The trumpet of imagination, like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves.
Before I display my distaste for long, pretentious, and academic-sounding three dollar words (cha-ching!), allow me to provide some context.
Video games did not ever attempt to create long and involved narratives before they went mainstream. Much of their early development, rightly, came in terms of the mechanics and the rules. By refining these rule sets and listening to player feedback (or maybe not, depending!), they would continually update these games until they provided the most fun possible. This rang especially true in the arcades, where a game needed to impress itself so vividly on a player within a few seconds that the quality needed to rise up the challenge. That’s not to mention bright colors, great aesthetics, and probably some loud/satisfying sound effects to go along with it.
In effect, the game itself became a marketing device just by the way it looked, sounded, and played. More often than not, people like myself would stumble upon an arcade cabinet in a mall or a 7 Eleven and find new games that way. Sometimes, magazines would help that process, but you needed to play a game to form any evaluative judgment. If you’re wondering from where that old gamer trope derived, now you know.
While I do pine for those days – now, games can get away with being horrible “games” if their marketing budget reaches far enough to the sky – I am not enamored with this predilection to remove games that still do this. You know, arcades still exist, just not in the United States? Honestly, the country’s too big to allow an arcade scene to thrive in any sense. A lot of us just settled for arcade ports or other console exclusives. Consoles diluted the form in a way we have not recovered since.
In what way? Well, in jumbling heaping piles of absurdity at your face at every turn. Take a look at Final Fight:
Yes, that’s a whole roasted chicken on the street. More often than not, you’d bash a trashcan open to find an entire roasted chicken which would restore your health. Why chicken and not a healthpack or something? It’s a mystery, granted, and that would fit into the game’s narrative better. To describe the story of Final Fight reeks of a Japanese view of the American 1980s. Final Fight tells the story of Metro City, the worst place on Earth. The Mad Gear Gang, up to their evil ways, have kidnapped Jessica, the daughter of Mayor Haggar. So what does the mayor of the town do? Rip off his shirt and, along with Jessica’s boyfriend Cody and Guy the ninja (for some reason), go beat down every single member of the gang with their fists.
Imagine a film with this sort of plot; absolutely no one would watch or even comment upon this horrible D-grade schlock unless done in the most ironic and caustically cynical of fashions. Heck, we’d all call it some sort of triumph due to its meta-ness, making fun of dumb movies and generally existing as a commentary piece. Not so with video games, however; whether we had low standards for our entertainment, or that we didn’t know anything else, Final Fight plays the plot totally straight, even in the presence of street meats, angry combative transvestites (yes, they’re in here) and spinning piledrivers from a standing position. It literally makes no sense at all; it breaks whatever ludonarrative exists, stomps on it, throws it into a fire, and then blows up that fire with more fire just for good measure.
Games give us an opportunity to delve into an absolutely ludicrous world, and I’d hate to see that leave. Many might say to me “well, not all games need a consistent ludonarrative, just the ones I think should”. In that case, we end up in a land where mechanics-based games and narrative-based games exist in completely seperate universes. What makes them enjoyable and provides a sense of unintended humor comes from these breaks of cognitive dissonance. How many times have you discovered a glitch or a bug, only to laugh at how absurd it makes a serious narrative? Grand Theft Auto, for its part, seems full of these little inconsistencies. Give a player any freedom at all, and watch him try to break the walls that close him/her in that digital world. From Super Metroid speedruns (which frequently glitch or cause the game to work in unintended ways) to crazy ragdoll physics to models that twist the wrong way, I find it hard NOT to love these elements of games.
The imperfect nature of them reminds you that, certainly, development teams make mistakes. Most times, they cannot write a plot to which you relate or even understand (Final Fantasy XIII, I’m looking at you). Other times, they just throw a setting at you and expect you to accept it. I’m thinking God Hand, which might remain one of the more ludicrous games in existence, (Clover Studios’ descendant, PlatinumGames, and their whole output could fall under this category, more often than not). God Hand’s infamous for its IGN score of 3/10, but more famous for being a love-letter to a genre, a carnival of the absurd, and a challenging, great game. Not many games let you fight a gorilla in hand-to-hand combat.
The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.
The heritage of video games shows us that their very nature lies in the absurd, and people loved it. But once you start throwing around phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance“, you’ve lost me. I’ve never had a problem with it, and I haven’t even found any medium that gets away with such things at all. We can revel in absurdity because, at heart, those games were designed for a light-hearted, if challenging or quarter-munching, good time. It’s a shame to see so many sectors of the Internet arguing against such a natural and wonderful state, instead trying to force Western notions of literature and narrative into the proceedings. It’s as if they have to function this way for them to become art, and thereby justify a whole childhood hobby.
Look, people; I just want to keep beating up clowns in my video games and doing insanely dumb things. Modern developers, thank God, began to realize that people like dumb things, self-aware or no. Do you think Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon would exist otherwise? Or the huge number of indie throwback platformers that arrive each day? Or even chiptune music, which we will endemically associate with the absurdities of Mario and his mushrooms? The desire for these products comes not from cynicism – although, I admit, there’s plenty of that to go around – but genuine love for that wonderful fun they provide. No other medium offers them, nor would they work. Video games do not succeed in spite of them, but because of them.
Games that try to function like film do find themselves with such a problem, though; like Bioshock (Infinite), they try to establish basic themes, goals, and a consistent world. However, they force the player into traditional game mechanics, meaning the narrative’s hampered. I find myself with the same disappointments as any J.J. Abrams film – too much plot-twisting and definitely too much time travel. In Bioshock’s case, the violence gets the rap for making the experience “inconsistent”, and like Final Fight it plays the violence straight. But that’s complaining about what the developers (probably under pressure from stockholders and corporate suits) wanted to place in their game. Maybe Ken Levine had a purpose to putting such a scene of explicit violence right at the beginning of the game, and maybe not. In the end, we use an arbitrary framework to decide its validity as a game and as a narrative, and naturally (because we are oh so sophisticated and we hate violence), it’s “inconsistent”. I’m sure I could come up with some reasons why it is, but I don’t know Booker very well, or Comstock. Enlighten me.
Or, a better question: should video games follow Western notions of narrative and said mythology-making rules, or should they allow them to develop naturally without those kind of pretensions? That’s truly the question here, and one without an easy answer. My vote goes to letting them develop naturally; the critical mind jumped too readily to integrate video games with the rest of society’s cultural output, and they’ve begun to suffer in a perpetual “adolescence” as a result. Video games want to hold onto the past, but also desire the future status of societal respectability. Real art doesn’t choose either.