In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. It happens because there are differences between expectation and experience. In this case of replicas and human, it is based on a fear concerning the alienation of human beings. But we can find such dissonance in other areas. For this article, the dissonance lies between graphics and game mechanisms, which I’m calling ludographic dissonance, which is inspired by the concept of “ludonarrative dissonance”.
Mechanisms reflect reality in a relatively abstract way
As a formal system, games are a stylized simulation of reality. Game mechanics always reflect some real world rules in an abstract way, because it is too complex to recreate every detail in the fictional world and it is also unnecessary to do so.
When the connection between games and reality is weak, games such as Tetris and Bejeweled only present simple and primitive challenge relying on the likes of reaction speed or hand-eye coordination, thus the pleasure is limited. But if we offer an alien-invading-earth backstory to a game like Space Invader, with those alien sprites, though still a simple arcade game it can make players feel more of that intense emotion.
Besides storytelling and graphics, gameplay mechanics have improved to offer more believable experiences. In Pac-Man for instance, there are 4 ghosts in the game: Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. Unlike other silly enemies of that time, these ghosts have different simple strategies in their action patterns. But combined together, they form a smart group chasing the player in an efficient way.
In those early years of video games, the more a game could simulate the real world, whether by graphics or gameplay, the better rating it would receive. There is another example of this: Metal Gear Solid was the first video game to take stealth elements into gameplay, which was not only a great innovation, but also a more accurate simulation of a real life battleground.
The gap between immersive experience and AI design
As this process has continued, we have developed the more vivid graphics and complex gameplay of today. We should have better immersive experiences with all of those advanced techniques, but I always have some strange feelings about recent AAA titles, especially stealth games.
Don’t waste time in topics like why characters never need to pee or how they can sprint all the time without rest, I want to talk about the gap between immersive experience and AI design.
For example, Dishonored is one of my favorite video games and belongs to the stealth-action genre or so-called “immersive sims”. As the wording implies, I want to be that supernatural assassin and deal with my enemy secretly. But after playing for a while I found that there are always some kinds of rigid patterns or unnatural traces in my enemy’s actions. And the most important issue is that you will finally realize solving problems in a gamer’s way is much more efficient, rather than the assassin role you want to play. Whether intended or not, its existence has broken the suspension of disbelief, and contradicts the genre it claims to be.
Old pixel games never have this problem probably because the graphical quality lowers the expectation of players, and they do know this is just a game. So based on this situation, the more the gameplay can do, the more surprises players will have.
But when game graphics are advanced enough to make players believe it’s true, the expectation has risen proportionally. So if gameplay can’t match with the vivid graphics to offer a reliable ruleset, players will sink into the uncanny valley and feel uncomfortable and question the immersive experiences of games.
Since there is a conflict between advanced graphics and not-so-advanced gameplay, it’s reasonable to name it “ludographic dissonance”, inspired by the concept of “ludonarrative dissonance”.
Turning back to the beginning of this section, it’s clear that AI design is the last barrier of offering an immersive experience, for we now have really complex physical engines and interacting with other people is one of the most important parts of every game. And AI design in stealth games is special because there are more non-combatant AI states and even the kind of group AI used in MGSV.
Some ways to solve or avoid this problem
To offer immersive experiences, this dissonance should be dealt with properly. As we know that ludographic dissonance is about mechanism and graphics, so there are two basic ways to go.
On the gameplay side, I believe the AI design will finally be sophisticated enough, but it may take too many years to come. Or we can avoid this problem in multiplayer games by only using other real, human players.
On the graphics side, we can use more special art styles like cartoon rendering or even retro-style pixels. With this method of lowering the impression of reality, we can match our gameplay with stylized graphics easily and swiftly. Besides, no one declares that games should be as realistic as possible; we have right to explore every possibility of games.
What’s more, we can even use narrative to explain or evade such dissonance. Just like utilising AI reduces human interaction. Portal is the best example: you can’t find anyone else in the game, there is only an AI named GLaDOS talking to you. And you are facing a set of experiments as a challenge not only for gameplay reasons, but also for the story; you are the last tester of a mysterious laboratory.
So this ludographic dissonance happens when vivid game graphics infer an immersive experience a game might provide but the relatively abstract mechanism fails to meet that expectation.
It is essentially a difference between expectation and experience. When experience surpasses expectation, there are always surprises, and everybody likes that.
On the contrary, when expectation surpasses experience, then people will feel disappointed, unwell, even fearful – the fear of unknown.
As game designers, it is our job to create fabulous experiences, but keep it in mind: fostering expectation about that experience is equally important.