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 Brütal 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.


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…

Windy CommandoSports

It’s been an odd week.

A week of creeping horror, with the dawning realisation that my aging skills may not be enough to drag me through the Hard difficulty on Bionic Commando: Rearmed, let alone the Achievement-linked Super Hard mode. Hard is proving to be… well, ninja hard: there’s very little room for error, with three hits killing you in levels that seem to be more heavily populated with bullets. I’m still enjoying it, but in short bursts; often I’ll fire up the 360, figure out a quick route through a level to the boss fight, and then get absolutely belted. Try again, same result. Switch off 360 in frustration. Turn it on ten minutes later for another go. Repeat.

A week of lost love, with my very first 360 controller’s thumbstick disintegrating beneath me. This was the controller that helped me get most of my significant gaming victories; Ridge Racer 6. Space Giraffe. Crackdown. And now, after suffering years of my abuse, she’s gone. I only wish I could tell her how much I miss her, but… y’know… gaming time is precious. She’d have wanted me concentrating on the next Achievement, not moping around her grave.

A week of unwanted excessive effort, with my Wii Sports practice yielding a Gold Medal in the Bowling Power Throws, and an unfortunate Platinum in the Boxing Dodging. That Platinum will gnaw away at my mind for years, I can tell… I’d happily revert to a backed-up save of my status to under-achieve a Gold in its place, if it wasn’t risking my Boxing rank (740-ish… but Tennis is up to 1740-ish!) And, of course, excessive vigour in the remaining Bowling training modes leads to a dodgy shoulder and elbow.

A week of returning to old friends. Beset with doubts of my own abilities, bereft with injuries, I just wanted something to crash in front of the telly with on a drowsy Sunday. Wind Waker seemed like a perfect fit, and before I knew it bedtime had arrived, I’d forgotten to eat dinner, and I had to sadly bid the Deluxe Picto Box goodnight. I love that game – the wonderful pacing (compared to Twilight Princess, anyway), the gorgeous presentation… and the OCD pandering of it. I will fill that Nintendo Figurine Gallery, oh yes I will.

CommandoSports and the Missing Mojo

At the start of the week, I was feeling pretty good about myself: I’d knocked Burnout Paradise off The List, and I was snaffling regular Achievements from the purportedly difficult Bionic Commando: Rearmed. My plan was to hammer away at a few of BC‘s Challenge Rooms, a spot of current project N2O, and a little bit of Geometry Wars practice. So, how did I do?



I started positively enough, clearing four or five Challenge Rooms a night. The first dozen or so were straightforward enough, although it’s a bit peturbing to check the Friend’s Leaderboard after successfully clearing a “tricky” level and seeing that a mate completed the same Room in one-fifth the attempts. But suddenly the Rooms started getting… well, impossible. I resorted to YouTube, awash with videos of people completing these rooms in stupid-quick times with maximum rank. I see – and replicate – some new tricks, and eventually the Rooms become straightforward again; tricky, sure, but nothing practice can’t overcome. Well, practice and 180-ish attempts. I kid you not.

And suddenly, it’s Friday night and there’s only six of the Challenge Rooms outstanding. A couple of them are quite silly; number 55, in particular, leaves me absolutely bemused; no videos or descriptions make the slightest bit of sense to me. I mean, check this out:

Start by just dropping down to the platform below. Face the left wall to grapple the first block. Once you’ve done that, wait till you’re at the height of your swing going right. Press down to do the arc jump and at the height of this jump, throw your grapple at the white block. If you hit this successfully, you’ll pass through the wall. Once you do, press down to let go and then immediately do a vertical grapple back up to the white block. Pull yourself up, press down to let go and immediately press B to do a regular diagonal grapple so that you start swinging. Then just hold right to fall off and finish the stage.

I watch, I read, and I try… and, after the 150th attempt with not a single second grapple connecting, I think: fuck this.

And, just like that, my Gaming Mojo disappears.

Saturday saw me listless, not willing to commit to any gaming time at all. Most would consider that normal, not undesired, behavior, but to this O/C Gamer it feels something like the Kiss Of Death… how can the psychological weight of The List be reduced if I’m not working to lessen it? But I reluctantly decide to give myself a bit of time, and spend the day catching up on anime (yet another habit stereotyped by the thirty-eight year old male). Sunday starts much the same, but a brisk walk through the parklands at least inspires me to fire up one of my Go-To Games.

I’ve got a couple of Go-To Games, games that I can use as mood shifters, as comfort food for my thumbs: Jet Set Radio Future is the perfect medicine for when I’m feeling sick-and-sorry for myself. Speed-running The Library in Halo raises my confidence when it’s shot. When everything feels like a grind, New Super Mario Brothers reminds me that games are, indeed, fun. But today I opted for a spot of tennis in Wii Sports.

And it was just the ticket.

I love Wii Sports tennis. Now, I’m not good at it (with a Rank hovering around 1400, whereas the EliteScores high is 2400), but I find it a great palate cleanser. A few games, and I’m feeling perky again; suddenly, I wonder where I’m at with my Wii Sports goals.

My targets are pretty simple: all Pro status on the games, all Gold Medals on the training levels (and yes, I am aware that there are Platinum Medals… I just don’t think they’re a reasonable goal). A quick review tells me that the only Pro rank I’m missing is in the boxing, and there are eight Golds missing: all the bowling, all the boxing, and a couple of the golf. A couple of hours sees my boxing Rank leap from 200 to 600-ish, a Silver and a Bronze where there was previously none in the boxing training, and a lucky Gold in the golf Target Practice.

Oh, and a wrenched shoulder.

That is why I don’t play more Wii Sports.