Ludonarrative Dissonance: we still need to learn from Hocking
Back in 2007, former Lucasarts Creative Director and current Valve employee, Clint Hocking, wrote a blog post about the Ludonarrative Dissonance resulting from Bioshock’s methods of storytelling. It expanded upon his observation that Bioshock’s played story (the ludic) sat at odds with its told story (the narrative), thus rendering the overall storytelling experience uncomfortably fractured.
Hocking’s post is an eloquent thought piece that has gained renown in the past five years for artfully summarising an issue inherent to traditional storytelling within videogames. It also seems to have gone largely ignored within the realms of big budget videogame development.
Take for instance Crystal Dynamics’s recently released Tomb Raider, an origins story that explores series protagonist Lara Croft’s development into the confident, duel-pistol wielding raider of tombs of the 90’s. Mechanically, it’s a well-crafted game, borrowing heavily from the Uncharted template of modern action-adventuring. Its storytelling, however, is a game of two disconnected halves, communicating with each other via cup and string from different dimensions.
Lara, as we first see her in an early flash-back, is young and ambitious, keen to follow in her father’s footsteps as an explorer. She’s also inexperienced and naïve, or so we’re told at the outset.
Fast forward to the present and we see Lara bound in cloth, strung upside-down in what looks like a sacrificial chamber, blood smeared across her cheek. When the player is finally given control to shake her free of her bindings, Lara plummets to the floor, impaling her abdomen on a large splinter. It takes an agonising quick time event to remove the splinter, after which we direct Lara out of the cave. She clutches her bleeding, punctured stomach and hobbles forward, doubled over in pain, moving at an excruciatingly slow pace regardless of how much pressure you apply to that left analogue stick.
Such attention to detail in Lara’s animation might lead you to believe that Crystal Dynamics have given some thought to the dissonance between the told and the controlled storytelling in Tomb Raider; that Lara’s evolution as a character might unfold organically and harmoniously through both what you can make her do and what you watch her do.
You would be wrong.
Fast forward a few more hours and you’ll find Lara doubled over once again, only this time her hunch is not the result of a personal injury, but a consequence of you, the player, making her loot the hundredth armoured assailant she has – or, more accurately, you have – just murdered. In the space of an hour Lara goes from being frightened and fragile in cut scenes, to mowing down double digit numbers of adversaries. Any illusion Crystal Dynamics are attempting to weave in the told narrative soon crumbles amidst the thick, schlocky crunch of headshots and grenade explosions the player is encouraged to enact, over and over again.
Tomb Raider does take its time to give the player a gun, but when it does, Lara becomes a force of nature, because you, as a gamer, have been trained to be a force of in-game nature. Headshots are mechanically satisfying and encouraged through the rewarding of experience points, and although stealth is a perfectly viable option in many scenarios, it simply isn’t as fleshed out in terms of mechanical design.
Similarly, the also recently released God of War: Ascension suffers from a substantial dissonance problem, just as the series always has. Ascension’s narrative plays out after Kratos has murdered his wife and child, painting the Spartan as a forlorn warrior, often sad and downbeat during cutscenes, contemplative of the horrors he has committed in his unrelenting pursuit of power. Skip to any gameplay segment, however, and it’s likely that you’ve just sliced a large-breasted medusa-style serpent from head to stomach in pursuit of Kratos’ freedom. It simply doesn’t add up.
Within the confines of a Greek melodrama this monster mutilation isn’t necessarily the dissonant issue – the creatures you so gruesomely dispatch whilst playing as Kratos are fantastical, unrelatable beasts: it’s hard to imagine that Mrs Medusa has a husband and child at home that will mourn for her passing. But the sheer brutality of Kratos’ actions under your control are diametrically opposed to the broken repenting soul we are consistently told he is. How can we care about his feelings if we strip him of any the moment we press a button?
The misalignment of Tomb Raider and God of War’s told and played stories are just two examples of a whole host of recent AAA productions that largely ignore Hocking’s 2007 post. They sit alongside titles like Max Payne 3 and Far Cry 3, exhibiting a conspicuous disregard for the jarring issue of Ludonarrative Dissonance, despite harbouring aspirations towards telling serious, hard-hitting dramas.
It’s a little unfair, perhaps, to suggest that the developers of these games are unaware of the issue. Tomb Raider’s writer, Rhianna Pratchett, recently spoke out about the problem in an interview with the website Kill Screen, with the following statements: “The needs of narrative don’t always trump the needs of gameplay. In fact, it’s usually the other way around.” She went on to say: “We tried to innovate a little bit, but narrative can’t always win. Ideally if you can find a sweet spot, that’s great. But sometimes combat, or gameplay or whatever, has to win out.”
Difficult character development, it would seem, is not perceived to be an easy thing to achieve when trying to make a mechanically satisfying game. Nor is it believed to be desirable to the mass market of consumers. But is that really the case anymore? Shouldn’t the developmental emphasis on story and gameplay be set upon equal footing if you intend to tell a tale through interactivity? Narrative is, after all, a contextual carrot on a stick, and there are plenty of critically and commercially successful titles that manage to avoid the pitfalls of Ludonarrative Dissonance.
Games like Hotline Miami, The Walking Dead and, to an extent, Spec Ops: The Line, are just a few of many that demonstrate the powerful results of considering narrative and gameplay as equals. They show that a player-created story can fit with a told narrative if a measure of forethought is given to aligning the boundaries of both. Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami successfully bridge this disparity by commenting on their mechanics through their narratives, and The Walking Dead makes its main mechanic of player choice a fundamental and structured instrument to the development of its narrative.
These are the standard bearers for videogames as a unique, powerful, and most importantly, coherent storytelling medium. Games that render a human face and then attempt to make that face a relatable one have to mechanically ground themselves in a believable world of action and consequence to give any credence to a serious, heartfelt drama, and these titles show that it can be done.
I didn’t care about Kratos’ sorrow, because the carelessly brutal actions I was able to make him carry out didn’t convince me that he had any. I didn’t buy Lara’s sobbing after she murdered a doe, because under my control she was a more efficient killer than the T-1000. And yet so many big budget productions still choose to prioritise gameplay over story, despite their attempts to make that story an integral and prominent part of the experience. But to believe that it has to be a choice between one or the other is an outdated school of thought, one that could learn a thing or two from Hocking’s five year old blog post.