Saturday, 5 September 2015

Coherence, Dissonance and Tales of Vesperia

When trying to characterise the phenomena that induced me to make a study of Tales of Vesperia, I fumbled with a variety of terms. ‘Gamey’ and ‘self-conscious’ were among them, but I eventually settled uncomfortably on ‘absurd’. ‘Absurd’ has a particular sense and history in art, though, and I’m not sure it quite fits what I was getting at.

Fortunately, thanks to Lana Polansky, I now have a better terminology to work with. Polansky discusses two terms, ‘coherence’ and ‘dissonance’. These aren’t opposites; Polansky makes clear that a work can be one or the other, both or neither. They refer to distinct characteristics a work (experience?) can have.

Dissonance, as I understand it, is something felt or sensed; a phenomenal property of things not quite seeming right. As such, dissonance is an artist’s tool, with well-documented uses. Across every genre of music, dissonance is used to create uneasy moods and dark feelings. Elements of a painting may be dissonant with one another, leading to a work that resists simple, literalistic readings.

By contrast, I understand ‘coherence’ as a logical/cognitive property, whose opposite is contradiction. This is very much a philosopher’s understanding, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. Contradiction is what happens when two propositions cannot be held together; a set of statements is coherent if they can all be held together.

It’s very hard, given how the language of academic philosophy has bled into wider culture, to prevent this distinction seeming hierarchical. There’s a cultural tendency to privilege the logical over the sensed/apparent/phenomenal. But whatever your feelings about feels and reals, I think Polansky makes clear that coherence and dissonance can’t stand in a hierarchical relationship because they don’t denote specific points on a shared continuum. They’re phenomena different in kind, not degree.

Simplifying, dissonance is when something feels wrong, whether or not anything ‘actually is’. It’s when a surface reading of a work won’t fit. Incoherence is when the statement being made by a work – or being attributed to a work by a critic – doesn’t make sense because parts of the work actively detract from it. So Clint Hocking’s (in)famous ludonarrative dissonance is actually more a kind of incoherence[1].

Bringing this back round to my interests, we can now say that Tales of Vesperia is often dissonant, but that it is also strikingly coherent. The game’s plot, visual design and mini-games/side-quests make it a jagged landscape littered with obvious cracks. The Wonder Reporter is just the most aggressive; there’s a whole city built to look like a giant mace, and you could drive a bus through some of the holes in the world-building, particularly the schemes of the various bad guys.

For every dissonant chord, though, there is a resolution into harmony. Sometimes this is prominent, as in the contrast between the way the game handles its ‘Wonder Log’ and the other player logbooks. Sometimes it is more subtle, as when one realises that a plot hole is really protagonist Yuri ignoring key plot details because they don’t fit his personal narrative.

Every time, though, a pattern is reinforced; a genre trope is instantiated in a way that brings out its laziness, its familiarity, its gaminess or its wrongness, then subverted to critique the mainstream reception or expectation that created it. In other words, something is first presented as dissonant, and then its dissonance is attributed to forces outside the design of the game.

This establishes a very coherent – not to mention angry – message. For Vesperia, and/or its developers, the ‘genre crisis’ in JRPGs has nothing to do with the actual experiences produced by any of its immediate predecessors, but is instead a matter of conflicting expectations among its audience. I happen to think there’s a lot of truth to this, but the argument would be coherent even if it turned out to be completely misplaced.

Of course, no work of art assembled by the size of team that works on most major industry game titles could be completely coherent. Vesperia fails most prominently in its engagement with temporality, where it just doesn’t do as much with its dissonance. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I am, after all, doing arts criticism right now and not abstract formal logic[2] – since it’s not a broad enough incoherence to obliterate the overall point.

Generally speaking, then, my ongoing work with Vesperia is going to involve taking each point of dissonance in turn and pushing at it until it resolves. Depending on your attitude to art and meaning, this can be seen either as a forensic or a creative endeavour, or a combination of the two. It’s the approach I’ve already applied to the Wonder Reporter, and I’ll have another piece along those lines next week sometime.

[1] I think this is the essence of Robert Yang’s complaint about the term – we don’t feel any dissonance playing, say, violent games that attempt to critique violence, even if on a closer look these games end up seeming terribly hypocritical.

[2] Again, it’s hard to make that sound non-hierarchical, but having taught formal logic I can say its uses in pure form are very limited.

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