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I am unofficially "fixing up" a video game through modding.

The game's Big Reveal is that the game world is actually a simulation, that the characters and population are all AIs, and that the villain is the programmer who created them all.

Here is my problem: because the player is playing a game, which is then revealed to be... a game, this Big Reveal might be taken as a fourth-wall breaking gimmick. That it might be seen as meta-humor, going "Oh, this was a computer game all along, of course."

But that's not what I'm aiming for. There's a clear, coherent plot. As long as the player takes the Big Reveal seriously, he'll understand the Big Reveal - not as a joke, but as something the game has been building up to.

How do I keep that from happening? How do I cue the player to take the Big Reveal seriously, and not just dismiss it as a gimmick?

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My best advice is to play Danganronpa 2. (Spoiler alert) It's a game within a game, and it pretty much covers what you're trying to go for, if I read your post correctly. The characters make references to the 4th wall throughout the story as comedic relief ("Stop acting like we're in a video game or something!")... and then, at the end, everyone learns that they're actually in a video game. Not the game the player is playing, of course, but a game within the game.

I believe your question boils down to "How can I reveal the villain as the programmer of the game without making it confusing?" Unfortunately, I can't write the scene for you, nor can I give you any specific advice since I don't know much about your game. Knowing how to write a scene like that requires detailed knowledge of the game thus far. What I can tell you, though, is that simply saying that the villain is the programmer can work fine. Make the villain prove that he is the programmer by exercising some of his powers. Then it becomes clear to both the other characters and to the real-life player that the 4th wall jokes were really foreshadowing the big reveal (as was the case in Danganronpa 2).

I honestly wouldn't worry about the real-life player getting confused. As long as your villain character is an actual character within your game and not a real-life person inserted into the game, it will be clear to real-life players that the villain programmed the game within the game. He is still a video game character to us, the real people in the real world.

  • Well the villain has the same name as the actual maker of the video game irl. However, it's meant to be taken as a parallel-universe-esque character. Good point though. I might make him a little more flashier at the end. That should make it clearer. Maybe drop a few more hints. Thanks. This is a far better answer, so I will be now accepting it. Thank you. – The Great Duck Nov 27 '16 at 0:24
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One of the reasons both protagonists and antagonists in print and media have sidekicks is to minimize narrative information dumps in favor of dialogue. Or occasionally, like Smeagol in Lord of the Rings, the maniac has an alterego and talks to himself. A minion, an underling, an apostle. Consider the case from the Bible: Jesus, in some circles otherwise known as God, goes to the Temple to argue with the Pharisees. He could simply state 10 ways to do things this way or that way, but the Pharisees are used as a tool to give a powerful message via dialogue, rather than speaking up to the stars which would have the effect of a lamentation.

Normally in literature one hesitates if not avoids the use of a tool for a single purpose--it looks contrived--but in a "short story" such as a video game intro, I think a second character could be added for nefarious conversations.

  • Oh, and it also gives the opportunity for banter to add humorous elements. It allows the antagonist to be kind of a blundering tyrant a la Gene Hackman's character as Lex Luther in the original Superman. – Stu W Nov 26 '16 at 2:03
  • That would make sense; however, the villain shouldn't have a sidekick in that sense. The villain is for all intensive purposes, their god. Technically, everyone is the villain's enemy for everyone is just his playthings that he will do with as he pleases. An interesting thought though. There is a character that could serve as that. I might drop a few more hints here and there. Really though, the idea is that nobody is really supposed to know. The one's that know merely know he is trying to take over everything and playing everyone by tricking them into fighting each other. – The Great Duck Nov 26 '16 at 5:13
  • To clarify a bit more, it is only in the final scene that you learn the antagonist is actually the one who was behind everything. Up until then, it is only minor hints towards them being involved in some way and none of the characters really notice (except background characters who pop in at the end), so it would hard to really give him a sidekick or make him hilariously villain-ish. It's like having the man behind the man trope. Thanks for the help; however, I don't think this solution would make sense in this context. It's a great answer though, now that I understand it! :) – The Great Duck Nov 26 '16 at 5:22
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This sounds like you are describing a literary device known as Deus Ex Machina (The God in the Machine). It is a device use to get an author out of a plot hole for which there is no satisfactory resolution. The term originates from the Greek theatre in which plays would sometimes be resolved by a god lowered to stage on a crane to put all things to rights. (Thus the god in the machine.)

The problem with Deus Ex Machina is that is it a completely unsatisfying ending. Insofar as a video game follows the rules of story (and I have no idea to what extent this is the case), it will be an unsatisfactory ending for a game as well.

