Tag Archives: ludonarrative dissonance

The Cut Scene Crutch

There isn’t a whole lot to talk about when it comes to posting slides and such from a five minute microtalk. This was, however, my first ever attempt at making some sort of presentation/talk in the game industry, so I want to post anyway. I called the talk “The Cut Scene Crutch” and, in it, I try to fit as much into the five minute time to form a coherent argument against the love of cut scenes as a means of storytelling in what is, first and foremost, an interactive medium. The associated text, which I primarily improvised when I actually gave the talk, is in the speaker notes.

I wrote the presentation in Keynote on OS X, so the PPT file is… lacking. It works, though!

Thanks to everyone that came out and listened to the ten Microtalk speakers (especially support from fellow LightBox dudes). Kain Shin put together a rad event in the vein of the GDC Microtalk sessions.

Also me via a glorious cell phone photo courtesy of Andrew Weldon.

Justifying the Means

[This post contains spoilers as to the entirety of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's plot. I loved Modern Warfare 2 and will write about the brilliant core gameplay, mechanics, and level design in a later piece, but this is not that piece.]

“Two men took down an entire base. I ask much more from you now.” General Shepard says as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 loads the upcoming mission. Shepard goes on to tell the player about the danger of a Russian named Makarov who has “no rules. [And] No Boundaries.” Shepard says “You don’t want to know what it’s cost already to put you next to him,” insinuating the lengths which this special fictional task force has gone to in order to get the player in deep cover alongside a Russian terrorist. Shepard then says “It will cost you a piece of yourself,” and “It will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.”

The screen fades to black and the game pops up a “Disturbing Content Notice” window detailing that “disturbing or offensive” content is forthcoming. You hit “Continue.” Modern Warfare 2 asks “Are you sure?” You hit yes. The sounds of an elevator descending or ascending are heard alongside the unzipping of backpacks and the loading of magazines into weaponry. The details of the new mission slowly appear on the screen. The name of the mission: “No Russian.” Makarov’s face comes into view, alongside three other people dressed in body armor wielding large machine guns and M4 assault rifles. Makarov says “Remember – no Russian.” The five of you walk into what is revealed to be a bustling airport terminal as the objective is displayed on screen: “Follow Makarov’s lead.” Civilian men and women are standing idly in lines while security guards watch on; the audio scene is that of typical airport noises, conversations, and general foot steps all around. And then you have access to your weapon and Makarov and his henchmen open fire on the crowd. Dozens of people are mowed down, you hear screaming in the background, see some people fleeing the area.

Checkpoint reached.

You walk slowly, forced into a slow speed by the game, making you wonder if the name of the mission, “No Russian,” is some sort of bad pun. You set off a metal detector as you progress while your “teammates” continue to fire on any civilians or security guards in sight. Someone is crawling on the ground in pain in front of you and one of Makarov’s men shoots him down. Someone is stumbling and breaks into a run near you, he too is gunned down. And the mission continues like this, with the very detailed gore and civilians crawling on the ground (trailing blood), for about three or four more minutes. Dozens upon dozens of dead civilian bodies later, the typical Call of Duty gameplay kicks in against the very well-armed and bullet-resistant Russian equivalent of a SWAT team comes in with riot shields.

This is a mission that is given to players under the conceit of “the ends justify the means,” a popular theme amongst antiheroes like Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey throughout the decade. The problem with this is that Infinity-Ward tasks players with having faith that both the ends, the means, and the entire premise of the game will all come into focus at some point. “No Russian” is the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2; preceded by a training mission, a generic trek through a village in Afghanistan in a jeep with a minigun, and a trip into a heavily guarded Russian base to get an ACS module (which is…?). By the time players get to the airport scene, they know all of nothing about Modern Warfare 2’s overarching plot other than that it involves Russians and a secret task force that may or may not be part of the CIA. Yet, the game tasks them with this mission under that ever-tenuous veil of the greater good. The mission is intended to be shocking, confusing, dark, and controversial. And this mission exists in the same video game that has an entire mission which is essentially a recreation of Michael Bay’s The Rock.

