The suspension of disbelief can be one of the easiest or most difficult aspects of game design. At once you are asking a player to invest their emotional and logical energies into a fictitious world all the while requiring them to ignore their very same instincts about the reality of their situation. At this point in gaming’s life, a considerable amount of this investment is already taken for granted from the point of launch. We are used to seeing the game world as a series of rules and allowances that in no way parallel what we know to be true of reality. We know to dismiss fast travel, weapon statistics, and bra sizes as functions of the game that we are asked to accept as poetic license in each instance. However, often one of the most accepted frailties of the suspension of disbelief is the health meter. Players are required to believe that their hero can withstand multiple gunshot wounds and recover completely by hiding behind a wooden crate for about ten seconds.
But not Uncharted players…
Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper tweeted yesterday that Nathan Drake’s reddening surroundings represent his luck decreasing as enemies work to get a clear shot of him, rather than damage taken. Nathan Drake actually only needs to take one bullet to die. The concept was backed up by creative director Amy Hennig, who confirmed that the mechanic was the “original intention”.
To put it crudely, Naughty Dog have made the bullet hell combat of Uncharted more believable… in theory. I was skeptical of the announcement originally. I had distinct memories of my hero stumbling away from a hit, clutching his side. I remember hearing the telltale thuds and seeing a shoulder jerk back in response. Intrigued, I made my pilgrimage to YouTube and sat down for the majority of this 6 hour playthrough of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
Throughout, it was possible to believe that Drake wasn’t taking any damage, that the grunts and jerks I was hearing and seeing were the results of my hero’s awareness of the bullets barely grazing his scarf. It was possible, but it didn’t feel natural. His noises and behaviour were exactly the same as if he was taking hits, and there wasn’t anything in the game pushing me to accept this ludonarrative consonance over the safe dissonance I’d come to welcome. The notion that Nathan Drake is being hit when we see a white trail line of a bullet and a resulting flinch and grunt is far too ingrained in player perception for us to reevaluate what is happening in accordance with this new ‘luck’ notion. Developers are now asking us to suspend the suspension of disbelief we’ve been trained to believe, and once you start unravelling that, it’s fascinating.
Since its appearance on timelines across the world on the 8th of July, Cooper’s tweet has become the subject of much debate from both those who aim to defend the fact that this ludonarrative consonance isn’t explicitly reflected in-game (Drake still grunts and acts as if he has taken hits) as well as those defending the tradition of suspending disbelief. “Who cares about the fact that you regen HP lmao. You literally fight demons in Uncharted 3” says one Reddit commentator, while another simply argues “we don’t need to try to justify video game logic”.
So why are players finding it so difficult to accept this new game logic? Comments such as these suggest the fire lies in the apparent redundancy of the suspension of disbelief here. In making the combat more realistic, developers are attempting to change a preconceived truth not only ingrained through years of tradition but also through the construction of the game world itself. This is where we hit the books.
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution deals with a plethora of gaming discussions and studies, one of those being the suspension of disbelief required for full video game enjoyment. He argues that;
“Naturally, the player doesn’t mind this fakery. But a critical requirement is that the game’s system remains consistent, that it is internally coherent”
We play video games for escapsim – we don’t want to be facing the mundane realities of the everyday when role playing as our heroes. As soon as we enter a game world, we are aware that different rules are in play. The entire game world is, in fact, nothing more than a curated system of rules and parameters, all of which are reduced to a blank state at the start of play. Events and building blocks provided by the designers inform us of the specific rules and parameters in play as we move through the first few hours of the game. This process allows us to accept the game world as disparate from the real world. We’ve begun with the acceptance that things will not be the same here, and coloured in those disparities with information included in design. We organically build our own idea of the game world based on such information. This is why Poole’s idea of consistency is important.
The difficult thing here, however, is that the information we are being asked to reconsider (to consider in the context of the real world rather than accepted traditions of genre) is not one of these building blocks. We’ve never been told that this is Drake’s luck counter, rather than his health bar, and instead left to fill in our own information from tradition. This luck counter, therefore, doesn’t exist in the game world (if we are to take a purely textual approach to this question – a paratextual exploration of the suspension of disbelief in this scenario would be another story for another afternoon). Furthermore, enemies often take multiple shots to die. We’ve been actively told that the tradition of multiple hits is apparent in this game world. The consistency is weak, and yet it’s a consistency that would be required for a player to actively avoid suspending their disbelief.
I agree, it’s a small design decision that perhaps doesn’t deserve the outcry it’s achieved. Similarly, this is by no means a “preserve the integrity of the game world you heathens” type post. I just found it incredibly interesting that it was taking so much mental effort for me to reconsider my entire logical reasoning behind my experience while playing Uncharted. I would be incredibly interested to hear if anyone else feels the same way – regardless of whether the counter represents health or luck, is it actually harder to suspend our suspension of disbelief in these situations? Let me know!