameplay choices. I will be referring to the main character as Jacket and the epilogue character as Biker, since they’re unnamed within the context of the game.
The first thing to understand about the story:
The question is, how far does that statement extend? Does that mean that nothing before the chapter ‘Trauma’ actually happens? Or that none of it happens? Well, there are a few possibilities here, but either way ‘Trauma’ is the pivot point. I believe that the game starts, chronologically, at ‘Trauma’. All of the chapters prior to that point are Jacket’s recollections of the missions he’s done, but as the memories progress and get closer to the point of trauma, they start to become distorted, coming apart at the seams. Even so, there are hints even as early as the first mission that this is perhaps not proper reality– although not hints one would notice without playing through the game before.
This is, incidentally, probably part of the reasoning behind gating the ‘real’ ending through puzzle pieces which you have to replay the game to collect. There are bits of plot that only make sense on a second play-through.
I’m pretty confident in this interpretation up to this point. This still leaves plenty of open questions though. First: Do ‘Trauma’ and the following chapters actually happen, or are they all a dying or coma fantasy? Second: Does the confrontation with ‘Richter’, the rat-masked man, actually happen, or is it that Jacket was actually defeated in his battle against Biker and, when he later was forced to confront his head trauma ‘situation’, rationalized it as being shot by Richter?
Regarding the first question: The fact is, the only way the story entirely makes sense is if it’s all in Jacket’s head. Otherwise, how does he know what Richter looks like in his hallucinations before he ever sees his face? When it comes to the second, though, there’s no way to really know. Is it an unconventional split-timeline narrative? Or simply an exceptionally unreliable narrator? We’ll never know for sure.
One could argue that the epilogue segments with the Biker are similarly questionable, but there seems to be no evidence within the context of the game to support this. Everything, almost everything, the game shows us about these segments implies that they’re to be taken literally. Everything outside of the ‘hidden’ ending…
Before I start talking about the endings, though, I’d like to discuss how the game establishes the personalities of the two main characters and, in turn, reinforces those personalities through gameplay. Of particular interest is the assumptions that the player makes about the game-world when he plays as Jacket which are then undermined by Biker.
As Jacket: You start the game, get your instructions, go where you’re ordered and murder everyone. You never say a word. You take the orders you are given and not once do you question them. You run through the levels, ankle deep in blood, and massacre everything you come across. Levels cannot be completed unless you kill every entity that is in them, even if they’re non-combatants, and anyone who surrenders to you tends to quickly die a horrible death. You will use any means, any tool, at your disposal to make sure everyone in the building is dead. It progresses this way until the end credits roll and you get to play the epilogue–
As Biker: From the first moment, things are different. You’re yelling at and shaking a man wearing an animal mask in a bar. You talk. And what do you say? You say you’re bored of these murderous rampages. See, where Jacket is in it for the bloodlust, Biker is in it for the thrills, and apparently it’s started getting tedious. Tedious to the point where, apparently, you’ve decided to forego the use of anything besides a meat cleaver and a few throwing knives for your missions. The biggest surprise has yet to come though: You complete the mission, you confront the owner of the restaurant, you get the information you came for– and then you leave. The informant is still entirely intact. And, as you progress, you encounter more non-combatants, and you can just leave them alone if you want.
Holy shit. Holy shit! If this character can go through a level without killing everything in it, why has everyone up until this point who has begged for their life been torturously ground into bloody paste? Everything before this point takes on a new significance as we see, expressed entirely through gameplay, that it didn’t have to be this way.
Expression of character personality through gameplay constraints. Seriously, what other games have done that?