The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project

So… I’m embarking on a little project.

I’ve been insanely curious about Spec Ops: The Line since its release, with many (somewhat trusted) media sources raving about the use of narrative in the game. See, I’m a big fan of narrative… but only when it makes sense in a game. Which is a backwards way of saying that I’m not a fan of narrative/gameplay dissonance.

Now, I must be honest here: I was sorely tempted to write “ludonarrative dissonance” above, because that’s what all the Kool Kids are writing about at the moment… especially regarding BioShock Infinite (which I’ll talk about a bit more later). But I’m not quite sure that’s the right fit for what I’m talking about.

Ludonarrative dissonance – as I understand it – contemplates the conflict between the narrative aspects of what the game projects, and the actions that it asks you to perform as part of the game. In my mind, any game that tries to engage in a real-world scenario is always going to have some sort of ludonarrative dissonance: the need for scoring mechanics, and the simple mapping of such a mechanism onto “winning” (usually “killing”), makes it difficult to reconcile any narrative arc (which usually tugs on emotional heartstrings for effect) with that mechanism. Curiously, that implies that Call of Duty-type games suffer less dissonance than, say, Uncharted.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m more interested in the feel of the game… the physical expression of the player in doing what the game is challenging you to do.

The Wii (oh, that’s so last generation) had it easy with its motion controls: Wii Sports Tennis is the very epitome of this type of engagement, but that’s cheating a little bit… that’s mimicry. I want to dig into the games that somehow conjure up a physical correlation between what the game wants, and what you – as the player – deliver.

Consider Ico – a stunning game, to be sure. One of the best, in my book. But part of the reason I feel that is because holding Yorda’s hand – which you’re doing for much of the game – is accomplished by curling a finger around onto R1 on the DualShock controller. When I’m playing Ico, and my index finger isn’t on that button, I’m anxious – Yorda’s in danger.

The game did that to me. I suspect it’s a glorious combination of narrative and control tuning that works for Ico; but other games manage without narrative… and I usually describe them as having “responsive controls” or, more often, not notice it at all. The absence of engaging controls is, after all, easier to describe: games can feel “floaty” or disconnected.

But then there are games where the physical interaction is so at odds with the narrative aspects that it’s jarring – proper harshing-my-gaming-buzz jarring. But more on BioShock Infinite later.

So I’ve decided to embark on a little project. I was originally just going to play the aforementioned Spec Ops: The Line, fully expecting the narrative to be completely divorced from the gameplay: everything I’ve heard suggests that the gameplay component is an average third-person shooter, but that there are Decisions to be made… and I want to see how that process is presented by the game. But, with BioShock Infinite getting a lot of positive comments about its narrative aspects from reviewers and punters alike, I thought I’d give that a bash as well… and then there’s the Director’s Cut of cult-classic Deadly Premonition, a game lauded for its great story and cack controls.

Three games of wildly varying perceived quality, all with reportedly strong narratives, none of which are really in genres that elicit enthusiasm in me: I call this the The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project (NGCP).

But before I launch into that, there’s a little tidy-up and context-setting to be done: in the last fortnight, I managed to conquer the last of my Colossi, knocking Shadow of the Colossus off The List (a game that also has a wonderful physicality to it… even though I think it’s a poor game in comparison to its spiritual prequel), and rushed through a playthrough of Uncharted 3 on Normal, mopping up treasure and weapon Trophies. Uncharted 3 is, of course, a long-term project, with a squillion multiplayer Trophies to be hunted down; I’ve started playing it a bit online, and it’s a much more accessible game than Uncharted 2 ever was (though there’s issues with balance being skewed by high-ranking perks). But the single-player campaign is absolutely devoid of narrative engagement; as I’ve mentioned before, the game presents itself to me as an asset tour, but I’m not necessarily one to be wowed by those assets.

Which brings us – finally – to BioShock Infinite.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: I love the narrative of BioShock Infinite. I think it’s on par with movies like Inception (which I quite enjoyed, but not to rave-worthy levels), and I think that it’s fantastic that Irrational have chosen to deal with issues like racism and class warfare and personal engagements, all steeped in waves of cheesy nostalgia that evokes The Truman Show. And it certainly presents a wonderfully realised environment; there’s lots of assets to be toured there.

But as for the gameplay

Well, it’s functional, at least. But there’s something about the gameplay that keeps the story at arm’s length for the entire game; it’s almost like it belongs to some other story. Or that Infinite‘s narrative belongs in some other game.

I’m really shocked at how disjointed it made me feel; and that prevented me from actually engaging with the characters, and emoting in moments that were described in the Game|Life BioShock Infinite SpoilerCast (which really is quite spoilery, so only listen to it after you’ve played the game!).

But then there’s the ending.

Not the final “battle”, which is as jarring as the realisation that BrĂ¼tal Legend is actually an RTS, but the significant end-game sequence (seriously: put aside an hour for it).

The ending is, for me, BioShock Infinite done right. And I know that I say that as someone completely divorced from the history of the game (I’ve only played the demo of the first BioShock, and neither of the System Shock games)… but there’s lots of other disconnects there for me, too. The pervading nostalgia for Americana of a bygone era is lost on me, and it’s only today that I discovered that the oft-referenced Wounded Knee was a real (and horrific) event. But that end sequence absolutely nails the physical engagement with the game for me: every button press was considered, even though there was no bearing on the outcome.

But…

That end sequence that I enjoyed so much? There’s an indie game that does something similar, but so much better. It’s only five dollars, it’s maybe thirty minutes of your time (if you’re a nosy explorer like me), and it’s a really, really wonderful experiment in game-ified narrative. It’s Thirty Flights of Loving, and it’s… well, I’m glad I played it; I’m glad it exists.

Further thoughts on The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project as they arise…

One Response to “The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project”

  1. PaulEMoz April 30, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    Sounds very interesting. I’ve been really fancying Spec Ops: The Line too. I tend to prefer third person games anyway, and if I can get on with and really enjoy the likes of Deadly Premonition and Alpha Protocol then I think it might be right up my alley.

    Look forward to reading what you’ve got ahead…

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