NOTE: This article was originally published on Gamasutra last month.
2017 in gaming is currently proving superlative. From the alluring and reactive world of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the bold shift in perspective and tone that encapsulates Resident Evil 7, the design choices that have reinvigorated life in particular series and genres bore witness to the positive reception such titles have garnered from critics and fans alike. Suffice it to say that the mid-generation path sundry studios have taken with their IPs engendered an uptick in standout games whose novelty and qualities warranted extensive analysis as seen on outlets such as Extra Credits and Waypoint.
As exciting as the above designs are, one concept personally stood out across several games: a focus on the exploration of the individual that contextualizes gameplay in interesting manners. Whether it’s the dissection of the human condition and how our view of it is challenged in Persona 5 and Nier: Automata, or the presentation of small but potent stories that highlight the qualities of each character in Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch, the first half of 2017 dispensed works that have compelled players to view themselves and the world from a different and more personal perspective.
Indeed, both the AAA and indie scenes have provided titles that have earned universal praise for depicting such narratives. But beneath the recent roundup of highly advertised and regarded releases lies a diamond in the rough, a game that similarly addresses the intricacies of human thought while also setting up its systems and mechanics in a way that is far more than meets the eye. It’s a title that, despite not achieving the same level of attention as the heavy-hitters, harbors its own bag of surprising tricks.
That game is Get Even.
Developed by The Farm 51, Get Even is a psychological thriller that aims to converge elements from different genres including the first-person shooter, exploration games and, to a certain extent, stealth titles. While its execution of various mechanics and scenarios doesn’t always match its ambitions, the game still manages to weave a riveting story that follows the exploits of ex-soldier Cole Black as he tries to piece out the mystery surrounding a kidnapped woman and those responsible for her abduction.
What makes Get Even special, however, extends far beyond the tale it is telling. Through the leveraging of in-game memories and philosophies pertaining to human perception, The Farm 51 has managed to find opportunities to build mechanics and systems around the in-game events and vice-versa. Not only that, but the fashion in which scenarios are portrayed and tackled engenders an unexpected commentary on the approaches the avatar can take to explore their surroundings and overcome their obstacles.
In this analysis article, I will expound the reasons why I believe Get Even’s storytelling-gameplay synergy represents a noteworthy case study for mechanical contextualization. I shall do so by anatomizing both components of the symbiosis in a way that shows the binds holding them together.
NOTE: Because Get Even’s events need to be understood to comprehend the ingenuity of the systems and rules governing the action, SPOILERS will have to be divulged.
Also, the observations I’ll be making may be, in some ways, subjective, so feel free to offer any rebuttals you may have. :)
1) How Gameplay And Audiovisuals Inform The Storytelling
The first major element of Get Even is the aforementioned medley of shooter, exploration and stealth mechanics that will have players recall titles such as Condemned and SOMA. While engaging enough on the surface, the scenarios those gameplay styles offer serve to mold and communicate the narrative in impactful ways, especially via the presentation. Whether the gamer is interacting with their surroundings or faced with human obstacles, myriad mechanical and systemic nuances arise that alert the avatar to the changes they are making both to the virtual space and the storyline.
1a) Audiovisual cues seamlessly indicates the avatar’s stability and situation
Right from the get-go, Get Even makes it known that The Farm 51 is actively engaging with the participant through the presentation and how it reacts to the actions made by the avatar. Thanks to Olivier Deriviere’s real-time generated composition and the title’s memory-based, VR motifs (achievable through a headset dubbed “Pandora” the avatar is equipped with), the player gets a sense of what they’re currently going through as they saunter around the environment. Not only that, but such dynamism in the audiovisuals actively reflects Cole’s feelings in the various situations he’ll find himself in.
