Ludonarrative Dissonance: Call of Duty 2
Ludonarrative dissonance is a term used to describe a conflict of interest between the story and game elements of a videogame.
June 6th, 1944: D-Day. The waves lap like quiet warnings on the outside of your small Higgins boat. Men around you are coughing, a couple in the back chatting anxiously. There is an ominous silence in the air, somewhere between the quiet hum of engines and the noises of your crew. Something is upon you and your men, some inexorable thing that compels you inward; into the belly of hell.
The bow ramp before you plunges forth and you are beset with reality. You burst from the boat, acting on pure adrenaline, charging forward toward something — anything. You hardly hear the cries of dying men, hardly register the sight of soldiers crumpling to the impact of bullets. An explosion screams just to your left, leaving you deaf and rattled. You are on your back. The sand feels cold against your cheek.
Call of Duty 2′s beginning felt very reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. I’m sure this choice was deliberate; as film depictions of war go, Saving Private Ryan is among the best. But let us examine why — why is Saving Private Ryan so good?
Saving Private Ryan effortlessly shatters any illusions of war. In the beginning, a small group of men are huddled tightly in their Higgins boat, drifting toward Omaha beach. Several other identical boats surround them, as well as larger boats loaded with tanks. The scene is somber and quiet. And then the ramps fall.
The camera stumbles from the boat and immediately the reality of the situation besets you: war manufactures one thing: corpses. War is not kind. Noble men lay with their innards bursting from their ravaged guts, weeping in confusion. The site of war is visible. The tone of war is felt. This is as close to the real thing as you will ever want to get.
And then there is Call of Duty 2, a game I admire greatly. Call of Duty 2 begins on D-Day, similarly to Saving Private Ryan. The ramp lowers and you run forth, caught by an explosion. A fellow man drags you to safety, and soon after you are free to control your character. Up until this point, the tone of the game feels not unlike Saving Private Ryan’s.
Once control is abdicated to you, though, the tone of the scene switches. What was once a sight of horror has now become a playground. I am now having fun. It is at this point that a dissonance arises between what Call of Duty 2 is about as a story, and what it is about as a game. Like Saving Private Ryan, Call of Duty 2′s story asks me to ruminate on the violence of war, especially the horrors present at Normandy. Call of Duty 2 is purposely setting a tone through its imagery which connotes frustration, angst, disgust, futility. The story of Call of Duty 2 is trying to express something honest and horrible, while the gameplay is expressing an antithetical sense of fun.
I took joy in running around the beach, trying to kill enemy soldiers. And it is this sense of fun which directly conflicts with the emotions I should be feeling. After all, war is not fun. Though brief, I feel as though this is a useful — if minor — criticism of Call of Duty 2 and games like it. Would it not be wonderful if Call of Duty actually made you feel dutiful? Or if Medal of Honor inspired a real sense of honor? It will be a hard road in getting there, but the first step is addressing the inherent issues between the narrative and ludic elements of a game. Only then will the floodgates fall open.