Games

'Unrest': A Tug of War Between Player Knowledge and Character Knowledge

In Unrest, you play a number of characters who all have their own desires and stories, but you play as each of them, and this leads the player into conflict with the game and himself.

There's a particular phenomenon in tabletop RPGs in which two different types of knowledge are pitted against one another. There is what the player knows as a person in the modern world sitting around a table pretending to be someone else and there is what the character knows about the fictional universe used for play. This is a constant tug-of-war in any tabletop role-playing environment, one that is usually based on players recognizing narrative tropes and what probabilities mean as a result og the die rolls that the characters know nothing of. The tension created is whether or not the player can internally separate these two distinct types of knowledge when making decisions -- or even if they want to in the first place.

Such a disparity between what is known is not limited to just RPGs. Any game in which the player can infer more knowledge than what their character should know leads to this disparity. In a video game, it can be as simple as a third person camera granting a view of the hallway around a corner when Metal Gear Solid's Snake is pressed against a wall. There can be more direct acknowledgement of the disparity, such as in Telltale's notification system in its adventure games that lets the player know who will remember what. Snake cannot see what is around that corner, nor can Lee (of The Walking Dead see what is inside other people's heads. Yet, the game leverages these disparities to its own purposes. Unrest manages to leverage such seemingly contradictory ways of knowing the world as a form of dramatic irony.

Throughout Unrest, you step into the shoes of six different characters, each of whom represent a different caste and station in the city-state of Bhimra. The ambassador Chintra, who is an emissary from the Naga Empire is here to finalize negotiations on a treaty. The peasant Tanya, who is betrothed to a boy who hates her. The priest Bhagwan, who is a new initiate to the temple run by the rabble rouser Ranveer. The mercenary captain Shyam, who is helping the usurper Vijay try to run the city.And finally, the princess Asha acts as a through line for this entire section of the history of Bhirma. Her parents are killed, she struggles on the streets, and finally rises against Vijay's reign during a riot.

This is a wide variety of people, most of whom will never meet one another. They are also not all on the same side. Nominally Asha and Shyam would be opposed to one another, though that may change depending on how you play them or on how events turn out. Bhagwan can end up supporting either side depending on his choices, Chintra acts almost like an outside observer, and Tanya is not even apart of the equation. They all have their own desires and stories, but you play as each of them, and this will lead the player into conflict.

Despite their different stations in society and despite their different levels of influence, these characters can create little ripples of change as the chapters progress. A character or choice from an earlier chapter will reemerge in some way as a small part of a later chapter. Sometime this reappearance will simply arise as a mere mention of a character and won't matter as much to the character as it does to the player. And sometimes you will be asked to make a choice.

For example, in Tanya's chapter I had her steal her dowry and run away with her friend to a university. The chapter ended with an epilogue card noting the horse that they took was noticed and that the two of them slowed the animal down. I found out later that both of them had been captured by Shyam's men on the road leading away from the city. Now their fate was up to the mercenary captain. He could hand them back to Laxmi, the noblewoman whose land the girls had run away from and a member of the ruling council, for execution. However, the soldier needed all of his men within the city walls to deal with a series of riots, so alternatively Shyam could have his men save time and execute them right where they were or just simply let them go altogether. Shyam doesn't know anything about them other than they are two escaped peasants and that a council member needs them dead in order to maintain order on her lands. He doesn't even know that they are teenage girls.

I know Tanya's story and how I'd want it to end. Suddenly a tug-of-war occurs between the conflicting desires of what I want for a character that I liked and maintaining the facade of playing the role of the captain. Do I let the girls go and let them be happy and free? Do I play the politics and gain her support to act as the city erupts in violence? Do I simply try to justify my actions to myself with the idea of the importance of needing the men back now and pretend these are in fact not contrary notions after all?

Unrest is a game about, among other things, the interconnectivity of people and how the choices of one can manifest in the lives of others. Tanya can make a choice, but the consequences are not dictated by the world or fate, but by Shyam, a man she has never met and does not know exists. Were I the character and not the player, had I not experienced the stories of the others, situations like this wouldn't convey the meanings created through that connective tissue.

I know Tanya and her story, whereas Shyam does not. She is one of a mounting pile of inconveniences put before him during preparations to resolve a riot. In all honesty, I, as the player, gave this more consideration than Shyam, the character. Like many of the choices in Unrest, there are numerous minor contesting facets of the decision that make it a complex problem. Not just as a potential political moment, as I highlighted previously, but as a potential character moment. My Shyam was a little weary of all the politics, of the hypocrisies, and how little anything he had done had actually helped in the crisis. Other conversations, most notably with the royal accountant, had asserted that while he may be the captain of his company, it is still a mercenary company, and it is Vijay that is paying his men. How far would their loyalty extend to him if it does not extend to any contractor beyond the reach of their wallet? Does he really want to be told what to do by Laxmi as well? A woman at that? (In this culture, it is made abundantly clear how odd her present position is.). He needs the power to act freely, and yet that means giving up the principle of his being autonomous, since her favor will enable that power.

But the need to consider whether to maintain order through executing these two girls or the potential illusory position of power that Shyam is struggling with is not what was going through my head. It is Tanya's story. The dramatic irony is that I know more about what is going on than the character does. Instead of this being a revelation, I must watch the character make a mistake as a result of what he could not know. I am put in control of his folly. Furthermore, I am given the opportunity to construct an ending that I would want Tanya to have in spite of what might be reasonable in the world and to these characters.

It may break the player's own immersion in the world or it may break the special bubble in which the fiction resides, as a world in and of itself, but seeing the connections between characters and allowing players to make a choice outside the fiction drives the theme home taht much further. It requires a player's agency to make these connections and decide how deeply they wish to play their role. Thus, this requires the player to consider the nature of their own relation to the game. If the goal of a game is to convey meaning and the game's fiction is merely the method of conveyance for that meaning, shouldn't the opportunity to break the fiction be a part of that conveyance if it adds to that meaning?

It's funny. In Unrest's final chapter, you are given control of Asha for the fourth time. During those moments, you are asked how to deal with many of the characters, including Shyam. He had the fates of Tanya and her friend in his hand, in my hand, and now his fate is in Asha's hand, also mine. There is no strong rationale for sparing the captain other than that I know him, that I was him. I felt his pain, his struggle, and I liked him as a result. To Asha, he helped a usurper by having his men stand down. One option is that Asha can use his soldiers and simply buy him out. I chose to do just that, and when her Uncle asked why (as he could think of no reasonable grounds to keep him alive), one dialogue option read, "I can. And since I am queen, that is all that matters." I picked it.

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