“Ludonarrative Dissonance” and Other Videogame Quirks

Have you ever noticed how stories in games don’t always sit well with what you actually do in them? How you can revive your spiky-haired buddies time and time again with unicorn tears right up until one of them gets bumped off in a cutscene, at which point they’re gone for good? How that mysterious virus has turned the entire city’s population into zombies, but you can get bitten hundreds of times and suffer no ill effects? How your magic sword can cleave boulders in twain (according to the description), but for some reason you still have to round up Farmer Busywork’s sheep so he’ll open a waist-high wooden gate for you? That’s ludonarrative dissonance. Or, to put it a less hilarious-sounding way, that’s when story and gameplay don’t work well together.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll probably know I’m pretty keen on games. Particularly video games. I’ve even had a go at producing a game myself, though as a writer I tend to focus on story over gameplay. And that’s what’s got me thinking. That, and Metro: Last Light.

Metro: Last Light, if you haven’t heard of it, is a sequel to 2010’s Metro 2033, which in turn is based on Dmitri Glukhovski’s novel by the same name. It’s a post-apocalyptic Survival Horror in which you travel through the decaying tunnels of the Moscow Metro, and occasionally the even more decaying surface. The gameplay is notable because it uses a first person perspective with no heads-up display. There’s no health bar, no compass and (usually) no ammo counter. All the necessary information is presented either inside the head of the player character, Artyom–a pounding heartbeat if you become seriously injured, laboured breathing as your gasmask’s filter begins to clog–or in the world itself: you can see the stack of bullets gradually disappearing into your rifle as you fire, and cracks in your visor indicate that it is damaged and poisonous air from outside is beginning to seep in. The hardest difficulty level in 2033 and a downloadable expansion for Last Light add further realism, removing the crosshair from the centre of the screen and generally increasing the threat posed by enemy fire and slavering mutants.

Compared with the vast majority of first person games, Metro is extremely immersive. In addition to the overall lack of direct “here is how many medpacks you have” type information presented on-screen, the game takes pains to remind you that you are an individual human being moving through a real and deadly world, rather than some tank-like camera-bot maneouvering through an arbitrary series of similar-looking corridors. Any splashes of grime or blood on your mask obscure your view and must be wiped away with a button-press. Cutscenes frequently see your view change and tilt as Artyom looks around or is knocked over by some sudden event. And yet, somehow, all these realistic little touches also serve to highlight the ways in which the situation is, in many respects, completely unbelievable.

It’s made clear time and again that Artyom is not an invincible action hero. The people of the Metro, despite being somewhat desensitised to its horrors, still dread the bandits and hordes of mutants lurking in the darkness, and the player’s character is no exception. This is particularly clear in the–for want of a better world–haunted patches of the world, where shadowy figures appear, whispers are heard and, occasionally, electric lights stop working, forcing you to navigate by the light of your cigarette lighter. And yet, he’s curiously unaffected by the sight of some glowing-eyed horror suddenly lurching into that three-foot pool of light. You can shoot as accurately at a charging, pig-faced mutant as you can a tin bullseye at a shooting range. Not only that, if you are caught off-guard, you can calmly reload or switch weapons while the pesky tunnel-beast claws at your face. You the player might be freaking out on your sofa, but you the character get on with it just as quickly as you would in a brigtly-lit room with a great big “Reloading for Dummies” poster on the wall in front of you.

And when you think even further about what’s actually going on in the game, it just gets more and more impossible. To begin with, you have a huge choice of weapons and all of these can be upgraded in some way or another, meaning that none of them are guaranteed to work quite the same way as any of the others. Compounding the problem, quite a few have been made, post-apocalypse, in the Metro tunnels. Somehow, Artyom is deadly accurate with literally all of them and never has to fumble around trying to work out how to take off the safety or eject an empty magazine. You can chalk this up as an acceptable break from reality, since spending twenty minutes in an empty tunnel quietly working out how to use the thing would almost certainly not improve the game, but acceptable or not, it’s a break, and once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to un-notice.