In terms of graphics, Get Even employs the use of (de)materializing NPCs and objects, looping rooms and shifting spaces to highlight Black’s mental condition. His tendency to obsess over certain thoughts, for instance, showcases the faulty recollection most humans genuinely or deceptively possess (the latter adverb being more likely in Cole’s case given his being probed by a mysterious figure named “Red”). Such mental glitches, including the broken chronology of the remembrances, provide the participant with a glimpse at the woes created out of confusion by Black’s mind and the player’s recorded actions as the game delves deeper into the character’s motives.
Moreover, the constant back and forth between different memories linked to Black’s past supports the avatar’s general unwillingness to follow Red’s advice to “relax and explore”. This leads to warped visions that accentuate the stakes and overarching mystery behind the woman’s abduction in the prologue, as well as spaces being magically filled with entities both human and environmental that straddle the line between real and virtual.
The asylum bits, in particular, tap into universal preconceptions that define Cole’s struggles and fears. Such thoughts are subverted when it’s revealed that the establishment’s occupants were illusions created by the avatar based on archetypal ideas about abandoned asylums in pop culture. The fact that the deceptive dread served as a stimulus perpetuated by Red, who simulated the asylum via the Pandora device, to make Black recall past events as lucidly as possible adds more narrative significance to the presentation.
Graphics alone, however, can only impart so much information. Along with visual mishaps, Get Even ramps up the mental intensity in the audio department. As the player progresses through the game, several leitmotifs will crop up that have the music and ambient sound blend in with one another to simulate Cole’s stability. From clockwork effects that signal crucial plot points to classical and electronic tracks that reflect the current simulated atmosphere, Black’s health and the virtual space’s ever-shifting nature are inextricably tied to one another through auditory triggers. The fact that some of those cues are initiated by Red (without the player initially knowing) to have the ex-soldier recollect the full backstory applies further weight to the soundscape.
What makes the audio distinct from those found in other games, however, is their varying intensity. Instead of relying purely on scripted instances, Olivier Deriviere had the entire sound design generated in real-time to accurately reflect Cole’s actions. Whether it’s the anticipation of an enemy encounter or the rising cries of the asylum inmates, every step made by the avatar gradually amplifies the individual tracks. Such tunes bleed into the ambiance and Black’s mindset, and hardly fluctuate if the player remains idle and attempts to wait them out. This means that the tension never lets up unless the gamer braves the space, which only exposes them even more to the haphazard and inconsistent nature of their environs and the storyline.
It’s through this combination of ever-evolving visuals and sound effects that enables Get Even to rely on more than just exposition to convey its multifaceted narrative. More importantly, the presentation acts as a fascinating commentary on the human mind’s ebb and flow, which translates into its manifest and subtle tendencies to conjure up images that challenge the participant’s perception of reality and fiction. It’s a phenomenon that not only supports Get Even’s pervasive (leit)motifs, but also ties heavily into the protagonist’s discomposure and unclear intentions that transcend plot-related implications. Without that level of dynamism, The Farm 51 wouldn’t be able to have the in-game events and player actions seep into one another deftly.
1b) Evidence enhances both the storyline and completion rate through context
Like many titles belonging to the genres it draws inspiration from, Get Even adorns its levels with interactive items to compel the player to comb their surroundings and better appreciate The Farm 51's attention-to-detail (not too dissimilar to the principles I laid out in my post on spatial storytelling). In keeping with the criminal and investigatory themes that define the gameplay, the items in question consist of pieces of evidence related to the avatar’s and supporting cast’s past (mis)deeds as well as the impetus for the abduction of the bomb-strapped woman. Newspaper clippings, recordings, emails, pictures... The staples of criminal investigation are all there and provide solid world-building that complement the plot.
Unlike standard gaming collectibles, however, there’s an actual incentive to garner all the backstory information in Get Even. As the revelatory clues serve to make sense of and literally shape the hazy narrative Black is embroiled in, the gamer can’t help but scrutinize the virtual space for items that will unlock the title’s full going-ons. This subsequently puts the characters’ intentions into perspective as more details about the plot are revealed. The fact that moral and gameplay choices have an effect on the evidence found means that the participant must consider how they wish to approach each dangerous situation so as not to distort memories and further muddle the tale they hope to rationalize.
