The difference between what you say and what you do

Currently, the gaming space is obsessed with a new title: Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most “AAA” titles, the game has become the sole topic of conversation among both gamers and game critics. As can be expected, as soon as the reviews started to flood out, the conversations started about quality, gameplay, story, misogyny, review scores, and… well, every other bit of detritus that is often stirred up by these sorts of things.

My critical eye, however, was focused on something else: dissonance.

Often within “critical” gaming circles (either academic or otherwise) we often talk about this thing called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that generally symbolizes the common conflict within video games wherein the gameplay does not align with the story. This is a concept that any gamer who has played a major title in the last, well, forever, is familiar with.

Ludonarrative dissonance is important because for “contemporary” games, it’s seen as both a problem and a tool — and really, to understand why it still exists in contemporary gaming, you have to understand both dynamic sides of the issue.

For some, the dissonance presented within is unseen. I’d wager this is the popular position. Gamers are assumed to either a). not care, or b). not notice the dissonance present in, say, any of the Modern Warfare titles. It just is. It’s just video games. A limitation of the genre.

On the other side of the argument, it’s a problem — one that can either be used, tackled, or otherwise shifted. Both Bioshock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line arguably use the “dissonance” to say something — using the “limitation” of a medium to speak certain messages to the player.

Then, of course, there are the titles that attempt to tackle and eradicate the problem all together: take Gone Home, for example, or just about any adventure game — games that believe dissonance is just that: noise and chatter, something that needs to be eradicated or used in a precise way.

The latter two ways of looking at ludonarrative dissonance appear to be optimistic to me — they look at the medium as something that can grow, as something that can be art at the present moment. The former, however, is cynical: it sees gaming as nothing more than Tetris. The blocks fall, the soundtrack plays, and that’s all there is.

Interestingly enough, the above debate is mirrored in the critical space.

While thumbing through reviews of GTA V, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the reviews were saying the same things (I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this). Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that’s new. It’s basically the same deal with every “AAA” title that comes out.

But what specifically struck me about all of these GTA V reviews was that they kept mentioning the game’s story in a negative light — its fractured characters, its misogyny, its inability to weave its narrative — and yet the score at the bottom wasn’t reflecting this. In the case of Chris Plante’s review, almost a sixth of his piece focused on storytelling flaws, yet he still managed to give the title an almost perfect score. The same was repeated over at Gamespot, where Carolyn Petite spent some time criticizing the game’s storytelling flaws — right before giving the game a 9/10 (and — even more problematic — she was horrifically harassed for giving the game anything but a perfect score).

So what gives? What is being reviewed here?

The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that gameplay trumps everything — that nothing else matters if the game is “fun.” (A note: what the hell is considered fun? What is being said by a reviewer that thinks a game is “fun” despite questionable content?)

But really, that answer is a cop-out. It’s a shitty response to a complicated question. Video games — especially video games like GTA V, that want to be taken “seriously” (yes, as art) — are not just “gameplay.” They are more than systems designed for the production of fun.

I’m not speaking from just an academic, ivory-tower position here — this method of looking at games like a fractured system of parts is tired and worthless. It ignores a great many of us who play games as more than just fun simulators. It ignores a great many of us who, hey, enjoy video games as a cohesive, unique form of entertainment, and not just something we plug into when we’re bored.

But more than that (and I’m climbing back in the ivory tower), such a method is critically destructive, and not in the Derridean way, either.

By honestly (truly) picking up GTA V and scoring it based on only the things we like, or that only we pay attention to (while pretending to be critics, and not New Critics — and making the “I” clear), we are preventing the genre from evolving. We are accepting its limitations. We are also just being disingenuous as critics — we aren’t being true to the medium we are working in.

BUT — that isn’t what’s happening, right? Clearly, at least in the case of Plante and Petite, they are fully reviewing these games, right? They are mentioning these things!

The problem is that there’s dissonance. The score and the words don’t line up.

In the intellectual bits of the game reviewing field, the score isn’t supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to just… just…

What? What are we supposed to do with it?

