Whether it is seeing a faraway ledge taunting you, being bested by a computer opponent, or struggling against a maverick camera, video games can be a frustrating ordeal. Their ability to inspire frustration is often overlooked when we articulate the differences between video games and other mediums, but I think the idea that we even expect challenge from games makes them unique. Certainly, a particularly tortuous novel or abstract film can be exasperating, but books and DVDs lead relatively safe lives compared to video game controllers.
I usually find myself getting exasperated with a game in which I continually fail. Usually, this failure takes the form of "dying," in some way, which means losing progress, points, gear, or the like. However, my recent time with PixelJunkEden and BioShock suggest that perhaps failure alone does not lead to frustration and that bad mechanics are not solely to blame. Instead, a game's narrative determines its capacity to frustrate.
I enjoyed BioShock and PixelJunk Eden immensely, despite experiencing quite a few failures on my journey through Rapture and my trek into Eden. I had no large problems with the controls, mechanics, or rules of either game. Curiosly, BioShock stood out as the far more frustrating of the two, despite the fact I failed far more when playing PixelJunkEden.
BioShock is a monument to story telling in games, or more precisely, a monument to explicit, linear-narrative storytelling. Well-written and competently voiced, the game's dialogue and characters articulate the story of a city's tragic demise. The dilapidated city structures are beautiful landmarks along a road that inexorably led me to the game's conclusion. BioShock is a game with a clear message and an explicit story, and this is why my failures frustrated me.
I had a propensity of attacking Big Daddy's without much forethought, and this led me to become intimately familiar with the inside of the vita chambers. Every time I died, it felt as thought I was somehow upsetting the game's narrative. Perhaps Jack was meant to "die" a couple of times to explicate the chambers' cloning capabilities, but rushing headlong into the same battle five times in a row felt like a disservice the story in which I was participating.
My PixelJunkEden failures dwarfed my BioShock deaths. Sweating against the clock while trying to collect enough pollen to traverse the game's massive levels created a mixture of stress and Zen concentration. Despite countless re-tries, I felt little frustration in having to repeat levels.
In retrospect, my lack of frustration in the face of dozens of failures was due in large part to PixelJunkEden's narrative approach. The game has very little explicit story, and what is present mimics the game's graphics to create something that is both abstract and impressionistic. The narrative inPixelJunk is a vague theme: It is a story about pollination and growth.
While playing the game, I clung to the naturalistic motif. I saw the game as a representation of plants' life cycle: Sometimes, plants do not bloom very strongly and must endure a long winter before trying to rebound in the spring. The non-human world is less linear than human-centered stories, and since I viewed the game as a story about nature, setbacks felt less permanent. I could fail as many times as necessary and feel little frustration because failure was not destructive to the narrative.
I have tried to avoid the term ludo-narrative dissonance until now, but I cannot find a better way to describe what I believe is the core reason behind frustration in gamers. If a game's narrative suggest that the protagonist not fail, yet, when controlling the protagonist, the player repeatedly fails, dissonance clearly exists. Here I begin to tread gingerly, as the beast that is the "Narratologists vs. Ludologists debate" is a fitful sleeper, and it is hard to control once woken.
We make sense of our world by creating stories that explain the situations we encounter. Some games create stories by presenting the player with apre-constructed narrative, while others create messages by employing gameplay techniques. However, without each other as foils, neither of approach holds any relative meaning. The chasm between narrative andgameplay is not going to disappear; we just need to figure out how to build a bridge with a sturdy center.