This scrounging for “empirical facts and hard data”, as Red puts it, comes full circle near the end of the game when it is revealed that the player was “controlling” Cole through the eyes of Red who, by that point, is revealed to be Robert Ramsey, the father of the kidnapped woman named Grace (a point I’ll revisit later in this post). Ramsey was “auditing” a comatose Black’s demeanor and the manner in which the ex-military conducted himself in his memories to “review” the evidence pertaining to Grace’s abduction. It is by that point that Get Even gauges the participant’s efforts in gathering clues as the initial protagonist (Cole) through the lens of the second protagonist (Robert), not just the completion percentage indicated under the bulletin boards accessible via the evidence room (the game’s physical embodiment of a “level select” option).
This, in turn, reveals the multilayered contextualization of the scanning device that Cole uses on every nook and cranny in the virtual world. Essentially, The Farm 51 cleverly weaved the web of intrigue around the time-tested collectible to intuit the avatar’s level of cooperation and agency via another character’s perspective.
By having the evidence strewn across the space for the gamer to find as Black in the “audit” phase and to tie together as Ramsey in the “review” stage, Get Even uncovers a way to add narrative value to the exploration bits and make the act of scanning for evidence transcend its mechanical function. Finding more clues to solve a mystery is one thing, having said clues and your ability to collect them inspected by another controllable character is another matter.
This is due to the implications such a shift in perspective has on the meaning of player agency and completionism from a storytelling standpoint (not to mention making Ramsey’s job easier or harder depending on the participant’s past performance as Black). It’s this contextual sleight-of-hand that elevates the gameplay endeavor of collecting noteworthy items to new heights, enabling The Farm 51 to reward and punish gamers through ludo-harmonious lenses.
1c) Violent/pacifist playstyles affect the memories’ credibility and avatar’s honesty
Along with the emphasis on finding evidence to make sense of the story and weigh character motives against the mystery, Get Even communicates the importance of approaching the memories and virtual surroundings with a restrained demeanor. Throughout the journey, Robert implores Cole to proceed through the environment without making short work of their foes, a fact made clear by Get Even’s reminder that certain actions will change how people view the player.
While the concept of applying a moral compass to gameplay that reflects the narrative has been used in previous games, the memories’ susceptibility to distortions caused by discrepancies between Cole’s past and current actions, and the bait-and-switch in protagonists mean that the issue of candidness in Black’s recollection of the backstory becomes intertwined with the playstyle the gamer adopts prior to the plot twist.
Throughout the journey, a level of mistrust between Cole and Robert can be seen, which has an adverse effect on how credible the memories the ex-soldier interacts with appear. True to its tagline of “What is Real”, Get Even actively tweaks the number of hostile NPCs and stability of the memories depending on how the avatar interacts with the space, blurring the line between what actually took place in the past and what the Pandora’s misleadingly concocting.
Following Ramsey’s pacifist advice will lead to less hazardous and more genuine remembrances that corroborate the pieces of evidence, while killing every enemy on sight will cause memories to be trickier for the avatar to handle and rationalize. The latter approach bears narrative implications in that it can lead to the potential creation of new memories that distort the facts. Not only that, but such baleful circumstances call into question the avatar’s willingness to cooperate with Ramsey and ascertain the driving forces behind the kidnapping at the start of the title, highlighting Black’s subjective reasoning behind the aforementioned discrepancies the player may create.
Essentially, what the game insinuates with the choice between stealth and combat is that every action, both minor and major, will determine how Black is honest to both Ramsey AND the player during the “audit” phase of the Pandora simulation. Does the gamer want to get everything over with lethally and run the risk of having their avatar lie to them and complicate matters in the “review” process? Or does the player wish to follow their future protagonist’s advice and go in low ‘n slow, making the investigation more reliable and the cooperative trinity (Black-Ramsey-Participant) solid in the long run?