It’s also worth considering that Artyom’s uncanny ability to just pick up and use any gun he stumbles across has knock-on effects. The myriad of designs–some pre-apocalypse, some cobbled together in the tunnels–mean that even though several will share one sort of ammunition (pistol rounds, rifle rounds, shotgun shells, etc.) the way these are actually fed into the weapon may be (and usually are) enormously different. In order to swap his double-barreled shotgun for an automatic one, Artyom would have to sit down and load every shell he has into the appropriate magazine: otherwise, next time he wanted to use it, he’d have an empty shotgun, an empty magazine and a big bag of loose shells. Again, that would make for a seriously dull game, but it leads me into quite possibly the biggest knock-on issue…

You can fill magazines with bullets instantaneously. There’s a definite pattern in Metro‘s gameplay, and indeed in virtually any game in which you have to reload anything. You don’t want to get caught without any bullets in your gun, so you reload at pretty much every opportunity. Just finished shooting? Reload. About to open a door? Reload. Don’t like the look of that suspiciously dark/bright/symmetrical room up ahead? Reload. Not sure you reloaded last time you decided to? Hit the button anyway, just in case. The issue with this is that, in almost every case, the magazine you take out of the weapon isn’t actually empty. That means that either you’re left with a spare (but not full) magazine, or you sit down and refill it with individual bullets. The reason you don’t have to do this in Metro is, yet again, that it’s a chore, games shouldn’t involve chores, and in fact the entire concept is so tedious that I’m just going to leave a link to this page for anyone who wants a more detailed explanation.

So there are good reasons why, in terms of gameplay, it’s often best not to strive for absolute realism. However, in the case of Metro the visually immersive nature of the game–the condensation on the gasmask, the lack of a heads-up display–and the comparative vulnerability of the character make some of these breaks from reality seem unusual: the story/setting suggests one thing, the gameplay something else. It is strange to play as a character who lives in a chaotic, crumbling world and yet know how to use every new bit of equipment you stumble across. It is strange to play as a character who must scavenge for every scrap of ammunition he can find, and yet doesn’t have to worry about the practical problem of how to manage it. The result is a game that suggests you are playing a living, breathing, feeling character, but ultimately still plonks you down into the curiously invisible shoes of a camera with a bullet-hose mounted on the bottom-right corner.

I’d be interested in seeing a game that at least acknowledged the day-to-day difficulties that even Artyom ignores. Granted, it wouldn’t be a good move for some bullet-spraying Medal of Duty fragfest, but for a Survival Horror game, I can imagine it boosting both the realism and the difficulty. You might not have to be completely overwhelmed by the first monster that got hold of you, but your ability to reload could be significantly hampered. You might not have to wait five minutes while your character rearranges the bullets in his or her backpack, but you might have to think twice about whether it’s really a good idea to reload while you still have a handful in the magazine. You might not have to face so many enemies, but those you did would present more of a challenge. Metro does a fantastic job of really letting you see through the eyes of its protagonist. I only wish he were human.

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8 comments

  1. ameliamackenzie

    I have to be honest: I’ve never really been one for immersive games. Sometimes I like the challenge of a simple mini-game (I can and have spent hours on the Berry Picker game on Pokemon X), but I almost always play a game for the world building and storyline. I really don’t mind if the graphics are terrible and you can see a great big green bar of health in the corner of the screen, as long as the plot and characters entertain me! I suppose that comes with being a writer…

    Immersive games are interesting, but I never really understand the appeal of making a game ‘realistic’. Where’s the fun in a war game where you die from one shot, remain dead forever and can never play again? I’ve seen some interesting attempts to side-step the problem, though. There’s a new game called State of Decay, for instance, where you play with a team of AIs. When your player character dies, you take over one of the AIs instead. Still, I imagine you’d have to run out of characters eventually?

    I’ve been playing Mass Effect and Dragon Age recently, which are considered immersive games because the choices you make in conversation with people affect the outcomes of the story. It would be a fascinating thing to play with, if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of the time I want to have a guide in front of me so I pick the ‘right’ options. I’d rather get the story I want than make the choices that I’d go for myself.

    Video games are a really interesting medium to have discussions about.

