It has been argued that in order for a game that wishes to have a solid narrative component to truly work, it has to not be in conflict with the gameplay mechanics it has in place. So roughly goes the argument of Clint Hocking writing on his blog in 2007 critiquing the game Bioshock. Many games that attempt to employ a solid narrative in their game suffer this way, simply due to the limitations – or conversely the inability to limit player choice – in the medium.
A cut scene where a player character dies after a betrayal – like the betrayal in Modern Warfare 2 when Makarov shoots and leaves your character for dead – does not particularly gel very well with the fact that your character had taken hundreds of bullets to the chest leading up to this scene and survived. Aerith’s iconic death scene in Final Fantasy VII should make for little emotional impact in a world where phoenix down exists. Clearly then, gameplay has a lot to live up to in order to be able to tell a solid story without the gameplay feeling tacked on and in conflict with it, or vice versa.
As Hocking stated, Bioshock is disjointed at a much deeper level though. It’s gameplay encourages selfish behaviour in order to survive the dark and terrifying world of Rapture, very much in line with the Randian ethical philosophy of Objectivism that it was built upon. Whilst the story itself demands blind obedience to the shadowy figure of Atlas in order to progress forward. In effect, the game demands that you get more and more powerful in order to progress by ignoring all the concerns of others, but also to reject the philosophy of self-interest at the same time by demanding that you help someone else in need unconditionally.
The issue is made all the more complex by the inclusion of the ‘Little Sisters’ into the mix. In short ‘Little Sisters’ are characters in Bioshock that possess the proper ingredients within them in order to make you more powerful, the catch being that in order to harvest it from them, you must in fact kill them. The mechanics of the game stress the importance of gaining as much power as possible (harvesting the ‘Little Sisters’ out of necessity) whilst the narrative demands rebellion against the dystopian civilisation of Rapture and this leaves quite the divide. Atlas treats the ‘Little Sisters’ as abominations and advocates killing them in order to better survive Rapture, while Dr Tenenbaum (who seems dubious of your intentions) implores you to save them. As it is later revealed that Atlas is in fact looking to replace Andrew Ryan as leader of Rapture, it makes sense that he treats the ‘Little Sisters’ so callously as to him they are merely another stepping stone to achieving his goals. Even with this slip of the mask, your character has no choice but to follow Atlas’ commands in order to progress through the plot.
The gameplay can easily allow you to choose between being selfish and not when it comes to the fate of the ‘Little Sisters’ but ultimately you are not able to choose to side with Rapture and its philosophy, regardless of the very Objectivist nature of your bid to survive. You are forced to fight Andrew Ryan and support Atlas, simply because the story requires it of you. At first it seems that supporting Atlas is simply a conceit in order to create conflict or a limitation of the medium, but later in the game with the reveal of the “would you kindly…” trigger phrase it becomes an actual part of the narrative proper. This particular deus ex machina takes autonomy away from the player, effectively removing all character depth from the player character. The character is acting simply because he has been compelled to by suggestion, and not simply succumbing to the world of Rapture or desperately following Atlas for a chance of escape.
I do not however think that this dissonance is crippling to a game like Bioshock. From a narrative perspective the idea of being a pawn to villain who simply wants more power (fully in keeping with Randian self-interest) is completely in keeping with the world of Rapture. Atlas effectively uses you the way that Andrew Ryan and Rapture itself uses the ‘Little Sisters’ in that they treat living, breathing individuals as tools to increase their own power. The chilling words of Andrew Ryan (a man chooses, a slave obeys) are fully realised in the culmination of the game, as the player can either obey the desire for ultimate power; or choose to relinquish it and choose a virtuous path instead.
In addition, if we are to remove the “would you kindly…” business for a moment – and that is a big ask – it is fairly clear that the player character is primarily helping Atlas for his own self-interest, namely that of survival. The main character is not helping Atlas because he likes him, or because he is of an annoyingly helpful sort, but because he has washed up in the worst possible place imaginable and needs immediate allies. I do not feel that this is necessarily in conflict with either the narrative or the gameplay really, as in the end your character’s prime motive (before the reveal) is simply to escape Rapture – or if he succumbs at the end – rule it. The dissonance between gameplay and the story sits firmly with the phrase ‘would you kindly’ as it removes the choice between acting selfishly or selflessly, as you didn’t really have a choice in the matter at all.
