Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to email@example.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.
Sam Martinelli: You’ve said in the past that you don’t support the idea of downloadable content (DLC) on principle, noting that games should be finished products once you pay for them. What do you make, then, of the free-to-play model? For example, games like Fortnite, Quake Champions, or Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft can be enjoyed without paying a dime, though shelling out some extra cash for cosmetics or new cards may enhance the overall experience. Is DLC acceptable if the core game is free?
Jed Pressgrove: As with most things, there are degrees of acceptability here. If a game is free to play but requires money for cosmetic changes, it doesn’t seem as bad as a full-priced game — which may or may not be buggy or “complete” at launch — that features cosmetic options via paid DLC.
Having said that, I’m still not a fan of DLC even within the free-to-play model. Minor cosmetic changes mean nothing to me, especially given that the intent behind them has more to do with superfluous virtual-identity customization rather than a meaningful shift in, say, aesthetics. From an artistic standpoint, it would be far more interesting if the “cosmetic” could lead to a richer interpretation of the game, but if you feel this way, you might as well make the case that all such things should be available from the get-go for a one-time price. Makes life a helluva lot simpler. (The game DLC Quest has played its own small role in shaping my views.)
I also do not spend money on any kind of DLC because I don’t want to send the message that I’m in favor of DLC in any way. If you give companies breathing room on this issue, they’ll keep seeing how far they can take the scheme. That’s why some free-to-play games have been called pay-to-win games. When changes via DLC lead to in-game advantages, many players feel the pressure to pay. Yes, people always have a choice, but I frown upon an industry that always says it needs more money as it shows little evidence of higher standards for quality and fairness across the board.
Brant Moon: I know you’re not a huge fan of the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (or maybe just not a fan of its overuse), but I liked that it helped some people consciously consider, “Hey, maybe the gameplay is not jiving with the story.” If you had to name one game (or two) with the best narrative-to-gameplay synergy, what would it be? Conversely, what popular games do you think have the worst synergy?
Jed Pressgrove: You are correct that I despise “ludonarrative dissonance.” It’s a mouthful in that dreadful academic sort of way, and it looks ugly in a sentence. There’s also confusion surrounding the term, which makes me question its usefulness. It seems to me that we can talk about matters of “ludonarrative dissonance” just fine without ever employing the phrase. By avoiding these two words and being specific about our observations, we can sidestep confusion and probably make a decent point.
From my standpoint, your question is much harder to answer than some might think. As I consider what you mean here, I realize that we are often conditioned or encouraged to think of narrative and gameplay as separate entities that, ideally, fit together like puzzle pieces. But this line of thought only represents one approach to how stories can be told or how ideas can be communicated within a game.
Think of something like Missile Command. This is a game that many would say “has no story.” But it does tell a story in how it captures, through its rules and theme and unique arcade cabinet, geopolitical and existential anxiety. Could we then argue that something like Missile Command showcases the purest kind of synergy that you refer to?
Another game that comes to mind while I think about all of this is the original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although the cutscenes and player-driven action in this game are undeniably obvious in their separation, the urgency of Ryu Hayabusa’s quest and emotions, as illustrated in the cinematics, comes thundering out that much more when you take control of his avatar. If Ryu weren’t as fast and agile when you play as him (a clear departure from the deliberate pace of Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden’s biggest influence), the storytelling would mean nothing, and the mechanics would betray the conviction of the preceding writing and imagery.
It’s even harder trying to determine the pop game with the worst such synergy. Perhaps many open-world games deserve the most criticism for their nonstop indulgence of meaninglessness. Their big-ass maps and countless isomorphic tasks avoid the entire challenge of expressing something in a game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, doesn’t really express anything. Who gives a damn whether you stop Ganon again? Nintendo is telling us (like so many other unimaginative developers), “Here it is, player! The world is your oyster! Feast!” And when you read many of the reasons why people think Breath of the Wild is magnificent, it all comes down to what they did in a particular part of a game that features a culturally insignificant, emotionally vapid, and childish sense of morality. Emergent egotism.
Ryan Aston: What are your favorite depictions of Hell in media (games, movies, television, books, etc.)?
Jed Pressgrove: Lately, the depictions of Hell that have impressed me have all come from games. Hell in Will You Ever Return? 2, developed by Jack King-Spooner, has never left me. King-Spooner’s usage of everything from clay to photographs gives the setting an organic yet unreal vibe. What really got to me was how the game employed the Seven Deadly Sins within Hell. The encounter with Lust, outside of satirizing RPG combat norms, inspires you to grapple with the idea of your unborn children. (Also, it was either this 2012 sequel or its predecessor (they both take place in Hell) in which King-Spooner somewhat portends the political rise of Donald Trump.)
I also liked how Manual Samuel depicted Hell as this place where you have to function like a cog within a society. The demented rationalism of the setting deliciously plays off narrator Brian Sommer’s contempt for the wealthy protagonist Sam. It’s like, finally, the spoiled rich kid gets to know what it means to be working class.