15 December 2012

Untold Ludo-Narrative Dissonance

Hey! I have written anything here in ages! But sometimes I write stuff on other parts of the Internet, like today when I left a long comment on the Untold Entertainment blog, and I'm not above recycling blog comments as original content for my own site. This was a response to another reader's comment. You can get the full context over there, but all you really need to know is that the subject was the validity of linear storytelling in interactive works.

What you’re talking about is “ludo-narrative dissonance.” The story you’re being told doesn’t match the experience you’re creating, like when you gleefully blow up thirty cars with a tank and then immediately follow it by watching a cutscene where Niko Bellic kvetches about not wanting to hurt anyone. And then you fire a bazooka at a helicopter flying above a busy downtown intersection.
This is bad, inconsistent storytelling, but it’s silly to say that games should never have canned story elements just because so many games suffer from sloppy execution.
You mention that player actions should be accompanied by animations and sound effects, but are these not canned, as well? If I accelerate a car in a game, I expect to hear engine sounds and see spinning wheels. This is reasonable feedback. It would be confusing to hear footsteps and see footprints left in the mud behind the car. Unless Fred Flintstone is driving, in which case it would be perfectly appropriate.
I think the reason you see so many people eagerly deride linear storytelling in games is not because games and pre-written narratives don’t work together, but because they are frequently mismatched. In fact, and I hope I’m overstating this, ludo-narrative dissonance is the norm in story-driven games.
Pairing interactivity with defined narrative can work, but it often falls apart when the story is about the player character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions, because, guess what, the player’s own decisions might not match what some writer had in mind. But rather than looking at the elaborate, movie-like scenes of today that I suspect you find unsatisfying, let’s peek back at some of the earliest cutscenes in games. After all, it was the early examples that must have convinced later game developers to keep moving in this direction.
In Pac-Man, a circle with a mouth eats dots and avoids ghosts, except sometimes he eats the ghosts. After every few levels, control is mercilessly wrestled from the poor player’s hands, and an unskippable, non-interactive cutscene rears its ugly head. In the first, Blinky chases Pac-Man off the screen, only to chased himself by an enlarged Pac-Man. It’s cute, it’s quick, and while this event couldn’t play out exactly this way in-game (Pac-Man never gets bigger) it’s true to the nature of the characters and mechanics. An individual player may not actively try to eat the ghosts, but the scenario doesn’t deny the player’s experience – Pac-man isn’t crying because he just wants to stop eating dots. Moreover, this scene reinforces that the relationship between Pac-Man and the ghosts reverses when the ghosts turn dark blue. Now, please, please try to tell me that Pac-Man is wrong for including linear storytelling.
One more example: Maniac Mansion. There’s a good explanation of why Maniac Mansion had cutscenes in an era before they’d hit the big-time in 1UP’s Maniac Mansion retrospective from earlier this year (http://www.1up.com/features/maniac-mansion-retrospective), so I’ll stick to what other games could still stand to learn from this game. The player gets to choose a set of three characters at the start, and while each has a broad personality, they’re all fairly blank. Rather than trying to tie together a story about whichever characters the player uses, and trying to keep that story in line with the player’s actions, most of Maniac Mansion’s cutscenes, in fact, CUT to other characters in other locations. These characters are seldom even aware that the player’s crew has entered the mansion. Their thoughts, motivations, and actions have nothing to do with the players, and they shouldn’t. The cutscenes aren’t about you, but they more than justify their existence by being entertaining and informative. And, yes, it helps that there are different outcomes depending on how you affect the mansion, but that’s not essential to the concept of cutting away from the player and focusing on outside characters.
(I’ll stop now. If you want more, I wrote an essay on this subject once, specifically as it relates to Rockstar Vancouver’s Bully. It could have used a little editing, but here you go: https://sites.google.com/site/hotlavy/all-articles/bully-a-course-in-narrative-disconnect)

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