The greatest example I can think of where ludonarrative dissonance really pulled me out of a game experience was in the game Dishonored. The game is premised on the main character being framed for murder and having to clear his name with a number of notable friends and allies. After you succeed in doing so you are predictably poisoned by your group who then spread the word that you are still guilty of the crime. The moment that Admiral Havelock passes the drink to you and the button to ‘drink’ flashes on the screen anyone could see what was coming next. The character of Corvo up to this point has been a very capable, shrewd individual that to be so obviously betrayed again by a similar collection of noblemen is ridiculous. Most importantly, it is out of place with the established gameplay of being able to drink potions to heal massive lacerations and infested bites from plague victims, that being poisoned to a state of catatonia seems very unlikely to occur. This of course being a complaint for any game with magical, instant healing items that also contain permanent death scenes.
However, I feel that it is possible for a game to have this disconnect and actually benefit from it. The example I will use is the game Spec Ops: The Line. On face value, this game looks and feels like many other games of its type, having you blindly blast though wave after wave of enemies to get to the end of the level. Though it doesn’t take long for the narrative to make you understand that there is a lot more to this game than is immediately apparent.
During a certain harrowing ‘white phosphorous’ scene the game begins to shift from a standard shooter game to an examination of what it is we are doing playing these sort of games at all. Through scenes involving desperate civilians, your character is often made to feel as if he has no choice but to commit atrocities in order to achieve his ultimate goal. The only way to object to these acts is to simply stop playing the game, which to some of course is a viable way to end the narrative, but to many of the gaming public it is an understandable step too far. Compare this to the infamous ‘airport scene‘ in Modern Warfare 2. An interesting point that is often discussed is whether or not players stopped to think that they did not need to actually shoot any civilians. They did not impede their progression through the level and of course the idea that shooting civilians is necessary at all seems unsettling, but I feel that many players upon starting that level opened fire without thinking about it. The very nature of having to follow instructions in games is so ingrained in the experience that it takes a really bold step to make a player step back and rebel against the script. Unlike a good guy, bad guy choice that is common to many games, Spec Ops: The Line simply demands that you continue to play the game or turn away from it all, and in so doing delivers one of the best critiques of gaming and the modern military in one fell swoop. Namely, we can’t blame our actions on the orders of others, ultimately it is us that pulls the trigger, us that decides to carry on.
All of this powerful message would be lost if the game was better matched to its narrative. If the player could at any point simply choose to not kill civilians and still progress through the story, then most of us would simply choose that option. By restricting that choice, it makes you fully to blame to conducting acts of horror that the only way to avoid them is to simply stop playing the game, which is something we are not akin to doing. In recent memory no game has been able to better examine the consequences of our actions in a violent game, whilst still keeping the guise of a standard shooter. By this examination, I feel that ludonarrative dissonance is not by it’s very nature a bad thing, or a failing of a developer, but a tool that can be used effectively to further explore facets of the human condition and the very nature of story telling.
Bioshock I feel does not suffer from its disconnect between its gameplay and its story as to an extent it benefits from the idea of the protagonist being used for a power-grab by those dominated by ideas of self-interest above all else. Your character after being freed from Atlas’ control has to then decide for himself whether or not he will get revenge and claim power in his own right, or if he will stop the madness altogether. Spec Ops: The Line is completely epitomised by this disconnect and so would be radically altered (and I would say for the worse) if it is was removed. Spec Ops removes us as innocent bystanders and replaces us as the monsters we decry in stories of war time atrocity, it gives us a glimpse into the world of real warfare and reflects our actions back unto us, asking us if we really achieved anything in the end. All achieved by removing the sense of achievement through slaughter that is the bread and butter of most shooting titles.