This Dumb Industry: Ludonarrative Dissonance

By Shamus
on Oct 10, 2017
Filed under:
Column

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.


Link (YouTube)

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.


Link (YouTube)

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

I prefer to read the dictionary. I figure it`s got all the other books in it.

I prefer to read the dictionary. I figure it`s got all the other books in it.

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”

It was easier to view games as a whole text when they were wholly text.

It was easier to view games as a whole text when they were wholly 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.

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Footnotes:

[1] This article was written soon after, but it was pushed back by 70s Suitcase and No Man’s Sky.


A Hundred!2014There are 134 comments here. I really hope you like reading.

From the Archives:

  1. CaveTrollWithABeard says:

    There was an attitude that was prevalent in the old Resident Evil plot FAQs that I used to read as a silly child: If it didn’t happen in a cutscene, it didn’t happen. The idea was that all the gameplay is supposed to be a sort of abstraction of what really occurred, since obviously the characters wouldn’t have been able to do however many hours of sprinting around at top speed, fighting monsters and winning every time without a scratch.

    That attitude worked for silly fun games like the PSOne-Gamecube era Resident Evils, but I think that the story/gameplay dissonance problem we have in modern games stems from developers still thinking that way. Games these days can tell such incredibly immersive and emotionally satisfying stories that we’ve come to expect more, but that’s really hard to do, and sometimes it’s much easier for developers to just fall back to that old way of thinking and slot in a successful gameplay system, whether it matches the story or not.

    That isn’t always a bad thing, but for games where the story strikes really powerful emotional chords, it’s really hard sometimes to get thrown out of that headspace and back into “Okay, time to shoot a bunch of dudes.” At least for me. Not sure what the best way to solve that problem would be, since I’m not a game designer, but I think it’s very encouraging to see the number of games that are finding ways to do it. The next twenty years of video gaming look very bright to me, especially now that publishers who would put story restrictions on games are being proven more and more every day to be unnecessary and obsolete.

    • Cinebeast says:

      Hell, I still think this way. I have to.

      I’m playing Mass Effect Andromeda right now, and if you don’t look at all the fighting as an abstraction of conflict, the whole game becomes a farce. The past Mass Effects also had this discrepancy, but not to this extreme a level.

      On a narrative level, you’re a Pathfinder, and the leader of a ragtag group of explorers trying to carve out a little room for yourself and the other people who came from the Milky Way galaxy.

      On a gameplay level, you (and your crew) are goddamn unstoppable superheroes who blow up hundreds upon hundreds of mindlessly violent bandits, most of them your fellow Milky Wayers. Where’d all these assholes come from? Why were they brought along to Andromeda? Why did they sign up in the first place? Just to give up all sense of reason at the drop of a hat and form tiny groups of people sitting in a hovel in the middle of nowhere shooting anyone who gets too close?

      Not that it isn’t fun to blow them all up, mind you. But like I said, don’t try and reconcile what the story is saying and what the shooty-shooty bits are saying, because you might die a little inside.

      What about games that have done this well? Can anyone think of some recent examples?

      • Matt Downie says:

        Games that blur reality tend to suffer less from that kind of problem. In Resident Evil, having a door that can only be unlocked by three chess-pieces is silly. In Silent Hill, it would play more as a hallucinatory event, just as it isn’t clear if the monsters you’re fighting are figments of your imagination.

        In the first-person shooters, I like what Call of Juarez: Gunslinger did. You’re telling your life story, and if it’s implausible that you really killed that many people, well, you’re an unreliable narrator anyway, so what does it matter?

        • If they want to pass games off as an art form in themselves–an interactive art form that is distinct from movies, novels, etc. then integrating the story and the gameplay is MANDATORY. The pretty much constant existence of ludonarrative dissonance is why games aren’t really an art form (and may never fully become one).

          This sort of integration becomes harder as the art form becomes more complex. It is harder in a novel than in a poem. Harder still in a movie. And even harder still in a game.

          Is it mandatory for making a game qua game? No. It’s mandatory for making a game qua art. Which is also why it’s the worst and most annoying in the games that do make some effort along these lines. Having the pretense of an integrated game/story magnifies the dissonance when it does show up.

          The reason why I don’t really use the term ludonarrative dissonance any more is because that’s not the only KIND of dissonance that you can have in a game. For instance, you could have a game with no story whatsoever–say a WWII flying simulation game where you play through various historically accurate missions in historically accurate planes. But if they put in an upgrade where you can fly an F-14 on a mission . . . suddenly the gameplay is wildly contradicting the *theme* of the game, which involves a certain time period. Or, if you, say, have 1920’s gangsters in a game that’s supposed to be based off 1950’s sensibilities. They’re not conflicting with the story or gameplay per se, but there’s still dissonance.

          Story/gameplay disintegration isn’t the ONLY type of disintegration.

          • galacticplumber says:

            I have a very simple definition of art that asks one very simple question. Is the thing in question attempting to stir some manner of human emotion as a primary means of engagement? If so art. If not, not. ALL other criteria is something you can use to debate the quality of the art. Quality is subjective. Category of thing isn’t.

            • Pete_Volmen says:

              Generally that’s a good guideline, I think. On the other hand, there is art that’s mainly intended to be as a launchpoint for thought, not so much emotion. On the other side, I wouldn’t want to place say hate speech in the realm of art.

              Of course, if it were that easy to make a catch-all rule, there wouldn’t be nearly this much discussion about what is or should be called art.

