I recently played through a game called Far Cry 4 on the PS3 with my brother. He and I would take turns completing missions and generally visiting carnage on the fictional kind of India-like nation of Kyrat. From early on, we’d run through enemy camps firing exploding arrows from the back of an elephant, lobbing grenades at armed convoys, and releasing caged tigers to exact vengeance on their captors. Our avatar became synonymous with Old Testament-style destruction. Flames and chaos followed his every mountain climb, ATV ride, and wing suit glide. He instantaneously learned how to operate a flame thrower, aim a throwing knife, and fly a hang glider. We would add our own elements of challenge to the game (which would we worried was becoming too easy) by eliminating conventional machine guns and shotguns from our inventory and instead relying on a simple bow, a cowboy six shooter, a sniper rifle and explosives. Our reign of terror was largely unmitigated. It was a lot of fun. At a few points our rampage would overlap with the game’s scripted story, and we would experience these cut scenes in which one of the other characters (two leaders of a violent revolution to free their homeland from an insane despot) would tell us about the cause, and send us out to accomplish something.Their army was usually standing around, or getting into skirmishes in the woods. When something important was happening, they called us up and said we needed to do it. Our avatar, who until the game’s first scene was an unassuming civilian, had become the blunt instrument of the revolution. As there was no other option, and because fighting bad guys for the cause was just as good as fighting bad guys for the hell of it, we went along and completed the missions, saving the day for the rebels or striking down some dangerous enemy or taking a vital strategic point. As the game went on, our interactions with our comrades became more divisive, and soon each of the two characters were advocating against the agenda of the other. They told us we must choose between them. We didn’t always love the choices, but to go with the flow we decided to select the course of action we felt was closest to what we thought we would do. Then they told us we had to choose between blowing up an ancient temple and destroying a culture, or defending the temple and giving a teenage girl over to a life of forced religious service as the symbol of a goddess (whatever that means, and it sounds kind of sexual and creepy). We looked at each other and said, “Excuse me, rebels, but fuck you. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I’ve just blown up half this country. What if I don’t like either of those options? Why would I ever take orders from the likes of you, a bossy peasant?” I paraphrased a bit, but the point remains. These narrative directions beg the question- why would anyone with this talent for sheer destruction, who is so nigh-unkillable, ever go along with some half baked plan if he doesn’t want to? Why doesn’t the unhinged killing machine that is my avatar EVER seem to be calling the shots? This doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of how I’ve been playing this game. It’s disorienting, and it pushes against the player’s immersion in the otherwise beautiful and arresting reality of the game world. It wrecks the illusion, and calls the validity of the whole experience into question. It make you feel like, maybe this game is junk, because it hasn’t accounted for this vast chasm of what it’s asking me to do and what seems reasonable for me to expect in this moment.
Far Cry 4 is by no stretch of the imagination the first and only game to suffer from this misalignment. When we were younger, we didn’t notice it. There are some things we can do, and some things we can’t. Mario gets shorter when he gets hurt. OK. Samus can turn into a tiny ball and fit into unnaturally small places. Sure. But as we grew up, and the more we learned both from games and real life how to think critically, the more certain things started to stand out. In every iteration of the Legend of Zelda series that I’m familiar with, Link (the franchise’s hero) collects a menagerie of weapons and tools to help him through the menacing landscape and rescue the titular princess. Way back in the late 80’s, if you found the right bush, you could torch it to reveal a secret. Or if you bombed the right section of wall, or pushed the right boulder, the same. It was so exciting when I was a tiny child to find these secrets and explore them that I never thought twice about it, and if anybody else did they weren’t saying anything. By the third or so game though, with my age now in double digits, some things seemed a little… wrong. Why can I explode this section of wall but not the one right next to it? Could it be made of something different? Why would that happen? I’m not saying there has to be a secret passage behind every section of wall, but if I can blow up one part I should be able to blow up the rest, even if it’s just destruction that I’m causing. I would be lying if I truly attributed this stream of conscious to myself as a child. I still really didn’t question why one thing happened or didn’t, but there was a sense that something was just, off somehow. The pattern continued as video games and I aged alongside one another. Games got more complex, and more focused on delivering Hollywood-style narrative. In fact, since at least the advent of the Nintendo Entertainment System many games have done their best to faithfully reproduce actual Hollywood narratives reimagined as games. A great example of this type of game, in that it was an amazing game, is the N64 title Goldeneye, which always finds a place on everybody’s all-time favorites list. A terrible example is, as far as I know, any and every Harry Potter and the Fill-in-the-Magic-Blank game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a ravenous Harry Potter fan. In fact that’s probably why I hate the games so much- in addition to objectively being garbage, they also violently misuse a property and a world that has so much to offer.
