It’s a familiar story; at least it was when I was a kid. You gather your friends, split into teams. It’s war — Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers. Is it different nowadays — Gryffindor vs Slytherin? Vampires vs Werewolves? Team Edward vs Team Jacob? God, I don’t know! I’m so out of touch with the kids today and their… stuff.
But ultimately the names don’t matter, not really, the concept is the same. We come together as children and play — with pretend guns, swords, wands, bows and arrows — almost spontaneously a set of rules are created. If you’re shot, you die; you can’t go into the neighbour’s garden — that’s forbidden. You can’t go inside the house. You can’t switch sides.
There’s no real punishment for circumventing this artificial rule set but somehow, as children, we create these rules and abide by them — if we break those rules or operate outside them the illusion is shattered. The game stops being fun.
But there’s always that one kid. ‘No, you can’t kill me! I’m using my secret force field!’ ‘No, I jumped and dodged the bullets!’ He ruins the game. Once the rules are broken it collapses into chaos, all internal consistency dissolves. Suddenly we’re rolling around in the mud with sticks for swords.
If we’re smart, we don’t invite him to play again, or we politely remind him of the rules. Because when we play games we have to take responsibility for the way in which we play them.
Nowadays in the discourse of game narrative and its many crushing flaws, ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ is a buzz word frequently unsheathed and used sans mercy upon all manner of video games. First a clarification: Clint Hocking’s piece on the original BioShock, where the term was initially coined, is an important one, and I fully agree with the sentiment. Games often provide you with a restricted set of choices — choices that push against the themes of the narrative resulting in disconnect between what you’re playing and what the story wants you to experience.
But sometimes, when we play games, we have to take responsibility for the way in which we play them.
Gaming is performance, and sometimes players have to remember to perform. As children, when we are shot we clutch our guts. We scream, in a final last stand we sink to the floor in a hyperbolic gasp. Fun comes from the performance. It comes when we play along, not against.
Perhaps this is just a personal thing, but when I play video games, I do my very best to perform. If I’m scaling up the highest tower in Rome as Ezio, I do my best to make it a beautiful climb. When I play Grand Theft Auto IV I try to avoid civilian casualties because I’m Niko Bellic, a troubled man trying to escape his criminal path. If it doesn’t make sense, I try my very best to have it make sense, through my actions in the game, because that’s what it means to play within boundaries — even if those boundaries don’t necessarily exist within the game itself.
When discussing L.A. Noire (a game I didn’t particularly enjoy) Tom Bissell laments the disconnect between its linear story and the ‘game’ itself — a game he claims to have played like a psychopathic maniac killer with no regard for the rules of the road! According to Bissell, L.A. Noire was “tacitly refusing to address all the asshole stuff I was doing”. My response to that would be: if you want the game to make sense within context, stop doing all that asshole stuff!
Another clarification: gamers should be able to play games in any way they choose, but when we poke and prod with the intent of breaking down the internal narrative consistency of an video game, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when the fabric tears. At the very least we probably shouldn’t complain so loudly.
Because, ultimately, games are still games. There are moments when the spectre of ludonarrative dissonance descends on us and we have no defence (as Nathan Drake you must slaughter hundreds of pirates to proceed) but there are times when we as gamers feel compelled to shatter the illusion — and maybe we should take more responsibility for that.
As children we learn to play nice because, if we don’t, there is no game to be played — we have nothing. As adults we’re like the kid with the invincible forcefield — we expect to be told how to play, and then demand to be reigned in when we break the rules.
Can’t we just play along? Isn’t that the point? Otherwise we’re just bickering children, refusing to play dead, rolling around in the mud with sticks for swords.