              • galacticplumber says:

                Except most forms of thoughtful conversation are themselves in service to emotion. There’s curiosity, desire, excitement for the future, worry about the future, and many more things. Anything you can call art with a straight face DOES almost certainly intentionally provokes one emotion or another. Further you can use art for nefarious purposes same as literally everything else that exists, and some things that don’t as anything other than concepts.

                • So, trolling is art? Bullying is art? Torture is art? Porn is art? Political bumper stickers are art?

                  “Intended to provoke some kind of emotion” is a genus. It lacks a differentia. In order for a concept to function it must both have a genus (the category in which it belongs) and a differentia–what differentiates it from a large number of things that have similar characteristics.

                  Art does not provoke emotions as a primary goal. The emotions are a result of one’s evaluation of the theme of the work. Its goal is to *portray* abstractions by isolating them, stylizing them, and then rendering them in concrete form. Good art enables the viewer to contemplate the abstraction (the theme) via the concretes of the artwork.

                  An abstraction of some kind rendered concrete is the essence of all works of art. If it doesn’t have some kind of abstract idea rendered in concrete form, it’s not art.

                  So, blobs of paint on a canvas are not art. They do not portray anything. They might be decorative or aesthetically attractive, but they convey no meaning no matter what the pretentious blob-smearer declares.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Ill tackle the easier ones first:

                    Political bumper stickers are art?

                    Why not?Whats the difference between a painting and a painting used to sell things?Other than intent,nothing.Just like any ad can be art,so can political ads.Of course,that doesnt mean all of them are,but some definitely are.

                    So, trolling is art?

                    Yes.Andy Kaufman.His trolling most definitely was art.

                    Porn is art?

                    Yes.If faking anger,sadness,happiness and love is art,so is faking an orgasm.If filming blood and tears is art,so is filming other bodily fluids.

                    Hec,check out the movie pirates(or better,check out Cinema Snob talking about pirates).Its basically an adventure movie with random sex injected into it.And if an adventure movie with random jokes injected into it can be considered art,so should porn.

                    Bullying is art? Torture is art?

                    Ill preface this once more by saying that just because I consider something art does not mean I condone it,think of it as good,moral or legal.

                    But yes,bullying and torture can be art.The real life example is that performance art where the artist gave permission to the audience to do to her whatever they wished,and it did devolve into various forms of torture.Its disgusting yes,but no less art than painting in front of live audience.

                    • Reach says:

                      This kind of “utlra-wide-net” perspective on the definition of art serves to render the term largelly useless in the actual discussions taking place. When people say “games are/aren’t art” they generally don’t actually care about how appropriately the terms are being used, they’re making a statement along the lines of “games do or don’t deserve the same level of cultural appreciation as movies or books” or “games should or shouldn’t be constructed and evaluated as a whole text like we do for other forms of art”. Take right now for instance, with Jennifer describing a failing of the games industry and being met largely with, essentially semantic arguments about the definition of art that don’t really address her criticisms. It’s like saying “The high jumper failed to jump 7′ ” and being met with “Well the event took place 50′ above sea level so actually he jumped much higher than that”. It’s interesting that you can make a case for the definition of “art” to include stubbing your toe and farting in public, but that is really not even close to addressing what (I feel) Jennifer was getting at.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      No,its like saying “The high jumper failed to jump 2 meters,therefore they are not an athlete”.Try that next time when someone is talking about sports,and see whether the conversation will continue with people talking about that high jump or by people telling you that the actual skill of an athlete is not what defines them as one.

                      In fact,how come no one says that the ultra wide net perspective on the definition of sports is largely useless in actual discussions when it encompasses both 5 year olds who kick a ball around a lumpy field and a 7 million dollar earning beast of a person?

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                On the other side, I wouldn’t want to place say hate speech in the realm of art.

                Why not?Saying that something is art does not make it good,true,or necessary.Mein kampf is art,even though Id suggest everyone to just skip it,both as morally reprehensible art and as low quality art.

            • Mephane says:

              While we are at it, my personal definition of art is any non-natural arrangement that fulfills more than just its raw technical function. And yes, I do indeed say that anything that fulfills no technical function at all, automatically constitutes art in my view.

              Of course this is a very broad definition, but something being art does not say anything about the quality thereof (which is usually subjective anyway).

              • Shamus says:

                I really like that definition.

                I favored Scott McCloud’s definition that art was (I forget the exact quote) “Anything not directly related to survival”. But that one is a bit TOO broad, even for me.

                But yeah. A building just performs it technical function of being a big box for people and stuff, but once you put effort into making it interesting to view or inhabit, you’re moving in the direction of making art.

                • Blackbird71 says:

                  I always liked the definition that a former local radio DJ would give to his kids:

                  “If daddy can do it, it’s not art.”

                  A bit of tongue-in-cheek jab at his own talents, but amusing nonetheless. And while it was a bit of a joke, I do appreciate the perspective that real art should include a level of skill or ability above that which is common or average. I know that many disagree with this idea, and would claim that anyone can create art, but I would counter that not everyone can create art worth mentioning, and if it’s not worth mentioning, why demean art as a whole by including work that shows neither talent nor skill?

                  Of course, disagreements on points such as this are why the definition of what is art will always remain a subjective one.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    but I would counter that not everyone can create art worth mentioning, and if it’s not worth mentioning, why demean art as a whole by including work that shows neither talent nor skill?

