Ludonarrative Dissonance: when details matter
Sab, July 1, 2014
Translated by: Stefania

When you judge a game, you need to consider all its parts without separating what narratively emerges from the gameplay, compared with what the cinematics, the texts and the audio files narrate.
When narrative conflicts and incoherences appear between the various parts and the different moments constituting a video game, we are talking about ludonarrative dissonance.
Clint Hocking, picture from his blog
This term was created by Clint Hocking, developer of games like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2, in an article in which he wanted to highlight the incoherences and dissonances in one of the most appreciated game for its narrative bent, Bioshock.
I’d like to stop a little on this subject with you, examining from this point of view some chapters of the Assassin’s Creed series, to understand whether some design choices helped the credibility and structural coherence of the games or not.
As I already said in another article, I personally consider the first Assassin’s Creed unequalled even now, from a narrative point of view.
Altair is an assassin, and that’s what we’re allowed to do. The Animus keeps us from killing innocents, and most of the time the game level design lets us assassinate only our target. The soldiers, before attacking and chasing us, abruptly “suggest” us to climb down from the rooftops or leave immediately certain zones. We’re not Niko Bellic, or John Marston, Booker DeWitt or Joel, we’re an assassin with atask, and especially a Creed. The creation and invention of the Creed allows not only to shape the character of Altair according to almost perfect game patterns, but also to draw up a ludic and narrative contract with us. We’ll have to act according to the Creed, we’ll
be able to move and even think like an Assassin, because this is the only thing we’re allowed to do. Altair cannot buy weapons, cannot steal better ones, because his redemption, according to the rules of the Creed, prevents him from doing it. He must follow the orders, do what Al Mualim asks and so this is what we’ll be able to do in the game world. Thanks to the open world structure, the gameplay also allows us to see the results of our actions: people will help us if we help them, both the commoners and the hermits and the monks. Unfortunately, just because of the Open World structure, the game also allows us to butcher dozens of soldiers as we please, sending the Creed and the characterisation of Altair down the drain, should we choose to “break” the ludic contract the game imposes on us at the beginning of the game. This is the problem connecting interaction and narration.

The second game of the brand, Assassin’s Creed II, decides to give up on a series of peculiar and clever characteristics of the first title, in favor of a greater variety and a narrative branch freer from the gameplay, and consequently more “solid” in the cinematics, the Glyphs and the dialogues.

When a game wants to inject some pathos or philosophy into the proceedings, it's usually handled in a cutscene. Over the decades, this restriction has had the unfortunate consequence of splitting the interests and priorities of game designers and game writers into separate camps -- often working in tandem, but rarely on the same problems.

This is an excerpt of a way richer and well-constructed article by Darby McDevitt on Gamasutra, in which he highlights how nowadays a game is programmed in different parts, some of which dedicated to the gameplay, others to the narration, therefore creating them as independent sessions, while, actually, they should rest one on another, complementing one another.

Darby McDevitt
In all three of the games alluded to above (Red Dead Redemption, ACII, Uncharted, TN), the storylines are well-written, often subtle, and chock-full of emotional intensity. But when it comes time for the player to engage the game, these narrative highs and lows are obliterated in favor of a much smaller and more stylized range of possible expressions: run, ride, jump, dodge. Kill or be killed.
While it is true that Assassin's Creed II and Red Dead Redemption take great care to highlight their protagonists' distaste for killing, the sheer scope of the in-game violence reduces these caveats to mere lip service in much the same fashion that the anti-spectacle message at the heart of the film Gladiator is undermined by the film's reliance on violent spectacle to carry the drama.
If we cannot overcome this persistent contradiction, game narratives will remain difficult to take seriously, for even as these stories get more serious, the gameplay remains ludicrously indulgent.
In life and in all the best literature and cinema, death is usually an unfortunate and tragic event, and in most cases represents a great loss or failure. But in games -- unless it befalls a character in a cutscene -- death is as common and impactful as a sneeze, and is usually a cause for celebration. It's a triumph of one will over another. What are players to think when a game tries to have it both ways -- a weighty, tragic story and a bloody good time?

So Darby McDevitt takes as example of a video game showing a strong dissonance between cinematics and gameplay exactly Assassin’s Creed II, as well as other games very appreciated by the critics such as Red Dead Redemption or Uncharted. The writer of Revelations and Black Flag highlights, among others, how Ezio, a character who makes the refusal of homicide and death his ideological flag, during the gameplay sessions is able to butcher the whole Italian army without batting an eyelash. This fact is further emphasized, in my opinion, by a way more accommodating level design compared with the first game, which often prefers a frontal assault to an accurately planned stealth. It’s not by chance that the second installment was more appreciated than the first one, since it offers a greater amount of “bloody good time” compared with a gameplay more focused on escape and stealth.

However, it’s not only the violence that becomes an element of strong contrast between narration and gameplay.
People aren’t influenced by Ezio’s activities and don’t evolve in any way, not even at the end of the game, essentially remaining the same both before, under the Templar domination, and after the liberation. Despite several town-criers shout at the top of their lungs the presence of an Assassin in the city, and despite several posters (although placed in spots that are unreachable even for golden eagles) show clearly the image of the Florentine Assassin, nobody will ever identify us. The game world doesn’t react to the player’s actions, which are, on the contrary, certainly influential politically and socially in the cinematics. A characteristic that is present also in the first game of the series, but it’s less obvious due to the absence of all these elements that should have significant consequences on the gameplay (the lowering of notoriety isn’t enough, in my opinion).
How can the writing solve some of these problems? Personally, I consider some choices, like the development of the Assassin’s Creed 3’s protagonist, more coherent from this point of view. Indeed Connor takes advantage of the Creed, and his actions make more sense than the ones of a Florentine boy who, after a quick training with his uncle, becomes a skilled swordsman. His violence and his way of acting are dictated by a fortitude without parallel in the protagonists of the series, and his long and complete training makes him a very skilled warrior, especially thanks to the influence of the First Civilization genes. Almost the same applies to Edward, the protagonist of Black Flag. A man who makes the Creed a means, not a goal, and the game asks us to draw up a very different but also diametrically opposite
Colin McComb
(and, in my opinion, more sustainable in terms of narration) contract compared with the one in the first game. The fact that, then, the character evolves accepting and embracing the Creed, happens hand in hand with the player’s evolution.
These things, which can seems trifles, actually are characteristics of many modern video games, which aim for a simpler and more open narration, in short for everyone, with commercial objectives, instead of focusing on something with a richer and especially more credible content.
That’s not all. As also Colin McComb, one of the most important names behind the acclaimed Planescape Torment, one of the most narratively complex video games of all the time, said, every video game must reach a compromise, to respect that same ludic contract that, on the contrary, the player can tear up at any time and to his/her liking. Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, McComb wondered if, just to reach a greater credibility and narrative coherence, we really want that, in the midst of the game, guards can immediately identify the Assassin because of the town-criers’ activities and the posters, and if, ludically speaking, transforming an action adventure game in a pyre stealth game due for narrative needs can be acceptable. His answer was negative.
What I surely can say about the Assassin’s Creed series is that it’s still original and complex, compared with the panorama of the Triple A games, because the care for the narrative can’t be noticed only by adding up the hours of cutscenes in the various games, or the numbers of Glyphs and audio files in every new episode, and also because the attempts to make narration and gameplay cooperate, making them not only independent parts but also a single, big element of the series, are more and more manifest.

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