The Torn Wallpaper
On the art of dissonance
When I read Lonnie’s notes, I hear the voice of a friend in my head. Not someone close, but someone I deeply admire. Lonnie became her, to me. Someone I felt like I knew, a friend, but at a distance.
That’s one thing I can give to The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home — its voices are authentic. These characters feel like people I know. They feel elevated out of the status of the archetype, so real and rounded and sympathetic. I forget, sometimes, that they’re just characters in a videogame, in the past tense, people I get to know by their imprints on things and spaces. It is easy to forget that my character is a container, herself a fairly empty conveyor of delicately plotted story. And then I remember.
The thing is, though, I don’t really want to talk about Gone Home. Plenty of people have done that already, and very insightfully. What I really want to do is weigh in on the conversation surrounding the game on the topic of “ludonarrative dissonance.” Coined by Clint Hocking, it’s meant to describe instances in a game in which the mechanical constraints and the narrative/thematic concerns don’t align properly, often resulting in a jagged or jarring experience for the player.
It’s a cumbersome, bloated term that, as Brendan Keogh rightly pointed out to me, is most often used to describe something that’s simply unrealistic in a videogame — which is, let’s be honest, most things in a videogame. This frustration led Robert Yang to write a wry, lucid post in which he proposes that ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t actually exist because, often enough, the player doesn’t even notice these inconsistencies and if they don’t actually feel the disjointedness, there’s no point in putting any emphasis on its existence. To draw his conclusions, he describes the utterly fragmented and logic-devoid design of BioShock Infinite, and with great enthusiasm:
“The result is a moist pile of theme-creep, a game that isn’t about anything except how it isn’t about anything. All attempts to read Bioshock Infinite, in any consistent way, end with, “because video games.” Where some games might worry a lot about the coherence of an NPC invincible in combat, suddenly dying in a scripted event — or maybe why a family would lock so many interior doors in their own house, and then leave town — this game said, ‘Fuck it.’
“I suspend my disbelief for games all the time. But here, I couldn’t. The most charitable thing I can say is that it put a great deal of hard work into being lazy.”
For Yang, the “dissonance,” or whatever you want to call it, is a relentless thorn in his side, impeding his suspension of disbelief. But the vast majority of the game’s fans remain unphased by its manifold quirks and idiosyncrasies. Take, for instance, encountering a locked door in a videogame. Well-programmed gamers are trained to see this like a set of possibilities or a math problem, and expect to follow through with a learned convention to solve it depending on how the problem is presented to them:
“Maybe encountering a locked door means you need to find a key to open it — unless it’s a post Half-Life 1 game and there’s a nearby hallway or crevice to go around it — or unless it’s a fake un-unlockable locked door intended as set-dressing — or maybe a scripted event / monster closet that broke?”
Because we’re trained to contextualize games in a number of ways, we’re also trained to overlook the absurdity of them and so the dissonance doesn’t strike us. But the dissonance is still there — we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t there just because we don’t feel it. To conclude otherwise feels solipsistic. After all, even if you don’t see your cage — whether by choice or by conditioning — that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Enter Gone Home. Ben Abraham wrote about how Gone Home manages something extremely rare by using horror tropes in terms of its spatial design, lighting, music and pacing in order to inspire certain gameplay expectations from the player. And then, it subverts all of them, becoming a videogame relative to the psychological thriller. He writes,
“At one point in the game I thought I spotted an actual ghost, but it turns out it was just black jagged veil that indicated the limits of the engine’s render distance, the contents of a hallway on the other side of the house appearing and disappearing as I stepped back and forth. But I was still expecting ghosts.
“So what’s going on here? A non-core gamer isn’t scared by the game’s red herrings, but we seasoned veterans expect the worst. I’m going to suggest that what Gone Home does is actually exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes, even the expectation of ludonarrative dissonance to resolve into a weird, and almost ironic, situation of ludonarrative harmony. Because we expect the worst, we get the best possible synchronicity with the player character.”
I fell prey to those creepy overtones and took to the habit of immediately switching on every light I could find in that morbid old mansion. I half-expected an actual ghost to appear, too.
But Gone Home doesn’t do this: the subversion of these expectations is a conduit to understanding the game’s symbolism. Because everyone approaches storytelling from their own vantage point, everyone is capable of feeling and interpreting something different from playing the same game. Abraham talks about the experience of his friend, James Dalmau, a consumer of games but by no means a “core” gamer, who didn’t approach the game with the kind of foreboding that those of us who play lots of games did. Quoting Dalmau, Abraham writes,
“…to be honest I never really thought it was spooky ghosts I thought that was just silly kid stuff put in as a red herring”
Where Abraham and I saw “survival horror” cues, Dalmau saw “drama.” But I feel I straddle two camps. As someone whose academic background is literary theory, I went through the game half-expecting what Dalmau saw in it. But I was still unable to get past my programming for all the things I was expecting the game to do to scare me. The cobwebs; the narrow hallways; the secret corridors; that one light that doesn’t work: all of that carried dual, but specific, dramatic and horrific messages for me. But as someone with a strong familiarity with works like, say, The Turn of the Screw, I also picked up the forceful indicators—from notes, set pieces and audio logs — that these sinister design choices were reflective of something more down-to-earth, something honest and earnest about these people, and nothing more fanciful than that.
