Saturday, September 26, 2015

Critical Switch: Dissonance

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For now I'm going to end this series on game design and drama with a look at the most hated idea in games criticism.

I have a confession to make to those are mostly unfamiliar with my twitter. I do not hate the term Ludonarrative Dissonance. I know, shocking. Criminal, even. But if having useful terminology is wrong, then I don't wanna be right.

The term has been falling out of favor in game critic circles since . . . well honestly I'm not sure anyone has openly embraced it since maybe 2009, and the term was invented in 2007, so I'm not sure any majority of critics has ever liked it. As well, now that some brilliant writer has decided to tell us that Mad Mad: Fury Road, one of the most expertly crafted action films of the past 25 years suffers from “filmic dissonance” instead of displaying that he knows Fucking Anything about movies or cinematic language, my uphill battle to save the term from the jaws of death just became a climb up a smooth cement wall while cynics shit in my gorgeous hair.

Nevertheless, I am resolute. As I have said more or less since I started writing criticism two years ago, ludonarrative dissonance is a useful term that helps describe something that absolutely, definitely, without question exists.

However it should also be noted that, like any other technique, which is what it definitely is, ludonarrative dissonance is not inherently a problem. Games like Metal Gear Solid, Spec Ops: The Line and even to some degree Final Fantasy VII have been gladly invoking the dissonance between their narrative themes and what their systems encourage. The problem isn't ludonarrative dissonance, it's that the games that have been invoking it are using it poorly.

It's also a problem because, as critics keep trying to move away from the term, LND keeps happening in games in a problematic way. See for example the recently released Only If, which the critic Chris Franklin describes thusly:

The game is very much about a college student in his early-20's getting abducted by an older man for a vague, yet menacing purpose, then critiquing both of them. But it's also about this absurdism experiment. And the two never really reconcile.

To be clear, the story described in the first half of the sentence takes place entirely as radio communication between the two men, whereas the absurdism is entirely a result of the game's interfacial aspects: it's mechanic set and level design. And as Franklin goes on to describe, the game is presenting absurd mechanics in the context of a still very non-absurd universe. There is a clear conflict between what the developer of Only If wanted to be as a set of interactions and as a story. That it is suffering from misapplied Ludonarrative Dissonance could not be any more clear.

Powerful things have been done with ludonarrative dissonance in games, and in general dissonance as a tool in media. For game developers to be able to consciously grab hold of it and use it to it's full potential, we need to be able to study dissonance and practice it, and for that to happen, we must continually acknowledge that it is there.

A good step forward into the study of dissonance then would be to acknowledge the other kinds of dissonance that exist in media. In fact, the biggest problem with “ludonarrative dissonance” as a term is mostly that people have overused the term by applying it to games that do not exhibit ludonarrative dissonance, a good example being the dissonance that legitimately exists between Nathan Drake's presented likability in the Uncharted games and the fact that he murders hundreds if not thousands of people, often while spitting ruthless aggression that dehumanizes them. This is not LND, that is, this is not a contradiction between what interfacing with the game subtextually encourages and what the game's narrative subtextually is about, in fact, though I've no experience with Uncharted 2, I've heard people explain interpretations of the game in casual settings that show a fair amount of thematic consistency.

Others have used this to demonstrate the supposed uselessness of the term, here I will formally retort that it only demonstrates the specificity of Ludonarrative Dissonance as a term, which only shows us that more terms like LND should exist, not less, given the utter lack of terms we as game critics commonly wield to describe narrative topics in games . . . outside of LND.

As a category containing Ludonarrative Dissonance, I would suggest the adoption of simply “dissonance” to describe, well, dissonance in games and media between their various elements, as a general term to be used when LND isn't exactly correct, and then also propose the freeform creation of multiple other terms with what we could call the “[prefix]-dissonance” form as their commonality becomes codifiable. I'd suggest that, like I've been doing with the “ludo” prefix, that the use of the “[prefix]-dissonance” form can be done with more improvisational spirit than has been done in the past. Our terminology is not sacred.

Perhaps a game does not use or missaply ludonarrative dissonance, but it can have, for example, audio-interactive dissonance, a dissonance between what kind of sound a game uses to set an atmosphere and what kind of sounds a game makes in response to player input, and what the player avatar is actually doing in the gamespace, like a dating sim with a Silent Hill soundtrack. Or maybe it has visual-thematic dissonance, a disconnect between the art style employed and the narrative and political implications thereof, and the weight or lack thereof within the game's considered concepts, such as exists and is strategically employed in games like Final Fantasy IX.

I would also suggest the existence of “tonal dissonance,” one of these kinds of dissonances which exists in all media and is especially prevalent in commercial videogames, that is yet without codified terminology.

While I'm loathe to give an utterly specific definition, I think a workable one would be just that: a contradiction between how media presents something and what is quote-unquote “true” about it. Or, if you prefer, a disconnect between the positive or negative light something is shone in, and the positive and negative qualities of what it actually has. Wrestling fans should be especially familiar with how this kind of thing works. John Cena does an AA on Seth Rollins at Night of Champions, not during a match, outside of the ring, right before Rollins has to wrestle again, indulging his own ego. In the feud, he is presented as the good guy.

This is, to me, exactly what is happening in Uncharted 2. The contradiction is specifically in how the game presents Nathan Drake as a person, showing him as a jokey archaeologist in cutscenes and as a coldhearted murdered during shooting segments. It feels particularly dissonant as well because at no point does the game make a genuine effort to reconcile the two people that Nathan Drake is presented as.

Improperly applied tonal dissonance was also a huge issue in Bioshock: Infinite, a game that was alternatively a quiet, very silly ramble on how maybe everyone is racist and then a game about how fun it is to murder people, with nary a connecting line drawn between the two. The superfluous nature of combat in Infinite meant that the combat also is unobligated to link itself to the game's narrative tone, such that we get yet another strong example of the harsh divide between ludus and narrative that Hocking first codified when discussing the original Bioshock, a game that, ironically enough, has almost zero tonal dissonance at all. However, I would argue that, as a game whose narrative is ostensibly about asserting Booker DeWitt's place as a white patriarch, that combat wherein he asserts his masculinity and dominance, particularly over people of color is not at all dissonant with that core thematic concept. There is tonal disconnect all over the game, but there is not any ludonarrative dissonance specifically.

Tonal dissonance is of course, not new, nor is it distinct to videogames. It's also a technique that is easy to misuse moreso than it is a “problem” of any sort. It's one of the fundamental techniques of black comedy, and a common tool used by David Lynch, particularly in mashing the awkward and uncomfortable against the heartbreaking and tragic. A lot of videogames have used tonal dissonance in a carefully applied sense to point out the messed up values inherent in how games present violence, a notable exampled being Suda51's No More Heroes where dead enemies spurt blood and coins in seemingly equal measure. Kojima's Metal Gear Solid titles have consistently used sudden interruptions of surreal humor partially as a method of asserting the artificiality of their gamespaces.

In the pleas to end “ludonarrative dissonance” as a term used in games criticism, it seems as though what's being implied is that it does not exist. I, of course, go about as far in the opposite direction as conceivably possible, and assert that, in videogames, as across media, there exists a vast, wide variety of dissonances. As with Ludonarrative Dissonance then, the course of action is to know when a game or a piece of media is exploiting that dissonance in a purposeful way, or whether the contradictions cause the artifice to collapse.

From Olympia, WA: Play Is Labor. I'm Austin C. Howe.

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