December 01, 2008
Mr. Braddock: "Benjamin, this whole idea seems rather half-baked."
Benjamin: "No, I assure you, it's fully baked."
--The Graduate (1967)
I'm wading into choppy waters here, working with a thesis that probably has some big holes in it. So bear with me.
I believe we need more dissonance in games, not less. I believe video games naturally facilitate collisions between what a player does or thinks; what is represented or enacted on screen; and what all of this means. Blurring or smoothing out these barriers, ironically, makes the end goal of doing so - unity of story, play, and mechanics - less possible, not more so. Once the designer starts down the road of unifying these elements into a seamless cohesive whole, even the slightest incongruity is magnified into a betrayal of the system.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting we need more bad games. I'm not recommending that designers stop trying to create game worlds that attempt to powerfully connect story and gameplay. I accept the notion that marrying the narrative and ludic elements of a game like Bioshock is a good idea. Within the system Bioshock creates for the player, failing to unify these elements feels like a broken contract. Clint Hocking famously called this "ludonarrative dissonance," and he hits the nail squarely on the head.
The problem is that dissonance is a pernicious beast. If we set about to eliminate it at every turn, it inevitably defies us. Like a gnarly kudzu plant, it just keeps on coming. Games like Fallout 3 brilliantly convey an evocative, explorable world that transcends any of its characters or storylines. As several reviewers have pointed out, Washington, D.C. is easily the most interesting character in the game. But once the humans appear...well, I've gone on about the dissonance created by the characters in this space more than once, so I'll spare you a reiteration.
But even the city itself if full of dissonance. The wearisome sameness of the layouts and items found in every interior location. The endless boarded up buildings with no entry points...except for the ones I need to enter for a quest. The arbitrariness of interactions between me the environment. The world is alive with possibilities, except when it isn't. The world responds to my actions, except when it doesn't.
I want to say this a clearly as I can. I love Fallout 3. I think it's one of the most amazing games I've ever played. I spent weeks on it with my students, and it was the highlight of a terrific semester. As a gamer, I'm earnestly grateful to Bethesda for going the distance with this game.
But Fallout 3 is loaded with dissonance, and the only reason that's a problem is because Fallout 3 tries so incredibly hard to convince us otherwise.
There's a handy solution to all this, and it's our old friend "suspension of disbelief." We're willing to overlook miles of dissonance if the thing provoking us is sufficiently engaging or entertaining. Once I accept the idea that my avatar miraculously transforms her gait from a Quasimodo limp to a sturdy run by dropping one small item in her enormous inventory, I'm good to go. I needn't worry about it anymore. Give in. Let go. Have fun. There's so much game to dig into, why quibble about dissonant moments?
Which leads me back to my thesis. If our old pal "suspension of disbelief" is such a resourceful friend, couldn't he help us accept even more dissonance? In fact, if the game makes it worth doing, might we even choose to embrace dissonance? I say yes...and so does Aristotle, by the way. We are capable of tremendous leaps of faith, even when the mechanics of what we are being asked to ignore are laid bare before us. And sometimes the mechanics are just as interesting as the story itself.
So here's my question: does the road to ludonarrative unity really lead us where we want to go? Is the destination reachable? Is it possible to embrace a design aesthetic that takes us in another direction that could be just as fruitful, if not more so? Okay that was three questions, but it's my blog so I get to ask as many as I want. Now if I could only answer them.