When Roger Ebert infamously decried that video games can never be art, it clearly touched a nerve.
Now, I’m not saying that Ebert was right. His cultural elitism is irrelevant. But, the response of the gaming community was incredible. It sparked a wave of discussion and debate over something as insignificant as a definition. If Ebert has claimed that music was not art, would it have received the same attention? Would the music community have found his blog post anything other than hilariously misguided? Of course not.
But gamers and critics rallied against Ebert’s claim because they feel games still have something to prove as an art form. They think games are broken. And in a fundamental, blindingly obvious way – they are. But this brokenness (which we will address later) is often ignored; and instead the issue is overcomplicated with largely irrelevant pseudo-academic discourse and diction.
Even in the mainstream gaming press, articles are littered with articulate, apologetic terms which try and address this perceived brokenness. One of the most commonly overused terms Is Clint Hocking’s ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, which has been misused in games criticism to such an absurd extent that it is falling out of favour. Hocking’s original argument is solid: thematically, Bioshock is obsessed with the philosophy of Objectivism, and lets you align yourself with this doctrine by harvesting Little Sisters. But the game’s linear storyline forces you to reject Objectivism, no matter what. So there’s a dissonance between the gameplay and the game’s narrative themes. Hocking’s point is a relevant one, and it is well made.
But the far more commonly cited example of ludonarrative dissonance is that found in the Uncharted series. Simply put: protagonist Nathan Drake is a suave, likeable rogue in the cutscenes, but during play he is a ruthless mass murderer. Ludo = murderer, narrative = loveable. See the dissonance?
But as critics reapply the concept of ludonnarrative dissonance to more and more perceptively ‘broken’ games – often using it as a quick academic fix when a game just doesnt look like art – I think the term’s usefulness decreases.
About a year ago I was leafing through an Edge magazine, and I saw the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ used three times in one issue. Their The Last of Us review praised the game for ‘solving’ the aforementioned ludonarrative disonnance present in the Uncharted series (because unlike shooting people, shooting zombies does not make you a bad person), and they awarded it 10 out of 10 (presumably meaning the game is perfect; they fail to comment on the fact that the game is primarily a ladder configuration simulator with some good cutscenes). The inference is clear; Uncharted was ‘broken’, The Last of Us is the ‘solution’. Elsewhere in the issue, the term is used in a ‘Trigger Happy’ opinion piece to criticise Halo 4 for having non-destructible doors. Because, you know, having bulletproof doors ruptures the narrative.
In the above examples, Edge uses the term in such a simplistic manner as to almost disassociate it with Hocking’s original usage. But some critics’ utilisation of the term are just plain wrong. The Ontological Geek recently posted an article claiming that the gameplay of Papers Please creates game and narrative dissonance by making you feel bad for playing the game. As Stephen Beirne points out, this is not ludonarrative dissonance; it is actually ludonarrative cohesion. The whole point of Papers Please is that the gameplay forces you to be an asshole, and this reinforces the central theme that bureaucracy can be shitty.
As I said, I like Hocking’s original usage of the term. It was an intelligent article about the thematic failings of an aspirational work. But in the gaming press, the term is not being used intelligently or effectively. It is not being used to discuss the failings of artistic and narrative themes in games – such as in Hocking’s successful critical analysis – but more to highlight the artificiality of when a game system does not reflect real life; when a game seems unreal. Uncharted does not fail thematically through Drake’s murderous nature – you’re just playing as an asshole, and it feels silly. Used in this way, the term is not a useful piece of academic diction, but a buzzword to throw about when a simulated reality lacks the ‘cohesion’ of real life. It is often a thinly veiled desire for games to be less messy; to be overtly realistic. As Bob Chipman argues – ludonarrative dissonance has become a stand-in for the equally fashionable term of the previous decade: immersion.
The desire for a fully immersive experience is, quite simply, bullshit – if you want a perfectly simulated world in which to shoot bad guys, pick up a gun and go and shoot some real people. There is a sense among the gaming press that a game’s perceived ‘brokenness’ can be fixed by achieving an unparalleled simulation. This ideal of ‘real-ness’, previously pined for through ‘immersion’, now similarly beckoned through ‘ludonarrative cohesion’, will not fix anything. Yes, even if you swap out ALL the people with zombies. Why? Because games are already real.
