Monday, July 29, 2013

Response to Bob Chipman on Ludonarrative Dissonance

I honestly love damn near everything Bob Chipman has ever done (I even like the silly shit he's doing with the Overthinker show,) but I've got a lot to say in response to this one in the negative. Keep in mind this is not an attack on Bob, his show, his work overall as an excellent game and film critic. Again, I love the guy, (go buy his book about Super Mario Bros. 3 entitled Brick By Brick, it is seriously fantastic,) but again, gotta raise my voice on this one.

It's worth noting as the episode starts out that his title card uses the cover of Bioshock, the game that basically helped create the term "Ludonarrative Dissonance". It was a term first coined by Clint Hocking on his blog (read that here) while talking about Bioshock because the original Bioshock was so shit that it actually ended up resulting in the creation of one the first popular "academic"-style words in regards to problems of gaming narrative and design. And here we are.

4:46: "Ludonarrative is a made up word."

Every word is made up. Literally every single word, phrase, rule of grammar, languages themselves. And that is why James Joyce was great.

But before we go any deeper, yes, as Chipman says, it is a compound of the terms "Ludology" and "Narrative." (1) Chipman then goes on a small-scale rant about the creation of meaninglessly complex terminology as a ways of making the study of games sound big, smart, and important without having actual substance. I actually agree with this stance more or less. I try to avoid when at all possible the use of bullshit "high-level" language when writing things like this and if a fancy word like "postmodernism" comes into play I define it as best as I can for what you might call a "general" audience. That said we've already hit problems here because it's this kind of attitude that informs Chipman's opinion of LND, (and yes, we are using that shortening because I also agree that it's a pretty obnoxious term, especially to type,) which I will argue later on is of much greater importance than Bob is giving credit to.

5:46-6:14: "For example . . ."

And here's where he starts getting things wrong in an important way. The problem here is that LND is already becoming so generalized and overused as to become actually meaningless when it originally referred to a specific problem. That specific problem is not "Character is a badass, player sucks at game/does not take it seriously." And it is most certainly not the discussion everyone seems to be having about Bioshock: Infinite wherein they can't "take the story seriously" because of the gratuitous nature of the violence in that game. 

The specific problem is when narrative themes contrast with, for lack of better terminology that isn't hopelessly up it's own ass, the themes of the ludonarrative, or rather, the themes that emerge from the systems and mechanics that make up the gameplay. 

The classic example of this was already laid out in the original piece by Clint Hocking, which argued that there is a serious clash between the narrative themes of the original Bioshock, which is critical and skeptical of Randian Objectivism (2), and the emergent themes of the ludonarrative which require the player character at every turn to be self-interested to an extreme that actually suggests Randian Objectivism itself. (3)

Other examples that have become accepted outside of the original definition are when the systems and mechanics of the game outright contradict the tropes of the story in a game. To put it as simply as possible, that's "Why can't I use a Phoenix Down on Aeris?" (4)

Those examples are both a fair bit different than the ones Chipman chooses to use.

6:25: "So literally the setup and punchline of every other gaming webcomic?"

Yeah, if every other gaming webcomic were written by people as smart as James Clinton Howell, Tim Rogers, Brendan Keogh, or Bob Chipman. Without getting petty about it, they do not.

6:44: "Yeah, diversity, social justice . . . or anything else ACTUALLY important."

This is a logical fallacy for one, but I'm just going to state simply that it contradicts my personal experience with the field of games criticism and move on to the fact that fuck you LND is extremely important, but we can get to that in a minute.

6:54-7:11: ". . . always going to be a certain amount of dissonance . . . "

But what gets called into question here is the degree, as is often the case. I can make any game to some degree ludonarratively dissonant. I can make Silent Hill 2 ludonarratively dissonant by running around in circles all day and creating humor that bypasses the mood and ideas emergent in it's gameplay, but Silent Hill 2 doesn't do it for me. It's gameplay and it's narrative themes are consistent with each other throughout, as are most of the great games ever made. 

You can make JRPGs hilarious by choosing to steal from people in a genre that's basically all about selfless sacrifice for greater good, but I can't change the fact that the system mechanics reinforce through gameplay the narrative concepts of deepening social bonds and character growth and development.

Bioshock on the other hand? Bioshock has gameplay systems that make every waking moment of the game feel thematically contradictory to what the story is trying to say. Persona 3 has at least various scattershot moments of LND when you deepen the bonds of friendship and thus strengthen your Social Links by being a bad friend or by contradicting what little characterization the cutscenes and dialogue of the central plot give the silent main character.

