Cheap Trick: 'The Magnificant Trufflepigs' and Unreliable Narrators

When the mental illness is just the predictable twist.

Aug 24 2021, 1:00pm

The Magnificent Trufflepigs is a game with a great name and a better premise: a first-person, romantic, metal-detecting narrative game set in the beautiful English countryside. As I am an Englishwoman who loves romance this should have been, as we say over here, right up my street. But after the four or so hours it took me to roll credits, what was pitched as a wholesome story turned out to be not only disappointing but deeply uncomfortable, in a way that illustrates several problems with the ways in which video game stories are told and sold.

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So, let’s talk about plot twists and unreliable narrators. I am going to have to spoil The Magnificent Trufflepigs, but know that I do so in the belief that it won’t ruin the experience of playing it, because as far as I’m concerned the shock reveal is the worst thing about this game.

Here’s the forewarning I didn’t get: this “romantic” drama set in a quaint English village is actually about mental illness.

The Magnificent Trufflepigs tells the story of a keen metal detectorist called Beth, searching farm fields for an earring to match the one she fondly remembers finding as a child. When her friends decline to join her, she turns instead to someone from her past whom they disparagingly refer to as “that Adam” but Beth insists is “a friend, nothing else”.

You play as “that Adam”, walking the fields with detector in hand, texting Beth photos of the trinkets you find, and chatting via walkie-talkie.

As you talk, you learn more about Beth’s life: her mother died relatively young and she worries about getting stuck in this village, she works for the family business but keeps making mistakes, and she hasn’t told anyone that her fiancé has left her. She says she’s never been as happy as she was when she found that earring, and hopes that finding its partner, with your help, will somehow fix things.

About halfway through the game you discover that first earring was planted by her overprotective parents, which, on its own, is exactly the kind of small-scale relatable drama I want to see more in games. But then, after Beth spends the second half of the game trying to cope with the ramifications of that realisation, the story ends by revealing its bigger twist: Adam isn’t real. He is, as he calls himself, a “ventriloquist’s dummy” who tells her things she doesn’t want to hear, and whose return Beth admits is “bad news”.

At first, this twist appears to fit rather neatly with the obvious budget limitations: while the environments are lovely, especially to me in their familiarity, there are no character models. No hands hold the detector, spade, or walkie-talkie, and the objects you photograph appear to be floating. When Beth and Adam regroup for lunch the camera just pans around Beth’s parked car. So when she finally says, “It’s not like I don’t know who… what you are. I know it’s always me speaking,” it does kind of make sense. After all, you never actually see either character.

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But here’s the thing: you do see their texts. That she hears voices in her head is one thing, unexpected but explainable, but you also at one point stand in a field and watch Beth drive her van up to the gate so you can join her inside it. 

Twists are supposed to make you recontextualise evidence for one story as evidence for another. But the clues in this game feel half-hearted and sometimes contradictory. Sure, it makes more sense now that for most of the game you’re the only one detecting anything. But then Beth texts you a photo of a bangle she’s found. She occasionally hints at Adam’s nature, saying she doesn’t think anyone will see him, but without any other people actually appearing in the game it doesn’t have the same impact as, for example, revisiting the scene from Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis is late to his anniversary dinner.

The ways these twists play out in cinema is a useful comparison. The main difference, aside from the lack of interactivity, is the realism. In a live-action film, the world generally looks more or less like the one in which we live, and follows the same rules: Bruce Willis looks like a corporeal person who belongs in the realistic world of the film in the same way as the other characters do, so the surprise reveal that he’s actually a dead man walking is really effective. 

In Trufflepigs, however, and other games that cannot afford to present a fully realized world, we find ourselves filling in the blanks ourselves, and cannot so comfortably fall back on the kinds of assumptions about the way the world works that these plot twists are meant to subvert. When the illusion is only partly constructed by the creators, and partly held together in the player’s head, it’s much less effective when it falls away.

So instead of making clever narrative use of its limitations, this game instead, frustratingly, highlights the pitfalls of the medium. Look, perhaps I should have realised that I wasn’t getting my romance when Adam and Beth continued to forego obvious opportunities for flirting and innuendo, and in fact Adam started to get quite mean (though that didn’t stop Mr Darcy). But given we don’t get many first-person romantic dramas in video games, no doubt in part because it’s a genre popular with women, I still couldn’t help but be disappointed. (And I’m going to go ahead and presume that someone behind this game has realised that marketing it as “romantic” was a misstep. Some time in the two weeks after release, that word was removed from the Steam description.)

The bait and switch was especially jarring given what we got instead. Even if the vague references further down the Steam page that “all may not be as it seems” prompt you to expect a twist (and then to expect another beyond learning the fruitlessness of Beth’s detecting quest), the use of mental illness for a shock reveal feels at best unnecessary and at worst crass, especially if you are or know someone who hears voices.

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As Katherine Cross wrote on a similar plot point in Draugen, “What feels particularly noxious here is the reduction of a lived experience, an identity, to a ‘twist’.” At least one critic has suggested an alternative interpretation of Trufflepigs, that Adam is a real person but these conversations are imagined, but as with Draugen that ambiguity feels customary with, as Cross describes them, “ham-handed portrayals that attempt to turn such things into ‘art’.”

With Trufflepigs, this reveal felt even more uncomfortable because I played the game in public, on Twitch, where I emphasised the promise of romance that had so intrigued me and made fun of the characters. We even joked that either Beth or Adam was imaginary, though didn’t take it seriously because of all the evidence to the contrary. But as the game ended I was trying to figure out how to express my discomfort, knowing full well that at least one person watching had a close family member who hears voices that tell her things she doesn’t want to hear.

And I don’t mean to imply that developers should always pander to players. I often love when games subvert expectations, like Before I Forget, which is upfront about its story of mental illness but nevertheless has managed to surprise players who expected to be able to “win” protagonist Sunita’s unsuccessful search for a toilet. Trufflepigs wears its Firewatch influences on its sleeve, but the latter handles its twists much better: the protagonist’s struggles are explicit and not used for shock value, what seems sinister is revealed to be mundane rather than the reverse, and even the stalled romance makes sense.

I’ve written before about the trend of unreliable narrators in games. Her Story developer Sam Barlow told me he considers the narrative device to be somewhat interactive even in linear fiction like books, because in questioning the reader takes on a more active role. But I think the unique relationship between player and player character can make it especially effective in games. It is jarring to realise you did not have all the information about the character you’ve embodied, and to recontextualise your own actions. As I wrote in my book about using video games to explore philosophical thought experiments, the use of the unreliable narrator in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Spec Ops: The Line can even prompt an interesting discussion about Cartesian scepticism: that unique relationship between player and player character helps us to imagine what it is like to have an experience that seems to provide true information about the world but doesn’t, which can lead you down the kind of philosophical skepticism rabbit hole that makes you question literally everything. 

Astrologaster writer Katharine Neil borrows the Rumsfeldian phrase “known unknowns”: the player has to know that there is something they don’t know. So Draugen, for all its faults, does at least directly reference an “increasingly unreliable narrator” in its marketing materials. And with Barlow’s games, Her Story and Telling Lies, the unreliability is expected because of the involvement of police witnesses and spies, and the player gets to figure out the truth for themselves rather than have it told to them. The Magnificent Trufflepigs promises to let us invest in a budding romantic relationship, and then yanks the rug out from under us by explaining that there is no relationship at all, and becomes yet another game that uses a character's mental illness to sell a poorly established and doubtfully executed plot twist. 

Tagged:

mental illness, Adventure Games, The Magnificent Trufflepigs

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