The Uncharted series may be a multi-award winning, best-selling franchise, but it has always struggled to escape criticism targeted around ludonarrative dissonance. Nathan Drake seems like a generally decent guy, but he's also killed thousands of people, and appears to be largely unbothered by that fact.
For most fans this isn't an issue, and it doesn't necessarily have to be. But in pursuit of making better games, the reconciliation of this dissonance will allow developers to craft more rewarding experiences; it's an artistic endeavour, rather than a technical one.
It's a problem which former Naughty Dog game director Bruce Straley noted when leading development on Uncharted 2, and something he says was solved with The Last of Us.
"Nathan Drake is an action adventurer, but the threat is a video game threat," Straley told GamesIndustry.biz at the Fun & Serious Game Festival in Bilbao, Spain. "Its main antagonist gets to throw his minions at you so that you can overcome the obstacles to get to the treasure... That being said, whether it be a puzzle game or a shooter, you have to have interesting core mechanics to keep the player invested. That's our problem as designers: in 2007, that's where the industry was, that's where we were. We didn't necessarily have the wherewithal, the clarity so to speak, that we do now."
"The idea that you could create a character that had a voice of their own, and will of their own, was something new"
A noteworthy point here is that this debate sprung up around Uncharted and Nathan Drake largely because he is a willful protagonist, with his his own morals and motivations. Straley said that when the game started development in 2004, and released in 2007, this was "revolutionary." It arrived at a time when many of the most popular protagonists lacked character beyond their role as a killing machine, such as Gordon Freeman, Doomguy, and Master Chief.
"At the time you had silent protagonists that were avatars that players could project themselves into, and so the idea that you could create a character that had a voice of their own, and will of their own, was something new.
"And that comes with its own tricks as a developer, but I think just going through that experience with trying to parallel the players emotions with this willful protagonist emotions, through gameplay, through setting up scenarios -- each setup I would create has a shape that hopefully creates a different sense of tension, a different emotion. You can have situations that compel the player to feel a sense of relief, and you can create a setup that makes them feel high anxiety.
"If you think about game design in that same way you think about your character arc, the character should have an ebb and flow of a roller coaster [matching] the pace of the game... As a game designer, you're thinking about the character and storytelling and how the character is feeling."
But as the medium advances, and ideas around ludonarrative dissonance are given oxygen, the door is opened for more nuanced character portrayals. The Last of Us, which Straley also directed, attempted to address this dissonance through the rules of its world, wherein violence is not so alien to ordinary people.
"That's our problem as designers: in 2007, that's where the industry was, that's where we were"
"Seeing there was a problem with the construction of the world, we were able to create a threat that applied stakes. It made you realise as the player that there are true stakes, that the other humans you encounter inside of the world... were motivated by their own sense of survival. They had their own compass of values that they were driven by, or directed by, which meant they were capable of killing you for a bottle of water and a pair of shoes, because that meant another day of survival in that world that we created."
Ludonarrative dissonance is most commonly found in games where violence is the primary mechanic. In recent years however, we've seen games try to address this by making violence a core theme, such as Spec Ops: The Line, Wolfenstein: New Colossus, and God of War, but there's still huge potential to create character driven games around different core mechanics.
"Can you create a game that's as interesting and character-driven and compelling as an Uncharted story or Last of Us story without shooting? I think you can. Again the concept has to be... 'how can I create a rich enough world to allow for interesting core mechanics?'
"They had their own compass of values... which meant they were capable of killing you for a bottle of water and a pair of shoes"
"The world has to afford interesting, compelling ways for the player to figure out [solutions] -- and that's a lot of what games are. We have to put players in a position to be engaged with overcoming obstacles, which means the core mechanics have to avail us enough opportunity to figure out a solution."
Straley draws upon Red Dead Redemption here, stating it's two different games in his mind: one where you wander off into the hills on a horse and make your own adventure, and the main story which is a game he feels he's played before.
What's interesting, he notes, is that games are peeling back from the high-octane introductions that typified the medium for so many years. Compare the opening sequences of God of War (2005) and God of War (2018) for example: one quickly leads to Kratos slaying a giant hydra, while the other is begins with repressed grief as he builds a funeral pyre with his son.
"So for me personally as a player, I want something fresh. I want something that feels different, and I think we're allowing for more time with the game to settle into experiences, where it used to be more like: 'How do we get the player hooked in the first ten minutes, we gotta do this, we start in media res, start with some action sequence, let's go, go, go.'
"I think all of that is changing, and I think Hideo Kojima has done something really good for the industry to just try and do something to shake it up a bit. Indie games do this all the time right now, and I think that there's some extremely compelling experiences in the indie and AA scene.
"Inside, Playdead's games are fantastic for this -- very engaging, that don't include shooting. So yeah, I think there is a paradigm shift in the industry, and I think it takes a few successes. That's the problem, if it's a big marketing-driven game; it's a corporation that's looking to fulfill stakeholders needs next quarter, they're gonna rely on something tried and true, rather than try to do something innovative, which is just a difficult piece."
Disclosure: GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of the Fun and Serious Game Festival.