Editorial: Moving Goalposts

I don't know what else to say about Ken Levine. He looks nice. I bet he's nice.
Ken Levine, who worked on Bioshock, discussing narrative in games.

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.

Like Tidus here, who seems to have lost his head but found an oddly head-shaped blitz ball.
Games sometimes suffer from a fundamental disconnect between narrative and gameplay.

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.

The child that drew this has a better understanding of Sonic than Sega has demonstrated over the years.
This is all Sonic needs to do.

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.

5 comments

  1. ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ does not necessarily mean ‘smart and mature’. One can easily have a stupid, immature game that does demonstrate signs of ludonarrative dissonance. There are many such examples, in fact!

  2. @Lusi – A point I believe Mel explained rather well!

    @Mel – I’m glad you brought up the term. It’s helpful to be able to look up research on topics I’ve been thinking about with more direction. It makes for better study! The only game I can think of off the top of my head that uses ludonarrative dissonance for intentional effect is Little Inferno. So often it’s just shaken off as “well those are just video games!” So I’m eager to see narrative take the form that makes the most sense for gaming instead of relying on imitation (which creates the disconnect). Not that the foray into imitation didn’t bring helpful knowledge, but it’s not gaming’s destiny.

    It’s interesting that you compare Uncharted and The Last of Us because I’ve written about that very subject and it’s interesting that the directors of The Last of Us (also the directors of Uncharted 2, the best one) are directing Uncharted 4. I hope that means that Uncharted will start closing the gap and create, as you say, ludonarrative consonance.

  3. OH, and I noticed Imitanis wrote on the same subject matter a few months back. I liked his piece, so read that too if anyone hasn’t already!

    https://thedaytonight.com/2014/03/07/editorial-ludonarrative-dissonance/

    Also, yes I wasn’t trying to claim ludonarrative dissonance means smart and mature, I was being cheeky in my excerpt and I don’t think it came across as well as I wanted. At any rate, if I make any claim about the term it’s that it represents the opposite more often.

    Ethos gave the interesting example of Little Inferno that I hadn’t thought of. In fact I hadn’t really thought of the concept being used to the medium’s benefit when I wrote this but now that I am I can probably think of a few more examples where games leverage that dissonance in creative ways.

    For instance: Prince of Persia Sands of Time, which is framed as a flashback narrated by the protagonist. If the player messes up and dies, making use of the time-rewind gameplay mechanic, he’ll state his disapproval of the events as if he was recalling them wrong and starting over (“No, wait, that’s not how it happened” and similar things). There were other neat blends of the narrative successfully into the gameplay, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played it.

  4. @Ethos: I am referring to Mel’s excerpt, which he realised, although you did not.

    Aptly enough, the excerpt provided a narrative dissonance all of its own. Is this an exercise in performative rhetoric…?

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