Narrative dissonance is kind of a buzzword in game theory, and it seems to be popping up more and more these days when reviewers want to poke sticks at how a game balances its story and gameplay. This might be a bigger issue these days because of how plot-focused triple-A games are becoming; it’s a point of hype when a game sells itself as being particularly ‘cinematic’ or ‘story-driven’. Indeed, several recent big-budget games – examples include Uncharted: A Thief’s End, The Last of Us, and the Tomb Raider reboots – make use of extensive cutscenes or scripted events to feel more like interactive movies than games ever have before. Whether that’s a good thing is a massive discussion and entirely down to your own preference, of course. Personally, I enjoy this sort of game, but then I enjoy most sorts of games.
I’ll be talking about narrative dissonance mainly in the context of Tomb Raider (the 2013 game which was the first in the rebooted series – note that I’ll be referring to it simply as Tomb Raider, but unless stated otherwise I’m not talking about the original). That’s not necessarily because it’s the best example of the phenomenon so much as because I’ve played it recently so it’s fresh in my mind. Before we get into the specifics, however, a brief detour into general GAME THEORY CHAT.
Games are really cool because they’re uniquely interactive among art forms, pop culture media, whatever you want to call them. There might be the odd film that includes interactive elements, or art installation that encourages some kind of participation, but those are both anomalous and resistant to description as ‘games’. The best games – or at least, the ones I tend to consider the best – are those which make the best use of this fact, this peculiarity of their medium. Take BioShock’s ‘would you kindly’ twist, which tricks both the protagonist and the player and serves as a powerful reminder that there is no true agency in a game in which every scenario has been pre-planned by the developers. Or Depression Quest, even. (Yes, I know there are controversies galore about Depression Quest, and about its creator and its reviews and all sorts, but just take the point in a vacuum, would you kindly?) Whilst it’s barely a game in the traditional sense, it exploits its gameplay to make a point about its subject matter. For those unfamiliar, Depression Quest is a game based around making choices on what actions to take in a day-to-day life. Some of the choices, however, are periodically greyed out, representing that although they might seem like the most desirable options, depression is capable of making them impossible.
In the Good Old Days, interactivity was all games had. Pac-Man didn’t have a story, unless you inferred some post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario from the blips and the ghosts and the bizarre circle-faced creature that hungers desperately for little glowing dots. Pong’s only plot was the tale told by the players, paddle versus paddle. Then you start getting into your early Zeldas and Final Fantasys, in which epic fantasy tales begin to be told. I love those games, and I think that they do have very good stories, but – at least in the early goings – they’re simplistic stories about good and evil, and the player characters have very little definition to their personalities, or say in the matter. The gameplay is congruent with the narrative, in that Link and/ or the Four Heroes of Light spend most of their time beating up monsters because that’s just what they do. They’re heroes in the classical sense.
Nowadays, however, there’s a bit of a trend towards the gritty, the ‘realistic’ – stories of flawed heroes who are, like real people, mentally fragile. Soldiers get PTSD, civilians experience enormous stress when forced to kill in self-defence and so on. Lara Croft, when we meet her in Tomb Raider, is not a killer. She’s not a soldier. She’s a bit of an adventurer, but primarily, she’s an archaeologist. When she makes her first kill, which is indisputably in self-defence, she’s traumatised by the experience. I mean, she pretty much goes into a state of shock straight away. That’s fine. That’s the story they’re telling, that Lara is a real person with normal reactions to stressful situations.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, however, Lara isn’t a real person. Not half an hour after her traumatic first kill, the player will be merrily slaughtering as many islanders as they can stick an arrow into. So the story of Lara being a real person and experiencing a psychological reaction is negated by the fact that the player is in control of her, and the player doesn’t have the same reaction as her, so she’s quite happy to mercilessly snipe anyone who happens to be in the area. The player has the benefit of distance, and doesn’t exhibit such a strong psychological reaction because they’re aware of the fiction, which Lara the character isn’t.
You can see why narrative dissonance emerges as a criticism of several modern games, particularly those which go to great pains to give the protagonist real personality. Those are the ones in which the actions the protagonist takes, controlled by the player, can seem the most egregious when set against the context of the character traits they’re supposed to have. What’s more, games like shooting stuff, and identifying that habit led several writers to create protagonists averse to shooting stuff. Yet they still shoot stuff willy-nilly, because that’s what the gameplay demands.
The best example of a game subverting this seems to be Spec Ops: The Line. I’ll admit to not having played it, so I don’t know whether the player character continues to be a shooty shooty gun gun sort of fellow after the famous PLOT TWIST moment, but eh. Again, take the point in a vacuum. There’s a moment – and, as with BioShock, I don’t feel too bad about spoilers on this one because it’s been out and widely discussed for… literally years – in which the protagonist accidentally kills a whole ton of civilians. I mean, ‘killed’ might not be a strong enough word. He fucking obliterates them in white phosphorus, believing they’re terrorists or whoever the heck the bad guys are. Anyway, the player is in control of him while he does this, which turns what seems up to that point like a generic military shooter into a legitimate examination of the effects of war on a person’s psyche. The realisation that you’ve killed innocents is therefore supposed to hit both the protagonist and the player equally hard, since they share a kind of joint agency for that mistake.