I refrain from using this to make a value judgment about the game. While what Gone Home does deliberately is at times very clever and subversive, my feeling of harmony or disharmony while playing it stems more from my own context, my own prior knowledge. In other words, I believe “dissonance” exists, but I also think its noticeability is largely subjective.
Abraham touches on this in his piece, pointing out that Hocking’s term is often mischaracterized as something that is clearly jarring. But it could easily be something that sits beneath the surface, only ever sussed out through questioning or scrutiny. Many (though not nearly enough) do this with the systems of our own culture all the time.
Artistic dissonance isn’t unique to games. Sure, games have their own way of contending with it, but dissonance is a constant in all works of art, because art is artificial (go figure). Sometimes reality slams up against the sides of the artistic container we put it into — it spills over and we notice it. Sometimes it doesn’t.
We have a long art history full of movements and styles that try to resolve, overcome or even embrace dissonance as a fundamental and beautiful and conscious act of self-expression. Look at abstract expressionism, aleatory music, free-verse poetry or metafiction. Look at art cinema. Look at any kind of art that looks for the real in things that are overtly unrealistic, and calls attention to itself as being representative or reflective of something, and not the thing itself. Sometimes, these approaches can even feel more honest, realer and rawer than art that attempts to disguise its own artificiality. Other times, the “realistic” work will contain enough relevance to one’s experience, or ideology, that we can overlook its fakeness because it otherwise feels “true” or authentic.
Part of the reason people will or won’t notice something as dissonant has to do with what prior knowledge they’re bringing to bear on their immediate experience. This feeling mainly erupts from an active, participatory dialogue between the art and the observer (or player). The art is sharing a focalized version of reality with you, and the act of interpreting is your chance to put that art into an individual perspective.
For instance, I’ve trained myself to look for “illogical” things in games. Like Leigh Alexander talking about LA Noire, many of these things I can shrug off as being part of the artifice—sometimes cleverly and thematically so. And that’s alright. I don’t care about how TV shows are written around commercial breaks. Why would I care if there’s a health meter in my videogame?
The trouble is, of course, when the TV cut makes itself obvious without making it clear that it’s being deliberate. In other words, when the writing (or design) is poor or predictable, the gears that make the TV show turn are so obvious that it breaks my suspension of disbelief. Like Yang and BioShock Infinite, sometimes I will feel dissonance — between what the piece wants me to feel and things the piece does formally to undermine its own success — because my prior knowledge of what things are “supposed to” look like or feel like sets up a number of expectations that feel distorted in the piece.
Gone Home is competent at exploiting my senses and subverting them through irony in order to tell its story. And there is honesty and clarity and subtlety and earnestness and a great number of lovely things employed in the telling of this particular kind of story. But still, there are these little nudges, these little thorns, that pull me out my intimacy with it. I see the gears turning.
I look at how the same bag of chips, folded the same way with the same clip, keeps popping up over and over again throughout the house, in order to suggest the ghost-like fingerprint of the narrator, Sam, on the house. I notice how the doors appear to be magically double-hinged, opening and closing in two different directions depending on where I’m standing.
Like the house that is beautiful and commanding at first glance. But look closely at the corners, at the basement which has been rebuilt slipshod and modified; read the electrician’s assessment, about how the lights flicker because new wiring has been put in on top of old wiring; look at where the wall meets the ceiling, where the red wallpaper is peeling. It’s inevitable that something would tear, here and there. Houses, families, stories, systems; I can’t name a perfect one.
If I were not one to notice these things — in other words, if I didn’t have both the prior knowledge and mindset to be bothered by that kind of thing — then those moments of “dissonance” would fly over my head, and I wouldn’t be taken out of the fiction.
It’s not the map, or the inventory box, or even the performance involved in finding notes and keys and hitting voiceover triggers that pull me out. I take those things for granted, “because videogames,” as part of a specific type of artificial thing. Maybe, if I weren’t acclimated to those more game-y conventions, those things would confound and irritate me and take me out of things. But they don’t. It’s not something that sticks out to me, so it’s not something that strongly informs my dialogue with the game.
But in this game, the devil is in the details, and when one or two of those details seem counter to the verisimilitude the game is presenting, I notice it.
My vantage point has a lot to do with how much the game resonates or jars with me. It has a lot to do with my intimacy with it, the distance I keep from it. Yang came to BioShock Infinite at a distance that made it impossible for him to overlook its faults. For Abraham or Keogh, their gaming pedigree, particularly with horror games, put them at a certain distance with Gone Home as subversive and ironic. Dalmau’s put him at a distance where the coming-of-age of Sam took precedence over the horror elements. Zoe Quinn, for instance, had a far more personal relationship to the game, one that put her into its heart, much closer to it than my own context would ever allow me to be. Her closeness to it, by contrast, cuts through the artifice of the game entirely, right into the part that’s fleshy and human.
I don’t mean to say that “dissonance” in Gone Home, or in art in general, is necessarily always a good thing or a bad thing. Or that its existence necessarily must matter to everyone. But I think it manifests, mostly, through a conversation that the observer/participant has with a piece of art. I think it rears itself out of one’s distance to the form, the material, the perspective involved. Emotional, cognitive, even actual spatial distance will have an influence on what cracks one will be able to see in the house, the family, the art, the system.