The Last of Us Part 2 punctuates one the longest, strangest debates in video video games: the 13-year dialogue of ludonarrative dissonance.
The time period references the disconnect between what gamers do in a online game (ludo is Latin for play) and the story that the sport tells (narrative). People have been discussing this concept underneath completely different phrases lengthy earlier than the phrase exploded in 2007, partially resulting from an oft-cited blog post by game designer Clint Hocking that made use of the time period. After that, big-budget video video games collectively calcified round its central dilemma. This was the yr BioShock and Uncharted debuted. Critics cited video games like these as proof that the medium was “growing up,” whereas additionally acknowledging that ludonarrative dissonance was the messy side-effect of this flat-footed quest for maturity.
The phrase turned a buzzword, showing in recreation developer panels and debated in online game author listservs. Like so many tutorial phrases, it spiraled onto social media, dropping its context, turning into a fast insult for violent video games that aspired to be excessive artwork however fell quick. But the core dilemma — How do recreation makers marry story and play? Should they even strive? — by no means went away.
Big-budget online game studios of the late ’00s wished to inform critical, grownup, and human tales. You know, the kinds of tales that seem in award-winning movies and books. But they have been nonetheless making video games with the dominant “verb” of that technology and this one: shoot.
In video video games, capturing stuff has been a beloved dopamine hit for practically 4 a long time. Point at one thing, pull the set off, and watch that one thing explode, dematerialize, or ragdoll down a flight of stairs. Shoot and kill. Cause and impact diminished to its easiest kind.
Early 3D first-person shooters, from Doom and Rise of the Triad to Unreal and GoldenEye, discovered super success. Because nearly all of the most effective recreation designers made shooters, the style quickly improved, getting AAA video video games caught right into a self-fulfilling loop. Shooters turned essentially the most polished video games, so that they offered higher, thus publishers greenlit extra and higher shooters, which offered higher.
In the 1990s and 2000s, recreation publishers constructed all types of shooters. First-person. Third-person. Shoot-’em-ups. Shooters with campaigns and multiplayer. Hell, even puzzle video games bought weapons. But by 2007, critics started to precise one thing like shooter fatigue. A majority of online game publications in that yr awarded recreation of the yr to not BioShock, Portal, Modern Warfare, or Mass Effect. They gave the distinction to Super Mario Galaxy.
Despite the unprecedented success of the shooter style, the creators of shooters appeared equally burnt out. They began telling critical tales about difficult heroes and heroines, tales that ignored the truth that the protagonist had slaughtered a whole bunch of individuals alongside the best way.
And that’s why, in 2007, recreation critics couldn’t cease speaking about ludonarrative dissonance.
The Last of Us Part 2’s studio helped launch the controversy
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, created by Naughty Dog, the identical studio that went on to develop The Last of Us Part 2, turned one of many poster kids of this weird second, by which video games aspired for greater issues whereas nonetheless bearing violent albatrosses of the style. Its protagonist, Nathan Drake, is a lovable, goofy treasure hunter. Except, the very first second we meet him, he reveals his different expertise: cold-blooded killing.
Drake and his companion, journalist Elena Fisher, uncover a treasure in the midst of the ocean, solely to be instantly surrounded by a fleet of pirate boats. Elena suggests they contact the authorities. Drake explains they’re trying to find treasure illegally. So he pulls out his previous good friend: a big-ass handgun. He arms a bonus gun to Elena, who has by no means dealt with a gun however, coincidentally, is a superb shot.
The first time we control Drake, it’s to slaughter a couple dozen humans, setting the tone for all the sequence. We encounter a dissonance between the story (enjoyable treasure hunters) and the gameplay (white man who travels to overseas lands and wholesale slaughters the locals). (This truly aligns with the true historical past of treasure searching, however the recreation by no means digs into that.)
The distinction between Drake the treasure hunter and Drake the serial killer was so stark that it turned one thing greater than a punchline. It was a phrase of warning. For a beat, recreation creators throughout the spectrum, from indie to AAA, appeared to have appropriately recognized the issue. To inform grownup tales, they’d want extra and higher verbs. The motion would want to raised align with the story.
After a whole bunch of blogs, Twitter threads, and essays printed in what remained of recreation magazines on the time, critics tacitly agreed to by no means point out the phrases “ludonarrative dissonance” once more, however right here I’m, breaking the blood oath. The problem of ludonarrative dissonance by no means went away, it simply shifted from one thing critics mentioned right into a riddle many builders are nonetheless making an attempt to resolve.
Some indie recreation makers minimize violent actions from their video games altogether, resulting in a spate of “walking simulators” like Dear Esther and Proteus, first-person video games extra within the house across the participant reasonably than what they do inside that house. Designers who had labored on the BioShock sequence left to create Gone Home and The Blackout Club, a pair of video games that retained the stress and thriller of their AAA predecessors, whereas displaying what tales might bloom when weapons bought minimize from the equation.