                    Because art shouldnt be a measure of quality.Why should Mozart be considered an artist and not Bieber,even though one is good and the other is bad?There is good art and there is schlock.But if we dont consider schlock art,then schlock will never get a chance to improve.

                    Not to mention that if you use art as a measure of quality youd have to rank movies against songs against theater,in order to decide which one is more artistic.

                    • Blackbird71 says:

                      “Why should Mozart be considered an artist and not Bieber,even though one is good and the other is bad?”

                      Exactly because one is good and the other is bad. If anything can be exalted to the status of “art”, regardless of quality, then the label of “art” has no meaning or purpose. “Schlock” has a chance to improve as it aspires to be art, but don’t grace it with such a title before it has reached that minimum quality.

                      As for rating different genres against each other, that’s a false requisite. It is entirely possible to asses the quality and worth of art within its own medium and classification.

                    • Shamus says:

                      I’m not sure how much of this has spilled over into the rest of the world, but in the US I’ve noticed a strong EVERYTHING CAN BE ART! I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect this goes back to the anti-obscenity laws from the middle of the century. You couldn’t have sex or violence unless it was “artistic” or “educational” in nature, which lead to a lot of sleazy stuff trying to pass itself off as one or the other. Hence the rise of things like nudist “documentaries”. People wanted lowbrow content, other people wanted to provide it, so they had to find a loophole to do it legally.

                      But then other people see this as a free speech issue. “If my work isn’t called art then it doesn’t get the normal freedom of expression”. So adopting a really promiscuous definition of “art” was a way to fight back against censorship.

                      Even now, I don’t like saying something isn’t art just because I hate it. I don’t like Bieber et al, but I wouldn’t say he was “not art” because this is a really hostile thing to do. It carries the stigma of “this content has no value”. And who am I to judge what has value? On a daily basis more people listen to Bieber than to ol’ Wolfgang which means we can’t use public opinion as a barometer for art. What then? An elite, sneering at the unwashed plebs? Ew.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      If anything can be exalted to the status of “art”, regardless of quality, then the label of “art” has no meaning or purpose.

                      Not true.Like Mephane said it serves the purpose of distinguishing stuff that are purely functional from stuff that are aesthetic as well,or purely aesthetic.We have many words and terms that encompass practically everything,and they dont stop being useful just because they encompass such a big variety of things.Without such a big set of things,we would have to constantly list all the things that are in that big set when we want to talk about them all.

                      Also,if art were only to refer to good things,then it would clash with the term good.If only good films were artistic films,then what would be the point of saying “artistic” anyway?If only good music was artistic music,what would be the point of replacing “good” with “artistic”?Not to mention that we would need to have a new term for average art,and for bad art(schlock is not quite that,because it can be used for non art as well).

                    • Blackbird71 says:

                      As I said, it’s a subjective matter, and one which we will continue to disagree on. In my opinion, to be “art” there must be a demonstration of a measure of talent or skill (either natural or learned) involved. If it is something that absolutely anyone could do regardless of talent, then it is not unique enough to be considered “art”. That is not to say that talent cannot be used to make “bad” art, and even if bad, it would still be art, provided that such talent was a necessary component of the work. As such, there need not be a standard of “good” or “bad” to qualify art, just a standard of skill or ability in creating or reproducing such art.

                      I would argue that even something that is designed and intended to be purely functional can be “art”, if its construction shows a skill and quality above and beyond the standard for such a creation, as in the expression “the craftsmanship is a work of art.” So even the idea that something must have a purpose beyond the functional in order to be art is a questionable premise.

                      Again, this is my personal understanding and requirement for what I will consider art; yours may differ. As I said before, this is exactly why it is impossible to establish a concrete definition of what “art” is, because “art” means something different to everyone. That was the point of my original comment: not to argue that my definition was correct, but to point out how many different definitions there are, and how there will never be one single definition of art. Art by its nature is a subjective matter.

            • Kronopath says:

              By that definition, trolling is a art.

              • Shamus says:

                I would say that, in certain circumstances, trolling can be an art. Ken M is a legendary Facebook troll.

                http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/ken-m

                Although, many have tried to duplicate his success and I don’t think anyone has done so.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  I prefer to bring up Andy Kaufman for the simple reason that he predates the internet.Despite people immediately thinking of internet trolling,messing with people just for fun predates any form of long distance communication.

                • Jeff says:

                  I never would have thought of Ken M as a troll without it being pointed out.

                  I guess I never considered him such because he never seems adversarial or antagonistic, painting himself in such increasing levels of absurdity that in the rare cases his respondents make mockeries of themselves, it really is them doing it to themselves. In most cases it seems people give serious responses, realize “Ken M” is insane, and just lets it be rather than riding the crazy horse all the way down.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            If they want to pass games off as an art form in themselves–an interactive art form that is distinct from movies, novels, etc. then integrating the story and the gameplay is MANDATORY.

            No its not.Story is not mandatory for art.Not even in books.You can write a book that does nothing but describe a vista,and it would still be art.Good art if the descriptions were vivid and skillfully written.A game can tell zero story,or a nonsense story,and still be art.It can also have very little gameplay,or gameplay clashing with its story and still be art.Probably not good art in the case where theres a massive clash between the two,but bad art is still art.

            • Echo Tango says:

              You could also have a game that purposefully disconnects story and gameplay, to make its artistic statement. Dissonance doesn’t always imply a failing. :)

            • A book that does nothing other than describe a vista would not be art. It would be a list, much like my grocery list or the list of the contents of my closet.

