7 Games in Which Reality is Broken
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
Depending on your sources, this quote can be traced back to Kant, Anaïs Nin, the Talmud or fortune cookies, but proper attribution notwithstanding, its meaning is pretty clear-cut: we perceive external reality, and hence, the world around us, through a unique, personalized filter that shapes its meaning.
There’s a certain irony in discussing whether reality is ‘broken’ in video games—mentally fulfilling electronic creations that exist only on screens—and yet, like television, it’s precisely this quality that allows us to visualize the division between real and unreal, objective and subjective, legitimate and illegitimate, true and false in a somewhat practical manner. This article contains some heavy-duty game spoilers (all of them real) so consider yourself forewarned.
#7—Spec Ops: The Line
It’s difficult to imagine Martin Walker—intrepid captain of the Delta Recon Team, dispatched to a ravaged Dubai on an altruistic infiltration mission, perpetually cool, unflinching exterior in the face of blistering adversity Martin Walker—as anything other than a hero.
Unless, of course, the captain’s altruism was just an illusion; unless he was actually butchering not the enemy but innocent souls his PTSD-riddled mind had twisted into villainous apparitions—a fact which Yager makes frighteningly apparent by the end of Spec Ops: The Line. Walker’s visions were certainly ‘real’ to him, even though they were not objectively true; even the loathsome Commander Konrad, who utters the unforgettable “if the truth is undeniable, you create your own,” is eventually revealed to be a hallucination.
Although there are some truly impressive gradations of weird in Thimbleweed Park—plumbers who cosplay as pigeons, a foul-mouthed clown who’s cursed with permanent make-up, in-game achievements that ask you to collect specks of dust, a riverside corpse nobody seems fazed by—the most bizarre realization is also the most unexpected: none of what you see actually exists.
Terrible Toybox isn’t shy about milking this theme, either, since all five playable characters become astutely aware they’re trapped inside a simulation that’s distinct from the ‘upper world,’ and that their free will is a deception. Everything in unveiled in a satisfying, fourth-wall-breaking conversation that proves Agent Mulder right: the truth is out there. Available for free through the Epic store until March 7. [Disclosure: author supported Thimbleweed Park on kickstarter]
At this stage, it’s run-of-the-mill to witness Nintendo’s fair-haired elven savior emerging from a dormant state to embark on perilous adventures. And yet, few Zelda titles adequately manage to cause a spike on the emotional Richter scale quite like Link’s Awakening; in his romp around Koholint Island, Link’s sole purpose is to search for the fabled Wind Fish, and awaken it.
But success, however triumphant it’s supposed to feel, is inextricably linked with demise. Once all the Nightmares are defeated, the Wind Fish declares the island is just a dream, and an earth-shattering cutscene that quite literally erases every pixel from the world map ensues right before your tear-soaked eyes. With the disintegration of reality comes an acute, unexpected sense of loss that may be difficult to replicate in the 2019 remake.
#4—Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Ordinarily, the human brain picks up electrical signals which travel along the auditory nerve, allowing you to consciously and accurately perceive sound in the immediate environment.
Yet, during the opening moments of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it becomes abundantly clear something about that process isn’t quite right: Senua hears voices that aren’t really ‘there’—the manifestation of intrusive, incessant, and unwanted false sounds, auditory hallucinations that are un-tethered to objective reality but seem completely genuine to the Celtic heroine on her campaign to save her lover’s soul.
Speaking with Science Focus, Ninja Theory’s creative director Tameem Antoniades explained the team worked in collaboration with ‘voice-hearers’ to portray Senua’s internal experience as authentically as possible, and that beyond the construction of a gripping dark-fantasy adventure, Hellblade presents a shining example of how video games can help raise awareness about mental illness.
Tequila Works’ artistic stunner stimulates the eyeballs with chalky archipelagoes populated by gentle animals and eerie, wraith-like creatures (surely relatives of No-Face)—so it’s extremely tempting to dismiss it as a picturesque if sometimes spooky action-adventure. But as you solve puzzle after puzzle, each leg of the journey bringing you closer to a mysterious robed individual, you finally stumble into RiME‘s true coda—a graveyard housing the statue of a despondent man, head bent, weeping in the rain.
The entire ‘journey’ is, in fact, a myth built upon the memories of a father who lost his son, and drowning in grief, dreamed up a beautiful fantasy to heal the pain.
Arkane Studios sure knows how to summon a sci-fi beast.
Aside from the initial shock of realizing Morgan Yu’s apartment is nothing more than a holographic smokescreen, Prey is absolutely swarming with savage, protoplasmic aliens in possession of camouflage abilities that put chameleons, octopi, and Mystique to shame (ok, maybe not Mystique). These so-called ‘mimics’ have the ability to take on the form of everyday objects, with in-game theories suggesting they distort reality through inter-dimensional displacement, emission of electromagnetic fields, or self-modification of their own molecular structure to prevent Morgan from discovering their true nature until it’s too late.
Good luck with not developing intense paranoia after playing this, fam.
Remedy Entertainment’s upcoming action-adventure Control is your ticket down a supernatural rabbit hole where reality is hostage to a a deadly, unknown force.
As the Federal Bureau of Control’s managing director, you’ll come face to face with bodies suspended in frozen gravity, volatile environments that collapse and rebuild at the pull of a light switch, and strange, telekinetic abilities that allow you to re-engineer the architecture of the agency’s secret headquarters.
Control‘s world is dominated by otherworldly forces called ‘AWEs,’ or Altered World Events, which are thought to originate from separate dimensions and operate not according to physics but ‘dream logic’—a requirement for both survival and obstructing the force from metastasizing to broader humanity.
Provided there are no delays, Control is looking at a 2019 Summer release.
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