The Fidelio Incident: Trauma and Text

The Fidelio Incident is a 2017 game from Act 3 Games. It’s essentially a side-project for a handful of industry figures, led by Ken Feldman, who was the art director for God of War III and, more recently, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Today we’re going to talk about its plot, and about some of the narrative issues that it handily illustrates. The Fidelio Incident starts with a plane crash on some frozen wasteland off the coast of Iceland. Your character, Stanley, spends his time running around looking for his wife, Leonore, and picking up bits of her diary along the way. Through this diary, and Stanley’s increasingly powerful hallucinations, we learn about their backstory during the Troubles in Ireland. I’ll give you a quick summary.

Stanley and Leonore are dating. Their dads are both big figures in the Troubles, with very different political orientations. Stanley’s dad, a prominent Irish peace activist, goes to meet the IRA on a peace-making mission. The police raid the meeting and kill seven people, including Stanley’s dad. Leonore’s dad, who’s a hard IRA bastard, tells Stanley that his father was betrayed by Rory, a friend who owns a local pub. Stanley bombs the pub as an act of revenge, and also to win the trust of Leonore’s father, to gain his blessing for their marriage. The bomb goes off and kills Rory, as well as a little girl who was in the pub. Stanley is caught and thrown in prison, but Leonore helps him escape, and the two have been travelling the world ever since, unable to return to their home country. Stanley never confessed to the bombing, and Leonore has never pushed him about whether or not he actually did it. Wracked by guilt over his actions, and ashamed of having never told Leonore, at the climax of the game, Stanley decides that he will surrender to hypothermia and die in the cold, so that his wife can finally return home. His journey is revealed to have been psychological, as we return to the crash site and find him still lying in the snow as a helicopter airlifts his wife to safety in the distance. Roll credits.

So The Fidelio Incident is pretty good, as far as it goes. The art direction is obviously really great, the writing is strong, and the voice acting is fine too. There are some nice little narrative patterns – for instance, there’s this whole thing about how Stanley stole a box of lollies when he was a kid, and his father never confronted him about it. It’s an echo of how Leonore never confronted Stanley about whether or not he bombed Rory’s pub – which is classy, right, it’s a nice parallel. The game is obviously put together by talented, intelligent people. That said, I’m getting a little bit sick of the ‘it’s all a metaphor for past trauma’ games. The Fidelio Incident isn’t a bad game on its own merits, but it serves as a useful case study as to some of the weaknesses of this type of story.

The first issue here isn’t exclusive to the ‘it’s a metaphor’ genre, but it ties into the bigger problems. Isn’t it a bit weird how most of the story is told through diary entries? Some of them describe some pretty exciting events – people getting locked up, bombs going off, political rallies, people falling in love at parties. Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually see some of those things? There’s this weird thing in video games where despite being a visual image-based medium, they often rely on text to tell the story. That’s not a complaint about text-based digital fiction – that’s fine – but when your game is a walk-around-and-do-things kinda game, it feels weird to place the bulk of your story in a different medium. It suggests that the developers aren’t comfortable enough with the medium they’re working in, that they feel the need to crib from somewhere else to make up the shortfall in their own form.

To some extent, in this instance, it might be a time / cost issue. Animation is expensive and difficult, so sometimes you cut corners. In the pub flashback, for instance, there are no character models, even though you can walk around and ‘talk’ to people. That’s obviously a time-saving measure. And I’m not against that sort of thing in principle. Cut as many corners as you like. And, yes, some key moments are shown visually – such as the pub bombing, as we can see above. But even given those allowances, at the heart of this game, there’s still an awkward tension between the word and the image. It’s a game based on navigating digital space that feels compelled to tell most of its story through text entries. That’s a little weird.

