Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exploring ludodissonance

Readers of my previous post on ludonarrative dissonance may have noted that formal dissonance and moral/ethical dissonance didn't sound all that bad.  Defying genre expectations?  Putting two ethical systems into conflict?  It sounds more like art than bad game design, right?

To be quite clear, ludodissonance can be quite bad--bad meaning that it creates effects contrary to the desires of the game designer.  If the goal of the game designer is to make a serious game, but the mechanics of the game make the characters look ridiculous, the game designer has unequivocally failed.

However, "bad design" is not all ludodissonance has to offer.  Dissonance is a very useful tool in the creation of art, so I want to survey examples of dissonance outside games, within games, and then speculate on ways to think about ludodissonance going forward.

Examples of dissonance outside games

While dissonance was played with on a mostly narrative level going back to the earliest days of film (thank you, theater), the New Hollywood revolution brought the idea front and center in cinema.  The two basic components of a film is the picture and the sound, and this is where most of the interesting dissonance will happen in film.  From disturbing score choices such as the Wagner being played over the images of Vietnamese being gunned down in Apocalypse Now to the absence of sound during Dave's reentry into the spaceship in 2001, filmmakers found that a mismatch between the sound and picture can result in powerful expression.

Of course narrative dissonance is important to film, as well, with many films banking on surprising audiences with unexpected innovations in form.  Psycho is maybe the most famous for this: killing off its main character halfway through the movie.  Filmmakers are constantly thinking up new ways to surprise and titillate fans of a genre without upsetting them too much.  Of course, this often leads to camp, which could be described as genre expectations coming into conflict with logical expectations, and genre winning.

In finer art, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa offers a well-known dissonance between a sense of morality and the expression of divine joy.  As many people are touched by Theresa's ecstasy from the word of God as are offended by the orgasmic overtones of the piece.  Even the poppiest music features clear harmonic dissonance, though you have to slow it down 800% to hear it.

Examples of effective dissonance in games

For the most part, instances of effective use of dissonance that occurs in most games appears to be unintentional.

We'll have time for more examples in the future, but for the purposes of this post I'll concentrate on some obvious dissonances in war shooters like Modern Warfare and Bad Company have that can be seen not only as neutral to the gameplay experience, but actually beneficial in helping them create a warlike atmosphere.  The inhuman speed at which the characters move and the lack of a command structure are among many oddities jarring to one unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre, but it could be argued that these dissonances between the game rules and the real world actually serve to put the game at a level of abstraction at which the games do accurately portray not foot soldiers, but the colonels and generals commanding them.  The sense of compressed time and hostility toward one's own teammates creates a dynamic that appears to fit the war experience of upper brass, and fits it chillingly well.

Of course there are also examples of dissonance that are purposeful and not nearly as interesting.  See for example the political game September 12th, in which the player is tasked with killing terrorists in a Middle Eastern city and winds up making more terrorists in the process.  A lighter example--and more artful to boot--is the game Bayonetta, which gracefully replaces the male oozing with teenage fantasy with a female oozing with teenage fantasy, with nearly every adolescent sexual fetish hinted at if not put stage center.  Not only does Bayonetta poke fun at the immaturity of its fan base, it also seems to raise an eyebrow at those gamers who have been merrily playing games that feature male protagonists arguably as fetish-laden.

The future of dissonance 

What lessons can we learn from these few examples above?

First, dissonance adds to a level of fun--the spectacle of something new.  Games that fail to upset expectations also fail to excite.

Beyond that, however, dissonance within an artwork is capable of highlighting dissonance in the real world.  Just as St. Theresa's Ecstasy confronts its viewers with disagreements arising out of church dogma and September 12th points out the inefficacy of the current War on Terror, dissonance in games allows players to see how some rule systems just don't make sense.  This is a powerful tool not only for religious or political debate, but also for the expression of genuine emotion and concern.

Ultimately, however, for true art to be created, dissonance must come together as harmony.  Two contradictory ideas must be united as a larger idea, a more beautiful idea.  This is the goal of art: not to point at the ugly, but to paint a beautiful picture of it.

So play games with dissonance in mind

Where is dissonance taking place?  Is it enjoyable?  How can it be replicated in future games?  How should it be replicated in future games?  Asking questions like these cannot fail to bring about the sort of "Why wasn't this done before?" innovations we all love.

But the main point is do not tolerate dissonance.  It has been the case for too long now that gamers and even designers just grit their teeth and ignore obvious inconsistencies within games.  This is a terrible mistake because, a, no dissonance is inherent in any game, it must be created by the designer, and, b, by ignoring what you think is "merely dissonance," you may be missing the entire point of the game--especially if you're playing a Japanese game that has guns in it.

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