Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Ludonarrative Babytalk

There are a number of people I really want to respect, but sometimes they make it hard.

Oddly, it's nearly always nerdy white guys around 30 years old. They (we) all seem to make the same damn blunders at the same damn time.

One of those blunders is the bizarre pushback against the term "ludonarrative dissonance".

Now, I understand the term is extremely pretentious. I wouldn't coin it, myself. But even as it is, it's significantly easier to say than typing "gameplay sabotages the story, tone, and mood of the game" over and over.

The pushback seems to be about how pretentious it is, given that the pushback is almost universally making dismissive, babytalk versions of the term and simply saying it over and over.

The actual situation is a little more complex.

The only time the term "ludonarrative dissonance" was really used much was in analyzing Bioshock Infinite. Even if you like Bioshock Infinite (another screwed-up opinion held almost exclusively by nerdy guys around thirty), you have to admit that it is an extreeeeeeemely pretentious game. If pretentiousness was really what these people were against, they would hate the game as much as the term used to disparage it.

Nope, I'm pretty sure they hate it because it was aimed at something they like. Dismissing the term is much easier than trying to defend Bioshock Infinite, so we hear people like Jim Sterling and David Gallant [EDIT: evidently not in the context of BI] dismissing the term with a literal volley of babytalk. If you haven't experienced it, go take a listen.

The problem with this is obvious: if we're analyzing games, we need to talk about the various merits and flaws of games. One of those flaws is that the gameplay often makes no damn sense in the context of the game.

With Bioshock Infinite, there were a spate of people who said "Bioshock Infinite would be cool if it weren't so damn violent", and then there were a spate of people saying "Shut the fuck up it's supposed to be violent". But the term "ludonarrative dissonance" can be used to talk about that and many other aspects of gameplay. Watch, I'll give a demonstration.

Did the violence diminish the story of the game any? Not in particular, the story is about a phenomenally violent walking murder factory, so the gameplay backs that up. I would say that the violence in the gameplay is not ludonarratively dissonant.

I would not say "ludobibble disblooboogoob! Booboo bloobi bloob!" I would say it's not ludonarratively dissonant.

However, there were many aspects of BI that were dissonant. For example, searching through trashcans for discarded apples. Elizabeth's immortality. The final boss battle. These all detracted from the narrative and tone of the game in an attempt to make the gameplay more fun or interesting.

How important you consider that to be is up to you, obviously. Many people are just fine with gameplay that actively undermines the tone and story of the game. Many people aren't.

From my perspective, the game was clearly about a homeless paranoid schizophrenic. The gameplay undermined the narrative to the point where, for much of the game, I actually thought that was going to be the twist.

I would also say that even though the violence was not ludonarratively dissonant, there is room to complain about the violence. The game world was beautifully rendered, and the music was great, but the simplistic ultra-violent gameplay limited the appeal. While I don't think BI should have been nonviolent, I do think that I would love to see that kind of gorgeous world in less violent games.

Perhaps some people used the term "ludonarrative dissonance" to wish for a less violent version of the game. I didn't read anyone saying that - I only saw people talking about eating out of trash cans. But even if they did misuse the term, it was those people using the term wrong, not the term itself being useless.

Of course, you don't need to embrace my view on the matter. If you think the term "ludonarrative dissonance" is useless, you can argue that. But to just dismiss it with babytalk shows a depressing lack of interest in actually discussing games.

EDIT: To be clear, I specifically mentioned two people who I otherwise respect quite a bit. In particular, Gallant read this post and took offense to it, but then was careful not to bring any heat down on me until after we chatted.

Apparently, Gallant was making fun of the term, but NOT in the context of Bioshock: Infinite.

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