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Is Your Notion of Unreliable Narration Reliable?
by Altug Isigan on 04/07/11 08:07:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Communication between Game and Player at the expense of the Narrator

The issue of unreliable narration in video games has been addressed many times. Often the given examples revolve around  game instances in which the player was deceived by an in-game character or a narrator’s voice in a rather non-sensical way.

Other examples are marked by the player’s perceived discrepancy between the actions that he believed himself or his avatar to have carried out and the rather non-sensical way in which the actions were framed by the narrator.

However, most of these instances are not valid as examples of unreliable narration and we need to understand the concept better to find more reliable ways to discuss it. 

Theoretically, unreliable narration should not result in the story feeling flawed since it is a storytelling technique aimed at enhancing the joy of the experience rather than destroying it.

Unreliable narration embodies a consistent story that simultaneously develops (at least) two versions of itself of which one  (told by the narrator) loses credibility as the other one (resulting from the established norms of the narrative) crystalizes.

Unreliable narration can only emerge against the reliable version that is communicated to the reader via the broader lines of the narrative. What takes place is a secret communication between implied author and reader at the expense of the narrator. It is irony that is achieved: a consistent story about someone whose version of the very same story isn’t reliable.

This is quite different from a story feeling inconsistant because of flaws in narrative design. If the story we experience doesn’t seem to add up, it is not because of unreliable narration: it is because of bad narrative design.

Two Interesting Instances

In a recent gamasutra blog, Eric Schwarz threw up the question whether it is possible at all to use the technique successfully in games. While I would refrain from answering the question with a "no", there are two instances that show that the technique might not yield always the expected results or may emerge unexpectedly:

The "Stupid AI" case: We said that in unreliable narration the narrator's version of the story loses credibility as the norm of the narrative suggests the existence of a credible one, as the discourse continues.

What might happen here is that the player may interpret the unreliable narration as the AI being incapable to interpret the situation rather than seeing it as the "distorted" version of a narrator who was designed as a character who suffers from such incapacity. The technique then could turn against the believability of the story.

Cheating: In the case of cheating we can speak of some sort of secret communication between player and implied author. They "share" an information that changes the truth in regard to the story.

In other words, the version of the narrator (unaware of the cheat) loses credibility in regard to the second and true version of the story that was brought into circulation with the very act of cheating. When the narrator praises the success of the player who cheated, it starts to feel ironic, because the narrators "naive" version of the story is no no longer credible and has turned unreliable, since he is incapable to see the truth.


You played Mario I guess, so you know that the princess is in another castle. Well if you took the time to read until here, then don't be surprised if there is no conclusion: the truth is in another article. ;)

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Eric Schwarz
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With respect to games, the "true" version of the narrative comes into being as the player forges his or her own path through the game, upending conventions, norms, rules, history, etc. of the game world, characters and story. In this respect - unraveling a mystery, plot or conspiracy - the player is able to gain a feeling of accomplishment, because, even if the success was engineered by the designer, it was the player's action that led to that discovery of truth. Any good game which uses this setup will absolutely revel in showing the player the effects of their actions on the world.

As for the two cases you cite, I think there's some danger in both of them, but it's one of those instances where good design and writing will help to reduce them. I imagine the "stupid AI" case would apply to a character who, say, follows the character and responds dynamically based on the player's behaviour, but I'm not quite sure what you're getting at in case of "cheating". Are you implying that a dissonance occurs when the player's actions in the game don't sync up with what's being reported, i.e. that the game appears to "think" something while the player "knows" something else? Are you referring to a situation when the player knows something but the player character doesn't? A little more clarification here would help.

That said, I'm flattered that my article inspired someone else to contribute. I appreciate your more concise and effective articulation of how unreliable narrators can (or should) work in games.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Eric,

sorry for my late response. I'm thankful to you for bringing up the issue. Gave me a chance to think about it and add my two cents. ;)

A way to draw a distinction between unreliable narration and player-AI dissonance in the interpretation of events, is to think of games that have no narrator or narrator-character, but still suffer from the latter problem. We cannot speak of unrealiable narration here anymore since the presence of a narrator is the prequisite for the technique. If we use the term to address the latter, we are basically using the term wrong.

Besides even with a narrator in place, the unreliability of his narration should not feel like dissonance or a disturbance in the consistency of the story as a whole, since the goal in this kind of narration is of course not to destroy story consistency but to add an intriguing aspect to the story that enhances immersion. Story consistency is maintained *with the help* of unreliable narration. That's why I've drawn attention to the point that it is a storytelling technique and not a case of story inconsistency or a flaw in narrative design. Keeping in mind this difference would be helpful while analysing games, or in our attempts to apply the technique in games.

In the cheating example I tried to explain that in games that have a narrator, unreliable narration can be an unintended by-product of the cheating. A narrator who interpretes a successful action of ours, would turn unreliable the moment he praises us, since we achieved the success through cheating. The narrator's interpretation turns unreliable because the narrator believes into, and narrates, a version of the story that we as players know is unreliable: the narrator's praise is based on an untrue assumption born out of ignorance in regard to our cheating. The narration turns naive, just like the unreliable narration caused by Huckleberry Finn's naivety in Tom Sawyer's Adventures.

I hope this was a bit more clarifying. Thanks again for bringing the topic to our attention.