Let’s go back in time a bit. The clamour for ‘immersion’ did not start with game criticism – it was fully present in the 19th century. In 1817, Samuel Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in an attempt to encourage more supernatural writing, which had declined in popularity due to its perceived lack of ‘realism’ among the educated readers of the time. Coleridge encouraged readers to have “poetic faith”, and to project onto these fanciful impossibilities “a human interest and a semblance of truth” from “our inward nature”.
Here, what Coleridge is touching upon is our ability to convert almost any scenario – no matter how supernatural – into a relatable human experience. Just as our brains anthropomorphise practically anything with even the vaguest human form, our minds are adept and converting all the chaotic sensory inputs they receive into relatable, comprehensible data.
What enters our minds as light, sound and feeling, gets converted into the brain’s most reliable categorisation device; narrative. Your whole life is a story your brain is putting together one piece at a time – it’s pattern recognition organised into a chronological timeframe. Most of the shit you do on a day-to-day basis is completely pointless on any ‘objective’ scale – but while we are fully aware of the insignificance of, say, missing a bus in the grand scheme of the universe, the fictional reality we construct in our minds is very different. As you are dashing towards the departing bus, you may as well be in a season finale of a TV show.
But just as stories are essential to our comprehension of the world, so too are games. I have already talked about how everything is a game; games and stories are inseparable. Just as we turn the bus scenario into a meaningful narrative in which we are the protagonists, we also turn it into a game. There is a set parameter for victory (get on the bus) and a set parameter for failure (miss the bus). Victory conditions are essential for any kind of narrative; any writing guide will argue that the protagonist has to constantly swerve between success and failure to create a tense and engaging story. In other words, we apply gamification to everyday life just as much as we apply narrative; to see the world through the filter of a game is essential to human comprehension.
But as a game, a story, or both – missing the bus is not significant. The bus is a huge swarm of quarks, atoms and energy, caught in a continuing chemical reaction so vast and incomprehensible that its departure, by any reasonable logic, cannot be affixed any meaningful value. The ‘reality’ which we construct for ourselves, and the value which we apply to the event we call ‘missing the bus’, is subjective, fallible, flimsy.
Reality is a falsification, a collective delusion willingly subscribed to, created by the phenomenon of human thought. I think most of us know this. But we suspend our disbelief. We commit to the fantasy. What other choice do we have?
This ability to gamify and narritivise the chaotic sensory data which our brains receive – to convert it into a ‘reality’ – is employed whenever we open a book or switch on the television. But, with any medium there is a learning curve. It’s no coincidence that Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ term gained more widespread use in the 20th century, as emerging mediums (primarily cinema) exposed the world to new ways of constructing fictional realities, which came with their own challenges to comprehension. Just as the novel has a learning curve (the ability to read), so do cinema and comics. Scott Mccloud’s Understanding Comics provides a great example of how our imagination is the greatest tool we have when interpreting sequential images:
To comprehend that there is action happening between these frames that we cannot see, is in a very basic sense to “transfer from our inward nature […] a semblance of truth”, as Coleridge put it. To understand any form of art is to take the incomplete, fractured bits of code from an author and combine them with our imagination and understanding of the world, to make a reality which we willingly submit to. We are very good at this. We do this literally all the time, whether we’re chasing after a bus or relaxing in front of the television.
It is thanks to our imagination that plenty of people commit to the fantasy of Uncharted, and ultimately enjoy the experience, despite the dissonance between the player-character’s actions and Nathan Drake’s personality. We recognise the dissonance is ridiculous, but it does not break the game; we know that the scripted cutscenes and maze-like levels of cloned guards inhibit a different reality from our own, and are maintained by their own rulesets. We accept that Drake can be both suave and murderous in this world, just as we accept that Wile E. Coyote can momentarily levitate before falling off a cliff (and survive the fall). We assess what rules the fiction dictates as fact, and our imagination fills in the gaps. Conjured imaginary realities do not have to adhere to our own physical laws.