7:58-8:08: ". . . or rather my problem is that almost invariably trying to somehow bend gameplay consistently to match up with the concurrent narrative ends up undermining player agency."

To date, every piece I've read on the topic has not argued that games should remove agency to create ludonarrative "consonance", if you will, but rather that the gameplay systems themselves should be rethought and redesigned to match the content of the story. In other words, stop trying to make faux-pacifistic games that are inherently about mass murder, and reconsider the content of the gameplay, because doing so will not only create consonant games but also result in fresh gameplay ideas. At least, that's my take on it/response to that statement.

8:28-8:48: "Plus, there's a lot of things that break immersion . . ."

Yeah, which is exactly why games that have less of that crap tend to succeed more as works of art. Here are three of the greatest games ever made that for significant portions of the gameplay have actually no heads-up display or user interface at all aside from very occasional text:Final Fantasy VII. Silent Hill 2. Ico.

Now here's a very short list of great artistic games that have very little interface most of the time, or interfaces that expand when the elements needed actually come into play: The Metal Gear Solid games.

11:47-11:57: "I'm not against it . . . than they are games."

Again, I find it worth noting that I've read literally nothing that suggests that that is the big idea at the center of the LND discussion.

12:05: "Make better games."

But how do we make better games Mr. Chipman? I would argue that for one, for games to be truly great works of art, which is something we both seem to be concerned with, the growth of the medium outside of escapism and "wish fulfillment," we need to make better games. Games that can be described as great. 

I remember reading once when I was learning how to write music that one could spend their entire life studying the ins and outs of harmony. Just harmony. Even the specific harmony of a specific sub-genere, like Modal Jazz. Likewise, a life could be spent studying rhythm. Or Melody. 

Ludonarrative Dissonance is not the only subject worth discussing when it comes to game design and narrative, but to want to ignore it at the birth of it's study less than a decade after an actual term has been coined for it is outright foolishness, even if we would also like to see, for example, study on the use of sound in games, of music in games, the pacing of gameplay, the incorporation of dialogue, or any other bewilderingly complex topic. These are all things we should be studying to "make better games".

But what makes games great? For one, engagement alone does not make a game great. (I am, for the record, not accusing you of saying that engagement alone makes games great.) That would simply boil down to "which game is more fun" which would make Resident Evil 4 or Spyro: Year of the Dragon basically the greatest game of all time in my book, because there's no way that any quality besides fun would be regarded as a more noble form of engagement.

Immersion? Certainly not. That would make the best Metroid games just as good as the best Silent Hill games, and I personally cannot stand for that.

It seems to be that the broad consensus on the definition of "art" is that it is a piece of work of some variety or the other that expresses an idea. I like that idea. It's broad, and it doesn't exclude some works for having less thematic depth than others, given that it does express an idea. Numbers don't express themes but "These Boots" does so "These Boots" is art even if it's one of the worst songs I've ever heard. I like that.

Thus to me, I'd argue that the definition of games that qualify as art would be "every game" because every game expresses ideas and themes to some degree, even if they are read in. Thus, Ludonarrative Dissonance is important to me because great works of art ought to be cohesive. A movie or a book would be openly lambasted for having the broad strokes of the narrative express criticism of fascism if it's characters frequently spoke in terms that were racist, homophobic and misogynistic. Thus, I think a game ought to be lambasted equally for having gameplay that expresses one idea and a story that expresses another. It's something we didn't do enough of in the past and something we can make up for now.

And likewise, I think we ought to more frequently canonize the great games where the ideas and tone at the center of the story are also expressed through it's gameplay, which is why we are still talking about Ico and Silent Hill 2 and Final Fantasy VII, because those games definitively do that. And to me, that's one of many, many reasons they are great.


(1) Ludology is a fairly recent terms that if I am to simplify basically means the study of the art/science of specifically game design, usually as divorced from their relationship with other traditional forms of narrative media. 

(2) Objectivism: Now there's a bullshit academic-y sounding term.

(3) In the case of Bioshock: Infinite, the ludonarrative dissonance emerges from how insanely violent the game is while the narrative themes play the cards of compromise and moderation and rationality even if that means putting up with abhorrent persecution.

(4) A wizard did it. Shut up, Final Fantasy VII is great. In all honesty though, it's really the ONE big example, and unlike in most other cases, it's the story content that fails, not the gameplay. All I mean by that is that they went for the simple elegant impalement which is not a convincing "wow, nobody could ever possibly survive that" form of murder. Problem is, nothing really is in a JRPG. Otherwise, FFVII, VERY ludonarratively consonant game.

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