              The word you’re looking for is not “book” but “novel”. A “book” can contain anything. It is not necessarily a work of art. It is a work of printing. A *novel* (and various other forms of literary art) does necessarily have a plot–as a means of concretizing its theme.

              A video game does not necessarily have a story. It can JUST be a game, like a board game. But Pong is not art. If a video game is to be art, it has to have an abstract theme, just like any other work of art, and a means of concretizing that theme.

              Extra Credits made an interesting point that some themes can be concretized through gameplay ALONE–like the theme of Missile Commander. There’s no “story” there–just the fact that you can’t ever really “win” the game. Of course . . . you can immediately play again. So you could also argue from that standpoint that this theme is somewhat undercut by the fact that, if you can never really “win”, you can never really “lose” either.

              Video games don’t really lend themselves well to tragedy, catastrophe, loss, or pathos for exactly that reason. No matter how bad it gets, you have another shot. Anything that happens can be made to un-happen. Or happen again. Oh, you can inject that kind of thing in if you like, but there’s always going to be a fundamental conflict with the fact that you can just go back to the last save point. Which is also why that sort of thing tends to come across a lot less as “c’est la vie” and more as “the writer is an asshole”. If there’s a Kobayashi Maru, it’s only because the designer *decided* to jam one in there.

              They do, however, lend themselves marvelously to conveying growth, learning, accomplishment, exploration. I think this is one reason why procedural content is so interesting–because it lends itself to exploring an aspect of games that is not present in any other art form–the non-finite. A painting, a poem, a novel, a movie, a TV series . . . these are all finite. They may be very long, but eventually they are all done. They have shown you all you’re ever going to see.

              A video game, though . . . the game you play now may never have happened before in exactly this way and may never happen exactly this way again. Stapling a wooden, mediocre movie on top of that is . . . probably not the way to go long term.

              Don’t get me wrong–I love a good story game, but even the best ones generally feel pretty narrow, and most of the “options” generally feel like “we’re giving you a chance to screw up and/or be a dick for the lulz, but it doesn’t really go anywhere”.

              • Echo Tango says:

                A book that does nothing other than describe a vista would not be art. It would be a list, much like my grocery list or the list of the contents of my closet.

                That’s not necessarily the case. It would depend on what type of vista is being described, the word choice, metaphors, etc. If the vista was simply described in boring terms, then it would not be art, unless of course the purpose of the artistic piece was to make some point with the boringness, or use the boring terms as parody of something else, or… Art is a very inclusive subject area; Your definition is strictly focused on narrative for no good reason. :)

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                A book that does nothing other than describe a vista would not be art. It would be a list, much like my grocery list or the list of the contents of my closet.

                Lets try and turn a grocery list into art:

                1)Bananas.Apples.Canned soup.Batteries.

                2)Fruit round,common and ripe,
                Canned liquid with some spices,
                Fruit of yellow color,shaped like a pipe,
                Energy storage of varying prices.

                3)I was buying bananas,apples,canned soup and batteries and then I met the woman of my dreams.We went home together.

                By your definition,only the third of those would be art,even though the plot added into it is obviously token.Meanwhile,the song is not art,even though it can be interpreted in numerous ways,and is way less token than the third example.

              • Naota says:

                I see no firm reason games couldn’t lend themselves to pathos there, save that they lack the confidence to do things the player wouldn’t like.

                Even open-ended games progress forwards in one way or another, and so permanent consequences are just a case of how certain the designer can make them. Nothing says you couldn’t build up a player’s relationship with a town of NPC’s, a companion whose presence enables the player to do more than they could alone, or even with their character’s own growth, with plans to take that away from them in service to a tragic narrative.

                Even as a form of meta-narrative “time travel”, being able to reload a game doesn’t do anything to prevent scripted events – and if your issue is that events then feel scripted, it’s entirely doable through gameplay systems as well, in the form of hopeless odds and engineered unfairness.

                Ultimately, as games are still a new medium for expression, like any other they’re afraid of deliberately doing things that make the player feel bad. They don’t want to court frustration or depression by breaking or taking away a player’s toys, because they don’t want to risk it being aimed at their work instead of working with it, or turning away their audience.

              • GloatingSwine says:

                A book that does nothing other than describe a vista would not be art. It would be a list, much like my grocery list or the list of the contents of my closet.

                That depends on the artistry with which the vista are described.

                Invisible Cities is undoubtedly art, probing the limits of what can be imagined in the form of 55 very brief descriptions of imagined cities (which are all also very brief descriptions of a different detail of one city, Venice).

                It [i]is[/i] a book which just describes a vista, and it is art. Art is not necessarily defined by content.

          • default_ex says:

            So your opinion is that because a large number of games have trouble with ludo-narrative dissonance the entire genre should not be considered art? Seems very pretentious of a stance to take. We don’t treat every single painting as art because not all of it is of art quality. Same thing with books, some are literary art, some are creative art others aren’t art at all.

            Ludo-narrative dissonance has absolutely nothing to do with art. Creativity is what makes something art. If it was made by exercising creativity, however shallow that creativity may be then it is art. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, it’s still art.

      • mechaninja says:

        And what, by all the unholy elder gods in this galaxy (I assume Cthulhu and Friends will not be destroying Andromeda), do they eat?

