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.