i am not convinced that ludonarrative dissonance makes dumb games dumb

Matthew Burns tackles the question of why are games’ stories so dumb? from the inside:

In the course of my career I’ve seen some “real writers” come in to help a game put on a better, more mature face and not seem so adolescent. They prodded the developers to abandon the old stereotypes and helped them invent more complex characters— characters who had a life before and after the events of the game, who were of ethnicities outside the usual Hollywood handful, who mulled over realistic internal conflicts. We spent a lot of time on those elements. These games eventually came out, and while they were commercially and critically successful, they utterly failed in their mission to bring “good writing” to games. In the end, they were what Clark calls “dumb” games.

What was the point where it broke down? There was no evil executive coming in from on high telling us to make the game more lowbrow. The team was not a bunch of sniveling adolescent boys (a couple were, to be honest, but most were of the aforementioned good type). I think instead that the problem was structural— deeply structural to the product itself, at a level where no amount of “smart” versus “dumb” choices can really change things. One of those games centered around shooting aliens with guns and lasers. Another was about navigating an environment and punching people until they died.

It’s an intriguing argument. (And he was working from the best case scenario: on Spider-Man we had comics writers, not “real writers”, and we ran roughshod over them; I have no idea if any of their contributions made it into the final product, though at that point I was too burnt out to care. It wasn’t just us, at least: for business reasons, for instance, Mary Jane had to present Spider-Man with a Nokia brand cell phone in the opening cutscene.)

And, certainly, when he says, “The dissonance of the Uncharted series is a famous example: the experience implies two completely different worlds. One is where Nathan Drake is an affable hero, and the other is where Drake murders hundreds of fellow human beings and feels nothing,” that is an argument we’ve had many times around the office, and I have coworkers who feel very strongly about the way Drake’s mass murders invalidate the rest of the story.

But it just doesn’t bother me! I’ve tried to puzzle out why earlier, but perhaps this time I’ll be more successful.

I think the key is that I don’t take it literally. Like, when you see a training montage in a movie, you don’t think that the dude did three sit-ups and drank a protein shake and went jogging and painted some fences all in the space of three minutes—does maybe the inspiring rock song that blocks out all other sound give him the power of teleportation?—instead, you accept that they’re showing you bits and pieces of a weeks- or months-long process. The movie’s telling you how hard he’s working.

Similarly, in games! When you break into the enemy base by traversing a maze and solving some puzzles and shooting roughly fifty dudes, that is the game telling you how it feels to break into a base. Or maybe you could say where a Bond movie would use a few scenes of breaking into a base to show how resourceful and deadly Bond is, a Bond game would use an enemy base level to make you show the game how resourceful and deadly Bond is.

It feels like a bit of a hard sell, saying that the things you actually see happen in front of you in real time aren’t actually what happened. But it you do all the time in games. Cloud talks to the same person three times in a row and gets the same answer. In a movie, this would be a major plot point: is Cloud suffering some kind of mental breakdown? Is he trapped in the Mobius (an area of space where time becomes a loop)? No, you’re just pressing that person for information, or maybe you were trying to check out the plant the person was standing next to. The player understands this and rolls with it, I think.

This argument only goes so far! I’m saying that I understand these things to be genre conventions, and it doesn’t bother me because I take the game’s events at something other than face value. But, judging by the fact that we’re still having these conversations, my experience isn’t universal. Other people are playing games and being bothered by what’s going on, and that’s a legitimate experience; certainly you can’t just argue them out of it. If creators and their audience have a different understanding of what various things mean, that’s a problem.

  1. mirrorful reblogged this from charmian and added:
    "I accept your challenge!" I was about to say, but…ten is a lot! I got about three in and then ran out of steam. It’s a...
  2. charmian reblogged this from mirrorful and added:
    Interesting debate on the dumbness of writing in games. Don’t have much insight to offer here myself, but Mike’s...