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Games tend to be very trustworthy--good guys are good, bad guys are bad. What you see and perceive is real. Sometimes characters are betrayed, but the player never is.—Ken Levine to Gamespot
The above quote from Ken Levine describes the standard relationship between a Video Game and said game's players. Games won't deceive you, Villains Never Lie (or if they do, it is obvious) and you're the one pulling the strings. Characters' expectations will be Subverted but yours will not be.
As such, the common relationship between the player and the game constitutes a trope. Therefore, it can be played with.
Playing the Player is a Video Game plot device that occurs when this common relationship is played with in a manner designed to make the player uncomfortable.
There are quite a few ways to do this. Most involve deliberate deception of the player (not just the player character). But it has to be a significant betrayal of the player's expectations in order to qualify, and this betrayal must be intended to make the player squirm. And this is not the only manner in which a game can do this. By definition, the game has to have a level of understanding about how players relate to it in order to pull this off.
Seinfeld Is Unfunny also applies to this trope. To someone that has played, for instance, Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty or Bioshock, Final Fantasy VII does not seem to betray the player in a shocking way. Of course, to someone that has spent their time with only the earlier Final Fantasy games and no other games, Final Fantasy VII would come as quite a shock. In short, it depends significantly on a player's initial expectations. Arguably, as the "standard" (i.e. expected) relationship between a player and a game changes, there will be evolution in what a game has to do to qualify for this trope.
This trope is often easy to implement in a First-Person Shooter because players will have a tendency to see their player character as themselves. Needless to say, most First-Person Shooter games do not use this trope. However, it can be implemented in less immersive perspectives by having an Audience Surrogate character.
This trope is frequently seen in deconstructions but in and of itself, it is not necessarily a deconstruction. Additionally, this is not the same as having No Fourth Wall. Also, this trope deals often deals with plot details, so spoilers ahead.
- Final Fantasy VII is one of the earliest examples. While it doesn't take place in first person, the player is represented by Cloud Strife, initially presented as an Escapist Character. As the game continues, it turns out that Cloud is a pathetically-insecure kid that is desperate to impress his girlfriend and deludes himself into thinking that he is a Badass Super Soldier. In short, Cloud's relationship with Zack Fair (the man Cloud is basing his Badass personality on) is basically the relationship that the player is having with Cloud (If this sounds vaguely dirty to you, you are not alone). Not only that, but Cloud is constantly deceived and manipulated by the villains during the course of the game.
- Final Fantasy X, too. The Hero Tidus washes up on a beach, meets the White Magician Girl who is the next chosen person to defeat Sin, and agrees to help her on her pilgrimage, fighting off the Corrupt Church and their pet Nietzsche Wannabe. Standard RPG plot. Wanna know the ending? Said church was formed by Yu Yevon 1000 years ago during a war. He turned his people into Fayth, which then summoned a Dream Zanarkand (Yevon's city) and Sin, as a vehicle for Yevon, which then destroyed the original Zanarkand. Fortunately, Yevon's daughter Yunalesca was on hand to turn her husband into an Aeon and stop daddy dearest. Until he turned the Aeon into the new Sin, so the world is stuck in a vicious cycle - not to mention Yunalesca died (she appears as an Unsent (read:ghost)) - so every chosen person is doomed. Eventually the Fayth got tired of dreaming and summoned Tidus to stop Sin for good - and he disappears at the end.
- Stray Souls Dollhouse Story: The protagonist is the wife of a Distressed Dude, and she drives after him. She crashes in a weird town full of dolls plagued by a serial killer... the killer's gonna have a doll theme, and the protagonist will have an epic showdown with The Starscream, right? Wrong. The killer is the evil half of the Distressed Dude, who has a Literal Split Personality. He was separated by orphanage director James Morgan, who killed his parents to take him away, before splitting him by accident. He was the killer's first victim. She puts him back together, then burns the clown doll that killed the Hunts. The demon escapes and destroys the town, but half the living characters (all the humans) escaped.
- Tales (series) has the first few hours as a Cliché Storm, before providing a Wham! Episode.
- In Ghost Trick, the one thing you think you know is what Sissel looks like, since the corpse is so blatantly obvious in the first ten seconds of the game and is also the picture on the box. But the yellow-haired man in the red suit isn't Sissel. Sissel was actually the man's pet cat (who was in the box right behind the man's corpse), and the red-suited man is the game's Big Bad. Sissel just assumed he was the red-suited man since it was the first corpse he saw.
