Hello again, every-reader, this week it is my pleasure to discuss the curious nature of the goal of videogames. Being an interactive medium as compared to movies and books, games have goals that the player must achieve to progress. It is therefore not a passive medium, participation is required by the player, and even games that fail at adhering to the literal definition of a “game” (i.e., has failure and win conditions) offer a level of interactivity. As games and the industry around them grew, game makers began expanding the medium to involve more than just Mario jumping on the heads of enemies or a man with a gun shooting everything in front of him. That expansion involved a lot of borrowing, often from movies and literature, which meant games began to involve more narrative and character development alongside more intrinsic gameplay elements. And as technological capabilities allowed games to more closely match the production elements of blockbuster movies, an odd thing started to crop up. The gameplay elements that necessarily separate games from movies needed to remain but the narrative elements continued to emulate passive entertainment mediums. This gave rise to a conflict summed up in the gloriously poncey term “ludonarrative dissonance”.
For the uninitiated, this term was made to highlight the dissonance (or distancing) between what a character in a game does in the narrative and what they must ordinarily do during gameplay to progress. These things can sometimes be at comically extreme odds, be seemingly self-defeating, but almost always hold no bearing on the narrative. The term was originally levied against Bioshock but can ably be applied to most narrative heavy games. Most often, instead of being necessarily antithetical, the dissonance is seen simply as a poor fit between the narrative and the gameplay. In the Uncharted series, for example, the main character, Drake, will shoot and kill more people than Rambo and yet it is never reflected in his demeanor during the cutscenes. Somewhere along the way games began to emphasize narrative in a manner that did not mesh with gameplay elements but continued on in spite of this as a kind of language of videogames that says that gameplay (or ludonarrative) exists apart from any story elements that might be included.
The result is what appears to be a very confused medium. It wants at once to be an interactive platform for challenge and tests of skill as well as to be a place of fixed narrative and storytelling. Due to technological limits games started out often only with elements of gameplay and few if any elements of story. Since those early days narrative elements have only continued to develop in games to the point where, as mentioned above, some cease to be actual games anymore. Titles like Dear Esther or Gone Home offer no actual game, even though they are interactive, and have only a fixed narrative to explore. What games have progressed into is an uncertain mash-up of two different mediums that look from a distance to be nonsensical and from a place of familiarity to be its own narrative style.
However more recently game developers have gotten past spectacle for the sake of spectacle, more products are being produced that handle the so called ludonarrative more logically alongside the fixed narrative. Whereas Uncharted featured a protagonist that casually murdered hundreds of men in between cracking jokes, that same developer would produce The Last of Us which married the gameplay elements seamlessly with the goals of the protagonists and the overall story of the game. But so far examples that fit the two narratives together well are rare in a young industry still largely dominated by spectacle and still childishly fumbling around with the tools and elements of other more established mediums. The meteoric rise of the gaming industry, the tenor of its userbase, and the stifling expense of AAA development have all gone a long way in stunting the maturation of the medium in ways that might make these examples less rare. But if the indie development scene is any indication, games have not all become attempts at marrying a complex narrative to a set of gameplay elements.
While the indie scene owes much of its smallness or total emptiness of narrative to its financial limitations, indie offerings would not continue to succeed if games lacking a narrative did not sell. Game players, as a whole, want both narrative and non-narrative (or light-narrative) games and this has begun to show itself as a clear distinction between AAA fully produced titles and smaller offerings. Handheld gaming used to be the only home to these smaller offerings but now a whole host of portable devices play games. As well, home consoles and PCs have a strong market for indie-style games that the industry had previously assumed should stay on the smaller portable devices.
And so, despite developers refining their craft to better reach a sort of ludonarrative consonance*, players have proven that a heavy narrative addition to games is not the only future for games. It proves that games were not without a strong narrative in the early years of the industry solely because they could not have them, but also because they did not need them. As the technology surrounding games progressed, the goal of what a game accomplishes, as a product, began to shift in multiple directions. Some aspects of it moved closer toward passive entertainment mediums and some adhered more to the industry’s roots, but the common thread running through all of them is the presence of deep interactivity. If game sales are any indication of what people actually want, then the videogame medium is the most amorphous and multifaceted entertainment medium I know of and it therefore surprises me little that the landscape of the industry continues to be volatile and outwardly inscrutable for all of its newness and overlooked dissonance.
So that was my little examination of the industry for this week. I dipped a bit more into game theory than I initially wanted, but I tried not to drive off on any tangents. Have you given any thought to this flowery concept of ludonarrative dissonance? I find the issue continues to crop up more frequently as games approach greater visual fidelity, aiming for more realism in an oddly selective manner. Whatever your thoughts, I want to hear them below despite the fact that I will not be hearing them I will be reading them.
*I impressed and then immediately embarrassed myself with that term. So of course I had to go with it.