With that added layer of ramifications stretching across the mechanics and storyline, the idea of being a saint or a cold-blooded killer suddenly takes on a pseudo-meta meaning that comments on the topic of honesty within the rawest of environments, the human mind, without the gameplay ever stopping or making everything too clear-cut. Not only that, but the player now has to second-guess their actions if they wish to be narratively in sync with the characters.
By taking the dualistic concept of “to kill or not to kill” and enveloping it with an equally double-sided tale that shifts the avatar’s perspective, Get Even gives the player a chance to reflect on their past demeanor and understand what it’ll entail for the second component of the Pandora equation. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about honesty, how people treat the initial protagonist (Black), and the stability of the memories. It’s about directly facing one’s previous woes from a fresh perspective.
2) How Storytelling Informs The Gameplay And Audiovisuals
Along with the mechanics and presentation making a statement about the plot’s complexity and malleability, the multifaceted tale similarly frames the avatar’s choices and the in-game action in a way that spotlights the ramifications arising from the progress the avatar is making.
It’s not merely about showcasing motifs that have a thematic relationship with the gameplay. Beneath the systemic changes made by the game to have the characters and world reflect the avatar’s playstyle lies a commentary of sorts on how psychological elements such as agency, culpability and escapism are depicted within the private confines of the human brain, where personal experience and universal truth clash with one another. All of this achieved by having the title deconstruct the element of player control and judging the gamer’s actions through different narrative lenses (i.e. characters).
2a) Distortion of facts to protect the self and reject personal responsibility showcases the implications of stealthy and trigger-happy approaches
As mentioned before, the choice between a non-lethal and deadly playthrough has a sizable impact on the way memories are depicted and played out as well as how the avatar is going to be treated by the supporting cast. While mechanically intriguing in and of itself, there’s more to Get Even’s morality system than just systemic modifications in environmental and behavioral traits. As most of the game is played through the eyes of the Pandora-wearing, recalcitrant Black (whose motives become increasingly suspicious and his memories unstable), the gamer shall be exposed to exposition whose lucidity will wildly vary.
This variation largely depends on the level of responsibility Cole assumes while being probed by Robert and witnessing scenes that hint at the ex-military’s answerability (or lack thereof). What that essentially means is that whatever the player does to advance through the title will unveil the degree to which the Black’s remembrances are questionably fragmented and butchered, as if Cole is attempting to hide the truth and deny his involvement in Get Even’s going-ons. As Elizabeth Loftus once said, “memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing”, and said liberty corresponds to Black’s desire to redeem himself from his past transgressions without letting Ramsey know the complete truth.
The saying “relax and explore” is more than just the title’s way of leading the player down an ideal path to get the full story. It’s also the manner in which Ramsey attempts to extract objective facts from Black whom he carefully monitors, an idea made clear by a collectible document that implores the reviewer/auditor (Robert) to guide the patient (Cole) without the latter knowing the former’s intentions. This is, in large part, due to the fear of having the memories’ exact happenings distorted to the point where solving the game’s mystery becomes impossible.
The gamer, who initially disapproves of the elusive Ramsey while in control of Black, is thus left with a mare’s nest that highlights the issue of independence from an all-seeing figure in terms of how to tackle hazardous and delicate scenarios. When taking into account the fact that the human brain harbors the “shadow aspect” and raw recordings of regrettable occurrences, one starts to realize just how challenging it is to separate falsehoods from reality with a mind as easily repressible as the beleaguered Cole’s.