- System Shock 2 is infamous for doing this. The game begins with you waking up from cryo-sleep with cybernetic implants stuffed into your head and throws you into a spaceship overrun with aliens. Sounds relatively standard so far. Until you discover that Mission Control is really the Big Bad of the first game and lied to you by assuming the identity of someone else. Oh, and said villain tampered with your memory restoration. Said villain remains as Mission Control, declaring that your only chance to survive is to destroy the alien infestation with her help. So you go along with the plan, as she creepily dotes on you and declares you to be her "avatar" (or more correctly, pawn). Her Plan just happens to involve using you to gain control of some reality-warping technology and then discarding you afterwards.
- A particularly disturbing part of this is how SHODAN actually had you rendered unconscious and then stuffed your cranium with implants without your consent. Combined with the dominatrix overtones of her characterization, you get a situation where the game is metaphorically raping the player. The advertising of the game even has a picture of her with the caption "she doesn't need to use her body to get what she wants... she's got yours."
- Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty. The plot of the game is a Deconstruction of how some people played its prequel as a power fantasy. Oh, so you wish you were just like Solid Snake huh? Well, Be Careful What You Wish For barely describes what this game does to the player. After hours of having the player proxy Raiden humiliated, beaten up, and annoyed by his girlfriend, the player eventually gets their Wish Fulfillment... during a segment of the game that takes place in wireframe with the specific purpose of reminding the player that they are playing a video game rather than actually kicking ass. And then, the game reveals that every event preceeding this was actually part of a mind-control experiment designed to turn Raiden/the player (its deliberately ambiguous) into Solid Snake; explaining why several areas and sequences within the game are copies of parts from the original game. Basically, the game shows you exactly what it would be like to be a deceived, manipulated, backstabbed and controlled Blood Knight Super Soldier. It would not be fun.
- It gets better than that. The ultimate goal of the villains is to demonstrate that they can control human thought and behaviour. Thus, they created a scenario very similar to that of the previous game in the series and placed Raiden in the middle of it, hoping to prove that by putting someone in the middle of an extreme situation and providing the appropriate context for his actions, they can make him do whatever he wants. Thus, for most of the game Raiden (and by extension the player) believes that he is a member of a FOX-HOUND sent in to resolve a crisis very similar to that of the first game, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary - they have only the villains' word that this is the case. Even after it's revealed that Raiden has been acting under the orders of the villains for the entirety of the game, he still goes along with their instructions - and so does the player. The fact that neither Raiden nor the player has any choice but to follow their instructions is one of the major points of the game.
- Bioshock does this brutally, as part of a Genre Deconstruction of the Shooter-Role Playing Game hybrids such as System Shock, System Shock 2 and Deus Ex; all of which claimed to offer unprecedented player freedom. You actually have very little at all and this game makes it quite clear. Your character is under mind control the whole time and has false memories, Mission Control is controlling you with a trigger phrase. Death Is a Slap on The Wrist because the vita-chambers are wired to your genetic code (as the son of Ryan). Notice This is a byproduct of the mind control. Considering that the game was marketed as offerring unprecedented levels of player choice, this was a pretty mean thing to do to the player.
- Doubly clever, since the player mindlessly follows Atlas' orders under the assumption that they're the only way to progress in the game, as one does in nearly every video game. However, the game takes a usual video game Acceptable Break From Reality and then repapers the fourth wall to explain in-game why Jack is doing everything this guy he barely knows and has never met orders him to do.
- Silent Hill: Shattered Memories has you playing as a man named Harry Mason as he searches for his lost daughter Cheryl. In a major plot twist, it's revealed to both Harry and the player that Harry (or at least the one you play as) doesn't even exist, and he's only a delusion in Cheryl's mind. The real Harry died many years ago in a car accident.
- It's also worth noting that the game markets "playing the player" as one of its features, "reading" the player's psyche through their actions in the game (as well as in a number of flat-out therapy sessions with an in-game character), and aspects of the game change according to the player's behavior. In actuality, though, it's really more of a subtle "choose your own adventure" system, where different types of behavior lead to different versions of the game's events, including the Multiple Endings.
