Thursday, January 8, 2015

Thoughts on "Post-cutscene" and Ludonarrative

So a recap of This Week in Games Twitter features lots of talk from critics about critical approaches regarding the alleged separation of “mechanics” from narrative in games. You should essentially read this storify of the conversations and this piece by Lulu Blue, as well as this. Basically, the discourse was framed around exasperation of essentializing “mechanics” and “systems” in games while ignoring or trivializing the other more abstract or “non-ludic” elements of games in an approach Austin Howe called ludocentrism and an ideology Stephen Beirne called ludo-fundamentalism. I agree with Stephen Beirne in that a ludocentric approach is not really the problem as much as the idea of valuing the “game” parts of games over everything else is, because, as Lana Polansky says, these parts are all “inseparably bound by context.”

So an example of ludo-fundamentalism is Chris Franklin's video essay on The Last of Us, an otherwise really good critique that criticizes the game’s “oil and water” structure of separating gameplay and cutscenes in the way that AAA games have done for years, suggesting that The Last of Us thinks that story and gameplay “have nothing to do with one another.” He says this even though he acknowledges that the gameplay is consistent with the game’s aesthetic and tone:

“Resources are scarce, punishments are swift and harsh, you feel a little underpowered, and the gun sway and clunky animation driven nature of melee combat all intentionally convey a sense of tension and of desperation. It’s actually a really cool use of mechanics to build texture in the narrative, but unfortunately that’s really all they do for the narrative.”

The mechanics of The Last of Us complement the characters’ context in a harsh, brutal world with combat that is harsh, brutal, slow, and methodical. I did not find playing The Last of Us fun; I found it stressful, coinciding with the stress and tension shown by the characters in the cutscenes. Franklin and I would probably disagree on the fundamental merit of The Last of Us’ combat because I don’t believe it plays anything like Uncharted. But Franklin’s problem is that the “powerful...quiet moments...only really exist in the cutscenes.” I would firstly disagree with that (a scene that shows Ellie’s childlike excitement that Joel can hardly keep up with), and I just don’t buy that every interaction needs to build the characters or progress the story. I think that a cohesion with context does the job no matter the method of storytelling and avoids *sky darkens* ludonarrative dissonance *lightning strikes behind the window*. There are different methods for storytelling and narrative structure, and cutscenes can be useful.

This leads me to Zolani Stewart’s recent thoughts on defining a recent trend in AAA games he calls "post-cutscene," which he defines as:

“[rejecting] the ‘game->cutscene->game’ structure of mid-2000s AAA, instead strives for the ‘seamless’ experience”

So here are games opposed to the structure of games like The Last of Us (though it’s significant to note that The Last of Us does have post-cutscene bits, including the scene I linked as well as exploring abandoned communities and collecting artifacts). It seems that the kinds of games Zolani is talking about are games in which the narrative (generally) “happens” (even though the narrative is always “happening”) while you are still in control of either the player character or at least the camera. These games can also tend to have a heavily controlled aesthetic that works towards cohesive “environmental storytelling.”
Games like Bioshock, Portal, Half-Life 2, and even Skyrim and Dark Souls fit this bill.

I argue that the “post-cutscene” design ideology can work wonderfully for some games and some situations and fail miserably in others. In games like Bioshock and Gone Home, post-cutscene design works well with the sense of mystery those games evoke. Poking around environments slowly fills you in on details of the game worlds as you try to piece together what exactly happened to Rapture and where everyone went in the Greenbriar house. Environmental storytelling is great for building a sense of intrigue in places where important events already took place, but please, no more obvious graffiti.

Post-cutscene design also works when dialogue comes from disembodied voices or unique characters who are moving individually and separate from you. Again, Bioshock, Portal, and Half-Life 2. It also works in stealth games like Dishonored, in which you feel very clever and sneaky for eavesdropping on conversations from vents and keyholes. The problems and limitations of post-cutscene design seem to arise when designers populate an area with non-essential NPCs to add texture to an environment. Yesterday I started playing Bioshock Infinite (I know, I’m so sorry), and the beginning section when you explore the July 6th fair before the first gunfight is just a mess. I walk up to citizens, triggering set dialogue in which the NPCs talk amongst themselves. Once the dialogue is finished, the NPCs stare idly and loop through their animations, not acknowledging the player character’s awkward proximity to the group during personal, private conversations. Rarely an NPC would say ‘good morning’ to me, but after one did, his unblinking face would simply follow my gaze until I walked far away enough for his animation to reset. In a corner behind some stairs, a man stands legs crossed and leans in to kiss an uncomfortable, frightened woman who pushes him back. I get real close to them, but the animation just repeats. They don’t notice me as I’m on top of them, and I’m unable to stop this creepy scene from playing out again and again. It’s a frustrating and also freaky effect. On top of that, you can trigger dialogue from far away and not hear it well or know where it comes from. In the main square where tons of groups of people enjoy the activities and demonstrations, you have know idea where to turn, and subtitles just make the area more confusing by displaying what’s being said from far away rather than what’s close.

Games that employ post-cutscene design ideology tend to be marketed as “immersive experiences” with “living, breathing worlds.” Bioshock Infinite is not a living, breathing world; it is a flashy museum with freaky animatronics (and literal animatronic horses). Skyrim suffers from similar problems, but at least it acknowledges the player. Again, it’s not a living world, but it is a fun playground that you can poke and prod at, whereas Infinite is a museum that might as well have signs reading “don’t touch.”  
Zolani Stewart went on to say that post-cutscene is a response to ludonarrative dissonance. But The Last of Us doesn’t really suffer from ludonarrative dissonance; it simply separates gameplay bits from story bits (sorta). And Bioshock Infinite creates its own dissonance (not ludonarrative) in its poor attempt to tell me that people live in Columbia, that it is a lively city. And of course, we all know the claims for Bioshock's ludonarrative dissonance. So this movement to “seamlessly” integrate mechanics and narrative is false in its ludo-fundamentalism. I think that games should continue to experiment with the way they’re structured, and there are some excellent AAA post-cutscene games. But adopting this design ideology solely because a game must be a game first is not going to make better games. Designers should attempt to figure out how to structure games and their “systems” in a way that best coincides with context: when it’s appropriate to use cutscenes, when to use exploration, and when to use text.


I’m sorry that I used “ludonarrative dissonance” in this post. I’m sorry that I talked about The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite in this post, because the world totally needs more words on those games… Have a nice day.

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