As I went through the mission, without killing a single civilian until I got the point where I would die if I didn’t fight against the SWAT-like “enemies,” I thought only of one thing: why do I have to do this? Why can’t I make the rational choice to kill Makarov then and there? Maybe the greater good will suffer, but I want to make that simple, very obvious choice. Games as an interactive medium can’t get (and shouldn’t) away by providing purely shocking or horrifying content even if it’s handled expertly; there has to be a ludic reason for a mission. I applaud Infinity-Ward for keeping “No Russian” an interactive mission where I have the kind of agency the game has accustomed me to, but by not making every target on the screen someone that the fiction supports me wanting to shoot, it opens up door that it needs to have keys to.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have the kind of interactions necessary for the interactions I naturally desire in “No Russian.” At no point did I want to shoot a civilian in this mission. And I actively wanted to stop the ones who were shooting them. “No Russian” is not like Grand Theft Auto IV, also a very graphically realistic game, where I’m goofing around and accidentally run into a civilian and laugh while the impressive physics send the civilian flying. In GTA4 when I kill a civilian, it’s purely an accident or just random messing around with game systems, but it’s never something the game has its fiction enforce and reinforce. There is never a mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where I’m tasked with killing a completely innocent civilian and I cannot progress unless I do so. And, if anything, I should be more okay with that game asking me to kill a civilian as my character has a very defined personality and role in that world. Infinity-Ward asks me to act as the character I’m playing (though they do try to dissuade that feeling by having Private Allen, the character you play in “No Russian,” talk in a preceding cut scene). For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey‘s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.

Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world. The mission comes out of nowhere with only the setup I gave at the beginning of this piece as reason to kill innocent civilians. I don’t even see a single shred of logic in what the game did offer me for reasoning. How does killing hundreds of people in cold blood somehow prevent a later atrocity? I don’t believe that doing any of this brings me closer to Makarov’s trust, but I do believe it makes me just as awful a human being as the game is telling me my enemy is.

Maybe that’s the point. I got it wrong: the ends don’t justify the means but, rather, I must become as evil as the worst men in the world in order to save the innocent. It’s a flawed concept, but I can almost see what the mission is constructing if that’s the case. I’m supposed to be revolted, I’m supposed to hate the game for giving me this task, I’m supposed to have no way out, and I’m supposed to feel that my only purpose is to have faith that the task I’m given will work out in the end. Okay. I can almost see that. It’s a flawed idea, a flawed execution, and a contrived situation which takes the fears of the modern world and preys on them… But, okay. I’ll try and buy into this. And so I do. I finish the mission. And when I get to the end of the mission and get into a van with Makarov and his men, one of Makarov’s men says “That will send a message!” Makarov says “No, this will send a message” and he shoots my character. And I’m dead.

So now I feel dirty for everything I have done and for attempting to reason my way out of the terrible position the game illogically and undeservedly put me in… And it ends with the game twirling its metaphorical mustache by pulling a plot twist lower than even 24 would ever go by having my American character get framed for the killing of all of these Russian civilians and igniting World War III. To make matters worse, the game never ends up actually justifying the actions of my character at the Russian airport. The airport terminal massacre sets the game’s overarching events in motion but no more. The game simply raises the stakes from mission to mission until I am to the logical extreme of battling in a war-torn Washington DC, popping green flares (The Rock, again) from above the West Wing. And, what’s worse, Makarov is never heard from again other than two lines of dialogue at the other end of radio chatter in a mission in the game’s final act.

The issue being raised by journalists and gamers is whether or not this kind of content has a place in games given the incredibly varied audience of a game like Modern Warfare 2. And, definitely, more games should attempt to portray controversial and mature content in interesting, relevant ways. To boil the issue down to as clear a point as possible: the problem with “No Russian” is that Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t earn the fictional right to present the content that it does. Whether this specific mission is well-executed or not, and I don’t think it is, if the reason for its existence is not contextually supported then its presence is gratuitous and its intent lost.

In “No Russian,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 compromised the integrity of its gameplay, its narrative, and my implicit trust solely for the sake of a macguffin.

Game Design Logophilia

The IGDA Game Design SIG Mailing List recently had a mini-debate where someone off-handedly proposed the formation of a committee to focus on the establishment of a vocabulary for words key to the practice and discussion of game design. This is a topic that has been approached a few times before and it often seems that those for it are outnumbered by people who have an irrational hatred of the concept of a group of professionals defining terms that describe the field they work in.