Just as is the case with ludonarrative dissonance, we can’t ignore the gameplay or the narrative when looking at the full picture. In a video game, both parts must be present. Likewise, in a game review (or a review of anything, for that matter), the score and the words matter. Yes — in a perfect wonderland there would be no scores and no MetaCritic, or whatever — but that isn’t the world we live in. We have scores. They are here. The people reading those reviews are going to look at the score. A great many of them will look at just the score.

So we can’t ignore it. It’s there. It’s saying something.

That is, of course, if you aren’t cynical.

2 thoughts on “The difference between what you say and what you do

  1. Interesting stuff, Chris. Some thoughts…

    1. As a former casual (“non-gamer”) denizen of a MMORPG, I think I understand what ludonarrative dissonance refers to, but maybe not quite. Specific examples would help. Since your project focuses on WoW (right?), I’m wondering how LND (I’ll call it) plays out there? And what it has to do with queering? First guess: it opens up the space of queerness. To what extent/in what ways do the designers adapt the apparatus of the game narrative to facilitate/obstruct queering?

    2. Toward the end of this post–after taking several enlightening critical turns–you’re reaching for something about scores given by reviewers. In wondering what it is you’re reaching for, I started thinking of scores (a) as a marker of a game’s status as commercial media/mass/popular culture; a score sells stuff. (What happens when potential consumers/devotees read ONLY the score, not the review?) (b) That doesn’t seem quite enough to explain outcries such as those against the reviewer who gave GTA V a 9; so I wondered if the outcry comes from people who are invested in a particularly heightened way to the space of GTA–a space of identity, belonging? Which got me thinking about (c) SCORE as a condensed gateway between IRL (In Real Life to Lineage players) and the world of the game. IRL, we pay to play, we talk (or not) about playing, we sit down at our screens, we block out time to sit down at our screens, we prioritize our gaming/not-gaming activities based on desires, values, aversions, capabilities, etc. The number on the door tells us there is some kind of community of agreement about the value of engaging in whatever’s on the other side, to what degree we’re wasting our time in there or participating in something of value. The negative reactions to a 9 (and arguments) suggest an investment in that value being superlative for GTA regardless of the narrative–perhaps also a need to rationalize or dismiss the narrative, as you suggest. Your further thoughts–?

    3. So…what about WoW? are you doing that self-locating exercise suggested by your source?

    • LND is certainly a thing in WoW (as well as other MMOs — I never played Lineage, but I’m sure it was the same there). You’re often asked to do things — kill X boars/pigs/monsters — yet these things have no visible impact on the world. Nor do they really “match” your character’s ambitions. I mean — that latter part is sort of a dubious point, because “character ambitions” are entirely personal and self-defined. Of course a pre-determined narrative can’t account for that… but that’s the problem, right?

      If we pull in queer theory, then LND almost acts as a wildcard. On one hand, the dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay prevents transgressive characters from existing (as they are denied agency by the world). On the other, if LND is looked at as an inevitability — as something that cannot be conquered by developers in the space of an MMO — then it can be entirely ignored, and gameplay can be completely overcome by players wishing to develop their own narratives. Both attitudes are present in WoW. Roleplayers (as a group) are the latter group, while “powergamers” tend to be the former.

      Finally… to scores!

      I spent two years as a reviewer for a gaming blog, and during those two years I’d always be forced into this weird space whenever I sat down to write a review.

      Do I please my advertisers, or do I please my desire to be a critic?

      That sounds a little pretentious, but it was something I felt every time I had to “score” a game. My review could be eloquent — it could be a thorough critique — but that final staple, the little number after all the words, well — that was everything. That showed the nature of the industry (and perhaps its greatest problem): I needed to make money.

      I feel that GTA V’s reviewers were having the same dilemma. They were looking at something as art, but had to grade it as software: and they knew (certainly, Petite did) that that number was what they were beholden to. They knew it had consequences. So their real critique is between the lines — both of the game and of the system they’re forced to write in.

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