      • Bret says:

        I’ve been bringing this up everywhere, but heck. I can say it a few more times. Nier Automata is probably the best example of games as art.

        The silky smooth combat? It’s because you’re an android in a forever war with robots, and you were programmed to feel love when you kill. Combat SHOULD be fun for you, and there’s always going to be someone who wants you dead. You die over and over?

        Well, yeah. You’re a prototype YoRHa combat model, the state of the art, so when you die you reboot from your backup on the server. You even have your “memories” since death left on your corpse in the form of XP.

        The game continually uses the mechanics to play into the existentialist narrative, and the narrative plays into the game. There’s a hacking minigame? Well, that’s how robots hack. You level up? Yeah, it’s your adaptive AI. Everything is justified in-narrative, even if it’s sometimes very tongue-in-cheek. And it all adds up to form an excellent narrative that would not work in any other form.

        Taro Yoko is one of the most interesting game designers in the business right now, partially because he thinks about this kind of thing. The first game he directed was based around the question “What kind of psychopath would be the protagonist of a Musuo game?”

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      The idea was that all the gameplay is supposed to be a sort of abstraction of what really occurred

      All the games are abstractions.The only difference is the in the degree.Dissonance comes from using different degrees of abstraction for connected things.Like making a game set in the real world,with realistically looking people,1:1 relation between in game and real world time,and a map of new york the size of a napkin.

      • Part of the job of any work of art is to communicate its “physics” to you–the underlying assumptions. Games have more “physics” to them than any other type of art, which is hardly surprising. But they also tend to be singularly bad at COMMUNICATING those physics.

        There’s a cool example of this in DDO (Dungeons and Dragons Online). See, instead of having a degenerate “you can rest anywhere” mechanic, or a spectactularly annoying “monsters may teleport to you when you rest” mechanic like some other D&D video games, DDO uses “rest shrines”. You have to sit there and “rest” at the shrine for a while–if you take damage, you have to start again. The shrines have a timer (and in higher difficulties can only be used once). So there’s a definite attrition mechanic going on in the game using these shrines.

        However, you can actually run across places in quests where enemies have demolished shrines (offscreen). You run across NPC’s who can summon a shrine for you. So you wind up realizing that these shrines aren’t just an abstraction but are actual objects present “in” the game.

        It’s played for laughs in DDO (one shrine is the toilet paper roll in the bathroom in a quest). But, see, it’s NEVER obvious exactly what these abstractions represent unless you TELL people somehow. And if you don’t bother to tell people, you start to get weirdness like “oh, NPC is hurt? Why do I need to go track down herbs and a healer to cure them? Why can’t I just give them one of my health packs? What the hell IS a health pack, anyway?” or “I’ve been shot 5000 times to get here and now I’m going to surrender because this guy points a gun at me?”

  2. Matt Downie says:

    So, let’s look for a phrase that doesn’t annoy people. ‘Story’ or ‘plot’ instead of ‘narrative’. ‘Gameplay’ or just ‘game’ instead of ‘ludo’. (Or losing the word ‘game’ entirely since it’s probably implied by the context.)

    I’d like to drop the word ‘dissonance’ too since that’s long and overly-intellectual sounding. Not so obvious what to replace it with, though… “Plot conflict,” sounds like we’re talking about the conflict that drives the narrative, not the plot conflicting with the gameplay. Maybe ‘discord’?

    • MichaelGC says:

      Textaspectual clangalangage. No? Ah well. I gave it my best a fair a shot.

    • Jack V says:

      Story/gameplay mismatch? Discord also sounds good, it captures the flavour of “either could be fine but they go awfully together”.

      • Story/gameplay *mismatch* sounds to me like the game is telling you to do something like “shoot the boss” but it turns out that in order to actually progress you have to go find a lever to pull to set off a bomb that kills the boss. Poor communication isn’t the same as beautifully communicating something that doesn’t mesh with another thing that was also beautifully communicated. Such as:

        “Nooo she’s dead, we must not let her sacrifice be in vain!”
        “Uh, I have a resurrection scroll RIGHT HERE.”

        • FluffySquirrel says:

          That was always the worst in old D&D computer games like Baldurs Gate, NWN etc. I’m not even using all these resurrection scrolls. Some of my characters can even cast it just by having a bit of a rest. There comes a point where you kind of feel like a major douche just.. letting some guys mother stay murdered when you could easily fix it

          • Naota says:

            To be fair, this never made sense to me as a narrative convention in Dungeons and Dragons. Returning the dead to life for nothing more than a bit of wealth trivializes mortality so badly that for most stories it only works as a game mechanic, and usually goes willfully ignored.

            I’ve run and played a number of campaigns now, and in all of them my group has likened resurrection to first aid: it’ll save you if you’ve just expired, provided you weren’t overkilled too badly… but if more than a few minutes pass, you’re done. If the PC’s need a more lenient approach to support the gameplay, we typically give them a special status in the plot which makes this possible for just them – such as the Dark Sign-branded undead from Dark Souls.

    • Drlemaster says:

      Nevermind, the ascii-based joked I was trying to make doesn’t work on this page. Something like gamestorywtfery, but in diagram form.

    • Syal says:

      “Stupid Stuff”.