Instead, designers continue to latch on to terms from other professions to describe the work that we do every day. When we look at a gameplay space, we talk about architectural concepts of space and flow. We do this because our games are constantly incorporating knowledge learned from the field of architecture in order to create a player-relatable space to play our game in. When we think about how our games make us and others feel through terms taken from literary and film criticism to talk to each other about the effectiveness of the experiences we create or wish to convey. Even within a given game development team there are groups that throw terms unique to game development around. Engineers throw around technical lingo to each other regarding the capabilities of processors, graphics cards, and algorithms. Artists combine technical jargon with traditional concepts of art history and criticism.

One of my favorite works in the field of game design is Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. The fundamental goal of the piece is an attempt to add structure to the discourse of game design by answering one fundamental question: how do we talk about games? Church goes on to pose the importance of a design vocabulary along with examples about how establishing some fundamental terms for how we talk about games can enrich the way we work, think, and talk about gameplay. Church takes the example of Mario 64’s gameplay as the basis for the creation of two terms which help to define discourse surrounding Mario 64: intention and perceivable consequence. Church describes intention as: “Making an implementable plan of one’s own creation in response to the current situation in the game world and one’s understanding of the game play options.” He defines perceivable consequence as: “A clear reaction from the game world to the action of the player.”

Why do designers feel some strange avoidance for terms that are unique to game design? As someone whose college education revolved around English, creative writing, and teaching, the usefulness of a vocabulary for game design is a topic which is, admittedly, close to my heart. Working in and talking about video games every day makes some of us immune to the true complexity that our discussions on gameplay can reach. Despite all of that, a number of our discussions about gameplay get back to one painfully nebulous, subjective word that all of use more often than we ever really should: “fun.”

Both of Church’s definitions possess an undeniable utilitarian quality and, as such, its difficult to deny the applicability of both terms to our every day work as designers. We don’t come up with and agree on terms for our work because we want to exclude others or complicate our discussions, we coin terms for the ease of which we can introduce others to our discussions and so that we can all share common definitions for recurring concepts. If I were to mention ludonarrative dissonance in a conversation with another designer — one who made somewhat of an effort to actually read the works of our industry’s prominent designers — he would know what I am referring to. But the term ludonarrative dissonance is one of the handful of terms (if that) which have caught on in the industry and, as such, it’s difficult to not sound pretentious or heavy-handed whenever applying the term to an actual discussion.

How and why did ludonarrative dissonance ever actually catch on within the field of game design and game criticism? The term originated in an entry by Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director Clint Hocking when he applied to the term to his discussion of Bioshock. The success of this definition isn’t simply that Hocking is a remarkably talented and immensely respected design in the game industry, but that his approach to the definitiong and application of the term to his own piece was handled in a very instructive manner. One of the reasons that Clint Hocking is so well-respected (even outside of the scope of his immensely impressive body of work) is that he works hard and successfully to define the boundaries of his own discourse. He explains a term critical to his discussion to his audience and immediately employs that term in a practical, useful way. Regarding the Bioshock criticism, Hocking discusses at length the fundamental basis of the game and how it forms its ludic contract with a player through the gameplay acts that a player partakes in. All the while, Bioshock is simultaneously establishing its narrative contract. And at a key point in the game the two contracts that the game has established with the player collide in a moment of ludonarrative dissonance. It’s Hocking’s expert establishment of the boundaries of his own discourse alongside the core of his argument which work so well to establish a cohesive work that conveys a fundamental point and yields a relevant, useful term.

The uncharacteristic popularity of a term like ludonarrative dissonance is an outlier in the game industry. Its use in a number of design texts and discussions seems to indicate a design-focused audience willing to embrace the establishment of a shared vocabulary, but the adoption rate of any well-defined terms is minimal at best. Maybe a committee of game designers is not the ideal situation for kick-starting a common design vocabulary, but if not a group of willing professionals, then who? Are we forced to rely on the hit-and-miss adoption rate of very well-defined terms by individual designers writing on their personal sites? As brilliant as some of our industry’s luminaries are, the adoption of terms shouldn’t solely fall from a single person’s well-written texts to a network of that designer’s body of readers.

At some point, we have to get proactive about the creation and propagation of terms that a group of designers feel represent concepts critical to the practice of our work and the teaching of our work to others. Why not now?

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Grand Theft Auto

In many ways, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned is a much better game than Grand Theft Auto IV proper.

