The Voices in Your Video Game Head

By Andreas Inderwildi on at

There’s no escaping Senua’s voices. Wherever she goes, there they are – incessantly calling, whispering, hissing all around her. They warn, command, goad, mock or encourage, but they never stop. Hellblade is ground-breaking in the way it tries to simulate auditory hallucinations to give an impression of what it might feel like to suffer from severe psychosis. As the name 'video game' implies, games rarely demand such active attentiveness to sound, and this is one of the reasons why Senua’s voices have such a disconcerting, disorienting effect on the player.

In another sense, however, we've been hearing voices in games for as long as consoles and computers have had the capacity to process them. Often they’re a part of cut scenes that drive the plot forward or deliver exposition, or of dialogues that actively let the player participate (as in most RPGs). In many cases these voices are as disembodied as Senua’s furies. Think of your Halos, Call of Duties or Borderlands, where the voices of allies and superiors follow you and crackle over the radio in order to guide and command you. Go to waypoint A. Take down enemy X. Not unlike Senua, you have little choice in taking these voices seriously. Listen to them, and progress. Ignore them, and you might as well quit the game. These voices brook no disobedience.

Inspired by Hellblade and this German language article, I recently read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, written by psychologist Julian Jaynes and published in 1977, which largely revolves around the hearing of voices in earlier civilisations. Jaynes’ central hypotheses sound as crazy, even outrageous, now as they did at the time of its first publication. He claims that consciousness as we know and perceive it today isn’t an evolutionary given in the human species, but a relatively recent development based on environmental events like wars or catastrophes, and increasingly complex metaphorical language.

Relying on textual evidence like The Iliad or the Old Testament he argues that, prior to 1000 B.C., humans functioned rather like automatons. They may have felt, communicated, created art and even composed poetry, but they had no sense of self whatsoever, no capacity for reflection or what Jaynes’ calls “narratisation” – the playing out of hypothetical scenarios in a metaphorical “mind space” where we imagine an “analogue I”. We all imagine ourselves doing other things sometimes, don't we? Perhaps this “analogue I” is playing video games while you’re at work, in which case you’re daydreaming or remembering. Or perhaps it tries various ways of solving a specific problem, helping you visualise your options and pick the most promising one.

You might be indignant: if this is true, how could these pre-conscious humans have survived, even thrived? This is where, depending on your perspective, things either get truly fascinating or go off the deep end. Jaynes claimed that these people were constantly accompanied by voices that originated in their brains’ right hemispheres – but these voices were perceived as coming from the outside world, like any other voice. These voices, ascribed to gods, spirits or ancestors, commanded humans and resolved their problems for them, so to speak. And those humans, lacking a sense of self, were entirely unable to resist those voices. To hear was to obey.

After a transitional period that spanned several centuries, Jaynes argues, the relationship between the hemispheres had become restructured in such a way that most people had become unable to hear such voices. They had become conscious. This moment in history was also the birth of religion in a modern form: yearning for the lost guidance of their divine and intimate voices, humans created distant deities to satisfy the deep-seated need for what Jaynes calls “authorisation”.

Whether you embrace Jaynes’ still-controversial claims or shake your head in disbelief, there’s a lot here worth thinking about. In terms of video games it’s fascinating how often we are guided and commanded by disembodied voices with unquestioned authority. Sure, you might say, but letting players hear voices is simply a convenient technical solution to the problem of guiding them through a game, and nothing more. But this does not explain why the type of goal-oriented game for which this is true is so popular in the first place. In other words, whether the need for authorisation lies in Jaynes’ speculative past or somewhere else, following the cues and orders of disembodied voices seems to come naturally to us.

If Jaynes is onto something, then perhaps these games that invite us to lose ourselves (our self?) in their comfortable authorisation is the closest we’re ever going to get to an idea of this 'lost' mentality. After all, no other medium in history allows us to respond to a command and observe the results of our reaction play out before us. And unlike the voices in our everyday social interactions, the voices of video games can often be trusted. They can even be seen as stand-ins for the voices of the creators of these virtual worlds, benevolently guiding you and pointing you in the right direction. They’re of a higher order, and will not lead you astray.

Of course, that’s not true of every game, and some subvert such expectations. Bioshock makes the player's illusion of free will the central part of its plot. Throughout the game, a character called Atlas asks Jack, the protagonist, to complete tasks. Eventually, it is revealed that Jack had been conditioned to follow any instruction that’s preceded by the words “Would you kindly?” Like the player who has grown so used to the restrictions of video games that they don’t even notice them anymore, or Jaynes’ pre-conscious human who has never known any other way of being, Jack follows orders without realising that he has no choice.

“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”

It’s a clever twist but, in the end, Bioshock doesn’t really challenge well-established design philosophies. We don’t have to look far for subtler and ultimately more interesting subversions. They are Bioshock’s own close relatives, like Prey or Deus Ex. As in Bioshock you are constantly instructed by voices, often in the form of transmissions. But unlike Bioshock, Prey and Deus Ex confront you with a dramatis personae of voices whose aims are frequently at odds with each other. Like Atlas, these voices will give you orders – but you are often free to ignore them, or at least choose for yourself which to obey.

Do you kill Lebedev in Deus Ex after being told to do so by your superiors, or do you reject their authority? Even today, scenarios like this feel transgressive and dangerous. Your options aren’t signposted, there’s no single voice you can trust, and you don’t have the luxury to mull the decision over. Stressful situations like this were, according to Jaynes, the trigger for auditory hallucinations that resolved stress through a command but, in Deus Ex, you are on your own. Prey uses different tactics to place you in situations of paranoia and uncertainty. Morgan is caught up in a tangle of conflicting agendas. Should you listen to your brother Alex, or one of the mysterious AIs, January and December, which both claim to have been reprogrammed by Morgan before she lost her memories? Even the voices of Morgan’s past selves are fundamentally untrustworthy and unreliable.

In some games, this is the joke around which everything revolves. In The Stanley Parable, Stanley hears the voice of his own story’s narrator. The central conceit and fun of the game is that you get to frustrate this narrator’s performance by doing the opposite of what he says you will do. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left” the narrator says, to which the only sensible response seems to be to enter the door on the right. In a way past tense narration like this has an even stronger linguistic authority than a straightforward command, since it treats the desired outcome as inevitable, already attained. As a result, Stanley’s unruliness is all the more satisfying.

Games like The Stanley Parable, Prey, Deus Ex, Bioshock or Hellblade each have a unique style, but they share an urge to turn up the volume and make us more aware of the voices – the barked or monotone or whispered instructions that accompany us in so many games we barely notice them anymore. Jaynes’ ideas about divine commands may well be glorious nonsense but, even if so, we should hear his theories on how the voices of authority manipulate our behaviour. That said, you don’t have to listen to me.