Ludonarrative Dissonance Re-Examined

I assume you know the term. Here’s a rel­a­tive­ly recent review of the con­cept if you need­ed. As much as I’ve most­ly enjoyed the online dis­cus­sion, I think we’ve failed to exam­ine the sim­ple rea­son why nar­ra­tives can fail in games. As a result, we’ve missed why things are unlike­ly to change.

The issue may be more obvi­ous than the weighty term requires. Main­stream video games pop­u­lar with the core audi­ence – includ­ing the bet­ter ones, the Last of Uses and Bioshocks – are com­bat games. Splen­did vir­tu­al cel­e­bra­tions of vio­lence. I’ve enjoyed many of them, and I con­sid­er them wor­thy of their numer­ous awards. Yet let us be hon­est. This is com­mer­cial art. We build com­bat-filled games because they sell, and as a result of their pop­u­lar­i­ty our cor­po­rate patrons keep pay­ing us to cre­ate them. We have suc­cess­ful­ly built an empire of adren­a­line-filled mur­der sim­u­la­tors. Twen­ty years ago, in the era of and Doom, that was enough. We didn’t ask too many ques­tions. Today, as we’ve grown up a bit, game devel­op­ers fash­ion nar­ra­tives more com­pli­cat­ed and more inter­est­ing. Some of them are fan­tas­tic and emo­tion­al­ly mov­ing sto­ries that the genre has strug­gled toward for a long time.

We use these nar­ra­tives to jus­ti­fy our dig­i­tal mas­sacres, much like a gov­ern­ment twist­ing rea­son to sup­port a just war. We make our ene­mies for­eign. Or alien. Or undead. In short stints, tricks like these work. Over a game last­ing ten, twen­ty, forty or more hours, they don’t. The sto­ries we are telling, no mat­ter whether fan­ta­sy or mod­ern, can’t bear the weight of so much blood. Now, I am not some­one who wor­ries much about the effect of vio­lence on game play­ers, but I can see its effects that wear down a game nar­ra­tive. Games can’t suc­cess­ful­ly graft a nar­ra­tive onto con­tin­u­ous vio­lent action. We can’t end the lives of hun­dreds of AI and explain it away with the nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of “Yeah, but they were all bad.” Not with­out mak­ing mock­ery of a good nar­ra­tive.

One option is to retreat. Far Cry 3: Blood Drag­on has no ten­sion between sto­ry and game­play. Well. What’s the oth­er option, for an artist who wants to craft a more ful­fill­ing nar­ra­tive? Pre­dictably, the body count would have to drop. Giv­en the con­tract we have with our con­sumers for game length, that means we need a new moment-to-moment action to replace vio­lence. Some­thing replayable and repet­i­tive, to sus­tain hours and hours of play. It has to be a game action as exhil­a­rat­ing and effec­tive as shoot­ing and stab­bing. It also has to be some­thing we can build in a some­what rea­son­able time and bud­get. Oh, and it should look great, with stun­ning graph­ics and real­is­tic ani­ma­tions, because that is anoth­er part of the con­tract with today’s audi­ence.

Yeah… I’ve got noth­ing.

Let me tell you a story of heroes

Anoth­er day arrives, and anoth­er evening at the Lion­head office has dragged on into morn­ing. My first Eng­lish sum­mer has seen many a late night, and more than a few sleep­less morn­ings. All with good rea­son; it’s for a good cause. Truth be told, I have no one to blame but myself. It must be love. […]

Coral Griffon?

Before demen­tia fol­lows in the wake of my fourth decade, and while I can still remem­ber, I want to answer the occa­sion­al ques­tion where my  most fre­quent gam­ing user id comes from. It’s not that com­pli­cat­ed of a sto­ry… I have always had a thing for grif­fons, so if we’re going to pick a totem, it’s mine. Maybe […]

Personality Profile, Horoscope, or Both

A few days ago, we had a con­sult­ing orga­ni­za­tion called Insights show up on our door to eval­u­ate mem­bers of the studio’s senior staff. I didn’t real­ize this was hap­pen­ing, or even what it was, until I was deliv­ered a link to a web­site and asked to fill out a per­son­al­i­ty ques­tion­naire. Before the end […]