    • Damon Wakes

      That’s funny: I actually just stopped playing Dragon Age to have a go at the new Metro (through a trial of Playstation Plus). I didn’t get all that far into it, but I found exactly the same thing. Like the bit where you’re in the undead-infested castle, and you have to choose between killing the young prince who’s been possessed by a demon and is summoning the monsters, or to sacrifice the Queen to perform a ritual to get rid of the demon magically. It was only after picking the “Seriously, are you 100% sure those are our only options?” perhaps three times that one of the other characters suggested that it might be possible to leave the castle and get help from elsewhere. Because, you know, any course of action not involving regicide would just be silly.

      The other problem with that kind of feature is that, for some reason, it tends to be included most frequently in the kind of game that’s way too long to play, finish, and start again while you still remember the ins and outs of the plot. It’s nice to have a real influence on how the story develops, but in many ways you can’t really appreciate it unless you play through a second time. I remember that in Steambot Chronicles (a fantastic game that doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention) you start off on a beach with amnesia, and one of the first things you have to do is work out your own name. If you get it wrong initially, and continue to miss all the hints later on, you can play for several hours with the wrong identity.

      I don’t think games have to be realistic/immersive to tell a good story, but any conflict between story and gameplay is likely to break suspension of disbelief, at least to an extent. 500woerterdiewoche makes a great point about that kind of visual display in a game compensating for the lack of other senses: you have a health bar because you can’t directly feel how “healthy” your character is. It might break the illusion that you’re actually inhabiting that character’s body, but not all games strive for that anyway, and in any case it doesn’t prevent the game from telling an effective story. The issue I have is when the mechanics of the game contradict what’s been established by the story, particularly since it seems as though the best storylines are actually reinforced by the gameplay.

  2. 500woerterdiewoche

    I guess you’ll always have to try to find the balance between realism and playability, and let’s face it, a 100% realistic game would be unplayable. But there is a whole spectrum between completely realistic and completely unrealistic, and I find it interesting to see where different game developers have placed their emphasis.

    I’ve tried my hand at developing an online RPG as well, and we had to make a lot of decisions about realism versus gameplay that I hadn’t anticipated. (One example you didn’t even name: which normal person can lug around twenty different guns and enough food and water to survive a few days, and still climb ladders?) Our game is text-based; I imagine it’s even more difficult with a graphic game. Consider this: in real life, if you want to know how many medpacks you have while keeping an eye out for lurking mutants, you stick your hand in your bag and count by touch, and you have peripheral vision. How do you do that on a monitor?

    Your ideas for a survival horror game a still great, though. Those little realisms would really add to this kind of game, I think.

    • Damon Wakes

      I definitely agree about aiming for 100% realism. Preventing the player from changing into a different suit of armour mid-battle is a reasonable nod to realism (and prevents you switching to that special anti-dragon armour the moment you’re ambushed by a dragon), but there’s no need to make them wait while their character buckles everything up.

      I’ve always been annoyed enough about running out of inventory space or hitting a weight limit that I tend to give that break from reality a free pass! It is interesting that there’s often a wildly unrealistic limit, though, rather than just no limit at all. I guess it’s just another way of balancing the game–making powerful weapons heavy, and making strength a valuable stat even for non-warrior type characters–you don’t want people to be able to pick up everything they see, but limiting them to what a real person could comfortably carry would mean way too many trips to and from town to sell treasure and such.

      I’d be interested in hearing more about your game. Is it actually a text adventure, or is it something like Nethack?

      • 500woerterdiewoche

        Weight restrictions are actually one of the things we chose to make realistic. We even filled bags with stuff and weighed them to calculate how much a normal person can be expected to carry 😄

        Our game is more like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. There’s lots of text, but at key points the reader needs to make decisions, and there are turn-based fights with terrible images. You can read an English-language synopsis at http://alteria.de/index.php?ln=1, and take a look around, but most of it is in German.

      • Damon Wakes

        I guess weight restrictions will be more of a nuisance in some games than others. The Elder Scrolls series would be pretty much unplayable if you couldn’t lug an entire armoury around with you, but anything where you only need a handful of essential items at any one time could be largely unaffected.

        It’s a shame I can’t actually read the text, but I’d like to hear how this goes. I find that with any interactive text-based work there’s a choice to be made between lots of choices but little text, or lots of text and fewer choices. I find I usually opt for the former, partly because I’m still learning how to use the format most effectively. This sounds more like the latter, which I think in many ways could make for a more engaging story.

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