- Silent Hill in general is a Mind Screw, what with all the horror and Paranoia Fuel.
- Silent Hill 2 plays this trope straight, while the other games in the series (aside from Shattered Memories) do not. In Silent Hill 2, the protagonist, a sad bloke the player usually has significant sympathy for, is revealed to have murdered his wife and is receiving a karmic beatdown he well deserves. The player and character discover this at the same time, leading to horror for both alike.
- The Alternate Reality Game Majestic was marketed as "the game that plays you". As an Alternate Reality Game, it presented itself as part of Real Life and many of the people that played the game reported being rendered completely paranoid during the time they played it. Indeed, "messing with the guy that plays Majestic" became an office hobby during the time the game was operating. The game began with the player receiving news that the developers had been killed, and it only got worse from there. Since the game focused on Conspiracy Theory material, the player being constantly lied to makes sense.
- Heavy Rain does this to the player regarding the identity of the killer. The killer is one of the player characters that you control and said character's thoughts do not directly allude to his deeds except in hindsight. You control the character under the assumption that his actions are to solve the mystery, when in reality he's trying to find his Jack the Ripoff and collect and destroy any remaining evidence.
- Nie R is arguably an example, at least on subsequent playthroughs. First time one plays through, its a typical Eastern RPG. Fight the monstrous Shades, save your daughter, defeat The Shadowlord and Happy Ending ensues. But then, you start your second playthrough with the ability to understand the Black Speech of the Shades. Suddenly the entire tone of the game shifts. It turns out most of the Shades are innocent victims who are just trying to defend themselves, many of the game's antagonists are seriously provoked, and to them you are the monster. You're cutting them down, killing their children, invading their homes... you did this on your first playthrough too, but your limited perspective kept you from this.
- Haze attempted to play this trope straight. The game has you as a trooper for the Mantel Corporation, jacked up on a performance-enhancing supplement called "Nectar" and fighting a guerrila-terrorist army led by a madman that wears human skin. Of course, Nectar is really an hallucinogenic mind-control Psycho Serum that blinds you to the fact that you're really a mass-murderer drug-junkie treating war as if it were a game of Halo. This might have been a shocking twist and a highly effective deception of the player...if it weren't revealed on the back of the box and in all the game's publicity for months before release, and if the supposed good guys weren't basically carrying around giant signs saying "hey, I'm a totally evil bastard, me" in flashing neon. Not a bad idea, but the execution was lacking, and it didn't help that the gameplay doesn't hold up terribly well.
- Many feel that the depth of Shadow of the Colossus deals with this trope. Players are used to being the good guy out to destroy the evil monsters. This seems to be the case at the start of the game, but as time goes on, the hero's appearance begins changing, becoming ragged and dark, and some of the monsters you defeat seem benign or even peaceful. One won't even attack you. The player must confront his or her own feelings of the morality of continuing to play the game.
- The big turning point probably comes after killing Phalanx (#13), a truly majestic creature that never once tries to attack the player. As this is also around the time the plot kicks in, it counts as somewhat of a Wham! Episode.
- Braid: The player is lead to believe that Tim is trying to Save the Princess, but the ending heavily implies that she's actually running away from him or is a metaphor for something else.
- Tower Defense game Gemcraft: Chapter Zero is a fairly mild version. The Player should be wary of the premise of the game (a sorcerer seeking the ultimate MacGuffin) since it's a prequel, and the boss-fights are named ancient guardians, but overall the player identifies with the main character, wanting to beat all of the levels. Then you get to the very last stage and have to free the MacGuffin from a seal. Destroying the seal unleashes the Sealed Evil in a Can that possesses you and necessitating the character of the original Gemcraft game to come along and clean up the mess you made. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!
- Jade Empire does this masterfully. At the beginning of the game, there is a lot of talk about how you are Master Li's favourite pupil, how Gao the Lesser feels slighted by the extra attention you get, how there's a flaw that isn't a flaw in your style, which makes it really special, and you're sent off to get a hold of the usual Plot Coupon and so on. All pretty conventional for an RPG. After Li's betrayal you realise that everything was true. You were the favourite pupil, and everyone else was grudgingly admitted to the school, so their tuition fees could fund your training. Gao the Lesser had a legitimate grievance against you (even if his reaction was a bit over the top). Li rigged your duel with Gao the Lesser and set him up to overhear your conversation, knowing that the chase would lead you out of the village at the time of the attack. The flaw in your style was a flaw, enabling Li to kill you and take aforementioned Plot Coupon for himself, which was his goal all along. Mind Screw Royale, dudes.
