Economic Truth

Spoilers: Alpha Protocol, Dragon Age: Origins & Leliana’s Song DLC.

Recently having bought Alpha Protocol during a Steam sale and playing it shortly thereafter (also known as an anomaly), among the things that caught my attention was that the story was told through a framed narrative. That is, the game’s antagonist and protagonist are sitting together in a room, discussing the events of the game up to the point where you are caught up and continue the narrative.

Scene from Alpha Protocol: Michael Thorton (left) leaning in his chair while speaking with Henry Leland (right) at a table.

Scene from Alpha Protocol: Michael Thorton (left) leaning in his chair while speaking with Henry Leland (right) at a table.

What is interesting about these exchanges is that you have more information than the antagonist, who is piecing together your actions and weaving a tale of your exploits (though he does believe he knows everything). Your responses often either confirm or rebuff him, therefore adding a layer of mystique to what you do. This largely comes down to how you wish to play the game, as the dialog system is dynamic enough among its NPCs that you have to read them and then respond in a manner that you believe will garner the results you want in order to get certain information about them. NPC A might deal better with professionalism, and treat you with a modicum of respect, whereas NPC B will consider you too droll, and you may have to cajole and irritate her in order to gain the reaction you want. Choosing one tactic throughout the conversation would then seem to behoove you once you figure this out, but is also a liability if you wish to gain the most information you can. The conversation in itself is a game of lies and subversion.

After each major section of the game, therefore, you are set in front of the antagonist and go back and forth, having conversation with him that either does not fully reveal what you did, or confirms it and paints a picture for him to better understand your tactics before hinting at the consequences of your actions. In terms of actual impact on the game? It does not offer much, as you already performed the actions and those are on what the consequences hinge, and since it’s your story being told, the only unreliable portion of the narration comes from yourself in those liminal scenes.

This is among the reasons that I am excited for Dragon Age 2. An example it has frequently given is that of Varric, a dwarven companion of your protagonist Hawke, relating a story to Cassandra, a female member of the Chantry hunting down the protagonist. In the tale, he relates a battle, which he embellishes abit, until apparently Cassandra asks him to scale it down a bit. The effect on the game is apparently that the battle becomes less grandiose than it was previously, which adds an interesting bit where we both fuse an unreliable narrator or companion and mechanics–whereby we not only hear the not-truth, but experience it as well.

Varric (left) sits in a throne, well-lit and holding a goblet while Cassandra (right) stands facing away from him in the shadows.

Varric (left) sits in a throne, well-lit and holding a goblet while Cassandra (right) stands facing away from him in the shadows.

We could already somewhat see this in effect in the DLC for the first Dragon Age, Leliana’s Song. In said DLC, Leliana relates her betrayal by Marjolaine, at which she hints in Dragon Age: Origins (and which becomes her companion quest). She starts the DLC stating firmly that she knows the truth, but that she does not know how it ends; perhaps you and she together can see about that. The ending is just as veiled, revealing that she may well be embellishing the tale to give the audience more of what it wants, rather than merely stating the facts as they are.

This is then reinforced through the differences in the story she relates in the base game of Origins and what you play in the DLC; in the base game the betrayal takes place in Orlais, she is tortured, and Marjolaine disappears after the betrayal. In the DLC, this is changed about so that it takes place in Fereldan (where the crime of which she is charged, treason, becomes foreboding, rather than an immediate threat), she is put in a prison but her friends are tortured, and you confront Marjolaine at the very end. There are both practical and narrative reasons for this. Practically, BioWare could reuse its environment assets for Denerim and its places, thereby not costing as much. Narratively, it does give us more of what we want, which is to know more about the conflict that occurred between Marjolaine and Leliana, and about the lives they led as bards of and for Orlais.

Leliana (right) glances to her right at Marjolaine (left).

Leliana (right) glances to her right at Marjolaine (left).

At the same time, Leliana only slowly begins to open up her whole story in Origins, and we are relying on her to be honest there, which may well be a fallacy. She constantly has layers of what she tells and does not, which is in keeping with her profession as a bard, or what we would perceive as a secret agent.

The fact that she is never fully truthful to begin, if she ever is, even begs the question of whom the party is that is listening to her DLC’s story. Is it the main character of the game? That seems too simple, and largely depends on which character you played. Were you her lover? Did you leave her in Lothering? Did she turn on you as you defiled Andraste’s Ashes? Instead, it seems to be told to us, with whom she has no particular attachment, and therefore may be coated with many lies in order to entertain us–which one could argue is the purpose of the game and its DLC to begin.

Yet, this does not really affect the mechanics of the game itself, which is why I’m patiently awaiting Dragon Age 2 and what it may promise in both the exploration of a further sculpted frame narrative told from multiple perspectives over the course of ten years (and the majority of it seems to not be in your perspective–I say majority in case some of it is), and the chances it has to explore the unreliable narrator.

N.B. In preparation for writing this I read the following three pieces, which may also be of interest if you wish to further think on this topic: Trent Polack’s Lie to Them, Ben Abraham’s Unreliable, and Emily “Adarel” Bembeneck’s Dragon Age 2: Framed Narrative?

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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5 Responses to Economic Truth

  1. Great piece, Denis. I agree that for games, the unreliable narrator is an interesting (and underutilized) idea; in fact, it allows games to embrace their inner gamey-ness without sacrificing narrative coherence. “Why was I able to die and reload? Because this is just s story, and that’s how I’m telling it!”

    When you were talking about this on twitter, I was reminded how Ubisoft does something similar with their games. Of course, Sands of Time did it a while back by having the Prince say “Oh wait, that’s not how it happened!” every time the player dies.

    But for my money, the Assassin’s Creed games are even more clever; by placing the character in the Animus, a game-within-a-game, they make all of the fetch-quests, time-warping, restarting, and reloading line up with the fiction they’re presenting. “Synchronization” and all that. Even the pause screen ties in—in essence, when you load up the Animus, you become Desmond.

    I had a chance to play the opening levels of DA2 at PAX and yeah, it’s very cool. You’re totally powered up, rocking the crap out of these Hurlocks with mega spells and moves, and then the story is interrupted and Cassandra is all, “Dude, it sounds like you’re exaggerating.” Soon, you’re back in with a low-level character and only one spell, and the proper game begins.

    Super clever, and a great way to do that thing that other games (Metroid, God of War, etc) do where they give you a taste of your powers at the very start before stripping them away. That can feel really contrived, but in this case it was cheeky enough that I enjoyed it.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing what David Gaider and his team do with the idea through to the end of the game, and how they deal with the moment when the story catches up to “real” time. From what I’ve read and what I played, DA2 is shaping up to be a real showstopper.

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  3. Roger Travis says:

    Great post, Denis! I’m so excited that BioWare is going in this direction, since it seems to me like they’re really exploring the possibilities of that particular BioWare style I’m currently obsessed with. When the player gets to identify so closely with the character in the very act of performing the story, composition by theme may really rocket forward. I’m also wondering what’s going to happen with the sliders. . .

  4. Denis Farr says:

    Yeah, I kept finding all sorts of smaller instances where it would happen, particularly in ways of guiding the player, though that seemed in aid of the player. It’s certainly an area to be explored, and from the sounds of your hands-on experience, one that can subvert some of the gamey tropes we already have.

  5. Denis Farr says:

    Yeah, I’ve been meaning to follow up on the post I made concerning it as a rehearsal space, and examining it from a performance space, as you suggested. It’s still chomping about in my brain–really enjoying what they are doing with narrative in games.

    What do you mean by sliders? ‘fraid I’m not quite catching your drift.

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