Brainwashed narrators in games: Black Ops vs. Dead Space 2

DEAD SPACE 2 C'mon, Isaac, no need to beat yourself up.

Since playing the campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops, and more recently since playing Dead Space 2, I've been thinking about how video games deal with the trope of the unreliable narrator.

Despite the Call of Duty reputation for forgettable, cookie-cutter campaigns, Black Ops surprised me. The story has been told better before, specifically in the relatively recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate (as well as in the original version of that film), which I mentioned in my review of the game. I also compared the campaign's plot to Fight Club, since the twist ending involves the main character realizing that a man he trusted is actually a figment of his imagination. I could think of these comparisons to films easily, but I couldn't think of many other games with unreliable narrators. Are there other games in which the main character -- the character through whose eyes you experience the bulk of the story -- is crazy?

I've been learning to be careful about using the word "crazy", since I read enough blogs about the representation of marginalized groups in media to know that it's considered an insulting and ableist word by some. In fact, it's not even an accurate word in this case, since protagonist Alex Mason is not mentally disabled. He has been brainwashed by military leaders to become a murder machine, and in the game, his resultant "craziness" seems more inspired by science fiction than by actual historical attempts at brainwashing.

Dead Space 2 also has an unreliable and "crazy" narrator in Isaac Clarke, but like Mason, Clarke is also not actually mentally disabled. His lack of sanity does not even pretend to have a basis in real-life neuroscience; the mystical object brainwashing Isaac also has the ability to turn people into zombie monsters after death. (See my review of the game for the rest of the story on this artifact.)

Both of these games use their brainwashed narrators to great effect, but I wonder whether they would be better games if they took this concept further. What would it be like to play a video game where your character didn't have much control over his own actions -- and therefore, you the player had inconsistent control as well? The danger in creating such a game would be, of course, that it would be too frustrating to play. The developers would have to be very careful.

In Black Ops and Dead Space 2, the game shows us that our heroes are unreliable by slipping into cutscenes that are not "real" in the game world, but rather are happening in the protagonist's imagination. This technique is less effective in Black Ops, since it's nearly always a cutscene and never a situation where you the player interact with what's happening.

Dead Space 2 ups the ante by allowing Clarke to interact with his visions. For example, in one particular scene, the ghost of his dead girlfriend appears to be attacking him. You must mash a button in order to fight her off; this is called a quicktime event, and it's considered one of the more irritating type of tasks that a game can assign you. (Basically, the "test" is whether or not you can figure out where a randomly selected button is located within a preset time limit, which is not a test of skill so much as a test of how familiar you are with the controller in your hands.) That annoyance aside, the scene worked for me because as soon as I completed the quicktime event, I got to watch what was really happening. Clarke had not been trying to prevent a ghost from stabbing him; he had been fighting against stabbing himself (see the image at the top of this post for reference). Seeing this Fight Club-esque visual switch surprised me. Up until that moment, I had known objectively that the ghostly girlfriend wasn't real, per se, but this scene proved her capabilities. She's not a poltergeist or a tangible monster. On the contrary, she is you. Your worst enemy in Dead Space 2 is your own brain. And you can never escape from yourself.

When Black Ops came out, it was considered offensive because the first mission in the game involves an assassination attempt on Castro. It makes me laugh to think that this was considered so controversial, for a few reasons. First of all, that assassination attempt fails. The man you kill is a Castro double. Since this is the first mission in the game and Castro is shown alive and well shortly after the mission ends, it seems hilarious to me that complainers didn't even look up these cutscenes before getting up in arms.

More to the point, a far more objectionable assassination scene happens at the very end of the game, and to this day I'm surprised that no one complained about it. Alex Mason has been brainwashed, as we know, and he believes he has been brainwashed to kill particular enemies of the United States. It turns out that he has been brainwashed multiple times, and one of those brainwashing attempts involved programming him to assassinate JFK. In the very last cutscene of the game, we see stock footage of Jackie in her pink dress and pillbox hat as well as JFK himself on the last day he lived. Of course, as soon as you see Jackie's outfit, you know what's about to happen, and then the game zooms in on a face in the crowd. It's Alex Mason. The cutscene ends there, because it need not continue. You know what this means. It means you just played an entire game as the guy who shot JFK.

I wasn't offended so much as surprised and disturbed, which is exactly what the game wanted me to feel, so props to them. Taken in comparison to Dead Space 2, however, Black Ops was not as disturbing in the long-term because I never felt like I was really getting inside Alex Mason's head. The game didn't haunt me and stick with me in the way that a better written game could have.

Dead Space 2 stuck with me because of the way that the visions felt tangible; even though it's an over-the-shoulder game, I felt like Clarke's mental breakdown was my own. As the player, I was shoved into his visions, forced to participate and fight. I wish I had been forced to do this more in the game. Perhaps some gamers would fight an "imaginary" monster and then feel cheated that it turned out to all be in Clarke's head. I wouldn't, since after all, every monster in this game is imaginary, right?

In Dead Space 2, we see another example of a brainwashed character in Stross, a victim just like you. Unlike Clarke, Stross begins to give in to the actions that the artifact orders him to perform. Eventually, he attacks Clarke, and Clarke is forced to kill him, even though Stross is on a very short list of allies. Stross's only motive is to escape and have control of his own brain again, just like Clarke; the two of them have a lot in common, and it's easy to relate to Stross throughout the story. The "problem" for Stross was that his mind was "weaker" than Clarke's; near the end of the game, another character actually clarifies to Clarke that of all the brainwashing victims, Clarke's mind was the strongest. This explains why Clarke manages, mostly, to hold on to his sanity while Stross and others cannot. To me, that felt like a cop-out. Oh, good, we get to play as the only victim who managed to keep it together. Meaning, we got to play through story from the least interesting perspective.

I can't help but wonder what a game from Stross's perspective would've been like. It would've done the same types of things that Dead Space 2 did -- simulating intense paranoia by calling into question which of your friends you can trust, making it seem like contradictory events are happening at once, forcing you to carry out goals and missions that seem bizarre. The game could force you to attack your own friends, perhaps by making them look like monsters and then revealing the truth to you after you'd done the deed. Done well, it would be the kind of game that would be difficult to play, not in terms of skill but in terms of emotional weight.

I hope to someday see a game brave enough to break these rules, and call into question the basic conventions of video game narrative that all huge titles take part in. Black Ops and Dead Space 2 have begun to push back. I'll be interested to see if either of their sequels takes it further.

And, lastly, lets go on a trip down memory lane and revisit this old boss battle from Metal Gear Solid, a great example of a game making you question what is and is not real:

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