Clearance: An Exercise in Paranoia

In most of the video games I’ve played, I can trust the player character.  The same goes for the books I’ve read, or the movies that I’ve watched.  When the character mentions that someone is suspicious, I know I’m meeting a future villain.  If they note the handsome or beautiful appearance of a person, I’m certain that person will be a future love interest.

In Clearance, I didn’t have the same luxury.

Iggi's Intro

Iggi’s Introduction

Our protagonist in this piece is Iggi, a man living alone in England who believes that the apocalypse has happened.  The authors of the piece – Andy Campbell, Judi Alston and Billy Johnson – instantly use the technology available to portray Iggi as untrustworthy.  Clearance opens with a picture of a database containing information on Iggi, including a video of him.  As the camera circles around Iggi, it is noticeable that he is wearing a dark coat pulled over his head, and his face is blanked out. The database also reveals some unusual details about Iggi – he has no living family members, he’s been to jail (the database does not reveal why Iggi went to jail), and he had an unidentified traumatic event earlier in his life.  He suffers from insomnia and panic attacks.  Already, Iggi’s credibility and perspectives seem questionable.  Will he lie to the player?  Will he have insomnia-induced hallucinations?

The game then shifts to Iggi’s perspective.

The atmosphere of Clearance instantly changes when Iggi walks through the fields of England. The screen trembles, and rumbling sounds can be heard.  Flickers and distortions appear, and the soundtrack is droning and dissonant.  Snatches from radio broadcasts can be heard, with authoritative voices stating that one “has a right to obey,” nervous interviewees telling an audience not to ask “them” too many questions, and enthralled journalists describing a spectacular experiment by scientists “like the end of the world.”  The game does not reveal whether Iggi is remembering these broadcasts, or if he is hallucinating and hearing voices.

Iggi's field

Iggi’s field

As Iggi, the player “sees” faint, blurry images in the fields of children bicycling and tractors plowing.  White words pop quickly on the edges of the sides of the screen and shake furiously as the player attempts to read them.  These words reveal Iggi’s thoughts.  Just like memories, they are fleeting (I attempted to get screenshots of them and failed), and the words are vague.  Iggi’s thoughts will hint at various traumatic events (“people started to get ill…it seemed like nothing serious at first…headaches, colds…”).  He has visions of houses burning, panicked feelings that someone is watching him and his loved ones.  He will mention burning hospitals, only to suddenly interrupt himself with memories of a luxurious party in South Africa – although it is never shown if Iggi is merely confused, or if he is trying to forget his awful past.  The strangest parts of this experience are the stone heads littered throughout the modern British landscapes.  They seem so out of place that they seem like part of Iggi’s imagination – like a fever dream, or a hallucination.  In fact, is it questionable whether Iggi is remembering anything at all, or having a sickness-induced panic attack.

Stone head

One of Iggi’s stone heads

When the game ended, Iggi walks into a shed containing many stone heads and ancient African masks.  As the soundtrack grew louder and more chaotic, the player looks around the shed – and then the screen goes black.  The image of the database from the beginning reappears, and the player sees a series of files being rapidly deleted on a computer.  The game blacks out once again, and links the player to a real-life article on the same stone heads from the game.  Just as the authors used technology to make the player believe that Iggi was a questionable character in the beginning, they utilize it in the end to make it plausible that Iggi is telling the truth.  The scene of the deleted files make it appear as though someone really is watching Iggi, just as he suspects, and is destroying important information that Iggi knows.  The link to the article makes seem probable that the events Iggi mentions could have happened.  In Clearance, technology has both the power to destroy and build one’s reputation and credibility.

deleting files

Deleting files

At the moment, I am reading a book called House of Leaves for a separate class (After Books seminar).  The protagonist in that book, Johnny Truant, also stumbles across information that destroys his sanity and triggers memories from his traumatic, dubious past.  However, while Johnny is initially portrayed as a sane man who loses his credibility as his stories grow more fanciful, Iggi starts Clearance as a suspicious character whose truthfulness is possibly proven by the article at the end of the game.  I believe that Clearance is best suited as an interactive, technology-based piece due to the heavy use of technology within the game itself – the database monitoring Iggi’s movements and the online article, for example.  Playing the game as Iggi (instead of reading about his experience) makes the player question Iggi more – seeing those stone heads and blurry “memories” in calm British pastures do not make him seem believable, at first.

