How good does an idea need to be to escape itself?
I want to tell you about a plot twist. I am going to tell you about it. This is going to be 100% about a plot twist. This is not going to be about the game, itself, per se, it’s just going to be about the plot twist in it. What’s more, this is about a game that you probably haven’t played, and even after I talk about it, you probably won’t play. What’s more, after I’m done, you’ll have lost one of the most compelling reasons to play it.
So, content warning: I’m going to discuss spoilers for the following games, most importantly,
Videogames – at least parts of it represented by people who have opinions on Youtube – have been in a long ongoing fight about the legitimacy of their narratives, usually based on a feeling of inferiority when compared to Cinema. Typically, quotes from Spielberg and Ebert are used to exemplify this problem –
“Video games can never be art.”
– Roger Ebert
“I think the real indicator [that games have become a storytelling art form] will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.”
– Steven Spielberg
The notion is that while videogames can definitely videogame, they cannot story, because Cinema can story, and these Cinema-people know Story, and that’s all there is to it. It’s never really talked about in the context that two people who are experts in one field may not be experts in other fields and I should no more care about Spielberg’s opinion of videogames than I should care about his opinion on paraffin storage.
Nonetheless, there is still this burgeoning need to look at videogames in terms of their stories as if there is a classical canon, a set of games whose stories elevate the form.
An example of this idea of ‘the canon’ and the frothing need of games journalism to maybe find the right online essay with which to legitimise the medium, is the strangely reverent reaction, at the time, towards Bioshock Infinite, a game that has only gotten worse the more time we’ve had to think about it. Behold, the arrival of a game, a game that has big brain thonking things in it, that let you tell stories, stories in ways that videogames can tell them.
This is nonsense, of course. There were narrative games before this point, conveying depe and meaningful emotional narratives as seen in Monkey Island 2 and Monkey Island 1. I think, at some point, that the reason Bioshock and its siblings were given such an awed response is —
Well, okay, one reason is that games journalism as a platform is a place overwhelmingly favouring a small industrialisable window of writers being eaten up and chewed up then spat out and it means there’s an institutional memory for the whole place that seems to be about three years long, but anyway
— that Bioshock Infinite was a shooter with a plot, and the plot it had was meta-aware of videogames. It was a big release, it was publically noticeable, and it was being promoted as a thoughtful, smart, intelligent game with literary allusions and all that stuff, and so, the conversation treated it that way. It got to be One Of The Important Ones. It got to be A Game We Talked About. Even now, when we talk about Bioshock Infinite in terms of its racism and its hamhanded storytelling and its complete headassness, we still do it about that game because there’s a degree of reverence for the kind of game it is.
It’s reasonably easy, if you’re inclined to think in games in these terms, when you indulge in this conversation, to let this thread of ‘thoughtful games’ be the context. And in that capacity, you have insights from games like Call of Duty, which brought cinema to the First Person Shooter, a genre that was invented by… let’s say… Doom 2016 and perfected with Halo: ODST.
Basically, Xbox invented videogames, Call of Duty invented the shooter, Bioshock invented the videogame plot twist and then Bioshock Infinite elevated all of the above to ‘art.’
Now, this may strike you as extremely dumb, but that’s because it is dumb, and it is embarrassingly the way that the conversations around videogames as a medium tend to run. There is an established lineage of ‘the important games’ and that’s it. Those are the games that improved videogames, as if the vision of how videogames as a medium has progressed is this linear sequence of things that marketing brought to our attention and journalists accorded.
Games are a lot messier than that.
And sometimes you may never see genius, because it’s messy.
The game you’ve been watching in the background of all these flying jpgs and dubiously sourced Google Image clipart is Second Sight. Second Sight is a 2004 third-person action adventure developed by Free Radical Design.
The key players who got the company started had worked in the past on Golden Eye and Perfect Dark, and went on to make Timesplitters and Timesplitters 2. They also developed Star Wars: Battlefront III, which tragically got cancelled before release, womp womp, and Haze, which tragically did not get cancelled before release.
Mixed in amongst these titles ranging from ‘stone cold classic’ to ‘oh no, that,’ though there was this title here, Second Sight. I did not know what Second Sight was. I never played it on the PS2. In fact, I never knew this game existed until I signed up for a GoG account in the halcyon days of February 2009, before I was as deeply untrustworthy of GoG as a company. I signed up for Fallout, and while I was there, I grabbed Second Sight on sale, for two dollars, played it for a few hours, gave up, put it away, and forgot about it for eleven years.
And this year, back in January, out of a wild interest, I revisited it, and found to my amazement an amazing bit of storytelling that I absolutely was not willing to play through the game to experience properly.
Second Sight is a game in that general frame of ‘third person action adventure,’ which is to say it does a lot of stuff and it’s a bit like Ocarina of Time. There’s stealth, there’s secret powers, there are some puzzles, there’s some combat, there’s some cut scenes, there’s some map-finding and running and jumping and climbing. And bear in mind, I said I was going to spoil this game, so this really is your last chance to get out before I start dropping insights.
You play John Vattic – SPOILER, bam, you learn this in like, the first five minutes but still the important thing is BAM see there are spoilers.