- Baten Kaitos is an example where you don't play as the main character, Kalas, but as a Spirit Guardian who guides and empowers him. Kalas often has conversations with you, and your responses affect the level of power you grant him in battle. At the beginning, it is touched upon that you (the Spirit Guardian) have amnesia. You assume this is a standard plot device to allow infodumps on the world. In actual fact, Kalas is The Mole and orchestrated your memory wipe because you disagreed with his plans, but he needed your Plot Armor.
- Baten Kaitos Origins does something similar. As before, you don't control Sagi, but his Guardian Spirit instead. At the beginning, you can overhear that Sagi's guardian spirit is a bit different from other spirits. This is forgotten...until a few dozen hours later, where it's revealed that Sagi's guardian spirit is actually a piece of a dead god implanted into his heart, and the personality is that of Marno, a man who died a thousand years ago. The bizarre flashbacks Sagi has been experiencing are him reliving Marno's memories in flashback form, showing how he came to be.
- Ever 17: What the main characters you play from the perspective of even look like is false.
- Designer Suda 51 is fond of screwing with the player.
- Eversion doesn't so much play the player as it sends the player into gibbering madness.
- Portal 2 has fun with this by setting up the player's expectations and then messing with them. Storywise, by pulling the rug out from under the characterization halfway through, turning the game from a straightforward "defeat the villain" plot into a case of Evil Versus Evil. Gameplay-wise, by forcing you into a Violation of Common Sense to get several achievements and correspondingly mocking you for doing whatever you're told, no matter how likely it is to be a trap. This despite the fact that the game is purely linear and you have no choice but to do these things.
- The original Portal pulled this off masterfully. The first people to play it assumed, given the short length and gimicky premise, that this was a straightforward Puzzle Game with the amusing, slightly-glitchy computerised Mission Control serving as nothing more than an excuse for a Justified Tutorial of sorts. Then she tries to Kill Them With Fire, and suddenly everyone realises she's the Big Bad.
- Last Scenario lies to the player in the opening Info Dump, so as to make The Reveal all the more shocking.
- Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance reveals rather early on that there is a mole in the player's party, but who they are is ambiguous. Potential candidates include Volke and Nasir, based on the timing of the reveal, but when Soren confronts the latter over the possibility during a mid-game conversation, Nasir basically shrugs him off and implies that Soren is hiding something. It turns out to have been Nasir all along, but the game does a really good job of making it ambiguous as to who the real one is: to the extent that you may not be using either of the playable units under suspicion until it all clears up for fear of them backstabbing you mid-chapter.
- It doesn't help that FE8 had exactly that happen, so people who played that game knew that the developers weren't above such trickery.
- Arguably the campaign of Call of Duty Black Ops could also count as an example. While the main protagonist, Mason, isn't silent or faceless, the player is still encouraged to identify with him, as almost all the missions take place from his POV. Throughout the game, you constantly see and interact with Reznov, one of the main characters from World At War, as he encourages Mason to take out the three main villains at any cost. The player, who can only see what Mason observes, unless they are playing as Hudson, simply take Reznov's word for it, like Mason. However, there are subtle hints throughout the game that not all is as it appears, as no one else, minus the interrogater, who is Hudson, even acknowledge Reznov's appearance. One even asks what is wrong with you. As it turns out in the big reveal, Reznov was never by your side. He had instead hijacked a brainwashing attempt on you in order to take revenge on the three main villains, hence his constant quote, "Dragovich, Kravchenko, Steiner. All must die", whenever he appears, and why only you acknowledge his presence. Indeed you were just simply following his commands, not unlike the protagonist from Bioshock, when you thought you were in complete control. It's quite a Mind Screw.
