Cinenarrative Dissonance

Why does Mario have extra lives? Oh I get it, it makes sense for a game, but is he a supernatural plumber that can come back from the dead? It’s good old-fashioned ludonarrative dissonance, the tension between gameplay and story that haunts gaming criticism. But for all the talk about its presence in video games, we really forget about how dang dissonant film can be. And I don’t mean something facetious like “oh, how did that camera get there to film that intimate scene?” I mean the fact that film is inherently artificial.

If film, and by proxy television, is meant to be a portrayal of a reality, then, man, what kind of reality is that? I get it, it’s heightened, but in real life, people don’t walk perfectly into the light, in real life, punches don’t work like that, and in real life, people don’t just hang up that quickly (they really don’t). People don’t usually talk in really crisp turns of phrases that jump to the heart of the issue while engaging in a witty verbal riposte, but you can bet they do when written by Aaron Sorkin. There’s a dissonance between the realism that’s meant to be portrayed and the reality of the movie. Yet we accept The West Wing, The Big Sick, and 20th Century Women all as realistic because, hey, movies wouldn’t be much fun without those heightened elements

In much the same way, Wes Anderson movies are so much fun because they play with the artifice of cinema. We know that The French Dispatch is a movie, so why not change aspect ratios and color saturation throughout to heighten what’s going on. Of course, the scenes can be blocked to look so conspicuously staged; that’s half the charm. When we watch the movie we’re all in on the joke and there is a shared delight in seeing our collective illusions laid bare in pursuit of a narrative.

Perhaps video games ought to be afforded the same leeway. Maybe we can accept that Nathan Drake can slaughter an army’s worth of minions but still be the good guy for refusing to kill Lazaravic in cold blood in Uncharted 2 the same way that we accept that the Russians in The Hunt For Red October speaking English aren’t Russians that know English. Uncharted 2 without its random bad guys to fight wouldn’t nearly be as fun, and Red October being totally subtitled with native Russian speakers would rob us of Sean Connery.

Not to say games shouldn’t address the dissonance, Wes Anderson is all about the artifice of cinema, and Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games delight in poking at the edges of a video game. Uncharted 4 dials back on the gunfights and still remains a compelling game, like how Skyfall pulls at the James Bond tropes but emerges a fantastic Bond movie. 

Every form of storytelling has allowances we make for its story to be told (when did the narrator of that first-person novel have time to write it all down?). We accept it in film and television, so why not in games as well? It’s all part of the craft, and it’s part of the fun. So maybe that’s why Mario has extra lives: because it’s fun.

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