I therefore do not think a lack of ‘immersion’, or even ludonnarative dissonance, is in any way detrimental to our comprehension of a game. Liz Ryerson argues that when videogames strive to achieve “total, unbroken immersion” they are actually in pursuit of escapism into totalitarian, idealised worlds which hold no real value. The world we exist in, after all, is a chaotic, disharmonious place – and the art we construct should reflect that.
Metal Gear Solid, the poster boy for postmodernism in games, revels in its own disharmony. It consistently reaches through the fourth wall and acknowledges its own artificiality. In a previous article, I argued that Metal Gear Solid benefits from highlighting the dichotomy between its pseudo-real graphics and its underlying game mechanics (Items hover impossibly over the ground; exclamation marks hover over enemy heads; at one point the Colonel openly invites you to inspect the PlayStation case). These elements ease our comprehension of the game-space and our understanding of its rulesets, despite breaking the immersion.
Why does Metal Gear work despite the glaring artificiality of its mechanics? Because we suspend our disbelief. Because our brains are crazy good at constructing realities from un-realistic things. They do not need ‘internal consistency’ or ‘immersive realism’ to be comprehensible, to be fun, to convey meaning.
Once our brain deciphers the author’s code and constructs an imaginary world, that world has become real. This invented reality does not have to adhere to the same logic as the reality outside of the console or the novel for us to engage with it emotionally, to empathise with the situations and characters. When Snake is seen by a guard, it doesn’t matter that a giant exclamation mark springs from the enemy’s head. That moment of terror is just as real as someone’s anger and frustration over missing the bus.
So I do not think ‘immersion’, and its often wrongly utilised stand-in term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, are really the root of many gamers’ underlying dissatisfaction with the medium. These mostly vacuous critical terms do not successfully address the brokenness of games – that strange aftertaste of juvenility that comes from directing Nathan Drake’s gunfire for hours on end.
I think the problem is guns.
We do not find Nathan Drake’s mass murder jarring because it elicits a dissonance between play and narrative. Nor because it breaks the immersion. We find Drake’s mass murder jarring because it is mass murder.
Zolani Stewart argues that the gaming industry is obsessed with the fetishisation of ‘targetry’, to such an extent that videogames that are not based on pre-existing real world games (racing, sports, chess) struggle to get funded if their premise is not rooted in violence.
The real problem here is that fetishisation of violence is limiting the industry’s ability to grow as an art from. No work of art is created in a vacuum; any artistic medium develops as creators share and borrow ideas. Citizen Kane utilised many cinematic effects which were reused by directors the world over. Games are far too broad a medium (or indeed, a collection of mediums) to be revolutionised by any one artistic output – but right now the creation of ANY unique and innovative game is being seriously hindered by publishers’ reluctance to fund mainstream projects which allow ludic interaction through non-violent means.
Making games which only allow the player to interact with the world by shooting things is the cinematic equivalent of only allowing directors to use a cheezy 1970’s camera zoom to start a shot. It stagnates the creative vocabulary of the art form.
Games are a broken because they are stuck in a quagmire of juvenility. They are not being allowed to grow by a commercialised industry obsessed with eternally repackaging Time Crisis for a mass audience. And the problem is exacerbated tenfold by a woefully inadequate mainstream gaming press, which largely identifies the problem as a technical one (an imperfect simulation, or a lack of obvious synchronicity between play and narrative), rather than a thematic one. Triple-A games and their designers are not being encouraged to express important ideas, themes and concepts through their gameplay or their narratives – and how the fuck can they, when they’re forced to shove a gun in the player’s hand within ten minutes? How do you connect with important real world issues while telling the player to lob some ‘nades? When has a James Bond film ever tacked an important sociological issue, or made you reflect on what it means to be human? And meanwhile the press continues to treat games like they are stereo systems or refrigerators, throwing out perfect 100% ratings so long as it ‘works’ and has ‘good replay value’.
Anything can be a game. We are involving ourselves in a vast, sprawling game every time we get out of bed. Surely we can reflect this through computer games, through interactive art, without resorting to digital mass murder?