Monday, August 12, 2013

Blips: The Ludonarrative Dumpster

Source: Ludonarrative dissonance doesn't exist because it isn't dissonant and no one cares anyway.
Author: Robert Yang
Site: Radiator Blog

I'd highly suggest giving Robert Yang's new blog post discounting the relevance of the term "ludonarrative dissonance" a read. I provided a link above, fancy that. It's an at-times hilarious description of the dissonant nature of Bioshock Infinite that few who reviewed the game seemed to care about. Yang goes on to argue that critics and players at large don't seem bothered by ludonarrative dissonance at all anyway. We've adopted processes where we recognize "gameisms" (borrowing a term from Tom Bissell) as exceptions to the rules that would otherwise be labelled "dissonant."

One example Yang offers in Bioshock Infinite that stood out for me was the game's supposed commentary on the concept of poverty, yet as the protagonist you find money in trash cans all over the place. Now, I haven't played Infinite, so I can't comment directly on the game's execution here, but it's very effective at illustrating Yang's point. I'll be writing about the game Crypt Worlds soon, which tackles the subject of currency, including finding money in garbage bins, in an extremely thought-provoking way. In short, dumpster diving for cash isn't something most people do, but many video games make it seem normal. Crypt Worlds made me step back and consider that I was spending multiple "days" in in-game time exclusively making the rounds through town, searching garbage cans for money. I really felt like I was a scrounger in what is, in every way, a messed up place. Crypt Worlds didn't tell me it was thematically about poverty or financial systems (among other things), I perceived that through playing it.

And I think that's also part of the issue here. Games, particularly big-budget games with significant PR pushes, build up hype and preconceptions that are meant to sell the game, and these statements are given credence when it comes to critique. The "authorial intent" ingrains itself over time, even before the game is released. Games don't say, "this is about poverty," they say something about poverty, usually about the how it's unjust, conveyed by building empathetic relationships with impoverished characters. However, marketing says "this game is about poverty" in hopes that critics and players will look for it in the game. Again, I haven't played Bioshock Infinite, but I could rattle off half a dozen themes that the game supposedly wrestles with that will be impossible to unknow when/if I decide to play it someday.

I agree with Zolani Stewart's reaction in the comments that the division between "game" and "story" parts is wholly arbitrary and falsely frames critical discussion, and that the problem isn't that games need to rid themselves of dissonance or that dissonance in and of itself is enough to warrant damning critique, but if a game is, through whatever procedural means, presenting a thematic opinion that is undercut by other elements of the game, it's worth pointing out. By the sound of it, according to Yang, Bioshock Infinite undercuts itself constantly. If no one seems to notice, is it because dissonance doesn't matter or just that games and game media are proficient at drawing most players' attentions away from such discrepancies?

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