Monthly Archives: April 2014

Of Ludonarrative Dissonance

I say again and again on this blog that video games are a truly unique medium especially when it comes to storytelling. Thing is, storytelling in games is inherently weird. What you do in the game doesn’t always quite line up with the narrative it’s telling. Clint Hocking dubbed it ludonarrative dissonance, TV Tropes calls it Gameplay and Story Segregation.

As narratives in gaming become more complex, this dissonance becomes steadily more pronounced. Much of Among Thieves, the second Uncharted game, has Nathan Drake chasing after war-criminal Zoran Lazarevic (and Shambala too). Drake, the wise cracking treasure hunter, is the clear good guy since, well, Lazarevic is a war criminal. At least that’s what the narrative says. During gameplay the player will wind up shooting quite a few bad guys. And by quite a few I mean easily a couple hundred. See, Among Thieves is an action-adventure game and, like many games in its genre, a frequent obstacle for players comes in the form of enemies. There’s some platforming, some puzzles, and several bouts of shooting. It’s fun, but it does make it weird to have Drake calling Lazarevic out on him being a ruthless killer at the end. To the game’s credit, Lazarevic responds by calling Drake out on it too. But that’s not much, seeing as Drake’s, y’know, mowed through a small army.

There’s a lot of writing on this, actually, a quick google of “Uncharted body count” brings up as much. I always justified it for the most part by using the cutscenes as the actual story and the gameplay bits as more gamey bits. When Nate, Lazarevic, and the others prepare to enter Shambala there are only a handful of henchmen in the cutscene, despite the several dozen you encounter in firefights. The gameplay and story are segregated. Is it a perfect solution? No, not at all. Is Among Thieves still a phenomenal game? Yes, but the argument is no less valid.

Some people feel that this dissonance is a big problem with stories in games. Way they figure, for a game to really tell a good story, gameplay should be story and vice-versa. An open world game, like Skyrim, attempts to reconcile all this by giving the player a ridiculous amount of freedom in their actions. Though there is a main story, the player is under no rush to complete it and can even ignore if they wish. Skyrim becomes a sort of choose-your-own-adventure story, wherein you tell your own story through your actions.

Journey takes the opposite route. In the award-winning independent game, the player can only do a few things (jump/glide, move, and chirp; compared to jump, move, roll, climb, shoot, hit, etc in Among Theives) and follows a very linear path. The story is simple, but incredibly heartfelt. The simplicity of the narrative and gameplay allows for little ludonarrative dissonance. It works, but it just doesn’t have the depth that Among Thieves has.

So what’s the solution? There are some who say that video games are simply ill-equipped to tell stories at the present (I believe Johnathan Blow said something to the effect of to truly reconcile gameplay and story we’d need an incredible AI to be able to adapt to player input much the way a Dungeon Master would in tabletop). Steve Gaynor, who did Gone Home, thinks that one of the most unique ways games can tell stories is through the environments. Exploring a virtual space can be a story in its own way.

I think ludonarrative dissonance is something that has to be accepted. Among Thieves would be a very different game were it have only a few firefights. They have to be accepted as part of the game. Furthermore, to remove the game’s linearity (something that does come up) would wreck the finely crafted narrative. Games are, and I say this a bunch, a very nascent medium. Designers and players are finding new ways to tell stories and hear them told, be they procedural like Among Thieves and Journey or emergent like in Skyrim and The Sims. Unlike much of film, tv, and books, wherein the strength of the work is primarily found in the story; games are not beholden to it: Pacman and The Last of Us are both great games, one has no plot and the former has one that rivals — and beats — what you see in theaters. Video games allow for works all over the ludonarrative dissonance scale; what’s wonderful is that they can be good no matter where they fall.

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Interconnected

I’ve been waiting for Agents of SHIELD to really get into its groove proper. It finally did last week, courtesy of some major plot points from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Which is kinda odd, really. A feature film bearing a different name affecting a TV show that much. I mean, it makes sense within the universe they’re creating, but from a meta perspective, it’s terribly uncommon.

And that’s one thing I love about the stories Marvel Studios’ been telling. They’re all connected. This was a gamble. Back in 2008 when Iron Man came out and Nick Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative, Marvel was asking audiences to wait a few years and watch a few seeming unrelated movies in hope of a big team up coming out later. It could have failed, some of the movies could have sucked, but they took the risk to try and build their cinematic universe.

Seeing as The Avengers made what businesspeople call a ‘crapload of money,’ it paid off. Not only that, but it was a legitimately awesome film. Best of all, it stood alone. You didn’t have to have seen any or all of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger to get it. Sure, watching those movies helped, but it was great on it’s own. Each Avenger was quickly and succinctly introduced enough for a new viewer to get what was happening.

Every Marvel movie works that way. Someone can see The Winter Soldier on its own, or after having only also seen The First Avenger, or seen all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology as well as Agents of SHIELD and enjoy it. There’s a decided effort for each film to be able to stand on its own and yet play with the others around it. They compliment each other but are not dependent on the others. It’s a fun sort of storytelling; you follow a group of independent characters and then see them all in a big event, then see them apart again.

