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Ever since BioShock Infinite came out, we’ve seen articles sort of criticizing its level of violence and how that clashes with its story. Alongside this, we’re seeing an increasing amount of observations about the “ludonarrative dissonance” that exists when you try to mix a deep storyline with a shooter. The ultimate question about that is: What do you do about it?
I went over this a bit in a previous post examining games like the most recent Tomb Raider as well as the Uncharted series. Why does a guy as likeable as Nathan Drake kill hundreds of people over the course of a game? How does Lara Croft so quickly go from scared young woman to practically being a machine of genocide? I reasoned, and still reason, that for those games’ storylines to make sense in context with their gameplay, they probably shouldn’t have been designed as shooters.
BioShock Infinite probably suffers from the same problem as do many shooters and other action games. Infinite is a really good shooter in my opinion. It’s well-designed, beautiful, and ultimately fun with a story that stands above most of what you see in this industry. That narrative also suffers from what Splinter Cell and Far Cry 2 designer Clint Hocking calls ludonarrative dissonance, the disconnect between the tone of a serious story and the act of killing hundreds of people.
Like I said in my earlier post, all the killing is really only required for a game to be fun if what you’re making is a shooter or other action game, and those genres weren’t really made for deep storylines. Most of the games that popularized the first-person shooter genre — Doom, Quake, or Halo — were about shooting up demons or aliens without regard for deep, character-driven stories — very similar to Super Mario games, really.
Meanwhile, some people have started bringing up terms like “next-generation game design” — the assertion being that as graphics get more realistic, the act of killing all those people will look more and more silly, and customers will eventually cry out for better ways of designing games around the dissonance. But the emergence of new hardware won’t all of a sudden cause the appearance of games that do a better job of dealing with violence while telling respectable tales. There’s a chance — even if a slim one — that market forces could do the job.
But no one is going to make a shooter where you don’t kill hundreds of enemies because that defeats what shooters were designed for. What probably needs to happen is for other genres to become popular. Usually that happens toward the beginning of a console generation.
Shooters and role-playing games are popular now because the Xbox 360’s first killer apps were games like Call of Duty, Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Mass Effect. Games like those defined what sold on current generation consoles early on. It happens every generation, really. Grand Theft Auto III in the first year of the PlayStation 2’s lifespan inspired a whole generation of open-world games.
There’s a good possibility that in the next couple years as the PlayStation 4 and next Xbox start out their lives, one or more games of a different genre will make it big and inspire a new trend. Big publishers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts have already admitted that new IPs tend to do better earlier in a console generation. At this point, there’s no telling what that will be.
Many have suggested that adventure games are probably a better choice for the kinds of stories that Tomb Raider, Uncharted, and BioShock Infinite try to tell. The problem, of course, is that adventure games don’t sell five-plus million copies in today’s market. In my last post about this, I used The Walking Dead as an example because it’s probably the most famous adventure game right now. It’s probably a poor choice from a gameplay perspective since it doesn’t focus a whole lot on puzzles. Others have said that, essentially, we need a new game that repeats the effect Myst had the industry back in the ’90s.
Really, though, there’s no telling what that unique next-generation hit will be until sometime next year. Hopefully, it’ll be the kind of game that allows for deeper storytelling without forcing the player to kill hundreds of people in order for the gameplay to be compelling.