I’ve just finished playing QUBE, another game out of the embarrassingly long pile from that Humble Bundle of 50ish games recently. Nasty people would describe this game as shitty Portal – it’s actually not that bad, and I enjoyed it, but if you wanted a crass two-word summary, that’s probably what you’d get. The basic premise is that you are on a mysterious cube in space, and you have to solve a bunch of puzzles to make the cube not destroy the Earth. Along the way, you start hearing from another dude who tells you that you’re actually in a testing facility. There are two competing narratives, you don’t know who to believe… and then you get to the end.
The fundamental issue with these types of games is that you as a player can disconnect from the concept of ‘truth’. Sure, there’s two competing narratives, and you don’t know what the truth is, but you don’t really have to care. Your job is to just play the game and get on with it – you don’t need to understand what the truth is in order to keep playing. When it’s a linear game, you can just sit back, relax, and see what happens at the end. I won’t tell you here which narrative is true, because in some ways it doesn’t really matter. To my mind, the uncertainty and the double-meaning of your actions is the really interesting part about this sort of story. Are you saving the world, or just providing data for the scientists? Are you a hero or a lab rat? All of your actions are tinged with this ambiguity, this double layer of meaning – and that’s kinda interesting. The fun isn’t knowing which one’s true, the fun is in the conflict.
Thankfully, QUBE never asks you to try and make any real decisions. Decisions become arbitrary in double-narrative situations, because you don’t know what the significance of your actions will be. Imagine there’s this woman, and one narrative says ‘You must kill her, or she’ll murder us all!’ and the other narrative says ‘Fuck off, that guy’s got a vendetta for no reason!’ Because you as a player have no grounding in the ‘true’ narrative, there’s no way for you to discern which option is true. You don’t know whether your action is destructive or heroic – it’s arbitrary, so there’s not really any pressure on you as a player. It’s almost more meaningful when you’re playing through a second time – in that situation, you can either make the character ‘accidentally’ choose the wrong thing, or ‘accidentally’ choose the right. The situation becomes ironic because you as player know what the significance of their decision is – but they’ve got no way of knowing.
This leads us to the main point of this article: the replay. We know that the reception of a story depends on how much the audience know going into it. Imagine somebody who didn’t know that Hannibal was a cannibal – when he says ‘I’d like to have you both for dinner’, that person wouldn’t pick up on the dark double-meaning of his sentence. It’s only on a second viewing, when they know that he’s a cannibal, that the meaning becomes apparent. Of course, viewers who already know that Hannibal’s a cannibal in the first place would get it on a first viewing – the point is that ‘second viewings’ is sort of a short-hand for ‘when you know everything that’s going to happen’. When you have that foresight, you look at the story differently. Your knowledge changes the way you think about it.
In this situation, knowledge of the ending (that is, knowledge of which narrative is true) sort of undermines the premise. It forbids you from taking part in the enjoyment of ambiguity – well, maybe it doesn’t forbid, but it certainly inhibits. It’s less a matter of appreciating the interplay of these two competing narratives, because at the back of your mind you’ve always got this knowledge of which one’s actually correct. From that perspective, the narrative might be better served by stories that cut off before the end, preserving the ambiguity by refusing to resolve it.
One of the problems I did have with the ambiguity of this game was that one narrative actively attacked the credibility of the other. That’s not bad in and of itself, but – well. The ‘you’re in a testing facility’ guy was attacking the credibility of the ‘you’re in a giant space cube heading for Earth’ guy, which is a bit shit, because, spoilers, the second narrative was true. The first guy would say things like ‘A giant space cube? Heading to destroy Earth? That’s ridiculous.’ It’s tolerably ridiculous, I suppose, but it seems a bit counter-intuitive to slag off your own narrative like that. Especially when the first guy makes some entirely valid points. ‘You really think that solving a few puzzles is going to somehow magically destroy this cube?’ That’s a good point. I don’t know why solving these puzzles magically destroyed the cube. ‘Isn’t it convenient that even though the cube’s coming apart, and shit’s getting smashed up, your progress is never inhibited?’ That’s an even better point. It does seem a little too convenient, doesn’t it. Almost like I’m in a testin- oh, he’s wrong? Oh. Okay. But what about all the good points he made? What? You don’t have any explanation for them? Oh. Okay.
So it’s not that the guy was slagging off against the integrity of the second narrative. That’s acceptable, if the plot holes he raises are actually resolved by the game. Otherwise you’re literally just pointing out your own plot holes. There were also some moments that were just generally a bit on the nose. In the last thirty seconds of the game, you’re told to escape, and that the president wants to talk to you. False-narrative-guy screams ‘The president? That’s ridiculous! It’s a ploy to get you killed!’ It does seem a bit odd, introducing the president right at the climax of the game, I thought. It’s probably a sign that I am actually in a testin- what? The president actually wants to talk with me? Wh- I just finished the game, I don’t want to listen to the president! Ah, fine. And my wife? She’s on the phone too? Jeez, everybody’s turning up now, aren’t they. Weird conclusion, QUBE. Just a bit weird.