Commerce with honesty

[Coming back to the series on approaches to dissonance in the MDA model, this post will cover Disbelief or the point where the fantasy breaks down in a game.]

The cut-scene showed the character in space dodging missiles and then running along a ship.

Now, I’m having trouble making him move around the town. His amazing speed from just moments ago is gone. What happened?

What I experienced was a moment of ludo-narrative dissonance. What I learned my character could do through the cut-scene was not matching what I was trying to get my character to do. The game was Sonic Unleashed.

In order to be part of any narrative event like theater, a movie or even, dare I say it, games, you have to buy into the narrative. In order to maintain the fantasy of the experience, you must continue to suspend your disbelief. You must believe that the world of the narrative operates to a set of rules, even if you may not know what those rules are.

In this case and many others, the world breaks down if the rules do not make sense. If the dynamic-mechanic loop does not allow the player to express the character in a manner that matches the way that other content within the mechanic systems suggest or show is possible, dissonance is introduced. The player is forced to leave the realm of the game and question why such expressions cannot be achieved. Are the controls being handled correctly? Is there a rule in place that blocks such expressions? Is the game conspiring against me?

Once the first crack in the fourth wall start, its hard to stop more. If I cannot do that, what other things can’t I do? Once the narrative presents a situation that is impossible for the player to achieve without stating a reason why such an action is now impossible, the belief shatters.

I mention the why because it is important to make a difference between games that have an “abilitease” and games that fail to understand the agency of the player. Many Metroid games are designed in such a way that the player will see or otherwise use many advanced verb-set combinations but then be stripped of them through early in the story of the game. It is not just a matter of reducing agency through an arbitrary reason, one of the many in-game goals then becomes to restore the former ‘glory’ of the character at the beginning of the story. The amount of dissonance is reduced because the rule-set and assets (mechanics) support the enforcement of the reduction of the verb-set. In the case of many Metroid games, the game even prompts the player with areas to explore — with the possibility of regaining some verbs — by marking areas in such a way to remind the player that certain abilities still need to be regained.

Sonic Unleashed did none of this. Sonic, in fact, gains a new power that he cannot control, he can become a werewolf — ignoring the fact that he is a hedgehog. (The etymologist in me rolls his eyes at the thought that a hedgehog could become a “man-wolf”.) After this revelation, Sonic must explore the town. The radical change between the introduction cut-scene of Sonic in space is immediately contradicted by the mundanity of exploring a town. No explanation is given as to source of this new power or why Sonic is now chained to the boring task of helping people — major dissonance and disbelief.