Who do you think is the protagonist of this piece? Are we really playing as Iggi? Are we someone who is monitoring Iggi, watching his every move behind a computer? If the player cannot trust Iggi in this piece, then who can he or she trust?  Why do you think the game creators try to mislead the player?

  4 comments for “Clearance: An Exercise in Paranoia

  1. nbemis
    February 17, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    I truly enjoyed the atmosphere of this piece, and for the most part, I found Iggi to be a trustworthy character. I figured that if he wasn’t in his right mind, then he probably would have seen someone in the fields. It just seems to make sense that everyone’s dead. Especially considering that Iggi’s the last surviving person in his family. I wonder more about who’s compiling this record of his life. Why does he matter? How did this person or agency record these events from his point of view, then collect the data? How are they still alive?

  2. Robert
    February 17, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    I love and have always loved the concept of an unreliable narrator. It sets the reader on edge immediately. I can’t think of a game with an unreliable player character, however. It’s a VERY intriguing concept. Thank you for writing about this.

  3. karmakona
    February 22, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Initially, while exploring the fields, I saw an airplane positioned in the middle of one of the fields. Of course, this struck me as odd, because that is not where one would expect to find an airplane. (*spoiler alert*) This reminded me of the 2010 film, “The Crazies” because in that film, the town sheriff (and others) find that a plane with toxic material inside has crashed in a body of water that feeds the wells and drinking water supply of the town. Because these chemicals spill into everybody’s drinking water, they quickly become zombie-like with murderous intent, all suffering from the same side effects and physical changes. In ‘Clearance’, when the player pulls their cursor over the airplane in the field, text briefly appears, “People started to get ill, it didn’t seem too serious at first, colds and headaches.” This description, along with the imagery of the spent crop fields and the tractors and the power lines in the background, is all very reminiscent of The Crazies! On top of that, in a later shot of a field, the viewer hears an authoritative voiceover, like a mayor or senator or government official, speaking about how “they” have a plan and “they” will take care of things, which could either be comforting, or chilling if Iggy is paranoid about being followed and watched.
    The stone heads are very bizarre, and although I cannot say for sure what their relevance is, I like your idea that those precious stone heads are related to the information that Iggy considers valuable, that is being sought after, and ultimately destroyed.

  4. sarahjoy
    February 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    The title of this piece, as well as its opening, make me think it’s less about Iggi, and more about the people behind the program that’s running. The word “clearance” immediately makes me think of the government, and obviously, secrets. I’m with nbemis in thinking Iggi to be a trustworthy character , whereas whoever is running the program is not. Going through the piece, I started thinking that it alludes a lot to the idea of government surveillance and an Orwellian society. In the first location, a voice iterates “You only have the right to obey.” In a later location, a different voice makes comments about someone being able to see and hear everything. There is also a short clip about terrorism. Also, I thought maybe the video clips weren’t memories, but rather clips from surveillance cameras (although this doesn’t hold up with the tractor or gardening/farming clips). All of these things, in addition to the creepily omniscient program, further the idea of this piece being about government surveillance. Also, I think my reading of it was influenced by its setting, which I’m guessing is England (even though Iggi is Dutch) because the stone heads are found in Yorkshire. England is known to have an incredible amount of surveillance cameras. I think the inclusion of the stone heads was inspired by the mystery they originally caused. The mystery offered a contrast against the idea of the government or some entity becoming all knowing. They also relate, as the artist of the heads, was spotted via surveillance camera. This article talks about when the artist was discovered, and this is the artist’s website.

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