One of the most basic lessons of storytelling is that you cannot write your way out of a broken story. If the story does not work, no trick of words is going to make it work. You say "This programmer is corrupt and has secretly controlled said world through war and other misdirections because... no good reason really. He's a maniac." So not only is there a god in the machine, the god is mad and acts for no good reason. That strikes me as a simply untenable story element. There is no way to enact a satisfactory hero's journey and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion in a setup like that. I don't see any way that words can explain it away.

There are examples in literature of heros railing against the injustice, even madness, of the Gods. But they don't usually win. And I have no idea how portray this in a video game where all the player has to work with are actions, and actions are clearly futile if the game is programmed by a mad god with no purpose. In literature you can write a tragedy where the hero is undone by a fatal flaw or simply the malice or indifference of the universe. But I cannot see how the concept of tragedy can apply to a video game. Surely there has to be a way to win.

The malevolent god conceit can also be played for laughs, as in the Daffy Duck cartoon where the artist keeps changing the scenery and Daffy keeps complaining about it until it is finally revealed the the artist is Bugs Bunny. But in this case the fourth wall falls in the first ten seconds and the entire humor of the thing lies in Daffy's protests. This is farce, and again, there is no way to win.

In short, if the concept is untenable, and it sounds like it is, there is no way to explain your way out of it.

  • Well, I'm not concerned with it being a good story in that sense. I'm more concerned with making it clear what is actually going on. I have a strong feeling it will confuse people. Not the characters motivations but rather what he actually is. Another important thing is that while he did create them, he has no supreme power over them. In fact, there are characters that can (and do) do things are far superior to his abilities. If anything, I would say that later on in the story (this is just a minor beginning story that's not very long) he loses whatever control he had. – The Great Duck Nov 26 '16 at 21:15
  • If anything, I would say his power comes not from literal abilities or supreme power but rather because he is devious and convinced powerful people to follow him and tricked them into believing he could help them take over. If anything, I would say his powers aren't much higher than that of a powerful sorcerer or mage. His real influence comes from the figurehead status he takes advantage of with the main villain of the game and with convincing the heroes to fall into his plan. Thank you for the answer though. This definitely points out a lot of issues I never thought of. – The Great Duck Nov 26 '16 at 21:21
  • Referring to your first paragraph: This isn't a device used to mindlessly explain everything. This is the intended story. It's meant for there to be hints dropped throughout. Think more on the lines of clash of the Titans with the Kraken. If memory serves right (you made me think of Greek mythology), you never find out Hades is the one causing everything until the very end of the story or close to it. That's the idea of the story. It's not a "here a god shows up and ends the story". It's more like "guess what, that guy over there has been deceiving you the whole time.". – The Great Duck Nov 26 '16 at 21:27
  • Sounds vaguely like a shaggy dog story. But it still sounds extremely confusing. The think you need to appreciate is that stories have structure. Story structure appears to be written in our DNA. Stories are how we understand everything, so if your narrative does not fit story structure it will inherently be confusing because understanding is about fitting what we see or hear to the basic story patterns in our minds. The fact that all of us have trouble understanding what you are trying to convey is a strong indication that it is not, in fact, understandable. It does not conform to story logic – Mark Baker Nov 27 '16 at 2:12
  • Or maybe I'm just bad at explaining myself. – The Great Duck Nov 27 '16 at 3:03
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I would really like to provide an answer to this, but, like the others, I'm not clear on what it is that you are asking for. And I know that this isn't the usual structure for an answer, but I think this needs to be said to help clear some confusion (and it's far too long to fit into a comment) - and once it's clearer I'll happily delete this.

Can you please clarify what it is you are asking.

As it stands, my understanding of it is this:

  • You are working on scripting/editing a video game
  • The main scope of it is that it's a video game about a video game

For me, where the confusion starts is:

  • Do the protagonists (Characters) know that they are a part of a game/programmed reality (ala Morpheus in the Matrix)
  • Are they self-aware enough to identify themselves as PC's and recognize others as NPC's - hence giving the ability to break the fourth wall (i.e. The Bard in The Bard's Tale)

  • What is the Secret that you mention? Context would help greatly

  • How is the programmer evil? If your definition of evil revolves around a programmer creating a game/setting/happenings - then every GM ever is also evil.

Also, my two biggest issues:

Now the problem with this is a large chunk of the story is not meant to be taken incredibly serious. It's meant to be funny and so the character's presence is generally written off as a fourth wall joke. In fact to make it even more confusing, the character is even supposed to be, in essence, the same person who originally made the game, but just a different version of them that has no relevancy to real life other than having the same name. In essence, the 4th wall is meant to serve as a red herring so people don't realize the truth until it is revealed.

