Games are, at their core, metaphors for greater ideas that can be interacted with. Metaphors can be a few crumbled buildings signifying a larger ruined city, experience points to signify progress and character growth, or even points signifying success and accomplishment. Not all metaphors are aesthetic though. From a mechanical standpoint, every action the player takes should be a metaphor for something greater, since pressing a button on a controller does not directly equate to, say, swinging a sword. Looking back on my gaming history from the past decade, most of my favorites blend mechanics and metaphor seamlessly, and games as a whole are stronger when these two ideas gel.
It is admittedly difficult to find a AAA game that uses its mechanics to further a point without running into some sort of ludonarrative dissonance. I’ve been playing quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed III lately to catch up on a series that I used to adore. One of the reasons I dropped off of the series after Revelations was an unavoidable feeling of disconnect from the protagonists and story. By the third game in the Ezio/Desmond storyline, the games were leaping back and forth between present and past, piling on mechanics that seemed frivolous, and trying too many things without being good at any one of them. One minute, you’re hunting corrupt politicians in Constantinople, the next you’re rebuilding property around the city, and then you’re running around outside of the Animus doing first person block-shifting puzzles while learning about a character that barely served as more than a player stand-in in the last few games. Elements like this do not fit with the story being told. In these side missions, you’re supposed to be uncovering clues about Desmond’s past as he himself tries to cope with them. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the actual game part is just an ethereal-looking, poorly-controlling first person platformer. It creates such a huge disconnect that I barely touched those missions.
Fast forward to Assassin’s Creed III. The game starts you off as Desmond yet again, relearning his parkour skills in the Animus as if this isn’t technically the fifth game in the series and the player doesn’t know how to control the basic movement. Granted, very minor elements of the parkour were changed and improved in this title, but these improvements would work much better as an in-universe, contextualized tutorial. I’m all for contextualizing tutorials. Instead of reading a “How to Play” menu option or starting your game off with a plodding introduction, trust the player to learn. Mastering the nuances of a game’s control makes manipulating its systems that much more satisfying.
Eventually, the game puts you in the shoes of Haytham Kenway, a grumpy man with next to no personality. After a shockingly long first level in an opera house and eventually a ship, Haytham finds himself in 1700s Boston. Once set loose, he sets out to hire men who can help him find a secret artifact from thousands of years ago. This is where the game brings up questions about how its mechanics are supposed to make you feel about Haytham: why does the game’s minimap at this point function solely to label groups of British soldiers walking around as bright red dots raring to be killed if they only attack provoked? Why can I attack civilians three times before the game forces me to stop with a game over if Haytham is never at any point shown to be a clumsy killer or one who would ever kill random people? Moments like these just show a lack of polish and mechanical stability in a series that famously has been worked on by hundreds of people.
I’m not simply using this article to criticize the Assassin’s Creed series for not being mechanically resonant. Rather, I’m surprised and impressed when it is. Once the game truly opens up and you get to play as Haytham’s son Connor, many of the UI’s subtle nudges toward violence make more sense. Connor’s village was burned to the ground by British men, so it makes sense that they are all red dots on the map when you play as him. He is new to the Assassin lifestyle, so it makes sense that he might kill a civilian by accident here or there. But the game really shines when you step away from the big cities. In the frontier and homestead, where the game hides some of its best missions, everything you do as a player makes perfect sense with Connor the character. Of course you hunt animals and skin them with ease, because the game shows that Connor’s been doing it since he was a young man. And of course you climb trees and hang evil Redcoats from them with a ropedart; Connor’s home was surrounded by woods, and the Iroquois were known for using ingenuity to create tools for hunting. You’re still stalking enemies and sneaking around British encampments, but the fact that Connor is much more noticeably foreign and, specifically, Native American, means that yes, he’s going to be watched and persecuted at the slightest misstep in the cities, and yes, he uses the animal skins he finds to improve his home and upgrade his tools. Some of these concessions are understandable given the constraints of modern game design, but the frontier missions with Connor really highlight how much better this series (and all games, for that matter) are when the mechanics make narrative sense.
It’s a bit unfair to criticize modern blockbuster games for not being mechanically resonant. Bioshock: Infinite clashes heady idealistic drama about violence and control with first person shooting, but it’s hard to deny that the shooting is fun, and it helped the game sell millions. Indie games tend to not have ludonarrative dissonance because the small team size and limited scope mean that there is little compromise needed. Spelunky’s explorer protagonist has déjà vu and the caves he goes to explore reset themselves magically, which explains away the random elements and repetition of his quest, and Super Meat Boy is harkening back to the brutal platformers of yesteryear while still appealing to a modern audience, meaning it is brutally difficult but offers infinite, fast continues. If we want big budget games to improve, we need to ask more from them than simply to be fun or look good. So many shooters empower the player, but also ask them to believe that they are part of a small, rag-tag group of soldiers who barely get by. Why then, do so many shooter protagonists have regenerating health, incredibly fast reload times, and crackshot aim? If we want to see games as a whole improve, we need to expect developers to not slouch when it comes to emotionally resonant mechanics, because they are at the heart of what makes so many games go from good to amazing.