Exhuming the Dead: Ludonarrative dissonance

Game Narrative, Illustrator Unknown,   Play Professor

Game Narrative, Illustrator Unknown, Play Professor

There are two kinds of people of people who read the title.

The first kind is wondering what kind of long, SAT/GRE term “Ludonarrative Dissonance” is.

The second kind is groaning about another small-time writer/developer bringing up ludonarrative dissonance years after we all agreed that there are better ways to describe narrative tensions in games.

This will be a somewhat heady but I will be as direct and to the point as possible. Maybe then we’ll all get through this having learned something new.
Let’s first break down the term. Ludonarrative dissonance is literally ludo, — which is “game” — narrative (story) and dissonance. So we’re at least chiefly concerned with a game-story conflict. This alone defines very little while sounding like it encapsulates a lot. This is exactly why the term has been silently “deprecated” over the past decade. The problem with this deprecation is that ludonarrative dissonance isn’t useless. It’s just a term that’s been misused and oversimplified.

Now to really understand why I want to help bring LD (ludonarrative dissonance) back, you really need to have an idea of what it is, even if only generally. So let’s go back to 2007 and look at its first use by Clint Hocking (former LucasArts Creative director who was working for Ubisoft at the time).
Hocking first created and used the term to describe the unease he felt while playing Bioshock (by 2K Games). You kill, take, and harvest resources from others to power up and get ahead in the underwater capitalist dystopia of Rapture. The main antagonist is an Ayn Rand caricature and the character asking for your assistance and guiding you through rapture you use the alias Atlas (see, Atlas Shrugged). This is all to say that it appears that the game is pushing you into a space where self-interest is the focus (or at least that is what Hocking finds). However, it turns out that you were being mind-controlled by the phrase “would you kindly” to do all of Atlas’s bidding. So whole Hocking believed that the game was centered around self-interest and capitalism through the gameplay, the narrative plot insisted that this was actually more about autonomy and morality.

Hocking claimed that Bioshock had Ludonarrative dissonance because the themes communicated by the gameplay were not supported by the theme of the overarching story.

So that’s pretty clear, right? The tension between a game’s narrative themes and its mechanical themes is LD. Done and done?

Well, no, unfortunately. Because while Hocking used the term correctly (as we should expect as he CREATED it), different game theorists, reviewers, and journalists would NOT be as accurate. The original term has been degraded from the dissonance between two specific aspects of a game into the abstract tension between anything in games whatsoever. There would be more specific stances taken but the original defintion has not been preserved by the likes of video essayists on youtube and online publications like Polygon. The most well-known misuse of LD is the criticism of the Uncharted series (Naughty Dog). A prominent voice on this criticism was writer Jeffery Matulef of magazine Eurogamer said: “Uncharted has often been mocked for being about a supposedly likable rogue who just so happens to recklessly slaughter hundreds of people…”. This is definitely a valid observation. The problem with it is that it is definitely NOT an example of ludonarrative dissonance.
The Uncharted series’ games have simple action-packed arcade shooting gallery gameplay sequences. These sequences’ design has an ironic detachment from the hyper-violence committed much in the same way other games and movies in similar genres do. It might be true that a REAL person would definitely be concerned about their body-count but the games do not communicate that as a reality of their narratives. The game does not present itself as work about PTSD, violent struggle, the mentality of warriors or anything else similar. It’s about a loveable rogue in dangerous action sequences who has enough luck to take out bad guys and get the treasure in style. It’s not a complicated premise but it’s consistent and consistent within its own rules mechanically and narratively.

So why bring it back? Personally, I feel that there are games that do feature LD but it’s specific enough if a term that I’m having trouble thinking of a list even as I’m writing this. What I’m interested in isn’t bringing back LD for LD’s sake. I want to know how to make games better. And if there’s such a thing as Ludonarrative dissonance, then there has to be Ludonarrative Harmony, right?

Well, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to talk about it this week so I guess the exhuming is going to have a Part II.

See you next week!