Actually, while the HP games are awful games, they make a really great example of what I’m trying to talk about here, which is the attempt and failure by developers to marry narrative with gameplay. The term I’v recently seen coined for this phenomenon is ludonarrative dissonance. Somebody cooked up the name to signify the discord between the experience of playing and the story being told by the game. To ground the term in real life, let’s turn, with a hilarious sense of irony, to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. These games were based on J.K. Rowling’s children’s books, and released (to my memory) to coincide with the release of the films based on the same. So, before the games are made, we’re already working with two layers of narrative. The initial text, and the filmmakers’ interpretation of that text. Then the game makers come along, and they are trying to make a game that more or less follows the events of these earlier narratives with the player in some degree of control of whether or not Harry and his friends and the world survive. In this case, narrative is inescapable. The player is funneled down the narrative path long ago carve out by the author of the novels. New ground is not going to be broken. However, the game makers must somehow suggest to the player that her participation here matters, otherwise why would she bother playing and not just watch the movie instead? So obstacles happen, and things have to be learned and overcome. The issue with this occurs when one of those obstacles runs counter to what the fan knows to be true about the rich narrative tapestry of which this game is a direct derivative product. It’s been a long time since I’ve played one, so this isn’t going to be a perfect example, but if a game late in the series tells the player that Harry must complete some task by using some silly spell he just learned, but the player (who has already been a reader AND a watcher) remembers the Harry knows a much stronger and better spell to solve the problem in front of him, then we’re running into ludonarrative dissonance. Why would he ever do X, which is ridiculous, why I’ve seen him do Y, which not only makes more sense but is what I would do, what I want to do? This is the question at the heart of this discussion. It boils down to, why would I ever do what you’re saying I must, when I’d rather do something else that I know is in my power? This isn’t your boss asking you to come in on Saturday. This is a game, and its supposed to be fun. There aren’t supposed to be obligations. Which I guess brings me back to Far Cry. When this game has shown me the many ways in which my character is not to be trifled with, why would I ever accept that he can be brow-beaten by either of a couple of morally bankrupt revolutionaries? I’ve seen him, directed him to take decisive action in the past, so where is his judgement and critical decision-making now? It’s possible, possible, that in this case, the character’s lack of critical thought is the point. It’s possible that Far Cry 4 is the pinnacle of subtlety and satire and self-awareness in gaming. It is possible that the character’s total lack of hesitation to join a revolution he has no knowledge of, to wield myriad weapons and take countless lives, are meant to be mirrored in the rigidity of the game’s later binary choices. Perhaps Far Cry 4 is an indictment, that calls out the player for accepting the earlier premise that a civilian can become a killing machine overnight while objecting to the later conceit that he would allow himself to be instructed so gruffly by his handlers. Maybe Far Cry is telling us thats somebody who could pick up and do that kind of things we’ve done throughout the course of the game would be incapable or uninterested in thinking out ethical issues on his own, and would be content to choose one side or another. That it doesn’t matter that we wouldn’t make either of these choices, because we shouldn’t be able to identify with this character at all, and if we do we have a larger problem. Perhaps Far Cry 4 is telling us that we in the larger world are too willing to consume without skepticism, without analysis, without a second thought for too many things, and maybe we need to take a long, hard look at what we’re willing to accept just because it’s offered to us as the right way, or the only way, or the truth. (We chose to blow up the temple to protect the girl, by the way. In case there was doubt. Gotta choose individual human life over collective culture, I say.)
But I doubt it. Although Far Cry 4 is made by Ubisoft, one of the big name game studios right now, it is asking a lot for a game marketed to sell millions of copies to pack in a philosophical treatise that most of its customers probably won’t even notice. Because of the all explosions. More likely, Far Cry 4 finds itself in the same mire that most games today experience; it’s trying to tell a complex and detailed story and give the player freedom at the same time. It’s just like the early 90s X-Men game that was so much fun, except the X-Men could only use their powers for a couple second before they ran out. The X-Men are mutants! Their powers are (in most cases) literally woven into the fabrics of their genes. They don’t run out, their powers are who they are. But for the sake of making a challenging game, or something, the developers put a little bar on the corner of the screen and when it ran out, you were out of powers until it filled up again. Anybody passingly familiar with the narrative backdrop knows that Cyclops would be pumped if he could drain his power gauge for a while and take off those silly sunglasses and look at Jean Grey with his own eyes, but that it could never happen because the dude can’t turn his powers off. So when in the game that gauge runs down to zero, the player who knows thinks, now what the hell is this? But at seven years old, you’re so psyched to be able to be Nightcrawler and teleport through stuff that you don’t even care you can only do it like 3 times- that was so cool!
So we’ve been experiencing ludonarrative dissonance in gaming for a long time, maybe since the beginning. And the thing is, as games get more and more complex, so does the issue, and the chasm grows wider. I could go on for a really long time about all the ways this appears in games. (When you’re playing Uncharted and you’ve JUST opened the long-sealed secret passage to an ancient secret place, and somehow the bad guys are already inside. Or when the place you’re in is collapsing or sinking or on fire, and the henchmen in addition to NEVER BEING AFRAID OF ANYTHING are still trying to kill you with their last breaths instead of running for their lives. What are they paying these henchmen? Can they really feel so strongly about their boss getting ahold of that jewel or scepter or whatever that they’re going to lay down their lives for it? Are their families compensated? Who would sign up for this job, and be so dedicated to it? Is it a religious thing? Are they on drugs?) Sorry for the long parenthetical. In these examples, unflappable, fervent henchmen are something of a gameplay requirement, to prevent the hero from just making a bee-line out of an exploding temple. The developers don’t want it to be too easy. But I’ve got to say, it can’t be that easy to run a straight line out of a crumbling city. If it is, couldn’t we just make it harder? Add more jumps and turns, instead of suicidally dedicated foot soldiers? But this perceived necessity clashes with the narrative course of the game, and the accepted reality and suspended disbelief of this world. Faced the choice between certain death while impeding me and running to safety, why on earth would an entry-level henchman take the first choice? Doesn’t it make more sense to get out of the sinking ship now, and try and drown me or shoot me or something later, when we’re both safely somewhere else?
