Bioshock Infinite, Ludonarrative Dissonance, and “Next-Gen Game Design”


I only finished Bioshock Infinite just recently, but ever since the game came out I’ve seen articles sort of criticizing its levels of violence and how that clashes with its story. Alongside this we’re seeing an increasing amount of observations about “ludonarrative dissonance” that exists when you try to mix a deep storyline with a shooter. The ultimate question about that though is… what do you do about it?

I went over this a little bit in a previous post examining games like the most recent Tomb Raider as well as the Uncharted games. 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 shooters.

Bioshock Infinite probably suffers from the same problem, as do a lot of shooters and other action games. Infinite is a really good shooter in my opinion. It’s well-designed, beautiful, and ultimately fun with a storyline that stands above most of what you see in this industry. That storyline 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 previous 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 that as graphics get more realistic, the act of killing all those people will look more and more silly, and that customers will eventually cry out for better ways of designing games around the dissonance. I don’t think the emergence of new hardware will all of a sudden cause the appearance of games that do a better job of dealing with violence while telling respectable tales. I think there’s a chance, even if a slim one, that market forces could do the job.

I don’t think someone 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 towards the beginning of a console generation.

Shooters and RPGs 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 PS2’s lifespan inspired a whole generation of open-world games.

I think there’s a good possibility that in the next couple years as the PS4 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 EA 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 affect Myst had the industry back in the 90’s.

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.


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6 thoughts on “Bioshock Infinite, Ludonarrative Dissonance, and “Next-Gen Game Design”

  1. Line Rida says:

    honestly not even worth criticizing. The game is a masterpiece, worked really hard on, and with a storyline that is only proven through the gameplay. Booker DeWitt is a man who has lived a violent life, and is one to kill for what he needs and cares for. He is not proud of it, but if it is what he must do, he will, and he sees no forgiveness from it. That, is all you have to know…
    sit back, and simply let it take you away into its gloriously haunting and wonderful embrace. If it was meant to be in a real life scenario, it would be

  2. looprider says:

    I didn’t really feel any dissonance between the story and the massive amounts of killing, but to be fair that’s par for the course in any FPS. How would you even go about fixing this? It would be so difficult to come up with a way to move through Columbia that is consistently engaging that doesn’t involve combat – I thought Columbia was a really pretty place and I’d be happy to poke through its nooks and crannies, but I’m sure there’s 20 other people to my one that would rather breeze through the streets until they reach the next battle.

    If there was one thing that did pop out though, it was that the violence was a massive contrast to the otherwise cheery world. Especially those melee executions – the guys head practically becomes a strawberry fire hydrant. I didn’t mind it though, I thought it was a cool and shocking contrast.

  3. bel servizio da provare, complimenti per il blog ;) Aspettiamo nuovi aggiornamenti al Blog !!

  4. A nice piece, thank you from a fellow games lover.

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