  3. John says:

    I happen to think that “ludonarrative dissonance” is a rather nifty little phrase. It’s short; pithy, almost. It expresses a really useful games-criticism concept. I like the way it rolls off the tongue and I like the way it means exactly what you think it means if you understand all the root words. Of course, I took Latin in high school instead of a more useful or relevant (or, y’know, living) language. I ran into the word ludum long before I ever ran into the word ludonarrative and so ludonarrative doesn’t seem odd to me the way it might to other people. If I were to construct a similar phrase out of more commonly-used roots and words, I suppose I’d go with something like “gameplay-story contradictions”. But I’d rather say ludonarrative dissonance.

    • evileeyore says:

      Ditto. First time I heard Chris say ludonarrative dissonance i know exactly what he meant.

      High five for us ‘useless’ latin takers.

      Personally I’m fine with gameplay/story dissonance as an alt term. I still think dissonance is a key word as you might not have contradictory elements, but you can still have dissonant elements.

      [EDIT]
      Side note, I like the new way the edit box works.

      Very slick Shamus!
      [/EDIT]

      • Lazlo says:

        The first time I heard the term, I assumed that the “ludo” was some sort of reference to Luddites, and kept trying to figure out how the story could be at odds with anti-technology. I still haven’t really been able to shake that first impression.

        • John says:

          The funny thing is that when I first ran into the word ludi it was used to refer to Roman paramilitary exercises for upper-class youth. Which is to say athletic competitions, not that the Romans necessarily saw a difference. Think Olympic Games rather than video games. But it does have the more contemporary meaning as well. Then there’s ludum dare, the literal translation of which is “to give a game” but can also be an idiom for school.

        • MrPyro says:

          I keep thinking that it’s a shorthand for ludicrous (anybody know if it’s from the same root?), so my instinctive reading of the phrase is “dissonance caused because the story is stupid”.

          • John says:

            I am not an etymologist and my Latin is old and rusty, so the best answer I can give to your parenthetical question is maybe. The Latin verb ludo (“I play”) or ludere (“to play”) is the obvious root of ludus (“game, sport, or pastime”) and also of ludicrum, which can mean either “trifle or plaything” or “theatrical performance”. (This should give you some view of the esteem in which the Romans held the arts. The theater was, as far as I know, quite popular, but it was not considered respectable.) Ludicrum is a plausible Latin root for the English ludicrous, but I can’t make a definite connection.

  4. Asdasd says:

    I agree that outlawing terminology makes for a poorer discourse. Semantics is the classic de-railer and the death of many an interesting debate (as well as a handy indicator of when it’s time to stop reading a 40-page forum thread and just go to bed already). Why do we so love to fight over words instead of the concepts they’re being used to represent?

    This isn’t even the most egregious example though. Much more banal terms are also under threat. When you have John Walker of the extremely influential and prominent Rock, Paper Shotgun making war on such fundamentals as the word ‘gameplay’ you wonder what exactly is going to be left for us all to talk about.

  5. silver Harloe says:

    I think if you write, “the gameplay and the story seem totally disconnected,” the readers will understand you better and feel like you’ve thought about the gameplay and the story. Whereas if you write, “there was ludonarrative dissonance,” some readers will understand fine, but some will tune you out, and some of the former will think you’re buzzwording more than thinking about the gameplay and the story (even if you write the same paragraphs around it that prove you have put the thought in). I don’t know how many academic terms lend to themselves to such an easy and small substitution while retaining meaning, but this is definitely one such term.

  6. Thomas says:

    People always reached for the low hanging fruits to explain the term which helped damage it. But those are almost always the least important parts of the concept

    Like how in Uncharted you’re a wisecracking who kills 100s of dudes in gameplay. Ludonarrative Dissonance. But I’d argue Uncharted is really very Ludonarrative Sonnant [sic].

    The gameplay is pulpy, flashy looking but easy on the mind. You’re always on the _verge_ of dying but never really in trouble.

    That meshes well with Uncharted’s Indiana Jones narrative. Sure the logical details of killing lots of mooks don’t work out, but the larger feeling and expression of the gameplay strengthens the narrative goals of the game and vice versa.

    • John says:

      That’s fair. I really think that Grand Theft Auto IV is a much better poster-child for ludonarrative dissonance than Uncharted anyway. I mean, it’s weird that Nathan Drake is having so much fun while killing so many people, but unless there’s something in the narrative to suggest that Nathan Drake just isn’t the kind of guy who would do that kind of thing then I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of dissonance to speak of. Whereas GTA IV has a protagonist whom the narrative says doesn’t like murder anymore and gameplay systems that encourages the player to go out and commit murder for fun and occasionally profit. That’s dissonant.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      I remember the RedLetter Media Plinkett review of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull that noted Indy killed a few dozen dudes in each of the original trilogy of films. Which isn’t a lot by the city-levelling standards of today’s action films, but it was pretty high for the 80s. It definitely put Indy closer on the continuum to your Schwarzeneggers and Steven Seagals than your Jack Burtons or Han Solos. Stretch out a 2-hour Indy movie to be 8-12 hours and you might get Nathan Drake’s triple-digit bodycounts–especially since he’s using modern assault weapons and explosives compared to Indy’s 1930s arsenal.

      I wonder if that’s a way to rein in the mass slaughter of the likes of Uncharted and Tomb Raider games. Instead of giving Drake and Croft access to assault weapons, make the best weapon they can get something like a bolt-action rifle. Don’t give the badguys access to a lot of assault weapons either–maybe the occasional miniboss or elite opponent gets a full-auto weapon and defeating them through stealth or the environment is the challenge–but I wonder if you can keep up the excitement of combat sequences while keeping bodycounts down if players have to pick their shots wisely instead of praying-and-spraying.