Indeed, when it’s revealed that Black secretly worked with Ramsey’s business rival, Roger Howard, to have Grace Ramsey held for ransom, the gamer starts to realize how much damage they’re inflicting on the plot by killing hostile NPCs and distorting memories. By doing so, the player becomes complicit in the ex-soldier’s evasion of the truth and his desire to wipe the slate clean, even going as far as to lie to Robert about the fate of a scheming accomplice and block him from a memory involving a conversation between Cole and Roger. By taking the “bad” route, the player gets stabbed in the back by their own initial avatar in terms of uncovering the truth, an effect that will become amplified once they attempt to clean up the ex-military’s mess as Ramsey and separate fact from fiction.
In layman’s terms, the participant’s selfishness and lack of cooperation as Black hits back at them with an incomplete and deceptive recollection of past events that haunts later stages in the game. Cole’s attempts to cope with and even deny the reality of the circumstances become all the more perceptible by ignoring Robert’s advice, which will in time become the player’s. By that point, the title potentially asks: “Any regrets now?”. The fact that Get Even presented the participant with the ability to replay memories from the evidence room to correct past mistakes suggests that redemption also took on a gameplay meaning that ties Black’s regrets together with the gamer’s lamentable decision to fully trust themselves as Cole instead of listening to their future protagonist.
Thus the player is left with a hard-hitting conclusion. By violently plowing their way through the memories, they cause Black to reject his culpability in the mystery and subsequently try to suppress his transgressive side through the warping of his remembrances. Get Even’s communication of human responsibility and candidness in the naked mind thus acts as a deconstruction of player agency and the unpredictable effects it can have on the game world.
By providing options in how to navigate the virtual space, The Farm 51 surreptitiously measures the gamer’s level of restraint and dedication to finding the truth before delivering a twist that casts their past actions in a bright or dim light. Suddenly, the moral compass assumed in other titles that offer stealth and combat as possible routes takes on a transcendent form reflected in the story and its themes.
2b) Player agency, guidance and trust are turned on their head and then “meta-gauged” via a plot twist that constitutes a shift in character role
One of the more intriguing aspects about the title’s narrative and gameplay structure is the fashion in which it frames player agency and the relationship between the avatar and omnipresent voice in their head. Like the Shock series, The Farm 51's psychological thriller establishes a somewhat uneasy alliance that is felt across the entire experience, with Black and Ramsey comprising the restive duo. But unlike its contemporaries, Get Even leverages its memory-based premise and VR motifs to turn the element of controlling one’s actions on its head, which subsequently has a direct effect on how the narrative is presented to the participant.
Throughout the journey, Ramsey relays to Black the importance of restraint and circumspection while the latter is exploring the asylum and memories he’s exposed to. In a game that also offers the option to kill enemies and risk disrupting remembrances, this clashing of rigid guidance and fluid agency represents a conflict between two antithetical characters, one unhinged (Cole) and the other more calculated (Robert). The former’s wish to hide the truth and prevent his thoughts from being examined is reflected in the mercenary-ridden stealth sections that are intentionally challenging and tempt the gamer with a more lethal M.O. that feeds into the ex-soldier’s desire for mental freedom.
Most of Get Even, as a result, is presented as a trust test, one in which the player has to choose between Cole and Robert. Do they believe more in their personal assessment of the situation as Black, no matter how reckless their methods may be? Or are they willing to give external figures the benefit of the doubt in terms of solving the mystery? One could say that, in a way, both figures are testing the gamer’s resolve and prudence in the gameplay scenarios through their personal motivations.
As the participant shapes the virtual environment through their playstyle, the story actively reflects the changes made through wanton agency or methodical acknowledgment, with Ramsey’s (dis)approval of Black being represented in the number of mercenaries and amount of warping in memories. All of these factors come full circle towards the conclusion of the title with the aforementioned plot twist. All of a sudden, the gamer realizes that their playthrough was one big analysis of their past behavior, made all the more potent by the change in protagonists. This brings up the aspects of self-judgment in the game’s VR-laden tale.
