“Saturday Night Live’s” Sept. 27 Chris Pratt episode contained a sketch called “Video Game” that poked fun at a very important issue that gaming faces: ludonarrative dissonance. The term was first coined by game designer Clint Hocking, and refers to whenever a video game’s narrative/fiction says one thing, and its gameplay says an opposite thing.
Take Rockstar Games’ “Max Payne 3,” for example, which told the story of a Max
Payne at rock bottom. Cut-scene after cut-scene, Rockstar paints a picture of a man experiencing frequent episodes of extreme depression, who constantly downs painkillers and swigs of alcohol.
Blurred transitions move these cut-scenes along, as Max narrates the story and tells of how much of a mess his life is. Then, when players take control of the character and actually play the game, Max performs like Bruce Willis in a “Die Hard” film (the old ones, anyway).
For a character that is clearly suffering from harsh bleakness and obvious drug/ alcohol abuse, he has absolutely no issues doing awesome slow motion Matrix-style diving and headshotting thugs. Throughout the cut-scenes that move the
narrative forward, Rockstar tells the tale of a man that, in reality, should be collapsing from overdose, and then contradicts this by allowing players to control him like most heroes we play in games.
Make no mistake, overall, this game was great, but I almost immediately noticed this gap in logic during my first play through.
Some of the best video game reviews actually come from talk show host Conan O’Brien, mainly because his comments while playing games sometimes blissfully expose some irritating problems and inconsistencies in video game design today. There’s an arrogance of many video games in this day and age in that they can get away with
terrible writing and/or silly story decisions simply because they are video games.
In “Call of Duty’s” story missions, you can mow down dozens of enemies with an assault rifle and absorb their bullets like a sponge, but when the gameplay flows into a cut- scene you get shot by a single bullet and all of a sudden are rendered completely helpless, as opposed to when you were controlling your character. The narrative and the gameplay don’t line up.
I believe that because we spend hours on hours of playing these games, we sometimes forget how crazy and stupid they can be to people who don’t play them. With so much gameplay clocked, we overlook minute details that
may be blatant to non-gamers, like Conan O’Brien. I’m not necessarily stating that people who don’t play video games should dictate what gaming design should encompass, but perhaps games should endeavor to have a more consistent flow between both narrative and gameplay.
The presence of ludonarrative dissonance in a video game does not make the game bad at all; in fact, the video game can still be enjoyable and fun.
I thoroughly enjoyed popping painkillers and gunning down bad guys in “Max Payne 3,” but sometimes, the disjointedness between narrative and actual gameplay can interrupt players from an overall immersive experience.