You play John Vattic, as he comes to in a hospital facility; he’s naked, bald, and in a state we would call ‘really hecked up.’ Immediately, he starts working on the mystery of where he is and what happened to him. In the course of this adventure in Tutorial Facility, he learns he has psychic powers, how to throw boxes around with his mind and that there are some people trying to stop him with lots of guns.
This is interspersed with flashbacks to how he got here. It’s through this we learn that John is a professional debunker and psychic skeptic, which I kid you not, is a real job. He was recruited by … probably the Military… to investigate a Soviet parapsychologist who had holed up in some bunker in the mountains where he was doing Those Kinds Of Experiments. Over the course of the game, you unlock these missing memories as you progress through the facility to work out what’s going on, as the picture of events gets filled in forward and backwards.
Then things get a bit weird.
Before we go in on the weirdness, though, I think I should take a moment to explain just why I’m showing you gameplay footage that I didn’t record, why I never finished this game myself, why this extremely 2004 game is being talked about now, in 2021, when it’s old enough to drive, and how I’ve never mentioned it before now.
I haven’t finished Second Sight. Indeed, some of the plot beats I’m going to spoil here are things I only kind of understand, and I won’t be spoilering them so specifically that you’ll immediately see them when you play the game. But I still want to talk about it, because I’ve learned about stuff this game does, and I think it’s excellent. Ah, the tension!
Why did I put this game away and not discover its mysteries for myself? Why did it take me twelve years to get around to examining this story, which, like I’ve heavily hinted at, I think of as fantastic and deserving of attention in a sort of ‘canonised’ way?
Because the port is awful.
Like, the PC controls for this game are just dreadful – you have to use the mouse for things that were clearly designed for a joystick, and a joystick can keep providing ‘up’ input while a mouse needs to keep moving physically up. The camera controls are pathetic, you will often just not be able to use the tools the game gives you to fight enemies because they stand a little too far out of your reach and you can’t move the camera to deal with them, and every computer interface is interacted with without using the mouse that you have to hold. I even tried to re-approach this game with a controller, but guess what? At least the version I played doesn’t have controller support which means the PC version of this game takes the controller inputs, messes them up into the PC structure, and then can’t unmess them back to a controller.
This was an act of malice against people who like keyboards, I am sure.
But back to the plot.
One of the ways the game tells its story is through flashbacks. Rather than have you read a log about what happened, it will give you a reminder of what happened, and then Vattic will vividly grip his head, the screen flashes white, and you suddenly find yourself back in the past, doing military training courses and gun handling courses (why) for your mission. It’s a typical device – rather than show someone their past, make them play through it. This also lets you tutorialise things, it’s a neat tool. You’ll do the videogame things and shoot the baddies and move the objects, and then you return to the ongoing adventures in the facilities and hospitals and so on that Vattic has to fight through as this psychic man-monster.
And that’s when the plot holes start to show up.
Because here’s the big twist of the game, the thing that I’ve given you this time to avoid: You are not flashing back to the past.
You are flashing forward to the future.
Everything in the facility with the supernatural powers is John Vattic, skeptic and debunker, grappling with getting visions of his future, and the things he doesn’t want to have happen as a result of this super-science experimentation. The position you hold in the story is not the same as it is in the end of the game – you are suddenly snapped back in time to what you thought was the long-decided past, and the future that is yet unwritten. What’s more, that unwritten future has shown itself to be malleable – your ability to perceive the future is directly tied to the fact that you change that future.
That’s such a simple, but effective twist. When you know your game is building towards that moment, you can design impossible puzzles that you can flashback to solve, you can do the time-travel puzzles that involve carrying information between two time streams, you can even grapple with that most primal of human wishes, the wish for something tragic that’s permanently done to be undone.
There’s this idea Ian Bogost defined in the book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, which he called procedural rhetoric. The idea of it is that by going through a procedure, by executing the game, you need to take positions that make the actions of the game make sense to you. Which means that games both first incentivise you to think like they want you to think to engage with their actions. This is a simplified explanation, but at the root of each game that asks you to step through its actions is the idea that the game’s procedures bring with it, embedded, the game’s values and ideas of what the game thinks of as reasonable. After all, if a game puts a gun in your hand and opposes you with enemies that are going to harm you, it implicitly is telling you that shooting people with guns is a reasonable retaliatory response.
Through playing games, the games make points to us – not just in their narrative but in the way we play.
We can see this in the ‘twist’ of Second Sight. It’s a narrative that plays with the game mechanics of not just this game, but your expectations and assumptions about videogames in general already. You’re already going to save and reload for games when things go badly or you die. You’re already seeing time in two different slices, past and future and you’re used to perceiving one as ‘now’ and one as ‘then’ thanks to the visual devices used, even though you’re doing the same actions in the same engine with the same character.
What’s more, because the game is long, you can have these doubts about the plot holes or mistakes as fantasies and fears creep together as you play through the game, wondering if you misremembered the information, wondering if the game did what it did, or if you’re confused. The size of the play experience hides these details, until eventually you recognise how it all holds together. Suddenly, all the time you weren’t doing anything around those skipping plot beats drops away and you see the game for what it is – Vattic looking into a bad future, seeing how bad it can be, and then doing what he can to avert it.
And it’s in this game from 2004 that you can’t even buy any more, because GoG’s licensing is all hecked up.