Reading Michael Abbot’s post on Fable 2 and Fallout 3’s dissonance finally got me writing about something I’ve been considering for a while now. We see a tradeoff between harmony and dissonance in designs everywhere. Some systems have flavor and mechanics that are designed to fit together well, be easy to use, while some pieces that are (deliberately or unintentionally) at odds and create shock suspension of disbelief. This is most critical in the overall core setting and mechanics design of games – a place where the recent push for harmony in systems may be going too far. It seems deliberate, strong, supported dissonance might be a more powerful tool in experience-driven games.
By far the most common choice is harmony: Far Cry 2 – war-torn Africa and aiming guns, Fallout 3 – post-nuclear DC and scrounging for resources, or Civilization – world history and building and conquering. In practice, these are excellent fits. They create great feedback for what mechanics are expected and rewarded. But for all these designs have in natural-ness they lose something else. Contrast with the designs of, say, Bioshock – Underwater horror city and aiming with guns and powers, or Persona 3 – high school drama and team tactics and advancement. The deliberate dissonance in these games practically creates the narrative themselves and makes both pieces stronger and more enticing for it. The dissonance makes games deeper, somehow more profound. This dissonance is not a silver bullet however. The drive for harmony comes from experience – Unintentional dissonace can destroy player immersion. Consider Super Mario Galaxy, a fairytale with jumping around gravity wells, requiring immense amounts of suspension of disbelief. It’s still loved by many, but in spite of its story which has to be hidden away in the corner of the main hub – there’s just too much dissonance to process.
It seems to me like the dissonance is a powerful design tool – but only if used sharply. It can make or break experience-based games on its own. It made Bioshock and Persona and Darfur is Dying and maybe even Ico and Tropico and The Marriage what they are. In a sense, this relationship between setting and systems is a metaphor. Some games have a metaphor that is similar, some have a metaphor that is comparative and witty, and some have a metaphor that just don’t seem to make sense. Creating a great metaphors seems like a key tool in creating a particular narrative experienc. Or you can expand on what would instead, as Michael puts it, be too bland and similar of an experience. I believe this isn’t something you even need to start with in conception. I think you can find and expand on potentially strong metaphors late in projects, essentially creating interesting philosophical space that wasn’t there before, saving a game all by itself. Consider the development of Portal’s narrative from Narbacular Drop. As my friend Nathan Frost pointed out, intentionallity doesn’t really even need to be in the design – if the metaphor’s space is broad and interesting enough, people will decide for you that Portal is about narcissim or about what makes a robot human, without you ever deciding for yourself.
This sort of thing works all the time on the screen – Alias, Seinfeld, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and The Lord of the Rings all have strong thematic contrasts that create natural conflict that the audience can explore through the drama. And this translates well to games too. If you want to explore the relationship between a squad in WWII, you can make Brother in Arms, but the mechanics might highlight your goal better in a manly Brother In Arms: Dating Sim edition. To explore the ramifications of torture, you could make a modern parable about the CIA, or you could make Bully: the real Bully edition. Imagine Fallout’s gameplay set with a modern husband kicked out of the house, or a kid running away from home, where the resource-hungry morality gameplay would take on a new tone. The relationship mechanics in Brother In Arms could even be added fairly late in the project, as a side theme.
This sort of dissonant ludonarrative contrast done well can highlight and strengthen the original goal of any design. Plus, because of setting’s primacy in hooking your audience you can bring in different players who’d never otherwise consider your design’s narrative-experience goals or mechanical genre. Everyone loves to wrap their heads around an interesting metaphor. Given how competitive the industry is, a dissonant bet these days somewhere in your core seems like the bar for differentiating yourself from the competition.