By framing the previous doings of the old avatar through the eyes of the new one and having the latter navigate the same memories the former has potentially worsened, Get Even exposes the player to the implications of responsibility (or lack thereof) and makes them relive past endeavors and wrongdoings through gameplay. Most titles would conclude the storyline with a single avatar and showcase positive/negative consequences through a cutscene or other narrative delivery mechanism. The Farm 51, however, gives the gamer a tangible overview of the choices they made and allows them to explore the after-effects of their actions, providing an environment-participant dialog that highlights the themes of personal accountability and conscientiousness in an abstract space.
2c) Hints of subjectivity vs. objectivity in a private environment highlight escapism, human identity and subconsciousness which impact the space
Perhaps Get Even’s most noteworthy narrative element is its usage of the mind as a spatial platform to present its themes via the gameplay, and make the player understand how such motifs impact the hazards and puzzles they’ll have to circumvent and solve. Like Persona 5 and other titles that dissect Jungian psychology, Get Even explores the rift between the subjective facade its characters embody and the objective reality that takes up residence in their personality. However, the VR simulation and uneasy relationship between the inhibited Black and suspicious Red mean that the themes suddenly take on a more metaphysical form that impact what the gamer sees and how they navigate the ever-shifting and fragmented virtual space.
Throughout the game, Cole expresses a level of confusion towards the memories and frequent jumps between them that Robert exposes him to. Since exploring those remembrances only require the ex-soldier to have visited his environments in the past, the exposure to more questionable situations such as a dubious meeting with Ramsey’s business rival slowly reveals the idea that Cole’s present demeanor is deceptive at best. This, in turn, hints at a slowly fracturing mask that’s all but shattered in the “review” phase of the Pandora simulation. That the perpetual hunt for the unabashed truth by a probing external figure takes place inside the sacrosanct psyche of an internally scrutinized ex-mercenary frames the story as a clash between objectivity and subjectivity. In gameplay terms, this translates into the aforementioned stealthy and lethal approaches that impact the narrative’s clarity and Black’s unvarnished identity.
Avoiding the truth through imaginative situations that paint a dishonest picture of past events defines the schism between Black and Ramsey in solving Get Even’s mystery, with the latter putting pressure on the former who seeks to throw off the yoke of culpability, even in a space as naked as the psyche. Ergo, the gamer’s forging of a gameplay identity through sneaking and/or shooting is reflected in Cole’s subconscious desire to carve out a convenient identity bereft of the suspicious elements Robert seeks to extract.
Carl Jung once concluded that “the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” This quote encapsulates the chain of events the player as Cole would influence through their preferred methods of investigation before being subsequently reviewed by the player as Robert.
This is to say nothing of the synaptic collisions Black and Ramsey experience, with the latter’s memories “bleeding” into the former’s mental space and potentially affecting the ex-soldier’s candidness upon uncovering Robert’s real identity and his refusal to assume responsibility for the incident and his own woes. Over time, more identities get exposed, memories become more unstable, and windows of opportunity for escaping reality narrow. The participant’s surroundings suddenly become one giant piece of evidence that attempts to separate fact from fiction in spite of the avatar’s actions.
Get Even is one of the most inventive experiences to come out in recent memory, both from a storytelling and gameplay standpoint. By tying the internal struggles and motives of the player character(s) to the audiovisuals, systems and mechanics that govern the ever-shifting virtual world, The Farm 51 conveys a unique design intent that upends the gamer’s complacency with agency and moral consequences. All of this is on top of providing a more hands-on exploration of the psychological themes of subjectivity vs. objectivity and judge of character.
Like its design symbiosis, the words “Get Even” constitute two meanings: a set of events that involves two conflicting sides attempting to bury and/or hunt down the truth in the rawest of environments, and the gamer’s wish to level with the avatar(s) on the veritable nature of the backstory that set the wheels in motion. It’s that double-definition that lends The Farm 51's multi-threaded thriller both its surprising quality as a ludonarrative novelty, and its boldness in reinventing the way we perceive player agency and the changes we make to the virtual space and context through mechanics and systems.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.
Get Even is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC (Steam) for $29.99.