Firstly, a short lesson for those that do not know what the term ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance‘ means:
The idea refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its game play. Clint Hocking coined the term in response to the game¬†Bioshock, which promotes the theme of self-interest through its gameplay while promoting the opposing theme of selflessness through its narrative, creating a¬†violation of aesthetic distance that often pulls the player out of the game.
On a more concrete level, ludonarrative dissonance may simply refer to logical inconsistencies between narrative and game play. Video game theorist¬†Tom Bissell in his book¬†Extra Lives (2010) notes the example of¬†Call of Duty 4, where a player can all but kill their digital partner during gameplay without upsetting the built in narrative of the game.
We’ve Come A Long Way Baby…
Everyone involved with video games from the people playing them all the way through the spectrum to the people that make them, will agree that video games have came a hell of a long way in the past 10-15 years. The graphics and visual¬†aesthetics¬†of the games we play has evolved from being a collection of hastily placed together blocks of pixels, to being full blown, realistic looking character models. It is safe to say that video games have came a long way visually. Video games have never managed to tackle the ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ object. This is an object that many game developers have tried and failed to conquer.
Movies and books tell the viewer or reader a story and¬†passively¬†people react to this story with a range of feelings but no actual, interactive control to influence the decisions and events on the screen or in the text. Video games have always granted it’s players with choice. The choice to affect the outcome of what they are playing. As Mario we had to save the princess and without our help Mario was not going to do it alone, Sonic needed to beat Dr Robotnik and without us, without the gamer, he would still be standing there waggling his finger and tapping his little blue foot¬†impatiently. Where viewers and readers do nothing to affect the events and progression of a movie or book, gamers have to physically play the game to progress towards the actual goal or story of the game.
Nobody Is Innocent, Nobody Is Safe!
Writers and game developers constantly strive to have engaging and emotionally-impacting stories in their games. Grand Theft Auto 4 is¬†undoubtedly¬†a great game. You don’t play the All-American Hero, you don’t play a Betty-Sue, Perfect Peter character. You are Niko Bellic and you’ve got a grizzly and troubled past, attempting to get along and begin a fresh life in America. The ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ strikes Grand Theft Auto during the free roaming sections of the game. The storyline has Niko wanting to help his cousin and do whatever he has to do in order to make a life for him and his cousin. Niko does not kill or hurt anyone he does not have to during the game’s cut scenes. Niko is a gangster¬†killing¬†another gangster, a low-life, another seedy underworld type that probably had it coming. The free roaming¬†sections¬†of the game occur and¬†suddenly¬†as Niko, we have the¬†openness¬†of the game world to explore and a plethora of¬†choices¬†to take. My Niko instantly broke the projected morals the game designers and writers were attempting to place upon Niko.
He went from killing low-life loan sharks and drug dealers to smashing into an old lady with his car just because she was in the way. My Niko then decided to pick up randomly placed bricks and hurl them at hot-dog vendors, steal some guys car who probably had kids, a family and debts to pay and if this was not bad enough, when the guy attempted to protect his¬†vehicle¬†I punched him in the face and beat him to death, afterwards rubbing salt in the wounds by running him over with his own car. Maybe I thought a little too much into it¬†with¬†the debts and children subject, this is just a computer¬†generated¬†civilian after all but the fact I can¬†physically¬†commit¬†actions that contradict the characters projected moral code shows how gameplay and story can conflict one another.
Good or Evil… ‘In The End It Doesn’t Even Matter’
Mass Effect is another series of games where the ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ occurs. You have the ability to play the gaming making good and bad decisions along the way. I can make my Commander Shepherd an evil, reporter punching, slap-happy bastard of a bloke or a Perfect-Peter, world saving, orphan helping, angelic hero of a man. If I choose to play the game as Commander Shepherd and commit acts of punching people in the face, choosing the destruction of an entire species, letting people die when I could help them and other such evil acts, I am still hailed as the hero. I still have to save the world and people will still love the horrible and slimy Commander Shepherd. Commander Shepherd is still loved, he is still gazed upon with eyes of wonder and respected by others. This is man who would instigate the destruction of the universe rather than rescue it from the hands of evil. This man would rather shake hands with the devil and have a drink with the bad guys, all the time laughing as the world turns to ash and people melt like army-man figures being held against a magnifying glass in the hot summer sun. This is not the Shepherd we have been brought to believe during the framing of the game’s narrative. We can choose his backstory and affect his¬†actions¬†further than most games but with this huge amount of choice, story can only truly take a backseat to gameplay.
Until technologically¬†developers¬†can create a game that allows for a vast array of¬†choices¬†and outcomes depending on our good or bad actions, only then can we eridacte the ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ in our video games. The game would have to allow for multiple story lines depending on the type of character we were playing as. This presents multiple problems for the¬†developers¬†and writers of video games because how would you frame or sell a game without any story framing, with no showing of who the bad guys and good guys are? Being able to create a story that does not contradict itself when placed into the hands of someone who could play the same section as everyone else yet¬†experience¬†something different? This is a¬†challenge¬†that may never be achieved or we may simply need to tackle the issue and¬†integration¬†of story in different and new ways. I believe that video games watch Hollywood’s methods of story telling too¬†closely and with the interactive¬†element¬†video game¬†developers¬†have untouched and fresh ground, in which they can explore and create more¬†immersive¬†and better presented methods of story telling.
- By Jonathan Wilson, Follow Me On Twitter