Marvel’s asking viewers to embrace a sort of storytelling not really seen in film (or TV, really). Outside of the occasional Alien VS Predator, having independent franchises team up like what happened in The Avengers just doesn’t happen. Though it does in the comics. Their Guardians of the Galaxy title may intersect with the Avengers title, but you don’t have to be following both to understand what’s going on. Does it help? Sure, but it’s not a requirement.

Consider the last episode of Agents of SHIELD, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What happened in The Winter Soldier directly affects the show in a massive game changing sort of way. Like in the comics, they’re weaved together to stand alone but also enhance each other. “Turn, Turn, Turn” offers a different perspective on what happened in The Winter Soldier and the film shows the big picture of the events in the show.

This also makes great business sense. See, Marvel’s smart; they know that not everyone will watch every one of their movies. It’s to their benefit for every film to be as stand alone as they are. It allows them to remain accessible to anyone. Winter Soldier deftly sets up Steve Rogers as being a man out of time who feels a bit lost in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive to someone who’s seen the prior movies, yet so that someone new can follow what’s going on. It plain works. Add in the fun of getting more understanding the crossovers and Marvel’s market expands.

I’m so glad Marvel managed to pull this off. Things like seeing Bruce Banner at the end of Iron Man 3, references to Stark tech in The Winter Soldier, and Sif showing up in Agents of SHIELD remind me of the Iron Man and Spider-Man cartoons I’d watch as a kid where anyone could and would show up. Somehow, Marvel did it: they made a cohesive cinematic universe. Now I really wanna see what happens next in that world.

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Mother Met

I wasn’t a fan of the How I Met Your Mother finale that aired on Monday. Now, I usually like finales; I love the ending of Lost and I do like how Chuck ended. Though both are controversial in their own right, they felt emotionally honest and true to the show. The problem with How I Met Your Mother’s “Last Forever” was that for what it was trying to do, it felt unearned.

And if you haven’t seen it yet: SPOILERS

My main complaint is, of course, Ted and Robin getting together at the very end. Why is this such a big issue? Because it undoes a season’s worth of work. That’s the primary problem with the finale: it backtracks. What have we spent most of the past season doing? Just about every episode’s pursued either a ‘Ted-gets-over-Robin-so-he-can-meet-the-eponymous-mother’ or ‘Barney-and-Robin-get-over-issues-and-recommit-to-each-other’ plot in some form or another. The penultimate episode (finally) wrapped up both arcs; Ted was over Robin, Barney and Robin were married.

Undoing the latter within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the finale and undo the former in the last three not only feels cheap but doesn’t mesh well with, y’know, everything else. It feels like a gut punch to anyone who spent those hours with the show.

Sure, people get divorced in real life, but the issues with Barney and Robin is, again, the year we spent confirming that they should be together, only to see a single fight a couple years in the future that led to them deciding they shouldn’t be together. It was handled so abruptly that it’s unmerited. If they were to pursue this route, they would have to spend more time on it. It’d been such a long time coming; both Barney and Robin had to get over commitment issues over the years to get here. To have it undone so quickly was a shame.

With that, How I Met Your Mother has been a show that lets its characters change. Barney spent the past couple seasons leaving his womanizing ways. It was a huge change for one of the pillars of the show, but it worked. Though him regressing post-Robin does show signs of rock bottom, it feels like a huge slap to the face of the last couple years (and 31’s baby, though sweet, also feels shoehorned and raises additional questions [does he have custody, is he settling down with 31, etc])

Finally, the mother. My biggest concern with the finale (and this season) was that we wouldn’t be sold on her relationship with Ted, wouldn’t get that catharsis. And with so much of the finale spending time with the other couples (despite both being pretty much wrapped up in the prior episode), I felt like we were running out of time. But the scene under the umbrella where they meet (Tracy!) was wonderful and the train moving past would have made the perfect ending. Because right then, I was sold on the mother, I was sold on Ted and Tracy. Even if she died, it’d make for a pleasant, bittersweet ending.

To have it end with Ted going after Robin, though, made the mother seem like an obstacle along his way to Robin. Suddenly the mother didn’t matter. And that felt dishonest, that felt untrue to the Ted from the beginning and the Ted we got to know. It happened too quickly (though it was six years in the plot, it was barely a cut for us) to feel earned. It felt cheap, and made the show feel cheap.

All that said, I have the utmost respect for Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. They shot the bit with the kids nearly a decade ago and stuck with it (though editing could have changed the ending); they stuck with their original idea through it all. They stuck to their guns and told the ending they’d wanted to tell all along. I do think they got screwed by the network, though in basically the opposite way that Firefly did: the show went on too long. I feel like the twist would have worked better three or four (or even more) years ago, or even if they hadn’t built up Tracy so much. But still, to pull a twist that big on this sort of show? That takes balls.

I guess your reaction to this ending depends on why you’re watching it. To call back to Lost for a second, I watched it for the characters, not the mysteries, and loved the finale. With How I Met Your Mother, I watched it because I wanted to see Ted meet the mother. I guess if your investment was anywhere but there, the ending would have landed better.

In any case, I would have been alright with the finale were it not for those last three minutes. For me, it ended with the train.

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