The original game centered on an eastern European immigrant finding his start in faux-New York City, along with his well-intentioned cousin and a sundry cast of ethnically diverse characters. Taken at face value, it’s a great narrative concept, especially for a video game, and made GTA IV an epic experience. But Grand Theft Auto IV tried to continually up the ante every few missions, resulting in an uninteresting and nonsensical mafioso finale.

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned narrows its narrative and gameplay focus significantly and it ends up being better game for it. The change in scope combined with refined gameplay mechanics sculpt The Lost and Damned into a more condensed, more accessible gaming experience than its base. And scope and focus matter in this new style of Grand Theft Auto game. This new style GTA is not the same one gamers saw in Grand Theft Auto 3, GTA: Vice City, or GTA: San Andreas. The days of incredibly over-the-top hijinks and wacky antics are gone. Grand Theft Auto IV and, by extension, The Lost and Damned are games that place a very pronounced focus on its characters and the city they live in. They’re dark, sociopathic games. The game where there was a silly mini-game around every city block is now called Saints Row (specifically, Saints Row 2), and Saints Row 2 does the the pre-Grand Theft Auto IV gameplay better than Rockstar ever managed to. But, that’s okay. Grand Theft Auto IV is a superb, enjoyable game, and one that coexists nicely with it crazy uncle made by the boy (development studio) next door (country).

Grand Theft Auto IV and The Lost and Damned both derive their gameplay significance through their narrative. There is such a strong emphasis on the integrity of the game’s cinematics that, for any player who does not skip past them, the resulting attitudes and motivations of the each game’s lengthy cast of characters is almost entirely inherited from these predetermined scenes. Any character development that occurs in a player’s head for the primary set of characters outside of the boundaries of a cut scene or mission is, almost inevitably, going to be “reset” back to Rockstar’s intended vision at the start of the next cinematic. It has such a rigid formula of cut scene, mission, cut scene, open world, and so on that any amount of player projection is almost certainly lost.

As a result of Rockstar’s treatment of narrative and gameplay, though, the foundations of character development and player empathy hinge on Grand Theft Auto’s ability to make a given portrait of a character work in tandem with the gameplay which, when it’s working as intended, frequently has players killing dozens upon dozens of people. In Grand Theft Auto IV, players were tasked with control of Niko, an expatriate coming to grips with life in a new country. Niko, aside from initially being a sympathetic soul for the player to quickly latch on to, was a soldier responsible for a massive amount of death (or so the game insinuates). As players go through missions that consist of a smooth transition from small, random acts of violence into brutal, horrific mass killings, there is always a certain air of believability to Niko’s continual killing sprees. There’s a slight tinge of contradiction when cut scene Niko attempts to convince other in-world characters that he wants nothing more out of his new life in American than to live peacefully after in-game Niko just ran over an entire city block of hipsters outside of a coffee shop, but the game didn’t explicitly intend for that interaction, so gamers can probably still buy it.

The Lost and Damned makes a player’s willing suspension of disbelief into an actual task. Players are given the role of Johnny, a character who consistently seems distraught by the amount of violence that follows in the wake of his newly-reinstated biker gang superior. Within the realm of The Lost and Damned’s cut scenes, Johnny’s continual unwillingness to commit violence or purely treacherous acts is ceaseless. The problem arises when the cut scenes end and the player is consistently tasked with killing dozens upon dozens of people; at one point early in the game, in-game Johnny is given a grenade launcher to take out an entire building of gangsters whose only crime is one told to him by an untrustworthy antagonist. This action is committed by the same Johnny who, in an earlier cut scene, got in a huff over this same antagonist unnecessarily killing one mechanic.

What, then, is the intended interpretation of the Grand Theft Auto IV (and The Lost and Damned) lengthy premise? Is the intended tale of either of these games the one that Rockstar tells players — the same players who are often tasked with the brutal murder of dozens upon dozens of in-world people who, by the game’s own character’s moral standards, are not deserving of such fates? As it stands, it seems that the intended interpretation of Grand Theft Auto IV is meant to be taken as a whole, in which case gamers take away a lopsided composition of Rockstar’s premise and a player’s narrative. In more concrete terms: a depressed member of a biker gang who laments every unnecessary murder while he drives around the streets of a fictional New York City laying pipe bombs at every block.