‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ has become a buzzphrase amongst games critics in recent years. In my mind, ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has become less of a descriptor of tone and more a concise accusation of developmental half-arse-ery in any given usage of the phrase.
For instance, with regards to Bioshock, Clint Hockin did not speak of a jarring tone as the glaring problem with Bioshock when he coined the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, he spoke instead of a fundamental disagreement between the ludic and narrative structures within the game, which he terms ‘contracts’. In other words, he spoke of the created foundation of the game rather than the experience which is contingent on that foundation. I had never heard of Bulkhead Interactive before The Turing Test, a game that I find to be exemplary of ludonarrative consistency.
The Turing Test clearly takes inspiration from its seminal predecessors in regards to ludic and aesthetic structures. The contained, neo-futuristic looking puzzle chambers reek of a love for Portal, and there is some clear iteration on Valve’s title’s mechanical iconography, the cubes and the pressure pads and the white-padded walls can all be found here. Strangely, even Watch Dogs‘s system of camera hacking can be recognised.
What makes these familiar mechanics enjoyable rather than suspicious is that there is clear addition and iteration to these established mechanics. The nature of a puzzle game means that implementation of these mechanics must always be fresh so as to avoid conspicuous appropriation of these other games’ systems. I didn’t get anywhere near a hint of mechanical plagiarism during my playthrough.
By far the most interesting aspect of The Turing Test for me, however, was its story and, stemming from this, its ludonarrative relationship. You’ve probably seen some articles praising The Turing Test for its ‘ideas’ or its ‘lingering implications’ or its ‘open-to interpretation ending’ but these are all hazy descriptions bordering on misnomer. I don’t find The Turing Test to be open to interpretation, I think it posits a clear dilemma intelligently but with clarity: are we free?
Emphasis on ‘we’, and this is where the crux of the game’s ludonarrative harmony comes to take effect. ‘We’ being the operative word here, ‘we’ being the player. The game constantly presents us with ideas of determinism, whether we are free to choose our decisions or whether these decisions are decided for us by our environment, our brain chemistry, or other factors. Ideas of hard determinism, soft determinism and libertarianism are a nice backdrop to the primary object of the game’s narrative. These ideas are rich, but perhaps too broad a spectrum to really be explored within a puzzle game. This primary objective is much more precise: are we as players free to choose our paths?
Of course, in any game, choice is an option. But this is only half the issue of freedom. The will to choose, the freedom to choose choice itself is unattainable. Real freedom of decision is not a reality and (probably) never will be when it comes to games. Take a game that is lauded for its creative freedom, for instance, Minecraft. In Minecraft you can seemingly build anything desirable on a whim. But, you look at this sprawling castle you have created, covered in decorations and architectural nuances that have all stemmed from your mind, perfectly translated from your vision into the game, and suddenly you realise at the top of the main spire you want to place a spherical block. There is no spherical block. This perfectly cubist building you have just created, entirely as imagined up until now, has suddenly become imperfect by the game’s limitations. You are not free.
The Stanley Parrable‘s main criticism is that it is too long. Its ideas of player freedom have been trodden and re-trodden by the time of completion, but The Turing Test is the only other game that deals with such an issue seriously and succinctly to boot. A game that deals with freedom within a game sees a consistency with story and mechanics that is extremely rare.
How the game deals with these issues of player limitation and illusory freedom, I found it to be very interesting. I’m usually awful at puzzle games but I didn’t have to use a guide with this one, not even once!
One word to describe it?