So let’s talk about “ludonarrative dissonance.”
Page 2, Game 3: Long Gone Days by Camila Gormaz
It’s not just a pompous way to say “That video game you like actually sucks and I’m so much smarter than you ha ha.” It’s what happens when a game’s words and your actions wind up being two wholly separate things. It’s the term for when there’s a disconnect between the narrative and tone the game is trying to establish and your experience actually playing the game.
As a general rule, if your story has a strong narrative element, you want the gameplay to back-up whatever’s going on in the story. If the story tells you that you’re hungry, the game needs to actually enforce that somehow — say, with a “Hunger” meter, and a setting where food is scarce and you’re always grateful when you find some. If the story makes a big deal over how you’re desperate for food but in-game it’s the last thing on your mind, that’s ludonarrative dissonance in action.
It’s actually a pretty common problem; it’s hard to either tell a good story or make a good game, and as a general rule you’ll have plenty of opportunities to screw it up. Just because a game has a little dissonance going doesn’t make it bad. Nevertheless, you can’t help but notice that no matter how much the flavor text screams at you that there’s some emergency that you MUST deal with NOW, you can just ignore it and fuck around hunting darkspawn in the Deep Roads to your heart’s content, because the game has firmly established that the plot won’t start until you walk in the door. Telling you that you’re a desperate scavenger in a desolate wasteland rings a bit hollow when you’re finding food, guns, and ammo all over the place — and honestly, the food is just an affectation anyway. And why is that NPC you like dying during the cutscene? You can just Phoenix Down the motherfucker!
So, Long Gone Days is a story about a young sniper working for a … mercenary company? secret underground society? … called The Core. He’s being sent on his first mission in more or less modern-day Europe. But oh, fuck! He just learned he’s committing war crimes! He’s been lied to his entire life! He wants out! So he and another soldier desert, and are tasked with both keeping themselves alive and doing something to stop the cruel machinations of their homeland.
What kind of video game comes to mind when you think about that premise? Perhaps something old-school Fallout-y, right? The characters are deserters, so resource management is going to be a huge deal; every bullet needs to count. Modern gunfights are frightening and brutal; combat should probably be lethal, with injuries representing a very serious problem. There should probably be a stealth element, too; the player is probably best served by avoiding fights entirely. And they ARE being hunted, after all, so narrowly evading the soldiers trying to capture them should absolutely be part of the gameplay.
Or, you could do it up as a homebrew JRPG, basically Final Fantasy but with guns instead of swords and such.
Whatever game you imagined based on my initial description of the premise, I promise you that Long Gone Days looks absolutely nothing like it. Here’s a Russian village that our baddies just got done murdering the shit out of:
While the story is busy telling us that we’re hip-deep in a false flag atrocity, the game is showing us a clear, bright color palate complete with anime-boy insets.
Actual gameplay further hammers home that you’re experiencing perfectly ordinary adventure-game hijinks, with a world full of stuff to rub yourself against to see if you can interact with any of it. Explore the world! Talk to this medic! What’s this? He needs someone to give bandages to three other soldiers! Would you mind taking care of that? You’re going back to the field hospital — but oh, no! The bridge is out! You’ll need to find some way of getting across that bridge!
It doesn’t stop. It never stops. I played the game for four hours — easily two more than I should have — and even in the midst of what was supposed to be a dark, tense sequence, the game still demanded fetch quest bullshit before letting me proceed.
Combat comes in the form of scripted encounters, and is purely turn-based. I have no beef with old-school Final Fantasy style combat mechanics, but again, the kind of experience that kind of combat actually provides violently clashes with the tone required by the game’s storyline. No amount of grim-faced pretty-boys-in-camo graphics are going to compete with the fact that I’m basically a Pokémon trainer.
There’s also a sniper minigame that was more interesting, but played so little part in the game that I felt like it either needed to be expanded or cut. It wasn’t anything super-inventive, but it definitely felt more like it was putting me in the protagonist’s shoes, and I can’t say that for much of the gameplay.
The game engine is fine; nothing special, but it works. It’s a perfectly competent JRPG framework. (Though when you’re walking around outside, the game seemed weirdly reluctant to acknowledge the “Up” command from my controller; this isn’t a problem if you just use the keyboard.)
The story is fine-ish. The worldbuilding was sloppier than I wanted; it never firmly establishes either what The Core is or how the rest of the world perceives them. It’s dropping hints for a Big Reveal, but come on, you gotta let me get grounded before any of that stuff is going to actually pull me in. But the story of a disillusioned sniper abandoning his army and seeking redemption makes for a splendid hook and could be quite compelling.
But putting that story in this engine simply does not work, at least for me. I dunno, maybe if you feel like Apocalypse Now would have been even more intense with trivial fetch quests and random puzzles, this might be the game for you. Otherwise, I have to recommend passing on it.
Will this next game have me pounding potato chips in the middle of a gunfight for their precious salty healing powers?
Page 17, Game 16: The Bookshelf by linda c
“A solitaire game about reliving stories, recognizing the past, & rewriting the future.”
Only if I put them there. Time to write some Pringles dystopia.