By Aaron Amendola. Saddle up, kids, we’re gonna talk a little bit about a concept called “ludonarrative dissonance.”
The concept is pretty straightforward: it’s the idea that what we do in video games directly contradict what cutscenes and other narrative elements in games are telling us.
In Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 everyone Max interacts with refers to him as an alcoholic. He is a doped-up cop-gone-wrong that really is in over his head. It nagged at me because the gameplay directly flew in the face of these allegations. The Max Payne I was controlling was nimble, spry, and could take out 15 dudes in one fell swoop. The narrative and the gameplay doesn’t match up.
Fast forward a few years later and we’re presented with a little reboot of a franchise named Tomb Raider. You might have heard of it, yeah?
Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: Lara Croft and this new take on Tomb Raider is fantastic. I can’t think of another game that had me biting my lip out of suspense more in the last five years. The gameplay is tight, the mechanics are near perfect, and the presentation is top notch. It’s Uncharted by way of Far Cry 3.
That’s why it’s a pity that there’s such a strong sense of ludonarrative dissonance in it.
In this new gritty Tomb Raider we’re presented with Lara Croft as a young doe-eyed woman who is figuring herself out. She’s relatively green compared to the gung-ho, fly-in-the-face-of-danger Tomb Raider of years gone by and it’s a change for the better. Lara is more relatable, more real, and much easier to empathize with.
In the cutscenes, that is.
When Lara is in a cutscene she’ll struggle to kill an animal for food. She’ll find herself wrestling with the fact that she’s had to kill a man to defend herself. She’s scared out of her mind from the events unfolding in front of her. When she’s being controlled by the player it’s a whole ‘nother story.
When a person is in control of Lara, she’s a killing machine. She’s lethal, a stone-cold killer, and that flies directly in the face of the world the non-interactive parts of the game have painstakingly set up. Crystal Dynamics takes its time throwing us into the world Lara inhabits, much like she’s been thrown into it, but it is all for naught when put into a controllable setting.
In cutscenes Lara holds her sides in pain from lack of food and the horrible punishment her body is being put through. When I control her she’s more apt to jump off a cliff and land on rocks 30ft below without breaking a sweat.
In cutscenes we see Lara struggling with the reality of her situation, where she’s stranded on an island with very little in the way of friends and even less in the way of optimism. When I control her, she’s commanded to mow down 20 enemies attacking her with her firearm skills that appear out of thin air.
Herein lies the problem, and 99% of all video games fall into this trap in one way or another. In Gears of War 2, the way Dom acts in the narrative and during gameplay are two very different worlds. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Nico is more likely to burn down his cousin’s stores than help him like the game’s narrative wants us to believe. Even in Dead Space, we’re supposed to believe that Isaac Clarke, who comes off as a pretty level-headed engineer in cutscenes, would go nuts and actually boot stomp through entire corridors looking for loot.
Mind you, not everyone plays games like this, but there’s a decent amount of hand-holding in these titles’ gameplay designs to make you act like this.
Ludonarrative dissonance isn’t the worst thing a game can suffer from. After all, if we’re truly trying to take on another avatar, we should be able to correlate our actions with what we think those characters would do. One game that really succeeds in bridging the narrative and gameplay is Alan Wake.
Remedy actually prohibited some actions the player could have Alan take during gameplay. Alan isn’t able to commit malicious acts of violence. Alan isn’t allowed to hit a friendly avatar in the game. As a result it seems like the Alan in cutscenes and the Alan during gameplay are the same person. They also cheated a little bit by having Alan cite his own motivations during gameplay, so most every action could be justified. Personally, it’s one of my favorites of all time and that’s largely due to the fact that the story had me interested from the first cutscene. That interest carried through the entire game via the gameplay because they lined up with each other.
With Tomb Raider, we’ve got a bit of a dilemma. The Lara in cutscenes seems like a more human version of the Lara during gameplay. However, the gameplay is so damn fine that it’s hard to argue that this is much of a hindrance. Games, by design, need to be exciting to play. But more than that, they need to be satisfying to control. When developers find a way to bridge the gap between narrative and gameplay, you truly get something special.
This piece was originally posted on Medium.com.