Allow me to open this column by coining a phrase: a Hartmann Fallacy.
A Hartmann Fallacy – named after Christoph Hartmann, a 2K executive who recently made erroneous comments that video games will have to achieve photorealism to be able to explore different genres and a wide range of emotions – is an error in reasoning that assumes that people identify closer with and get a stronger emotional reaction from things that are perceived as being more “realistic”. It is an assumption that to have impact, works of art have to bridge the gap of player dissonance by lessening the need for suspension of disbelief.
Hartmann is right to say that there is a great emotional disconnect to be found in most games, but it is not the fault of current technology that this is so. In fact, his comments betray a profound misunderstanding of video games as a medium that ultimately relies on its interactivity to convey messages and emotions that is not simply a misjudgement on Hartmann’s part, but a failing of an entire creative industry: video game developers separate their art from technology.
To explain this idea, I have two examples. The first harkens back to a piece I wrote a few weeks ago on the problem with the romance systems in BioWare’s Mass Effect franchise. The issue, I said, was that the games reduce the overwhelmingly complex and intangible experience of falling in love down to a flow chart of “yes or no” dialogue options, which is disingenuous to the idea of the concept that the game is trying to replicate. The second is 2K’s own FPS masterpiece BioShock which was a hauntingly captivating attempt at a clever game that explored themes of free will and identity. And yet, for all its intellectual prowess, it was ultimately a game about killing people with cool powers. In both cases, the games in question have attempted something different, smart and interesting and in both cases they have come short to varying degrees, but for the same reason. It’s not that my Shepard doesn’t look enough like a real person for me to believe that he or she could fall in love, or that Rapture is too stylised for me to be invested in the story I’m playing through. The visuals are fine, it’s the gameplay that lacks believability.
The problem with both of these examples is that they are applying old ways of thinking about gameplay mechanics to new ways of thinking about narrative design, and they are completely incompatible. As I said in my aforementioned column, romance in Mass Effect is an entirely different process from romance in reality, even though the game wants to convince us that it isn’t. Clint Hocking, formerly of LucasArts and now working for Valve, wrote a piece on his blog, Click Nothing, offering a similar dissection of the way BioShock treats its themes, and in doing so he coined his own term: ludonarrative dissonance.
As Hocking explains, ludonarrative dissonance is when the gameplay and narrative of a video game are telling the player very different things. The result is the feeling that one is going through two different experiences interchangeably and concurrently, and the player has to accept – like Hocking did for BioShock – that the game they are playing cannot be enjoyed as an interactive experience and a narrative experience at the same time; they must choose one over the other. Since gameplay is what defines video games as a medium, they usually win this struggle, leaving the narrative to occupy an unattended space in the back of the player’s mind, buzzing in the background, acknowledged but not invested in. This is where Hartmann got it wrong. Video games don’t need to be prettier, they just need to be consistent.
This is not to say that violence is an invalid mechanic – games that offer no pretense as intellectual exercises tend not to suffer from ludonarrative dissonance because their story tends to revolve around the carnage of the gameplay. There is no disconnect, and so the player can enjoy the gameplay and story as one package. The problem lies when these mechanics are simply pasted on top of the intellectual and emotional framework of a socio-political or personal narrative with little care as to how one informs the other, and this is what I mean when I say that video game developers separate their art from technology.
It is a false dichotomy that has its roots in the origins of the medium. Video games started as purely mechanical activities that were solely intended to be fun. The sad fact is that video games can still be video games without a narrative to provide any kind of intellectual or emotional stimulus, and this informs several ideas that lock video games into a stasis of purpose wherein they must be and can only be fun, with fun being defined as empowerment and complete player agency. These are great concepts, but love is more believable – indeed, more emotionally engaging – if it is left outside the realm of the player’s control. Disempowerment, non-violence and different forms of agency all have their places and purposes when it comes to reflecting the ideas of a narrative in a game’s mechanics – they just have to fit the context. But right now, a large number of mainstream developers can only view interactivity in terms of old tropes, deluding t
hemselves into the idea that a different story is enough to move the medium in new and interesting directions.
Gameplay designers are going to have to play catch-up with the stories of their own games, and to do that they are going to have to think beyond the boundaries of genre and agency that they have caged themselves within. It will require some imagination, but there is no doubt in my mind that certain developers have that in spades. All they need to do is channel it into the right cause – the one that fits the context of the story that they want the game to tell.