A few months agoThis article was written soon after, but it was pushed back by 70s Suitcase and No Man’s Sky. Folding Ideas – a YouTube channel typically focused on movies – released a video making the point that Ludonarrative Dissonance is a useful concept, even if the conversation surrounding it was generally dismissive and a bit of a mess. In it, author Dan Olson references Campster’s video that touches on the same topic. I’m happy to see the word coming up again, and I’m even more happy that I didn’t need to bring it up myself. I think it’s an important concept. Or at least, I think the version of the word that I understood is important. There was also a medium-sized backlash against some alternate meaning of the word that I never really cared about, which is why I’m glad Dan was the first one to poke his head up for a quick sniper check.
In the past I’ve said things like, “A game doesn’t need to have a lot of story, but the story it has should work and it should mesh with the gameplay.” Other times I’ve complained about tone. These were all ways that I was trying to bring up ludonarrative dissonance without using the words themselves. That seems to have worked, although those alternatives are kinda verbose.
As Campster pointed out in his video, other people have taken the term to be some call for narrative supremacy, which loops back to the reflexive “games are about gameplay so who cares about the story shut up it’s just a game”. That’s obviously not an attitude I can get behind.
As I’ve understood the term, it’s simply used to denote when a game has gameplay (ludo) and story (narrative) that are in conflict (dissonance) with each other. For example, the gameplay encourages (and sometimes even requires) you to kill hundreds of people at the behest of random bosses for money you don’t particularly need, while the story tells you that protagonist Niko Bellic is an otherwise sane man haunted by a small handful of deaths that happened years ago. In the cutscenes, Lara Croft is a scared little girl who’s easily overpowered by crazed island hobos again and again. In gameplay, she’s an unstoppable terminator with brutal melee finishing moves and a body count in the triple digits. Halfway through the game, cutscene Max Payne has just gone through a profound personal transformation where he gave up years of substance abuse, and in gameplay he’s completely unchanged and continues to eat painkillers like skittles to restore his health.
I realize these are all banal observations, and that’s kind of my point. Everyone has noticed this sort of thing to one degree or another. Granted, it doesn’t always bother people. It’s our old friend suspension of disbelief again. It’s not a binary pass / fail, but rather a gradient where discrepancies in the presentation of the story gradually push people out of the world. Everyone has noticed ludonarrative dissonance. We all agree that this sort of thing happens in videogames sometimes, even if we don’t always think it’s a problem.
So what happened? We have a concept everyone is aware of and it’s something we need to address when doing any sort of thoughtful analysis. It’s obviously something a critic is going to need to talk about from time to time, so why didn’t gaming culture embrace this much-needed term?
How We Killed a Term
When you’re in academic circles I think it’s easy to overestimate just how much the outside world is aware of academia. Jump on a message board or Reddit dedicated to gaming and lots of people will recognize the name of industry old-timers like Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, Hideo Kojima, and Will Wright. A smaller percent will recognize the names of current-generation developers like Jonathan Blow, Kim Swift, and Sean Murray. But very few are going to recognize the names of academics like Ian Bogost or Steve Swink. I’ll admit the line between academic and indie developer can get pretty blurry at times, but the point is there are a lot of folks that end up mostly talking to each other. This isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes it’s really useful for a small group of experts to bat an idea around before they unleash it on the general public.
But it can be a little disorienting. You write on your blog. You meet people at industry events. You read Gamasutra and sometimes write articles for the same. You spend so much time thinking and talking about games and game systems that you end up inventing your own nomenclature to ease communication. After a while the ideas feel familiar and commonplace. The jargon feels worn-in and ready for general use.
And then that jargon slips out into the wider gaming culture where it ends up twisted and misunderstood in a never-ending game of telephone. In the notes of his Folding Ideas video Dan frames the backlash against the term as “anti-intellectualism”, but I always saw it (the backlash) as a response to a sort of shallow, pretentious, and overly reductionist use of the term. Again, this is another reason I’ve shied away from talking about it. Not only can we not agree on what it means, but we also disagree on what people who disagree with it are disagreeing with. It’s misunderstandings all the way down.
Here is just some of the dysfunction I saw:
Some people acted like it was this universal litmus test of quality. “This game has ludonarrative dissonance therefore it sucks, and this game has properly integrated gameplay and story and therefore it’s excellent.” Granted, those kinds of statements usually came from forum commenters and not professional critics. But that idea was still pervasive enough that it caught on in certain circles.
