You’re a hero. The chosen one. The only human and probably white male on earth than can save the world from evil forces that include but are not limited to: zombies, nazis, extreme capitalists, and
brown people terrorists. You’re tasked with killing, possibly in the name of self defense or equivalent justifications like patriotism, hundreds and hundreds of faceless men. Freedom isn’t free after all.
Then control is taken from you and you watch yourself, the hero, as a caring father, troubled but loving husband, friend, brother. The good person. You wipe your hands of sociopathy.
An Ubisoft exec coined ludonarrative dissonance as this contradiction between heroic representation and player enacted murder in games. Since the term’s advent, game critics everywhere have used it with ever diminishing returns to investigate the ethical and moral implications of the sociopathic actions of heroes in video games. It comes up on occasion, but the concept has long become passé in the circles thinking critically about games.
Neil Druckmann Is Wrong, Sorta
Neil Druckmann, Creative Director/Writer for Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us, recently brought the term back from the dead in a Rolling Stones interview, making some insightful and weak arguments on the matter.
Because we [Naughty Dog] don’t buy into [ludonarrative dissonance]. I’ve been trying to dissect it. Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn’t? Is it the number? It can’t be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies. What about Star Wars? Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, are they some sort of serial killers? They laugh off having killed some stormtroopers. And in The Force Awakens, we see that a stormtrooper can actually repent for the person he is and come around, and there are actually real people under those helmets.
It’s a stylized reality where the conflicts are lighter, where death doesn’t have the same weight. We’re not trying to make a statement about Third World mercenaries, or the toll of having killed hundreds of people in your life.
Druckmann has an interesting point here, but he doesn’t go far enough. And I get it. He’s busy creating incredibles games and wiping off the blood, sweat, and tears with hundred dollar bills. Druckmann falls into a straw-man fallacy, distracting from the point and not actually resolving the critique. I’m not doing anything of worth, so I took some time to tackle the problem.
See the other heroes like Luke and Indiana Jones are as morally (and maybe ethically) reprehensible by ludonarrative standards. I even had a Shakespeare professor apply ludonarrative dissonance to Othello. So pointing the finger at another medium gets us nowhere.
Druckman’s assertion that “death doesn’t have the same weight” undermines the very drama and stories he creates. Of course, fictional deaths are not equivalent to those in RL. But deaths and murder within any fiction interested in creating emotional stakes carries weight. *THE LAST OF US SPOILER AHEAD* When Sarah is killed in The Last of Us, many of us teared up, felt something in a real way. Because death in fiction becomes a metaphor for loss in our own lives. *END SPOILER*.
But a “stylized reality” gets us closer to understanding what will be formerly know as “ludonarrative dissonance.”
Coleridge’s “Poetic Faith” vs. Tolkien’s “Secondary Belief”: FIGHT!!!
Originally I thought I was going to solve this with my boy Saumel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of “poetic faith” or as it’s more well known: suspension of disbelief. But then I discovered our boy J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t think Coleridge went far enough. Tolkien found some time while composing his thousand page fantasy bibles to come up with “Secondary Belief.”
“The story-maker’s success depends on his ability to make a consistent Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’, it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.” Tolkien
Secondary Belief is for Tolkien an art form in itself. The concept is an achievement in immersion and inner consistency of the fantastical reality. The greater our ability to buy into fictitious world’s inner logic the better the artistry.
A fictional work’s inner logic can borrow and follow reality, but ultimately imaginative art presents its own reality and internal law. It’s what lets George R.R. Martin kill off certain characters for good and bring others back to life. The rules, the story’s mechanics, make this true to Game of Thrones.
To point, Ludonarrative dissonance does not exist because it’s an attempt to apply the ethical and morals rules of our reality to a fictional one. The ludonarrative dissonance argument is the equivalent of trying to play Uncharted 4 with the rules of Starcraft II. It doesn’t work.
But I think we can still get more specific than Tolkien.
The Stormtrooper Proof of Ethics
Ludonarrative Dissonance is always attributed to killing. And although we’re discussing fictional reality with its own internal logic, murder within a video game is still usually unjustified. We wouldn’t have any bad guys to fight without a moral code. Take Nathan Drake’s odd resentment to kill certain antagonists in A Thief’s End. To do so without enough provocation would be immoral even within the game’s reality. Why? Because the character had a speaking role, a face that an artist put more than an day of work into.
Within the author’s time and attention to the creation of an opposing character, lies the difference between victim or justified hero fodder. This categorization can be tested with what I’m dubbing the Stormtrooper Proof of Ethics.
Does the oppositional character or NPC killed by the hero have a distinct face or significant speaking role?
- If no, then within the rules of a heroic universe these NPCs are a narrative obstacle with ties to antagonism. In most cases they are such pure fodder that they have no families or true sentience.Their murder is justified as ethical within the reality of the fiction. Non-distinct characters are inhuman according to the fiction unless sided with the forces of good and innocence, E.G., the citizens of a city under attack. The Stormtrooper will not be mourned.
- If yes, the character or NPC was killed by the hero either to save himself, loved ones, or all mankind. The murder is justified as self-defense. The hero’s conscious bears no consequences.
The Stormtrooper Proof can test all forms of heroic fiction as seen in Captain America: Civil War, Star Wars, Uncharted 4, and probably even The Vampire Diaries. But the Proof is a test and less of a concept to supersede and resolve ludonarrative dissonance.
The New Ludonarrative Dissonance
Where would modern game writing be without pretentious terms to match the likes created for literature and film (I’m looking at your Anxiety of Influence)? So without further ado I give you:
Heroic Narrative Apologia, which reconciles fictional heroes’ acts of murder as morally justifiable according to the internally consistent ethical rules/mechanics of heroic fiction.
In effect, the Heroic Apologia is a defense (or cop out) not only for the heroes of fiction, but for the art which houses them. Those breaks from reality’s logic provide fictional narratives the power to give you enjoyment. So enjoy The Avengers stomping faceless mercs or the next headshot you pull in Uncharted. You’re good. The rules say they’ll respawn anyway.
While the rules of reality melt easily into the universes of imaginative stories, instilling a will outside internally consistent rules isn’t good criticism, it’s totalitarianism.
Disclaimer: Heroic Apologia may not be compatible with narrative fiction that strays far from the dichotomy of good and evil.