- Being of the mystery genre, it's no wonder the Ace Attorney series pulls this from time to time. The most shining example is the final case of the second game: apart from your assistant being kidnapped, its set up like a petty formulaic case, all the evidence points to your client, but they really don't look the type to commit murder. Meanwhile you have a witness who seems to know a lot more than she's letting on. There's a dark secret hidden behind everything, which could form a plausable motive for her. Pretty typical, you'd probably be thinking. Except your client really IS guilty this time, and not only that, he's one hell of a Complete Monster. You confront him in prison and he taunts you by casually revealing everything, but also saying you'll never get him because he had your friend taken hostage. He's so succesful at being a Magnificant Bastard that not only Phoenix, but also the PLAYER feels like he played them. Meanwhile, that witness I mentioned? Completley and utterly innocent. Not only that, but she has some pretty crippling co-dependancy issues, making her all the more of a Woobie. But you've done such a convincing job of revealing her frame-up, (basically, the thing you've been doing for the last game-and-a-half) you've utterly convinced the court that she's the prime suspect! And you have to keep it up, otherwise your friend will be killed. To further drive the point home, late in the case, Phoenix is given a choice of whether to plea guilty or innocent for his client. He is interrupted by a Big Damn Heroes either way, so the choice doesn't impact the plot at all. So, basically, the Sadistic Choice is posed to the player: would you rather have a Complete Monster go free and an innocent woman convicted, but save your friend, or would you see justice is served but effectively condemn said friend to death? Needless to say, the entire case is one big Heroic BSOD for Phoenix, even though it ends well.
- Several other cases do this to a minor degree:
- Turnabout Samurai (Ace Attorney): The victim was actually the one with the motive, not the killer. It was a case of self-defence.
- Turnabout Big Top (Justice For All): The killer was pretty much the most sympathetic figure in the entire case, and the only one in the series to actually feel legitimate guilt over what they've done. Rather than having an over-the-top villainous breakdown, he just bursts into tears. You feel pretty heartless for pursuing him.
- The Stolen Turnabout (Trials and Tribulations): Congratulations! You've managed to prove your client was somewhere else when the theft occured, and implicated someone else. Unfortunately, that places him at the scene of a murder at the exact time it was commited, and you've just given the real killer a perfect alibi! Needless to say, that was his plan all along.
- The Imprisoned Turnabout (Investigations 2): The whole case seems like a total mess, until Edgeworth finally discovers a clear trail leading to a certain someone. You confont him, and... he totally didn't do it. Later on you find out he was the victim of a very good frameup, but by that point, you're actually wishing he WAS guilty. Read on and you'll see why. Your suspicions have now fallen on the warden, but both Edgeworth, and likely the player, are having trouble figuring out their motive. And you should be, because she had none! She was just driven to near insanity by Ryoken, the previously mentioned inmate's, constant threats towards her family, and she had become so paranoid that on merely seeing he and the victim played chess togeather, she concluded the victim MUST have been sent to kill her. Her Villainous Breakdown basically consists of her screaming it's Ryoken who's the evil one and that she didn't do anything wrong. It's a little... unsettling to the player. And it gets worse, in the games final case, you find out there's more to this incident than meets the eye. Specifically, the sweet, timid, wrongly-accused suspect your Defence Attorney friend had been trying to get off the hook? Turns out he's not entirely innocent. Far from it.
- Several other cases do this to a minor degree:
- While Unreliable Narrator is in full effect for what we are told and what we can read in The Elder Scrolls games, the experiences of the player characters are assumed to be as reliable as they can be when told through the medium of a game - your character might have been misled by illusions or lies, but you can be sure those illusions or lies were there (and if time breaks, you can be sure that your character did what he or she seemed to do, just alongside mutually contradictory things). Except for the Thieves' Guild storyline in Oblivion, where late in the story we are told by a reliable source that the player character misremembers a lot of incidents in the storyline - and even potentially some outside it - Corvus Umbranox outright told you who he was, several times, but the curse of the Gray Cowl meant that you forgot it as soon as a little time had passed.
- The final scene of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood does this to the player. After having used the Apple of Eden successfully as Ezio Auditore in the Animus memory sequence, both the player and the protagonist (Desmond) expect that he will be able to use it in the present day. Not so. On picking it up, he is promptly dominated by Juno, told that he must learn more if he is to be of use to her, and then forced to stab his girlfriend. Worse, the game pauses before the fatal moment and tells you to "press any button". So not only did Desmond kill her, so did you.