The Witness creator Jonathan Blow admits failure to relate gameplay to storytelling is “not an easy problem to solve”, but insists it is “incompatible for any reasonable human being”

‘Thumbing your nose at ludonarrative dissonance prevents you from getting to a more sublime place’

Jonathan Blow has hit out at the concept of ludonarrative dissonance, claiming that ‘even the award-winning games have terrible stories’.

Ludonarrative dissonance is the term commonly used to refer to the problem of relating gameplay mechanics to storytelling, typically demonstrated by lead protagonists killing scores of enemies but being portrayed as morally correct.

Blow admitted in an interview with Time that the phrase itself is “a brick wall of a term”, but added that he “agreed that what it’s referring to is actually a problem”.

The Witness and Braid creator offered examples in the form of Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted 4, saying of the former: “It has this thing at the end that’s supposed to be the touching finale, where you go back and take care of your family, having brutally murdered some 800 people, including at one point pillaging a poor Mexican town to get in with some group.

“You’ve literally firebombed a Mexican village, and now it’s supposed to be this sweet family moment. And then you go on the stat screen and it says ‘Guys killed: 860.’ It’s on the screen because you’re supposed to care how high the number is. Those things are incompatible for any reasonable human being, and when a game tries to pass it off as normative, it’s jarring.”

Blow accepted that “at the same time, it’s not an easy problem to solve”, while expressing his belief that games’ prominence as an art form is being held back by the inability to tell genuinely good stories – partially due to issues such as ludonarrative dissonance.

"When people say these games have good stories, I think they’re only comparing them to other games,” he said. “If you compare them to good movies or good novels, the stories are terrible. […] Even all these games that win awards.

“Where games are in terms of storytelling… it’s not Moby Dick, it’s not Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s Airwolf, or Knight Rider. Uncharted is probably on the level of some of the better TV shows, but it’s not good. It doesn’t do justice to the millennia of storytelling craft, and that’s not me trying to say bad things about Uncharted, it’s about all story-based games. I don’t feel like they’re there in terms of that craft of storytelling.”

The term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has been much discussed by developers, writers and players since it was first coined by creative director Clint Hocking in 2007 in relation to BioShock, with some critics dismissing the issue. Blow said that ignoring the problem would continue to hold games back.

“I don’t think it helps to thumb your nose at it as a developer, because it prevents you from getting to a more sublime place,” he stressed.

“If you really want to have a moment about family, caring about your friends or the awe of discovering an ancient artifact, that’s all degraded by ‘I just shot 100 guys’. Because that’s just ridiculous. Those things can’t live together."

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