Apparently one of the great virtues of video games is immersion. Googling immersion and video games brings up countless forums and reviews talking about how great games are immersive and what the most immersive games are. Various websites have explained what immersion is and how it works. Everybody seems to think that what they want is a video game that makes them forget that they are playing a video game.
Video games are new. Video game criticism is newer still. So it can be forgiven for its mistakes.However, before we can forgive it, we must fix it.
Video game fans, critics and audiences alike, seem to think that “complete immersion” is some sort of Holy Grail. The concept and the legendary cup of Christ have a lot in common. It is unlikely that we will ever see either it, you could easily spend your whole life trying to find it and if it was found it probably would not do anything particularly amazing.
Actual complete and perfect immersion in a video game would not be some powerful empathic experience allowing us to walk a few miles in another person’s soul. It would be some bizarre hallucination that we would forget as soon as it ends. If the immersion was really and absolutely “complete” then there would not be enough of us there to remember it.
I suppose it is childish to interpret the idea so literally. Nobody expects a video game (or at least one that we would see in our lifetime) to be on par with Descartes’ Demon or Star Trek’s holodeck. My point is that without the player’s own personal memory and experiences the video game may as well not be played at all.
It’s been remarked before (on this very blog even) that art needs an audience to exist. Paint on a fresco may as well be moss on a rock if there is no one to see and appreciate it. Reader response criticism is centred around this idea that “the meaning of the text is created through the process of reading” (Bennett/Royle, 12).
What I am suggesting is slightly different. I propose that the division between player and avatar, or audience and protagonist, is where the message of a game lies. This message might not be the literal message, such as Spec Ops: The Line telling us that violence is bad (a short and dismissive summary but accurate enough for our purposes). The message in this instance, and for the rest of this essay, would be closer to Marshall McLuhan’s definition of the message. The message is the effect that comes from what happens. The message is what changes after the game has been played. The message is how the player thinks and feels after they play.
Immersion is essentially when people forget the gap between player and avatar. Reality is the game. Sometimes this is fine. The message of a game may simply permeate us while we flow through the conjoined consciousness of player and protagonist. There are other times though where the message is found by examining this gap. There are times when we need to break immersion.
Smacking things with a stick is a lot of fun. Clint Hocking gave game criticism a brand new stick for smacking things when he coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” on his blog Click Nothing. The term is intended as a challenge to a game’s merits. Declaring that a game suffers from ludonarrative dissonance means saying that a game has a fundamental fault. This goes beyond opinion. Game critics say “ludonarrative dissonance” the same way chefs say “poisonous”. Ludonarrative dissonance seems to be like video game arsenic.
This is a mistake. Ludonarrative Dissonance is not inherently bad. It can be a fault and it can be one of the things that makes a game great. What ludonarrative dissonance does is that it breaks immersion. Hocking himself said that it “all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either [the story structure or the game structure]” when he first used the term. However breaking immersion can be a powerful tool for video games to use; as I will describe below.
Hocking used ludonarrative dissonance in the title of a blog post critiquing the original Bioshock. Although Affectionate for the game itself, Hocking thought that the game suffered from a critical fault. In his own words
“To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story”.
Hocking felt that the game mechanics encouraged him to be selfish. There is a precious resource in the game, called ADAM that can be “harvested” from small children and this leaves them catatonic. However Hocking felt the story had a conflicting message of benevolence and selflessness as a virtue.
There are problems with Hocking’s argument (harvesting the children does get you more ADAM but saving them gives the player as much ADAM as they need as well as a variety of other useful items) but the original argument is not important here. What is important is that ludonarrative dissonance soon became a common phrase used to critique video games.
The term quickly grew popular among both press and audiences. It has even had an impact on academic studies (if my own lectures are anything to go by). It is not uncommon for phrases and jargon to be used incorrectly (I even wrote an entire blog post about one example) and ludonarrative dissonance has not been the exception to this (as Jim Sterling shows here).
I am not proposing that we have all misunderstood the term (at least a few people seem to get it). I propose that we have all misidentified it as a problem. As I have said, ludonarrative dissonance breaks immersion and, as I have also said, breaking immersion is sometimes part of a games message.
Let us re-examine Hocking’s critique of Bioshock. Essentially he feels that the ludonarrative dissonance leaves the game’s exploration of Ayn Rand’s philosophies confused and muddled. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps the game fails to concretely and completely dissect and assess egoism (or objectivism as it is commonly, and incorrectly, called). Perhaps this is all true but it is definitely irrelevant.
Hocking’s confusion led him to examine the games contents in greater detail than he would have done had the story and game mechanics been clear. The blog post itself is evidence of this. Hundreds of words, and Hocking himself admits that thousands more are needed, dedicated to examining and better understanding the game. If the game had not suffered from this dissonance at all he may not have written any blog post. How many people have now read this post and considered the arguments and merits of Ayn Rand? The confusion and conflict made by this dissonance probably led to a better understanding of egoism than many clear and concise books on the subject.
The message of Bioshock is clear. It made people think.
There are other examples of ludonarrative dissonance making games more powerful.
People have commented that Final Fantasy VII (or simply FF7) suffers from it. The game’s mechanics have you playing as a powerful soldier with incredible strength and powerful magic that can heal devastating injuries. However, halfway through the story the character Aeris is impaled by a sword and killed. The hero’s strength and curing magics are suddenly irrelevant to the plot.
This character’s death is one of the most famous in video games. It has been called the greatest moment in video games and the scene of her death has been examined in detail. Countless rumours quickly emerged about ways to save her. Cheat codes that could be used to save her life. The dissonance was so strong that players became desperate to find a way to overpower the story structure with the game structure.
However it was this feeling of powerlessness that made the death of Aeris so potent. Breaking the immersion and forcing the players out of the game forced them to examine their own relationship to Aeris. It was no longer just about her relationship with the characters in the game. Players were told by the game that they were powerless. That they were not the all-powerful magic soldier that they thought they were.
Later in the game the protagonist learns that his past is not what he thought it was. The character was never a soldier and had imagined the whole thing. The character also admits to feeling helpless and powerless after the death of Aeris. The ludonarrative dissonance here is able to pull the player further into the game. The player can now relate to the protagonist in whole new way. The dissonance felt by the player is a crucial element of the game’s plot.
There are still times when this dissonance in games is unwelcome. The Uncharted series in particular has faced this criticism many times. However one games weakness can be another games strength. Games are like any text. They are complicated, they are diverse and they only have rules so that those rules can be broken. Its childish to think that we can pick one thing that games can never do and I don’t think anyone would accuse video games of being childish.
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