Games

Possession As a Metaphor for the Player-Character Relationship

The victims of the house in 5 Days a Stranger are both the game’s protagonist, Trilby, and the player himself.

This discussion contains spoilers for 5 Days a Stranger.

Possession would seem an apt metaphor for gaming given the relationship between the player and the protagonist of a game. I often use the phrase “inhabiting the main character” to imply something like this idea and to distinguish between the way that games differ from other narratives in the way that they relate their audience to the characters in more traditional stories. The player takes control of the character, imposing his will on that character and ostensibly on the story to be told because the player will seemingly now be complicit in shaping the world. A little possession goes a long way in a video game world.

Revisiting the award winning, indie adventure game, 5 Days a Stanger, is initially interesting in this regard, the central plotline of the game focuses on possession. In this case, the classic mystery chestnut of an isolated space occupied by a few characters that keep getting knocked off one by one is complicated when possession becomes the instrument of the murderer, a ghost haunting the house.

The title of the game implies this possession. The game’s protagonist, Trilby, does spend “5 days as a stranger”, since he is “not entirely himself”. Thinking about this from the perspective of the player-character in video games is similarly suggestive. Video game protagonists, like Trilby, are never entirely themselves, as they are always “possessed” by the player.

However, the horror elements of the game are also dependent on this possession. Trilby is initially introduced as a character seemingly very much in possession of himself. He is a thief, but a controlled one, more specifically a “gentlemen thief”. Trilby distinguishes himself from another occupant of the house, another thief named Jim, by pointing out that he (unlike Jim) has a code of ethics that determines his actions and the nature of his criminality. He claims to only steal things that people don’t really need.

This kind of self possession and control erodes over the course of the game’s five days though, as Trilby horrifically realizes (alongside the player who seemingly “inhabits” this charmingly ethical criminal personality) that he is really not in control of himself despite his belief in his own self control. Trilby is the hero of the game, unlocking the mystery at the heart of the house, but he is also a vehicle (through possession) of the violence of a murderous spirit.

This would be less horrific (indeed, it might seem clever and more “intellectual”) if the game contained a meta-narrative element that allowed Trilby, as a character in a game, to realize his own possession by an outside force, the player. But no such meta-narrative exists. Instead, Trilby’s horror and the horror of the game’s plot is based on the dawning realization that possession is an internal invasion, that the external force has so enveloped the victim of possession that it has become an intrinsic part of the “self possessed” individual.

One of Trilby’s fellow “prisoners” in the Defoe mansion actually clues Trilby (and the player) in on this relationship between Trilby and the spirit of the house (and the player and the game) very early on in the game when he says, “Don’t ask me why, but once you get in, the house won’t let you leave”. Given that 5 Days a Stranger is built as a classic adventure game (even its 8-bit aesthetics suggest its throwback quality of game storytelling), the player should realize that, like games other games of this sort, that 5 Days a Stranger tells a very linear story despite the illusion of control that the media of gaming suggests by allowing the player to seem to effect the game world.

While the player explores the house as Trilby and talks to characters and picks up items, using these items and participating in dialogue are all actions necessary to advance the game’s plot. Items must be used in certain prescribed ways in order for the show to go on. The player is not shaping the world so much as become victim of a world that will use the player’s interactions with that world to tell a story that it intends to tell. The house won’t let its victims out until it has accomplished its script. Its victims are both Trilby and the player himself.

In this sense, the idea of possession as a metaphor for the player-character is reversed. It isn’t the player that possesses the character, but the character (and scripts defining his ultimate fate in the game’s world) that possess the player. We don’t choose Trilby, as Trilby’s persona is chosen for us. We are both responsible for his actions and subject to them.

While I don’t believe that Ben Croshaw’s intent was necessarily to shape discussion of who controls who in a video game (the player or the designer), nevertheless, in a post-Bioshock discussion of gaming (where that discussion is now very much a central one), one can easily see that Croshaw’s game fits in nicely with that in creating a disconcerting loss of control for the player and then rubbing the player’s face in it. In Bioshock, this moment comes in the infamous moment when the player’s ability to interact with the world is stripped from him, and he finds that he must kill Andrew Ryan because he has been told to do so. This moment is a revelation of the protagonist/player having naturally subjected themselves to the voice of authority because they are accustomed to following in game instructions. The protagonist/player has been directed towards a particular inevitable end throughout the game, despite the game’s illusions of having some choice in the matter.

In 5 Days a Stranger though, Croshaw seems more interested in merely telling a suspense story that generates moments of horror for the player. However, while 5 Days a Stranger depends on some gory sequences and images that startle the player, nevertheless, the most effective part of its horror is the realization that being led, being possessed makes you a stranger to yourself. The greatest horror in inhabiting the role of Trilby is that you have become a killer and had no idea that you had been led that direction until it is too late to choose to do much about it.

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