Breaking the Web (ANL 06)
by WanderingWordsmith (208)
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June 21st 2012


 

“WHEN WE HUNT, WE KILL. NO-ONE IS SAFE. NOTHING IS SACRED. WE ARE BLACKWATCH. WE ARE THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE. WE WILL BURN OUR OWN TO HOLD THE REDLINE. IT IS THE LAST LINE TO EVER HOLD.”

This haunting creed is the first node in the Web of Intrigue, a narrative device in Prototype that provides a secondary glimpse into the events of the game. Welcome back to A Narrative Lens, and in this almost-weekly instalment, we delve into methods of conveying narrative; in particular, how the employment of alternative narrative devices can influence the way a player perceives the events of a game's central narrative.

As any writer, director, developer, or indeed any journeyman of media will tell you, there’s a huge number of ways to provide a strong narrative than through dialogue and visible action alone. In fact, it goes without saying that the most powerful narratives of our generation use those two tools as a launc pad for all the dynamisms of their events and participants. To name an obvious example, the way Ico and Yorda hold hands, or the not so subtle passive aggression in GlaDOS’s commentary of Chell’s progress. These are more than just simple physical gestures or basic taunts, these are keys to their relationship as characters, windows into their strengths and weaknesses.

Other alternative methods to delivering narrative can offer a second lens into the events that surround the plot. These devices, called focalisers, are normally found in a character’s point-of-view. For example, Kat’s narration in Gravity Rush is the only point-of-view for the narrative, biasing players towards her emotions and beliefs when considering the conflicts she encounters.

One of these alternative methods is the Web of Intrigue in Prototype. Let’s take a look.

The key method of gaining information and skills in Prototype is by consuming individuals to acquire their memories. If you need to fly a helicopter, you consume a pilot. Want access to artillery? A base specialist is what’s on the menu. Even Mercer’s mutation abilities stem from his consumption of a Hunter-class infected in an early mission. The very first character Alex consumes is First Lieutenant James Goodwin, who gives him the creed I mentioned in the opening paragraph. From there, the player can expand the Web of Intrigue by consuming key individuals – doctors, military personnel – in both missions and free roam. These individuals unlock nodes in the Web; key memories that expand Alex’s, and therefore the player’s, understanding of the background behind the outbreak.

The introductory node sets the tone of this particular focaliser. Everything about the Web of Intrigue relates in some way to Blackwatch, its precursors, and the viral agents it fights.

This focaliser is important. Bar the occasional scene with General Randall and Captain Cross, we only witness the game through the focaliser of its protagonist, Alex, whose primary concern is not Blackwatch’s history, but with finding the cause of his infection and getting revenge on them. As far as Alex is concerned – at least in the early portions of the game – these memories are essential for him reaching his targets. For the player, they offer a glance behind the curtain, conveying an understanding of the context for the outbreak.

It’s clear that this glance was intentional on behalf of the developer, and not just a tool for the occasional piece of fluff or factoid. There’s a meta-mechanical incentive for exploring the Web, taking the form of trophies for discovering the truth behind two major events and one major character. All of these are references in memories Alex gains over the course of the story, but these are only piecemeal hints at a much larger picture; indeed, you only receive the trophy by completing that picture by consuming individuals found in free roam, and not just by completing the story. Further, as the player’s understanding of the context increases, so too does their scepticism for Alex’s point of view. Even before they discover the truth, it’s made clear that Alex Mercer is a priority target, for what appears to be fairly vague crimes. Uncertainty is an important aspect of the Web, as scientists, personnel, and Alex’s colleagues all note his erratic behaviour prior to the outbreak.

Uncertainty is a major theme in Prototype, and is emphasised in the Web of Intrigue. Only by completing the Web can a player fully understand the context of the game, but even then a doubt lingers in the background because of one or two nodes that suggest that Blackwatch has realized Alex’s methods and begun to counter him. It’s suggested in a discussion that they began constructing false memories in agents to distract Alex, but it’s never quite clear who is lying.

As our understanding of the context dispels that uncertainty, and as the truth comes to light, the way the player sees Alex begins to change. He starts to look less and less like a victim, as his point of view suggests, and more and more like the perpetrator that Blackwatch is hunting for. Thus, his search for the truth brings a revelation that sets up his fall at the very end of the game, as he revives and takes up his mantle as the Blacklight virus.

Whilst I must admit some disappointment in the Web of Intrigue, as some of the plot points that it hinted at – such as the enigmatic PARIAH – were not explored in the sequel, its efficacy in fostering uncertainty in the protagonist creates a unique effect. Rather than blindly trusting the protagonist of this game, as we are wont to do in other narratives, Prototype stands out by employing a protagonist who, due to his circumstance and single-minded motivations, becomes unreliable and antagonistic, generating a rift between himself and the player that frames the narrative of its sequel.

Thank you for reading,

WanderingWordsmith.


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