Some people misunderstand the term and then propagated their wrong definition in the form of reactionary YouTube videos denouncing the entire concept as horseshit. And I’m not talking about small channels with a niche following. I’m talking about large-ish names with a subscriber base in the tens of thousands. This was the first place a lot of people heard the term, and I’m sure that wrongheaded definition is still alive today.
Some people were simply pretentious about it. When someone learns a fancy new word and begins awkwardly working it into conversation and criticism, it’s usually pretty obvious. It’s like a guy that goes to the gym a couple of times and then starts conspicuously standing with his arms in some sort of flexing pose, hoping people will notice. It’s sad at first, but after a while it becomes annoying.
Some people simply elevated the concept above its intended level of importance or usefulness. Story / gameplay disconnect is just one of many problems a game might have, no more or less significant than things like game balance, pacing, or art style.
Sorry I didn’t save links for all of the above. This was all years ago and I didn’t think to save the articles at the time. In any case, my goal isn’t to shame people that misused the term but simply to point out that it was indeed misused.
The other thing that’s working against the term is that the word it’s derived from isn’t part of the general public vocabulary. Very few people are familiar with the word “ludology”, and to them there’s zero connection between “ludo” and concepts like games, rules, play, systems, and so on. It’s like trying to popularize the word pyromaniac in a world where nobody knows what “pyro” means. Again, it makes for a word that you always need to explain because you can’t intuit meaning based on familiar components. And even once you explain it to somebody, they’re going to be reluctant to use it because they don’t want to have to explain it to the next person. For comparison, “gameplay/story dissonance” is only 1 character longer than “ludonarrative dissonance”, which makes it more convenient because it’s self-explanatory.
It’s possible that the term itself is a lost cause at this point. The moment you say the words you’ll get a big eye-roll from a certain section of the audience, even if those same folks would agree with the exact same thesis if it were expressed using different jargon. A word that’s usually misunderstood is a dangerous word, and a word you always need to clearly define at the time of use is a useless word. If you have to write the definition anyway, then you might as well just use the definition rather than the word that can’t do it’s job.
Also, I’m starting to suspect that the term itself is too narrow to be useful in a lot of criticism. Take my review of Diablo 3. As I pointed out, the gameplay of gratuitous empowerment was completely at odds with the story where the player character was a passive observer with no agency. That game has ludonarrative dissonance coming out of its ears. However, that’s not the most important thing about the game. It’s not even the most troubling form of dissonance the game has. Like, imagine you redesigned the gameplay to be consonant with the in-engine cutscenes. Those cutscenes would still be dissonant with the pre-rendered cutscenes, and both of those would be at odds with the spoopy art style. Diablo 3’s big problem isn’t ludonarrative dissonance, it’s just plain old dissonance. Ludonarrative is just one of many kinds of dissonance a game can exhibit, and giving a special term for this particular strain of dissonance sort of elevates it above the others, even though that’s not really the intention.
Games as a “Whole Text”
More important than the word itself is that we have some kind of expectation that the various parts of a game ought to fit together to form a cohesive whole. That, as Dan says, we should view a game as a “whole text” and not as a bunch of isolated bits. Sure, game designers seem to have a lot of trouble getting their gameplay to mesh with their story, but I think they’re simply reflecting the same attitude towards story that the audience has. We discuss games as this arranged marriage of a story and a set of mechanics, and so designers – who are also part of the audience – carry that assumption with them into their work.
It’s worth noting that it doesn’t need to be a simple pass / fail binary, either. There are degrees of dissonance. There are games where the gameplay and story are divorced, neither supporting nor contradicting one another. Other games have tension between the two but generally hold together. And other games pit the two against each other, pulling you out of the experience by asking you to believe different things at different times.
Maybe the term itself is unsalvageable now, but I think the idea it stood for is worth saving. Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect every game to have perfect harmony between the two, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable thing to strive for.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
Lost Laughs in Leisure Suit Larry
Why was this classic adventure game so funny in the 80's, and why did it stop being funny?
The Gradient of Plot Holes
Most stories have plot holes. The failure isn't that they exist, it's when you notice them while immersed in the story.