If it's not to be taken seriously, and isn't considered important - why is it being included? Sometimes, Less really is More - especially in video games. If it's designed for enjoyment, not a lot of people care about the backstory too much - they're more interested in exploring the game itself.

And secondly, you keep talking about wanting to break the 4th wall, but then say that the 4th wall is a red herring and doesn't really exist/matter. Either you are struggling with the idea of what the 4th wall is, or don't fully understand what a red herring is.

Deadpool, LICD, Ctrl Alt Del, The Bard's Tale, most Lucas Arts games (i.e. Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle etc), even Skyrim ("Let me guess, someone stole your sweetroll?") toy with the 4th wall...it might be worth going back and looking at some of these to give you a starting point.

  • I was in the process of answering. You misunderstand. The 4th wall is used to confuse the audience, and to some extent not make so obvious. If a character in a video game calls himself "the programmer" (or something similar for the most part) you're either going to think it's the 4th wall, or they're this worlds equivalent of a deity. Reread the question. I edited right after I commented. – The Great Duck Oct 26 '16 at 1:17
  • In fact, I would argue quite vividly to no end that it's just really twisted sci-fi. Or maybe realism if it's not "advanced enough" to be sci-fi genre. They think they're in video game, but the villain makes them believe it's a video game being attacked by viruses and that it is no longer working even remotely properly. It's a blatant lie. Like I said, the programmer didn't make a video game. One could call it a "game", but I'd also say that person is stretching the definition of "game". Calling it a "game" in some contexts is most certainly meant as a blatant insult towards the characters. – The Great Duck Oct 26 '16 at 1:20
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    @TheGreatDuck Honestly, I think what you're aiming for is something which might, possibly, work in a movie, where the entire narrative is controlled by the writer, but in a video game where the narrative is controlled to some extent by the player's choices, I'm not sure how you can make this work. You can see how much explanation it's required just here, to get the idea across, without any attempt to tell a story. Your idea may be too ambitious for the medium. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 27 '16 at 11:29
  • @LaurenIpsum I don't see what I am doing that is even remotely "ambitious". You misunderstand what I say and try to twist it to mean something different. I never said that the villain is the actual developer. I'm saying it's just a game set in a universe where the villain is the creator of that universe. I don't see how that is ambitious. The issue here is that because the medium this story is made within is a game there is the distinct and real possibility that naive audience members might jump to the flawed conclusion that "I am breaking the 4th wall" because they just assume it to be so. – The Great Duck Nov 25 '16 at 23:00
  • @TheGreatDuck The point I'm trying to make is that if it's so hard for you to explain what you want to do here, in print, outside the game, in a meta fashion, how are you going to pull it off in the game? I still literally don't understand the premise of your question (that is, what you want to accomplish). That's what I mean by "too ambitious." – Lauren Ipsum Nov 25 '16 at 23:52
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I don't know games, but comic books play with 4th wall breaking a lot -- it's part of what makes Deadpool & She-Hulk so powerful.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She-Hulk#Breaking_the_fourth_wall

Since in the Marvel universe, the readers-reading-the-comics-in-our-hands is one of many specific universes (most adventures, the "baseline" inside a Marvel comic, is Universe 616), which is similar perhaps to your "layers" of reality in games.

A lot of it depends on what your reveals have been all along.

One of my favorite techniques of establishing "reality" in fiction is realistic snippets of other media -- in Stephen King's Carrie, the original novel has snippets of news articles. Perhaps a snippet of a Wikipedia entry explaining the day the big simulation was revealed? And a Buzzfeed Listicle about top tweets about the SimulationThingie? One tv network denying it, one with a scientist showing how it's so clearly logical...?

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If you want the Big Reveal to be taken seriously, just present it as such. Make it serious. A 4th wall break cannot happen unless you specifically want it. Sure, some of your players will smirk and think "oh, so this is what your aiming at".

But it will be clear that it's not played for jokes, or meta-gaming, if -as you said- the plot is coherent. Being coherent implies showing real struggle and real character development in face of this major reveal. How can it be humor, if the main character is shown to be devastated by the realization?

Major, flashing red spoiler alert from Supergiant's game, Transistor:

Every character in the game is an AI or a form of digitally-conserved mind. This is heavily implied in all the game and in the mechanics as well, as you can "save" dead people and interact with them as "functions" (aka skills) of your sword.

Yet there isn't a thing remotely resembling meta-narrative in the game. Everything is played face-value.

So your idea is perfectly viable as it is. The fact that your villain, the programmer, programmed your game-in-the-game, doesn't means that you are automatically going meta; nor the programmer has to be someone actually existing in our reality.

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