Previously on Zanna Garrick, I wrote about Ludonarrative Dissonance in games, about who and when introduced the term, and how recent game design advice is against providing a game with a narrative too strict to avoid this problem. Interactivity introduces a whole new layer of complication to storytelling, and it’s understandable that the easiest path would be to avoid the problem entirely, in favor of emergent narratives.
Games such as Skyrim and GTA have been good at masquerading the mail storyline under layers and layers of side quests, providing the player with unprecedented degrees of freedom. So this seems like an easy solution, right? Let the player be the designer of their own story. Somehow, this seems to me like an unsatisfactory solution.
Because among other things, a story is supposed to provoke emotions in the audience, and ludonarrative dissonance can be a powerful tool to achieve that. The concept isn’t new at all: purposely alienating the audience dates back to Bertolt Brecht’s idea of epic theater. This emersion creates an interactive and dialectical reaction to the performance that can potentially trigger strong emotions in the audience and can be seen as a means to send a message.
Even if it’s not really a game, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of media to ever carry it out has been Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It’s been the most famous attempt at an interactive movie in recent days, as it allowed the viewer to make some choices on behalf of Stefan, the protagonist. Some choices are trivial, such as deciding what he will have for breakfast, and will have no effect on the story.
Some other choices, on the other hand, matter. Or at least, this is what the show promised. Deciding whether Stefan accepts the job at the software house or he works on his own is supposed to make a huge difference. I remember spending a few minutes before deciding, and I made up my mind only when I thought to myself “Screw it, I’ve got all night to backtrack”. I also began to write them down to try to keep a kind of order to my exploration.
Except that it didn’t make a real difference, and one way or the other the show ended badly no matter how many times I replayed it. I should have expected it (it’s Black Mirror after all) but at first, it almost frustrated me. Some choices seemed to actually lead me somewhere before closing the door shut on my nose, some others just stopped the simulation and led me back to the previous decision point. There was no way to give poor nerd Stefan the happy ending he struggles so hard to get, and I remember shutting down my computer and spending a lot of time staring at the ceiling as so many questions raced through my head.
“Why do Black Mirror writers hate game developers so much?” “As a kid born in the late 80s, does it mean that the people who wrote the games I spent my infancy on really nuts like that?” “How many other things I could have done to spend the night rather than keep bouncing on every single wall in this maze?” But then after a while, it kicked in. That was the feeling the writers wanted me to experience while playing the game.
There are multiple references to conspiracies theories stating that the control we think we have on our actions is just an illusion (both Colin and Stefan say that at some point), and I think the overall experience was a very good use of ludonarrative dissonance. The feeling of emersion experienced at the end(s) of the movie is tightly related to the lack of meaning a player experiences when they realize their choices don’t matter very much. It was masterfully executed, and it wouldn’t have been possible if the audience wasn’t given the illusion of control in the first place.
Of course, it’s not so easy to recreate the same feeling without being predictable. But I’m sure that the same effort narrative designers put into the creation of emerging narratives (which is good) can also be put into researching how to play with the perceived agency of the player to look at the interactive medium under a different lens.