I really enjoyed Tales From The Borderlands, but one bit, especially, struck me. As Fiona, cold-hearted con artist extraordinaire, I had to lie. But I had to do it artfully, or else I was in deep trouble. It was one of the tensest video game moments I've played in ages.
I don't like lying. I'm really bad at it, and it triggers this weird mixture of guilt and sadness in me. It feels wrong, like I've disturbed the natural order of things. As a kid, I was always worried that bad lies about awful things would come true. Like, I remember being afraid to lie about my age to get past website age gates. I'd say I was born in 1955 and then nervously clutch my mouse as I imagined the decrepit future I'd just willed into being.
So for the longest time, I never chose "[lie]" options in BioWare-style RPGs (Star Wars: KOTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc) or anything like that. Some intrinsic part of me detested the idea. But these days I'm singing a slightly different tune thanks in large part to a number of non-video games.
Deception — whether in single or multiplayer games — can be incredibly tense. You're essentially playing two roles: the person or lie you're acting out and your real character, your true motive. Keeping all of the straight, doing it in a convincing fashion, that's equal parts nerve-wracking and thrilling. It's a really neat internal (and external) tug-of-war, but I haven't seen it done all that much in video games, and that's a shame.
Board and tabletop games like Werewolf and Bang require people to sit face-to-face in the same room and act like nothing's amiss, like everybody's playing for the same team. But in Werewolf, there are heaps of other roles secretly in play — witches, seers, priests, hunters, the werewolves themselves — all with their own goals and objectives. Nobody really knows who anybody else is — only who they claim to be. Bang is really similar, except cowboys.
In either case, everyone's constantly thinking ahead, obsessively putting every scrap of perceived evidence under the microscope. Thinking, rethinking, overthinking. And all the while, they have to pretend like they're in total control, like everything's a-ok, like they're BFFs with their worst enemy, even as they slip a noose around their neck.
I've also been reading a book Kirk recommended a while back called The Lies of Locke Lamora, which stars characters who are part-thieves/deceivers, part theatre troupe. They plan their elaborate grifts down to the finest detail, then they dress up and improv their "characters" to steal from wealthy people. The book opens with Locke and his gang fooling a wealthy nobleman into believing they're from a nigh-legendary merchant family that's in dire peril, all with basic costume props and a few expensive bottles of booze. Also they pretend to be part of this beggar priesthood in their off-time, and it's just great. Oh to play a game of that.
A few video games have explicitly focused on deception, though I can't think of many off the top of my head. Let's use Tales from the Borderlands as an example of how it can work well, albeit in a fairly scripted way:
(Minor Tales from the Borderlands spoilers ahead.)
The scene involves Fiona trying to convince a, shall we say, man of ill repute, August, that she got her hands on a real key to one of Pandora's mythical Vaults. Her sister has spent weeks setting all of this into motion, getting in close with August and crafting a story in which Fiona is an archaeologist who grew up on one planet but found the key on another with a really similar name and there are all these details and he absolutely CANNOT TOUCH the freshly painted fake key, and you have to internalize all of this in, like, ten seconds to keep up your confident facade.
"No problem," I made Fiona tell her sister before beginning negotiations to sell off the definitely fake Vault key. "This isn't my first rodeo."
It was so my first rodeo.
Then August walked into his ramshackle bar and killed a man for reasons significantly less pressing than suckering him into the scam of a lifetime, and that's when I knew I was walking on eggshells. I was so nervous, I hardly even remembered my fake name. From there, things went a little better. I played it cool — straight-to-the-point but not too eager — and talked archaeology. I didn't even mix up the planet names.
But then he reached to touch the key. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.
I had two options: snatch his hand in a way that was sure to raise suspicions or just, well, let him do it. I swallowed hard and kept my hands off his. He touched the glowing hunk of magical space rock and was... sold! Except, oh shit, he got paint on his hand and absent mindedly rubbed his face. If he would have so much as looked in a mirror, I would have been toast.
The next couple minutes, in which we miraculously sealed the deal, were almost painfully tense. He was just about to fall for my lie hook, line, and sinker, but the pointy part of that equation was in plain sight. Had I blown it? Was this just a long preamble to me getting found out?
What I'm saying is, it was fantastic. And sure, it was a Telltale adventure game so in reality there were only a few ways that scene could've actually played out. But it felt crazy intense, and I really dug it. There's something to be said for acting, real role-playing, as more than an optional thing — as an actual game mechanic.
There are a few other video games that include heavy components of acting/deception, and they're thankfully more freeform about it. On one end of the spectrum you have massively multiplayer games like EVE Online and DayZ, in which it's to players' advantage to frequently mislead one another, to earn trust and then put a knife between somebody's ribs. In DayZ it's a way to get supplies or, if you're a total bastard (which is kinda the point of DayZ), giggles.
In EVE people have spent actual human months pretending to be in the employ of one major in-game company, only to obliterate it in the name of another once they finally reach the top — costing countless rivals years of hard work. While it's something I would never have the time or patience to do, that is crazy cool. And also a little bit mean. But damn. As far as video game accomplishments go, I'm not sure if that can be topped. And just think of how many times people like that were probably almost caught red-handed. It makes my heart beat a little faster, just the idea of it.
Bluffing and misleading can be major factors in strategy games like StarCraft, although they aren't always. I never played it, but I know that generally well-received real-time strategy game RUSE was about bluffing and manipulating the flow of information en route to victory. I'd love to see more RTSes make that a core mechanical focus.
The game with the most potential for endless not-entirely-honest shenanigans is easily Spy Party. Chris Hecker's long-in-development partners dance of deception pits one spy against one sniper. The spy mingles in a giant crowd of computer-controlled characters, trying to blend in well enough — pretending to be an NPC, by all appearances — that the sniper won't notice them accomplishing objectives. The sniper can take a shot — but only one shot for the whole match — whenever they please. The oppressively tense atmosphere this dynamic creates is something else. There's no other game like it. The few times I've played it, I almost immediately felt sweat trickling down the small of my back as I clenched damn near every muscle in my entire body. It's wild.
That's an example of the interesting, ever-changing experience a game can provide if deception is the main focus of gameplay. While I appreciate that games like EVE, DayZ, and a whole host of strategy games allow for lies and artful dishonesty, I very much like the idea of a game where that's the main thing you do. I think there's still a lot of untapped potential in that concept, and I hope we see more people explore it soon.
I still don't like lying, but in games — of the video variety and otherwise — there's definitely a rush to it. The art of deceit is multifaceted, tense, and requires people to both contemplate and think on their toes. Sounds like a great video game if I've ever heard of one.
Oh, and you never know: I could've been lying when I said I don't like to lie.