I do like a game that exploits, subverts, makes explicit or otherwise plays with this whole idea of the player and the player character being separate beings. The point can be argued that a lot of games accidentally stumble across this sort of introspection of the medium; take any game that has a character say something like ‘press A to jump’ and you’re looking at a small-scale example of metanarrative. That’s the term I, at least, use to refer to a story which involves the player as a separate entity to any of the characters. It’s not as uncommon as you might think: the ending of Earthbound involves you, the player, feeling and reacting to the characters’ prayer. OFF goes so far as to have characters directly address the player, who inputs their own name at the beginning of the game – usually in these sorts of cases, the player gets to name the main character, but not so here.
Undertale plays a similar narrative trick by asking the player to name ‘the fallen human’, who turns out to be a third entity besides the player character and the player themselves, although the lines between all three are blurred. For most of the game you assume you’ve named the character you’re playing as, but NOT SO, SIR.
I’ve digressed a little, I fear. This is the thing with game theory; you can start in one place and use it as a jumping-off point to pretty much anywhere else, then before you know it you’ve suddenly written half an article about a largely separate subject.
Back to Tomb Raider. There’s a conflict: on the one hand, Lara’s character as the plot presents it; and on the other, Lara’s character as the player defines it. Is this a massive problem? That’s the question I’d like to get to. I think it’s clear that the game’s story wants Lara to appear as a stressed, perhaps even broken individual after all she’s been through. It’s sort of like a mirror image of Far Cry 3, which decides that actually, yes, the player character is going a bit mental what with all this chaos and death. In that game, the protagonist starts out helpless but gradually moulds into a legitimately scary individual and an unrivalled killing machine. The argument could be made that Lara’s journey is the same: start out helpless, kill a few dudes in self-defence, grow into a badass of the most extreme order. That might work, if it weren’t for the fact that Lara’s journey as a character is not about becoming an unhinged killer. It’s about saving her friends. And yes, she does eventually manage to do that, and the means to that end just so happen to be murder on a frankly enormous scale. I mean, she basically takes out every single person on the island. They’re all pretty nasty dudes, or so it seems, so I guess it’s okay? Things might be different if there were one or two who died without resisting whilst on the phone to their sick grandmother or something, but the game presents all of Lara’s victims (the best word I can come up with for them) as people who are most definitely going to kill her unless she can kill them first. That’s kind of a necessary simplification, because this game isn’t concerned with getting into the question of whether Lara ought to be killing these people or not. Still, it’s got to be pretty harrowing, ending so many lives in the span of only a few days. (It might even be a single night; I can’t remember the game’s timescale exactly.)
Is this all just a necessary suspension of disbelief? It might be that if we want the story to work, we just have to accept that the time we spend controlling Lara and shooting up a ton of guys (which she does unhesitatingly) is somehow narratively removed from the time she spends being really upset about it. The only way I can think of directly addressing it would involve making the game really annoying to play: Lara would maybe be shaking, or have to stop and collect herself every so often, or find herself unable to pull the trigger. That would demonstrate that she does actually maintain the feelings of guilt and distress outside of the cutscene time she spends voicing them. It would also make the game borderline unplayable, unfortunately. Can you imagine the amount of complaints?
‘could not play dis game cos controls is terrible and she won’t do what I want so keep getting killed while she’s there all like oh heck no I cannot do dis GOD just do it bitch’
Or something like that. I do think that Tomb Raider tells a good story, but I also think that for it to have the effect it’s gunning for, there’s a certain level of detachment required to forget that Lara doesn’t seem to consistently feel bad. At least, she doesn’t while you’re making her snipe everybody with total ruthlessness.
Then again, maybe we’re being too hasty to consider these two sides of her irreconcilable. Perhaps the Lara under the control of the player is jacked up on adrenaline, fear and survival instinct, so she’s able to focus on doing what she needs to do to stay alive. Then, in quieter periods, she suddenly realises the horror of what’s going on.
That’s not a bad story. I just think that the game would need to be a bit clearer about it if that were the story it’s actually going for. I haven’t played the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, yet, so maybe that does actually investigate Lara’s splintered psyche. I’ll be happy if it does.
I think narrative dissonance is a problem for some story-focused games. It probably depends on the player’s own personal experience – how they choose to act as the protagonist, what their emotional reactions are to the game’s events and so on – whether it’s a fatal flaw. In fact, it might even enhance some stories if you’re able to accept it as evidence of some sort of layered character trait.
I’m bad at making my mind up at stuff, so let’s just say it’s up to you.