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How To Eat Your Cake: Consortium And The Fourth Wall

With a spoon?

We can't keep saying video games are a young medium. We've been saying it since I was your age (or since you were mine, if that fits better), and besides, the last few years have finally shown that there's plenty of room for games that do more than idly amuse us. Consortium is one such game.

Unlike any RPG I can name, Consortium throws you in with no map, no introductory cutscenes or tutorial. When you start, you don't choose a character, you sign a disclaimer. It's disorientating and strange, and immediately different, dedicated fully to its central conceit; you the player are accessing a satellite, provided by the developer, iDGi, that allows you to control a man known as Bishop 6, on board an aircraft, in the year 2042.

It nails role playing as a person in a specific situation, to an extent no other game has. Paradoxically, it achieves this by telling you nothing.

On hearing my blather, a housemate described it as "like Quantum Leap", and with two caveats, that's not a bad comparison. First, you only jump into one person, and second, there's no Al or Ziggy to guide you or tell anecdotes about various wives, and no compulsion to do good, or indeed, to do anything, beyond what is normally expected of Bishop 6.

Other characters can't be interrogated for exposition, as you're supposed to know this stuff. This isn't a world waiting for a generic adventurer to show up for a guided tour; it's an important place of work, and you're an integral part of it. Asking too many daft questions will make you look incompetent or stupid, which only makes crewmates worry and mistrust you. You can still do it though. You can be as stupid or unpleasant as you like. The game won't judge you, although individual characters might.

Consortium casts aside some of the genre's most common conventions, but it doesn't tear down the medium or the hobby. Several characters are keen gamers, openly chatting about their world's videogames, including some about your employers, the titular Consortium, like soldiers playing CoD, or HR staff playing Advanced Moron Simulator. They do this conversationally, resisting the temptation to thrust a hand into the air and go "ooh, that's like the videogame you're playing right now!"

Neither does it fall into that awkward groove that (for example) Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops The Line fell into, clumsily critiquing their genre by forcing the player to act like a horrible fool, then calling the player out for being a horrible fool. As some big wally or other said, such games want to have their cake and eat it. "Are you not entertained?", they cry, somehow ignoring the possibility that we're grown people who are well aware that shooting thousands of people for fun would not be plausible or morally acceptable in the real world. It doesn't work. Yes, we are entertained, and what's more, I for one don't feel the least bit bad for that. You're not real, Maximus, and attacking us for taking part only draws more attention to that.

There's no shortage of ambitious games content to explore storytelling techniques without insulting the player, either, but all too often the ludo- complement to the -narrative feels almost as flat and restrictive as... well, Ludo. We've surely all played a game with a story so intrusive, incongruent, or our options so restricted, that all impact or sense of agency was lost. While it's easy and sometimes fair to blame bad writing, I'd say a more significant culprit is simply an inadequate grasp of the medium, and how we like to experience it.

Even the generally great Deus Ex Human Revolution fell flat there when it revealed the dramatic consequences of slacking before starting its opening mission. Uh, hell yeah I dawdled in the lobby. It's Deus Ex! I was checking every inch of the level for secrets, and/or seeing what happened if I jumped off the third floor onto a receptionist's head. Duh. By contrast, iDGi know how we play games, and rather than judge us for it, they embraced it, and integrated it into the core concept of their game.

In this world, they're allowing you to do what you like. Most actions you carry out affect events in some way, and any result is as valid to them as any other. See, they're interested in exploring possible futures, and each time you act, you create a new one. You're confronted with several mysteries as you go, but provided you stay alive, there's no right course of action. Every play through is as useful as any other, because they're all possibilities.

This extra layer of plot between you as the dimension-jumping controller of Bishop 6, and you as the person sat at a PC, provides protection against that jarring moment where a developer tries to get clever with the fourth wall, but rather than impressing, succeeds only in clumsily reminding you that you're a neurotic weirdo sat at a stupid whirring box of circuits, pawing at lumps of plastic like an idiot. It keeps you from reloading the game any time a conversation option didn't get you the reward you wanted - these are people, not devices to feed you the next stage of a quest, and however you interact, they'll give you something back. Even when you've finished, your game will be saved as a numbered universe, readily annotated with details of your actions.

Take one conversation with a young crewmate. He enthuses about just meeting a real live Bishop, and offers to make you a coffee, practically humping your leg. React with bemusement or disdain (saying nothing is always an option, as is simply walking away), and a nearby officer will make a wry remark about him having played too many video games. But it's a good-natured, accurate comment. It's neither a jab at gamers nor a clever pat on its own back for identifying that HEY GUYS THIS IS A VIDEOGAME HO HO. It's just a story acknowledging that games exist, as it does with tv, films, and books, and yeah, there would totally be games about the Consortium if it were real.

Later, another NPC might take you aside conspiratorially and hint that they knew what's really going on with you. And then you might tell them you're from another dimension and they flip out, thinking you're mocking them. There's your relationship with them marred, and any opportunity to find out what they were really talking about gone. Oops. With very few exceptions, it knows exactly when and how far to nudge the fourth wall to explore a plot point or tease a mystery, and when to leave it alone to maintain the illusion.

What's most remarkable is that this is all done in service of the game. Its encouragement of, and the wealth of alternative material provided by multiple playthroughs keep you invested - you can always make that decision differently next time, and it'll likely offer a new experience. The notion that you're secretly controlling this person drops you square into that situation with no information but what you can figure out through context. The practical setup brings added subtext to several events - when characters start dropping hints that they know a secret about you, you're not pulled out of the game by an NPC having an existential crisis; instead, you're hit with multiple reasons to be paranoid. Do they know you're not who you claim to be? Is there something about Bishop 6 that I need to know? Is that creepy story in the news relevant or just flavour text? Why am I being allowed to do this, anyway?

None of this would work in another medium. Consortium offers a solid sample of what we've been saying games have the potential to do for a generation. That it's also an entertaining game in its own right certainly doesn't hurt, and with the questions it leaves unanswered and talk of a sequel, it might just be a stepping stone to something truly special.

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