But for AAA studios, the attract of violence and its monetary safety was irresistible. Because on the finish of the day, publishers determine what video games get greenlit, and so they reply to a board that expects earnings. Guns become profitable.
Should violent video video games narratively justify their obsession with violence?
In the early ’10s, big-budget video games, unable to maneuver the motion nearer to the story, moved the story nearer to the motion. In different phrases, recreation designers made “mature” video games about violence. Games like Spec Ops: The Line pressured us to commit battlefield atrocities, like dropping white phosphorus on civilians, after which wagged their finger at us for… taking part in the sport they designed? After the credit rolled, we might play a multiplayer mode that allow us commit all of the homicide we wished with not one of the cutscene-induced guilt. Indie video games took their shot at this too, most notably the Hotline Miami sequence.
Some of those video games did a high quality job highlighting the medium’s fetishization of violence. Plenty of others mistook ethical ambiguity for profundity. Big-budget online game storytelling was largely treading water by this level, being produced, partially, by designers who wished to create artwork however have been paid to make hyper-realistic weapons of machine weapons — and in addition partially by individuals who simply wished to make badass kill animations and never fear a couple of large message. As video games grew, so did groups, and all of a sudden squads of a whole bunch (even 1000’s) of individuals have been creating video games, lots of them with conflicting concepts of what these video games must be.
As a consequence, these self-aware violent video video games nonetheless by no means totally aligned the motion with the narrative. Which is to say, regardless of all of the hand-wringing, these video games have been in the beginning “fun,” the gameplay nonetheless emphasizing the pleasure of pointing at a goal and spewing sizzling lead.
The Last of Us Part 2 is the end result of this decade of big-budget video games interrogating dissonance. Naughty Dog, the creators of Uncharted, have lastly bridged the hole between story and motion, dragging the story kicking and screaming and gurgling by itself blood to align with what you truly do of their video games: kill folks. The result’s surreal, an costly narrative experiment depicting what would truly occur if an actual human being behaved like a online game character.
You play as Ellie, a younger girl on a quest for revenge in a post-apocalyptic Seattle. The creators think about a dystopian America, by which survivors have divided into warring factions, every satisfied it’s good, every prepared to commit horrendous acts of violence to guard itself. As Ellie eviscerates dozens of people who cry for the assistance of a good friend or beg for mercy, the story reveals these folks aren’t as dangerous as Ellie as soon as thought — that their motives are simply as legitimate and complex as her personal.
Ellie can’t change. Not as a result of that is Greek tragedy. It actually isn’t. I say that as a praise! Storytelling has dramatically improved since Aristotle scribbled down the Poetics, and the writers start the sport with a handful of interesting threads about generational divides (made literal by the hole between those that lived for many years earlier than the apocalypse and people who have been simply youngsters when the world modified) and the selection to construct a household in a time of unknowable hazard. These tales are the tales we want proper now, and for a second, it appears Ellie would possibly simply develop up and dwell a life that isn’t centered round heavy weaponry. But each time The Last of Us Part 2 begins to be about one thing greater, that thread is flatted by its relentless, suffocating violence.
So no, Ellie can’t change. She can’t change as a result of AAA video games can’t change. Let’s say Ellie learns her lesson, that violence begets violence. That to save lots of the world and herself, she should put down the gun. What would she even do? Literally, what would a AAA recreation even permit for her to do? AAA recreation design is constructed and marketed round killing. So I suppose Ellie would shift from killing people to one thing extra morally easy, just like the zombie-like baddies that lurch about her world, which whereas much less morally mucky, isn’t any much less predictable.
Thirteen years in the past, critics and designers imagined video games would now not have ludonarrative dissonance, that the tales video video games wish to inform would align with the actions they demand we commit. But if that is the consequence, then you realize what, I’m cool with dissonance. I’ll take violent video games that attempt for enjoyable and don’t pitch any better that means, reasonably than violent video games that search to justify their violence. I don’t want extra tales asking me why I like to kill issues in video video games, as a result of the reply is easy: It’s what publishers promote me. What I would like most, and what The Last of Us Part 2 makes an attempt to be in short moments, are video games with out violence. Do the creators actually consider their story captures how folks would behave, that we’re all a disaster away from forming tribal homicide squads? Or will we preserve getting tales like this as a result of it’s what the video video games, as we perceive them, permit? Until we have now an abundance of AAA video games that don’t hinge on violence, we will’t know for sure.
The Last of Us Part 2 suggests violence is inevitable. Sadly, that seems to be true in AAA video video games.