The lights are on
If Lara Croft is just a girl trying to survive, why is she so good at remorselessly mowing down bad guys? If Nathan Drake is a charming, relatable everyman, how should we feel about the fact that we control him as he kills hundreds? As video game storytelling has improved, the idea that gameplay design can conflict with the game’s narrative has become a hot-button topic for gamers. There’s a lot of disagreement within the community as to how it should be addressed. Some people dismiss it as nitpicky whining; others acknowledge it as a legitimate concern, but seem to think of it as insurmountable or damaging to the industry. While I can sympathize with these responses, I don’t think either of them are the right way to talk about the issue.
It isn’t pointless to talk constructively about issues that come from trying to tell a story in a video game, and they shouldn’t be avoided as impossible to overcome or use, either. I think the fact that narrative disconnect in video games is being talked about should be seen as an opportunity – by making these issues a part of our conversation in the right way, we can pave the way for exciting new ideas in how video games are designed and received as entertainment and art.
The idea of a narrative disconnect caused by gameplay design has gotten progressively more attention in recent years, and has been called a lot of things. Clint Hocking famously coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” in his 2007 article “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock” to help explain why he thought BioShock’s gameplay rendered the points the story was trying to make ineffective or contradictory. Amy Hennig, creative director of the Naughty Dog series Uncharted, described the concept as “the uncanny valley of narrative,” and acknowledged that her team looked for creative ways of overcoming it. Whether it’s called “game-isms,” “ludonarrative dissonance,” or “gameplay/narrative disconnect,” the phenomenon has been the subject of numerous articles, and in some cases has even affected the critical response to titles like Uncharted, Max Payne 3, Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us.
Some critics felt that making Ellie invisible to enemies in The Last of Us took away from the tense emotions of combat, as players wouldn't have to worry about Ellie being harmed.
While critical circles have begun to talk about the gameplay/narrative disconnect, the concept has largely been marginalized within the gaming community. Even using the term “ludonarrative dissonance” online is often an invitation for ridicule. Unfortunately, it’s completely understandable that so many gamers would react this way. The issue of narrative disconnect is, like so many other legitimate topics, often hijacked and used either to antagonize a community into anger or to make an arguer look intellectually superior and inaccessible.
It’s easy to see how narrative-disconnect trolling could happen. I control Joel in The Last of Us; if I choose, he can just run into a wall for three hours or shoot all his ammo at Ellie. That’s a disconnect between gameplay and narrative, as is every other stupid thing you could choose to do with controllable characters. So obviously, talking about disconnects between a game’s design and its story is pointless and silly. After all, it’s just a video game.
This is probably the most common complaint that comes up in these conversations. The point made is that video games aren’t meant to be taken so seriously, and that thinking about how gameplay interferes with narrative is missing the intention of having fun. For a lot of gamers, analyzing a game at this level feels too serious or academic – or even worse, it feels like we’re poking fun at the entertainment they love, pointing out flaws just to mock them.
While it’s OK to use narrative disconnect to point out a game’s limitations, the proper usage of any critical topic (not just disconnect) is constructive. The idea should be used to stimulate interesting conversation about what a game did or didn’t do to draw the player in, or what it could have done better. People who say things like, “It’s just a video game,” are being just as reductive as if they had said, “It’s just a book,” or “It’s just a movie.” A lot of entertainment requires suspension of disbelief, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, interesting conversations about it. Talking about narrative disconnect can easily be done without taking games too seriously, and just because someone doesn’t want to doesn’t mean they should be allowed to dismiss the topic as unworthy.
Up next: Why gameplay/narrative disconnect isn’t inaccessible, and why talking about it will help, not hurt the game industry
Email the author Harry Mackin, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.