Obviously, to explore examples further would be super digressive and I have plenty of material, so I hope what I’ve laid out so far has been sufficiently illuminating. I guess what we have to think about is why games are being made this way, and how to overcome this discord between two cornerstone elements of gaming. The first answer I think is easy. Games came after film, which came after literature, which came after epic poetry recitation, which came after primitive sculpture, which came after cave paintings. Games are made narrative-heavy because that’s how we as humans know how to communicate with each other. We tell stories; we’ve always told stories. We tell stories about heroes and trials and battles and good and evil. They excite us, and they inspire us. They make us strive to be better, and make us wish for opportunity, for adventure. Games have taken hold of those feelings, tapped into them, and offered a way to directly transpose the reader/viewer/listen of the epic tale onto the role of the hero in the story. It seems like a simple switch, but when a person with agency and consciousness is dropped into a scripted narrative, there must be an inherent clash. We are too prone to curiosity, to independence, to not at least try to do something other than what we’re told. The answer to the second question is not as easy. How do we tell someone they’re free in a world that must have boundaries as a consequence of the fact it was made by human hands? And how can we tell them a story without at least encouraging them to participate in a series of events? The answer might lie in fiction. For as long as video games have captured the popular imagination there has been fiction that has imagined what it would be like to be fully immersed in a game world. As far back as 1989, Captain N imagined a (cartoon) kid pulled into a world made of all of the popular games of the time. He joined the heroes of a handful of Nintendo games and defeated their villains, all while existing fully in this digital world. To my recollection, Nickelodeon had a game show with a similar premise, although I can’t remember what it was called at the moment. In 2016 we have shows (this time anime) like Sword Art Online that take the idea of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, like World of Warcraft), which are immersive environments on their own with economies and social circles, and imagines a near-future wherein technology has allowed for a device that connects the player’s whole consciousness to the game world. That is, the player would close his or her eyes, and open them standing in a field in a fictional world, feeling the wind and smelling the grass and tasting the food. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a 2011 novel along the same lines, where the world has gone digital and a device has been invented to immerse the user in a digital landscape that is free and to use and can be edited by anyone. In these worlds, especially in Sword Art Online, the possibility of “what the hell? I don’t want to do that, that’s not what I would do” is eliminated, because the totally sensory immersion, the freedom of choice and movement make it so that the player can do whatever he or she happens to feel like doing at the moment. This admittedly sci-fi conceit, interrupting brain signals to input digital sensory information and that sort of thing, may be a bit far off. Nonetheless, the principle of total player freedom is one that gaming has been making steps toward for some time. Ironically, we may never reach the full player freedom that we had in tabletop games before video games were invented. Back before I was born, nerds gathered as they still do to play Dungeons and Dragons. Although the mission might be under the dungeon master’s control, the players (I think, I’ve never actually played) are free to make any choice they like. They might not be all powerful, and their abilities depend on their characters skills and attributes, but they can attempt anything. Even if they fail, there can be no “that’s not what I would do,” because you choose what you would do. Just like in life, after you make your choice, there is nothing left but to see if it works or not. That to me seems pretty fundamentally fair. In sum, I think removing the technical limitations to players’ in game actions is going to be key to bridging the ludonarrative dissonance gap, although for as much as I’d love to be a game designer I’m admittedly no coder . When games were younger and simpler, we didn’t have to worry as much about the story and the world clashing with the player’s experience, because we hardly knew anything about either of those things. Super Mario Bros. has zero backstory, and it kicked off the most monetarily successful and international popular game franchise, period. The Legend of Zelda opens on one scrolling screen (like Star Wars) and after that the player seldom sees another typed word. And those games made people happy. Presumably, they inspired some of today’s designers to go into the field and to make games played by millions today. So perhaps what needs to be done in the field is to look to move into the future by remembering the past. We had games that were good, fun and engaging, that didn’t have complex back stories or Hollywood plot lines. Maybe designers need to strive to make games— new, beautifully-rendered 21st century games— that can be fun and satisfying without leaning on the narrative as a necessity. Maybe for games to grow and change, some games need to stop pushing the player down a path, and just open the door on a world for her to explore and discover and delight in on her own. Maybe this way we can rediscover something that kindled a light and love in us such a long time ago, fired our spirits for an adventure, and started us on a lifetime of keeping our eyes open for secrets and treasure.