Splinter Cell: Conviction (2012) frames its story with the interrogation of Sam Fisher, the player character. As he recounts his story, you play it, and interrogation cutscenes bridge the levels.
None of that is terribly remarkable, until you reach a level set in Iraq, where Fisher was deployed as a soldier. The story you play — which Fisher is telling — is that your squad leader’s been captured by the enemy, and you’re ordered to await assistance. However, you refuse to leave him alone, so you set off to find him single-handedly. (A clumsy job of telling you explicitly to wait while forcing you not to, unfortunately.) Presumably, back in the interrogation room, Fisher says, “And so then I did an Iraq level with a sniper rifle.”
Like we did last summer
But then there’s a twist, and it’s a really bizarre one. When you reach the squad leader, you discover that he’s Fisher, and you were playing as some other dude for the whole level. I have absolutely no idea why that is. If the aim was to portray Fisher’s dependence on his colleagues, then why not have the player be rescued, so that you also depend on them, and also appreciate it? If it’s to show that Fisher’s not so special and just an ordinary soldier — because you just spent the whole level thinking this other guy was as rad as Fisher — then that’s at odds with the narrative of the whole series, where Fisher is an elite operative. It seems like a silly twist for twisting’s sake. However, it does achieve something, albeit perhaps not deliberately.
You play the level under the impression that Fisher is recounting the events (your actions) to his interrogators. What you learn in the reveal at the end of the level is that he can’t possibly have known the things he was telling, because he was tied to a chair in a bomb-wrecked room while it was all going on. So was he lying? What if he was lying? What if the interrogators are pushing him on one crucial point on which the whole story pivots, and Sam recounts that it goes down a particular way, leading to a particular conclusion. By the end of the level, the player has drawn that conclusion, but then the Fisher reveal at the end proves that he has to have been lying. You weren’t playing as another person, you were playing as a creation of Fisher’s imagination — so still as him, in a sense. You and he are in on the lie. The interrogators are mislead, and you know it. It’s dramatic irony, and what a smart way to do it with a game!
That doesn’t happen, though. Fisher is just recounting those events he couldn’t possibly know, and the twist is just a pointless surprise, doing nothing for the narrative at all.
It has a certain something
What interests me about this level, though — and about its stupid twist — is that it’s just so memorable. It’s almost infuriatingly compelling. That discovery that you’re not who you thought you were is moving, or at least jarring. It feels unexpected, which reveals something about our expectations as players. I just can’t put my finger on what it is.
Recently, I listed several details of Uncharted: Golden Abyss that created rather an enjoyable sense of detachment. One of them was a short spell controlling a side character instead of the protagonist. That broke the connection with the protagonist, and gave a wonderfully captivating impression of being told a story, rather than just doing some stuff for yourself. Your conception of who you are while you play a game does seem to be important to how you engage with it.
As for the element of surprise in the Fisher twist, the most famous example of that goes way, way back to Metroid (1986). They waited the whole game to reveal to you at the end that you were a woman. That ending now has a hallowed and wondrous position in gaming lore — and it’s undeniably a special moment — but was it really so brilliant? I mean, if you completed the game faster, the woman took her clothes off! It doesn’t look like anyone really thought about it all that much.
These details of player character do seem to provoke us somehow. I remember the uproar, pre-release, when it was suggested that you wouldn’t be playing as Snake in MGS 2. GTA V was hyped as a new way of storytelling because it offered three playable characters. (Boy, that didn’t exactly come off!) I’d love to play a game that takes the power this has over us and does something interesting with it. It has to have been done somewhere, right?