      • Thomas says:

        The point that I’m trying to get at is, it doesn’t really matter. And the problem Ludonarrative Dissonance suffers is that it quickly draws people into this kind of discussion, when that’s not what someone like Chris or Clint Hocking is trying to talk about when they used the word.

        Players take culturally built up shortcuts when playing games. We’re not playing murder simulators because an NPC is only a vague approximation of a person. Films do just the same, people don’t talk like people in films, but we accept it as part of the language. You gave a great example, Indiana Jones has a high body count, but it doesn’t _feel_ that way. That’s because mooks in Indiana Jones are only ‘approximately’ people too. What’s important is the narrative and the cinematography tells you it’s light and fun and it’s not as serious as murder would be.

        Whats important in Uncharted is the same thing. Sure you’re killing 100’s of mooks, but the gameplay and narrative are both telling you that this is a fun light experience. If you warp the gameplay so you don’t kill lots of mooks by making it harder or encouraging more patient methodical play, it’s making the gameplay less fun and light – _creating_ ludonarrative dissonance.

        I’d even say that Shamus gets drawn in a bit. Diablo’s story conflicting with it’s power fantasy gameplay is a fundamental dissonance, and the fact that you play GTA as an agent of mayhem screwing with NPCs and blinging cash is too. But is Max popping painkillers is really important at all?

        • Matt Downie says:

          Pretty subjective, though. Maybe I empathise with NPCs more easily. Maybe I can’t kill a mook without thinking about how his wife will be able to raise their little mook children without the money he was bringing in through his mooking.

          I’d expect a game to at least try to convince me that these NPCs are monstrous people who need to be killed. Or, you know, make them Nazi soldiers. That works for Indy. Making them ill-defined is sufficient if I’m supposed to be playing a callous maniac (e.g. Saints Row) but not if I’m role-playing a decent human being.

          • Thomas says:

            Its art/entertainment, of course its subjective.

            From an authorial intent view, both you and eye would find it easy to point to the games that wanted you to revel in the gore of the deaths and the ones that don’t. You might feel bad in Uncharted, but you’d recognise they’ve been given ‘poof, fall over’ death animations, compared to hotline miami’s blood splatters.

            Even if you do feel that type of disconnect, the word still originally wasn’t intended to be about literal issues, it was about thematically conflict. Clint Hocking didn’t like that Bioshock’s story was about tearing down Objectivism, whilst it’s gameplay systems were an objectivist wonderland.

        • Naota says:

          I’d actually argue that the painkillers in Max Payne 3 aren’t the main dissonant element – the story’s new tone is.

          Nobody really though twice about egregious pill-popping in the first two games, with their willfully cheesy and over-the-top noir theatrics… but put the same system into a harshly realized and realistically heavy depiction of life as we know it, and it starts to stand out a lot more. We expect a dramatized character like original Max to quaff more pills than is strictly human in pursuit of his revenge, just like we expect Indiana Jones to take impossible punishment in stride – but neither one is something we’d allow from Tony Soprano.

        • Andrew Blank says:

          I agree. I think the Max Payne pill issue is just narrative dissonance. After all the fact that they are pills isn’t gameplay. They could have just swapped them out for bandages after that point in the game and the gameplay would have been identical.

    • Ivellius says:

      The opposite of dissonance would be assonance; I haven’t played Uncharted, but it sounds relatively assonant.

  7. gravetracer says:

    For what it’s worth, there’s dialogue addressing the painkiller usage in Max Payne 3. The first time you use painkillers after Max quits drinking (I’m pretty sure that’s the trigger), he mutters “one vice at a time.” For some reason that line stuck with me.

  8. Abnaxis says:

    FWIW, TvTopes lumps ludonarrative dissonance into Gameplay and Story Segregation. I tried to convince the peanut gallery that, since even the article points out that it’s not quite equivalent to ludonarrative dissonance then LD should have it’s own article, but I was voted down.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      As I understand it, the article points out that it’s not the equivalent to the current definition of the term, which is the wrong one, as pointed out by Shamus up there and the video he links to. Using the original definition they’re clearly the same thing.

      In any case, the fact that there’s a TV Tropes page about it pretty much means it’s the opposite of a forgotten idea (hell, the page even lists quite a few subtropes for an even deeper exploration of the subject), so there’s nothing to worry about. Well, except for the fact that developers seem blissfully unaware of it, but that’s another, larger issue.

  9. Vermander says:

    I’ve often wished that more games would acknowledge how formidable the PC is in-universe, especially on later levels. Once you’ve mowed down dozens or even hundreds of foes and acquired a small arsenal of weapons and powers every major faction in the game should either view you as a serious threat or be desperate to acquire your support. No one should be asking the unstoppable avatar of destruction to “prove themselves” by completing a series of menial tasks.

    • FluffySquirrel says:

      There comes a point where you really begin to hate shopkeepers. I’m trying to save the world here. You know I’m a big hero, and the sky is literally on fire right now. We are in the end times, and you’re holding this stuff back from me to make a profit? Can’t you take an IOU? If I die because I don’t have this stuff, the world will literally end

      One of my favourite parts of one of the NWN games. In the third expansion, by the point that you’re easily epic level, and are currently in one of the nine hells.. your enemies send an entire army of demons after you

      You face off against this huge (ok, wasn’t that huge, limitations of the system and all) horde.. then you realise that they’re afraid of you, and some of them are muttering stuff like ‘Holy crap this is the hero of Neverwinter’ and ‘We’re all gonna die!’

