Gameplay Matters

The term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ was coined to describe – in basic terms – the way in which a game’s narrative can feel, to the player, somewhat disconnected from the gameplay mechanics. It was first used by Clint Hocking on his blog when discussing BioShock in 2007, and has recently begun to pop up again in reference to BioShock’s second sequal – BioShock Infinite.  It was criticised for the fact that the actions the player was expected to take (violence; i.e. shoot lots of things with big guns) contrasted so heavily with the game’s storyline, which vilified Booker’s adversaries for their violence and cruelty. For a game which has been closely criticized for this, it has gone on to win numerous awards for it’s story, characters, art and music.
So, does ludonarrative dissonance really matter? How important is it that the gameplay and narrative complement each other? And how much can it negatively impact a game if the dissonance is noticeable by players? Arguably BioShock Infinite did nothing much to innovate the shooter genre, (despite winning best shooter at 2013’s VGX Awards) and will probably not attract the core target audience of the FPS genre – fans of iterative franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. Throughout the series of BioShock the shooter elements have always been present – albeit made arguably more interesting and fantastical by utilising plasmids and vigors – but if we imagine for a minute that it was a stand-alone game, could BioShock Infinite have been improved by exploring other types of gameplay? How would the narrative be conveyed differently if it was a puzzle game, or a platformer? Perhaps it could be argued that the simplicity of the gameplay (whilst still providing challenge for the player against some of the tougher enemies) allowed the narrative to shine through without distraction? When discussing the original BioShock, Hocking argued that “[the] leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest […] or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.”
A game I have discussed before for its excellent evocation of emotion is Freebird Games’ To The Moon. Throughout the game you explore, talk to people and piece together the puzzle of Johnny’s life.  After finding a memento of the past, you must piece it together in a puzzle solving minigame:
For me these puzzles were a little jarring – they took me out of the story and had me focus on the logic or pattern required to complete the task. I wanted to complete them in order to progress. After finishing the game (and enjoying it a lot!) I thought about whether it would have been made better or worse by removing these puzzles. The game is not necessarily worse off for adding them, and they provide a challenge for players who are interested in this – just as I was interested in getting back to the story. The puzzles can be fun, and arguably add another dimension to the story – the references to Sigmund Corp on the left hand side while you are working on the puzzle remind you of their aspects of the plot rather than the adventure you are taking part in AS the scientists. The puzzles have purpose in the game, but arguably could go even further to maximise the themes brought through by the narrative and further immerse the player in the Sigmund Corp universe.
This year saw the release of episode one of The Wolf Among Us – the adventure game based on the Fables series of graphic novels – by Telltale Games, the developers of the hugely successful game in the same vein The Walking Dead.
For those who have played The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us is fairly similar in terms of gameplay style. The progression is focused on choice and action, with those choices and actions having an impact on how the story unfolds. The player takes on the role of Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown. The narrative of The Wolf Among Us is somewhat darker than that of To The Moon, and although their similarities involve exploring and talking to people to find out more information, there are no conventional puzzles as such in The Wolf Among Us. Instead the gameplay is almost entirely focused on the narrative in this game, with conversation and action being the most interaction that the player will undertake. During scenes the player may be required to make a choice of action rather than conversations, a gameplay mechanic often frowned upon in other genres (an interesting article on QTEs can be found over here on Gamasutra). These ‘quick-time events’ are forgiven and almost celebrated in games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, as they compliment the narrative and it’s structure. Rather than being thrown in as an addition to give variety to gameplay, they are another way for the player to immerse themselves in the character of Bigby and take control of more of his actions.
 One of my favourite games of 2013 was The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Gone Home is a “story exploration game”, where you explore a house and uncover the secrets of what happened to the people who lived in it. Piecing together the narrative did involve some reading and listening to audio logs, but mainly by exploring and inspecting the environment would you really get a feel for the story. The gameplay in Gone Home is simple, with some puzzles. The biggest challenge the player will face is finding the correct key so they can go into a room they haven’t been in yet, or finding the clues to access a secret locked away. It’s slow paced – or rather, whatever pace the player chooses to explore. The quick-time events of The Wolf Among Us, or the shooter mechanics of BioShock Infinite would be misplaced in this context as too dramatic and action packed. The pace would be changed dramatically by adding or altering gameplay mechanics, breaking the balance with the narrative and making it hard to absorb. In places the atmosphere in Gone Home is such that you almost expect monsters to jump out from under the bed, or behind a curtain – but overall it is an emotional experience which is best experienced as a lonely avatar creaking around an empty house. (Interestingly, you can read about Gone Home’s beginnings as an Amnesia mod here.)
Taking the narrative of a game as the focus, it’s easy to see how choosing how the player interacts with the game and it’s environments can have a huge influence on how the story is perceived by the player and the overall impact that it has. In today’s market you can find games which sit all the way along the spectrum when balancing narrative and gameplay. Whether gameplay or narrative is the focus and strength of the game, we can find examples of AAA bestsellers to be given for both. The defining feature of these games is that regardless of which may be weaker, they are complimentary and work together to create an enjoyable experience for the player.
The question remains as to whether there is such a thing as perfect balance between gameplay and narrative, but as the gap between blockbuster games and blockbuster movies closes with the development of games such as Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us, the most exciting thing will likely be to witness the innovation in both realms.
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One thought on “Gameplay Matters

  1. Telltale’s take on the issue is quite interesting. If you were to ask “what’s the gameplay” for Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us, you might look at the QTEs or the exploration and puzzles, but in fact the gameplay IS the story development. Choosing what to say IS the mechanic. I think that’s quite interesting because at that point, there is no dissonance at all, players are never taken away from the story, which I think is most important.

    Bioshock’s kill count pulls you out of the game, especially when the story doesn’t acknowledge the frankly brutal way you stoved someone’s head in with your claw hand in front of Elizabeth beyond her saying “oh, god!” in a pre-scripted way. Next scene she’s happy as a lamb.

    That’s not to say a story can’t have violent or action-packed gameplay, but i think it needs to fit with the genre of the story. Are you making an action story? If this was an Avengers videogame and there were long periods of smashing up Chitauri invaders left and right, it’s not going to feel out of place but the story and the characters need to react to that.

    Ultimately, it comes down to what’s important. If killing 500+ enemies across the game is important, it should go in, but the story needs to acknowledge the amount dead and the way they were killed often or it’s going to feel wrong. I hate the Uncharted games in the same way. Nathan Drake kills hundreds on a quest to “get rich”. What a scumbag. Likewise, I hope we get to see more games that maybe have shooter mechanics in place but that deliberately choose to maybe only have a handful of people need to be killed. James Bond is an action film, he has a gun, he shoots people, violence is expected but he will kill, maybe 10 people at most in a film. Maybe more if there’s a battle scene.

    Games with stories start with the mechanics first and write a story to service it, whereas story games need to start with the story and find the best mechanics to realise it because, yeah, looking back at Bioshock, that was a story best told as an adventure game.

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