Deconstructing Disbelief

by Nick Dinicola

27 September 2013

On a formal level, there are always a plethora of logical issues with gameplay and story because you start deconstructing the abstract shortcuts that all storytelling requires. You start deconstructing your own suspension of disbelief.

Games are often criticized when their gameplay doesn’t reinforce the themes of or characters in their story. This interplay between systems and stories is what fascinates me most about games, but even I have to admit that it’s a rather odd criticism when you think about it. I’m not really criticizing the story: not the narrative, the themes, or the presentation of such, nor the pacing, the dialogue, or character development. I’m also not really criticizing the gameplay: not the controls, the difficulty, the balancing, nor the entertainment value. Instead, I’m criticizing how all those things interact with each other. It’s not really a criticism of art or craft but of form, a meta quality that seeks to judge how well a video game is at being a video game (and which—unfortunately—can lead to distracting discussions about the definition of “video game”).

Here, at this formal level, when we start dissecting the meta elements of a game we risk descending into an endless spiral of cynical deconstruction. At this level, there are always a plethora of logical issues with gameplay and story because at this level you start deconstructing the abstract shortcuts that all storytelling requires. You start deconstructing your own suspension of disbelief, and no medium can survive that.
We don’t automatically question who holds the camera in a movie: “It’s right there, in the actor’s face, so why can’t he see it? Why can’t anyone see it? What possible logical reason is there for these people to ignore such an intrusive, persistent, and obvious stalker?” This problem becomes even more egregious in CG scenes, when directors can make a camera sweep and swoop in blatantly unrealistic and unbelievable ways.

We don’t automatically question the omniscient narrator of a novel: “Who is this person? Is it even a person? How does he/she/it know what everyone else is thinking?” The story never gives any indication that there is an omniscient being in this world, and it never tries to explain why this omniscient being is interested in these characters. It’s introduced as a narrative element but never explored or explained or even acknowledged. It’s one of the most consistent and galling plot holes in all of fiction!

We don’t automatically question why stage actors don’t acknowledge the audience: “We’re kind of hard to miss. In fact, the seating area is often bigger than the stage itself, so to pretend they can’t see us is just intellectually insulting. It’s also a gross misuse of the medium: Why even participate in a medium with a live audience if you’re not going to interact with that audience? You’re ignoring the very thing that defines your medium!”

So how come we question video games when a character does something we think they shouldn’t be able to do and vice versa? Why do they come back to life? Why do they regenerate health? Why can’t they pick up an enemy’s weapon? Why can’t they go through this door or jump on that ledge or climb those ladders?

All stories in all mediums require some suspension of disbelief, some assumed truths that allow the storyteller to tell the story. If we demand that a story contort itself to fit the confines of its medium, then we limit the number of stories that can be told in that medium. If we demand that every game must tell a story that perfectly conforms to player agency, then we must also demand every movie be a found-footage movie or that every book be written in first-person or that every play must acknowledge the audience. It’s always nice when a story does embrace its medium in some clever way, but such stories are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, we assume the camera is invisible in a movie, we don’t question the omniscient narrator in a book, and we imagine a fourth wall between us and the stage actors because that allows those storytellers to tell a greater variety of stories in a greater variety of ways.

(Bob Chapman as “MovieBob” over at The Escapist wrote a good article about this kind of criticism in film, and he dubbed these supposed flaws “inconsequential sins of inconsistency.” That always struck me as a perfect description because it sums up both why people complain about these things and why they don’t actually matter.)

For example, on Gamasutra, Stuart Scott writes about The Last of Us, noting: “As Tess moves the conversation to highly pertinent matters I have wandered away from her and out of ear shot to see what this shiny item laying in a dark corner is. In that moment I am transported from this bleak world back to my living room and I am suddenly incredibly aware that I am actually playing a game.”

But you are playing a video game. Why is that such a bad thing?

(At this point, it’s worth noting that these “inconsequential sins of inconsistency” are not examples of ludonarrative dissonance, even if they do represent a dissonance between the fantasy of the story and the reality of the medium. This is something Chris Franklin of Errant Signal discusses in a recent post that is worth reading.)

I wonder if in our attempts to legitimize gaming, we’ve become hyper critical of it, demanding a level of internal and external consistency that’s just absurd. Leigh Alexander wrote long ago that engagement is a choice, and I’ve always taken that to heart. All stories require some level of abstraction from reality, and each medium comes with its own unique abstractions.

While playing GTA V, I ran across a street to get into a cab and was subsequently hit by a truck. Franklin lost a lot of health, but he didn’t die. He got up, got in the cab, and I continued playing unimpeded. And I don’t think any less of GTA V because of it.

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