Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ludonarrative Dissonance: A Primer

In conventional terms, there are two parts of a "game", or "interactive experience". There is the mechanical aspect ("the game") and the narrative aspect ("the story"). Some people are confused about the relation between these two things and I have a lot of time on my hands after writing literally every possible thing about believability that I could, so here we are again, doing this old song and dance one last time before I do it again next week. To start with, let's identify the two major parts of an "interactive experience", or "game". The first part, the mechanical game aspect, is what we'll call "the sport". The second part, the narrative story aspect, is what we'll call "the story".

Sport is a term I am using not only because of its structural connotations (sports have rules and regulations that exist on their own terms) but also because of the implications of its etymology. While today we associate "sports" with a highly structured team experience connected to physical exertion and capabilities, the origins of the word are actually much simpler. The word comes from the French desporter, meaning diversion or amusement. No seriously, look it up. This definition dates back to the 1400s, and as "play" became more structured it took on the modern meaning. The point here is that "sport" is a term I am using because sports are done for fun or for enjoyment. This relates in turn to the role of "sport" in a game. Sport is the rules for playing a game. Sometimes these rules intersect with the greater rules of the game slash joke that we call "reality". Sometimes they don't.

Story is the simulation of actions in a usually-consistent universe. Characters, events and settings make up the foundation of a "story", which is reinforced with dialogue, graphics, sound, etc. Story serves as the horrific, misshapen skinsuit crudely fashioned to cover the Sport Experience. It is a tattered and baggy object that nonetheless adds appeal to the Sport Experience despite clearly not fitting on it and ultimately being a terrifying funhouse mirror of real life. An example of Story is a reflexive point-and-click experience being converted into a murder simulator where players pretend to kill other human beings while gun companies make actual real-life profits from their guns being represented in the game as largely unrelated numbers and objects. If the story was not there, the players would simply be launching projectiles at each other, and players hit by the projectiles would be briefly removed from play for several seconds. Without the facade of shooting human beings until they die it's impossible to see this sport as being appealing.

Hey, do you remember that time that a fictional movie was made and it was so convincing that it drove up membership for the Ku Klux Klan to the degree that it was more influential and dangerous than it had been at the height of Reconstruction? No, forget about it, I'm just thinking out loud.

Some games that are all sport and no story include all sports that have no story, such as rugby, hockey, jai alai, and badminton. These experiences do not offer justifications for their mechanics, or even context - the rules are the rules and that's all that they are. A Ping-Pong player is simply a player of Ping-Pong; they are not representative of, for example, a mighty hero vanquishing an ancient evil. They are not recreating the battle of Stalingrad via paddle and ball. They are not pretending to explode civilians with every swing. They are not learning valuable lessons about the cruel nature of war when the ball hits the tiny net. They may have existential crises about why they are playing Ping-Pong, re: the pointlessness of learning to become extremely skilled at hitting a small ball back and forth, but this is within the realm of real life not the simulated reality of a Ping-Pong Narrative.

Some interactive experiences (or "games") that are all story and no sport include Bell Park, Youth Detective, Oren Moverman's Rampart, John Gardner's Grendel, and Eduardo Galeano's Days and Nights of Love and War. In these events there is no "skill" or "rules" that determine forward progress apart from the act of pressing play or turning pages or clicking one of several choice options. However, despite this simple setup, these stories are comparable in choice-levels to more advanced Sportgames such as Uncharted or Bioshock. Despite the more intensive sport setup, the narrative advancement is basically the same for these games as it is for the sport-free games. Also, the writing is worse. Like, Jesus, seriously, have you actually played an Uncharted game? Are they kidding us with that dialogue?

You might ask yourself at this point: what makes a game a game, objectively speaking? The answer is nothing. Classifications like that are entirely a human invention and the universe really doesn't give a shit about whether something is a game or is art or whatever. Their definitions come from the notoriously shoddy English language, which some people think is a near-infallible source of categorization when in reality it was cobbled together from like five different languages over the course of a millenium or so, and that's not including all the loanwords. Fuck Art. Fuck Games. Who gives a shit. Uncharted is a movie where you have to pretend to shoot people with shitty guns to unlock new sections of the movie. Who gives a shit. Fuck it. Another important part of games is level design.

What is the "endgame" of a game? What is the innate purpose that games should strive towards? Once again we must look towards the gaping abyss of existential purposelessness to give us our answer. A great eye opens in the swirling, incomprehensible vortex, and as you stare into it you realize that in 100 years you will be dead, and your role in this universe will be negligible. The only beings who will mourn you are just as fragile as you are. You were born into this universe to die and the insubstantial things that you do during your cosmically brief time here are of no concern to anyone other than beings as flawed and pointless as you are. As you take pleasure from breaking society's taboos, as you drive on the sidewalk in Grand Theft Auto or molest a 14 year old in SNATCHER or improperly stack crates in Shenmue, remember that the fleeting pleasure you derive from these experiences are in essence acknowledging the worthlessness not only of the simulation but also of the real thing. Without the firm hand of the law most of you wouldn't have enough empathy to even consider not doing it in real life because people like you aren't motivated by things like human kindness, are you? Bonus Question: What would Jean Calvin think of video games?

1) Why?
2) Why bother?
3) Objectively explain why murder is wrong. Do not use the human definition of "wrong".
4) If it feels good, should you do it?

6) Explain ludonarrative dissonance.
7) Do you think racists and sexists are allowed to post on the internet? Do you think that if someone commits a rape or abuses their spouse, their internet rights are revoked? Do you think that when you laugh at off-color humor, that every single person who laughs along with you is doing so ironically? Do you think that violence is real? Do you think that all this is just a game? Do you think you're winning? Explain why, objectively.
8) The Office was only funny in the first season. Explain why I'm right.