Here’s the second thing – and this is a bit more of a structural question. Imagine you’re a storyteller, right. You’ve got some narrative events in front of you. How do you arrange the parts of the story so that it’s got the most impact? Maybe you start by telling the audience about a dramatic moment and then spend the game filling in the blanks, trying to get the audience to guess who did it. That’s what American Beauty did. It starts with Jane asking Ricky to kill her father, Lester, and then cuts to Lester’s voiceover, where he tells you “In less than a year, I’ll be dead.” The stage is set: we know Lester dies, and we have at least two initial suspects to point the finger at. But did they actually do it? Or was it someone else? That’s an exciting way to tell a story. We go on to see all the emotional beats of these people’s lives, each with their own drama and pathos, and with the added question – is this the moment that pushes someone over the edge? Is this what gets Lester killed?

The Fidelio Incident has its own ideas about how to structure the story for best effect. It scrambles the pages from Leonore’s diary, revealing information in a very deliberate order. You learn that Leonore is afraid of her IRA father. You learn Stanley came to the pub and attacked Rory, and then later you hear about Stanley’s father’s funeral, where Stanley had a speech but decided not to give it. “Stanley said Paddy [his father] was the speech maker, but he wasn’t enough like his father to do him justice.” Then you learn that Stanley was imprisoned for bombing Rory’s pub. Leonore suspects her father might have been involved: “If I find out he had anything to do with Stanley being arrested… I’ll burn him alive!” It’s intelligent, well-paced writing. You get all the pieces, but it takes a while for those gaps to be filled in. Stanley attacked Rory after finding out that Rory was a traitor, who’d informed on the IRA meeting and caused Paddy’s death. Stanley’s refusal to give a speech at his father’s funeral represents his rejection of his father’s pacifism – he isn’t enough like his father to rise above the violence of the Troubles, and instead seeks revenge. It’s all there, but first time viewers don’t know what it means.

And that’s all well and good. It’s strong writing. The problem, as before, is that we’re only talking about the writing. We’re only talking about the diary. The gameplay that sits around those entries is generally pretty static. Stanley wanders around looking for his wife for two hours. The environment gets crazier as the game goes on, representing Stanley’s guilty conscience – but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s two hours of Stanley feeling bad and pulling some levers. Compared to the emotional variety and intelligent pacing of the text extracts, the actual gameworld drags. It’s very pretty, but from a narrative perspective, it only really does one thing. This is the problem I raised earlier with the distinction between text and gameplay. There’s nothing wrong with using text to tell your story, but when the text entries are amazing and the gameworld is just Stanley feeling guilty and worried, the final product feels lopsided. All of the interesting emotional stuff happened offscreen somewhere in the past, and you have to wade through yet another CrAzY twisted hellscape before you can find out what was going on. And when you get there, the reveal often isn’t that interesting in the first place.

The broader issue here is that when video games are about the horror of some past trauma, they often focus on the trauma event itself as disproportionately shocking. They overemphasize trauma as spectacle, as somehow accounting for and justifying all of the self-indulgent blood-seeping-out-of-the-walls nonsense you’ve had to sit through. To me, what’s more interesting is the time after the trauma, the slow, day-by-day process of recovery. The evolution of a traumatised person over time, the mutations in character as a result of one event. Video games tend more to have an hour and a half of spooky noises leading up to the revelation that the main character got spanked as a child. Crucially, character development stops at the moment of trauma: ‘And then the trauma happened, and now I’m really scared and blood leaks out the walls and stuff.’ That’s about the extent of the post-trauma characterisation in most of these games – and it makes the trauma seem hollow, even interchangeable. It doesn’t matter what it was, it just matters that it was bad. And The Fidelio Incident is by no means the worst offender on this front. It’s not self-indulgent, it’s well-paced, and it doesn’t overextend. The only reason we’re really talking about it is because it illustrates so well the gap between a dynamic, thoughtful, interesting backstory, told overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) through text entries, as contrasted against emotionally static crazy-shit’s-happening-as-a-metaphor-for-past-trauma gameplay. You play it, and you read the diary entries, and you think man, these diary entries are telling an interesting story. Wish I was playing that.

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