      Stuck with me, for sure.. was a nice little touch

      • Vermander says:

        I guess you have to be pretty stubborn to run a business that sells things which only one person in the universe can possibly afford or even use. I can forgive this type of thing in games where the PC has some sort of home base where individual craftsmen or merchants work for them on commission, but it gets downright ridiculous when the merchant selling the 1,000,000 gp magic sword has set up shop on a remote island or at the edge of the wasteland. That’s like opening a Tesla dealership in Haiti.

      • John says:

        The NWN expansions are pretty good about that. In the first expansion, there’s a bit where you have to pass through some kobold-infested caves. You fight your way through a twisty, trap-filled set of corridors and at last make your way in to the kobolds’ living area. It’s filled with unarmed kobold civilians who scream and start running whenever you get too close.

    • Mark says:

      The Ace Combat games do that. Towards the end of AC4, you can overhear enemy units panicking when they realize that the pilot overhead is the one who’s been singlehandedly devastating their entire military force. And as AC5’s story moves forward, it becomes integral to the plot how your squadron’s amazingly over-the-top victories have made them the foundation of your entire nation’s morale.

    • JohnnyComeLately says:

      I know it’s been done to death but I still find it hilarious in skyrim that you can be walking around in glowing blood red armor, wielding a hammer made out of dragon bones and literally shouting dragons out of the sky and a lvl 3 bandit with an iron dagger will bum rush you. I don’t even bother killing them anymore, I just let them die from AOE from actual threats.

  10. MadTinkerer says:

    “This Dumb Industry: Ludonarrative Dissonance”

    Wait! Wait! I need popcorn and beer!

    [runs to the microwave and fridge for a couple minutes, then comes back with snacks and alchohol]

    Okay: go!

    • MadTinkerer says:

      To me, the term ludonarrative dissonance is fundamentally flawed because I come at it from a narrative theory standpoint. It’s not that the dissonance isn’t there, but that it’s actually not a direct conflict between narrative and gameplay.

      Every game involves choice on the part of the players, including the choice of whether to play or not to play. Once play has started, there is always the second choice of whether to continue playing until a goal is met or to stop playing before a particular success or failure condition has been met. Thus every player in every game (including sports) is always sympathetic with the protagonist of a story whether they consciously realize it or not. Sometimes there is no separation between player and protagonist, and sometimes players roleplay specific protagonists and sometimes antagonists. Sometimes the protagonists of one team are the antagonists of the other team and vice versa.

      Did you know that each round of Texas Hold ‘Em has the exact same structure as a Hero’s Journey story? (This is probably why Texas Hold ‘Em is so popular.)

      Meanwhile, Minecraft has no explicit goals or structure but players come up with their own goals as suggested by the gameplay loops and landscape of the generated world. Thus Texas Hold ‘Em and Minecraft and any game without a pre-written story can still be analyzed using narrative theory just as well as any Fallout game or sports movie or Star Wars.

      Anyway, since every game is a story where the players identify with (or as) protagonists, the conflict is not between the game mechanics and the story, but between the two stories presented: The experienced story that comes from the player playing the game, and the written story that the author(s) present as “the” story of the game. All written stories rely on a certain amount of suspended belief, and that suspended belief relies on narrative consistency. When the two stories contradict each other, that interferes with overall narrative consistency and makes belief suspension more difficult. That is what ludonarrative dissonance actually is.

      Anyway, I have no idea what to call it instead. I’m not a professor of anything. I’m just saying that what is being called ludonarrative dissonance might need a different jargon to be a little more accurate from a narrative theory standpoint. It has nothing to do with game mechanics directly, but everything to do with player experience that is an indirect result of the mechanics not matching the written story or vice versa.

      • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        That was a very cogent and thought provoking take on the issue, and I shall have to think further on this.

        In the interim, could you explain how every hand of Texas Hold’em is the hero’s journey arc. My familiarity with the proper way to play the game is maybe a bit low (more of a 5-card draw guy) but it isn’t obvious to me.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          Okay, here we go:

          Call To Adventure: This is the most obvious one. The initial card dealing is the call.

          Refusal: Check, raise, or fold, before the flop.

          Supernatural aid: In a game with inexperienced players, this would be whatever tells the players give off when they make their first choice. In a pro game, the statistical knowledge of the players (and the knowlege that everyone is an experienced pro) is such that they are effectively telling each other how good their hands are by whether they check or by how much they raise, and explicit tells are not necessary.

          Crossing the first threshold: The first threshold is the flop.

          Belly of the whale: If the post-flop betting round heats up, it’s kind of like this.

          Road of trials: All further betting rounds.

          Meeting with the goddess / Woman as temptress: These parts apply less often to poker than to craps and blackjack tables, but sometimes it happens.

          Atonement with the father: Usually doesn’t apply, as the “father” would be the dealer and the player wouldn’t get to play in the first place if there was a serious conflict with the dealer.

          Apotheosis: final betting round.

          The ultimate boon: The pot.

          Refusal of the return: Sometimes players bow out early after a big win.

          The Magic Flight: Sometimes players accuse others of cheating.

          Rescue from without: Sometimes security needs to step in.

          Return threshold / master of two worlds / freedom to live: Next round!

          Some steps are less applicable to Campbell’s hero’s journey specifically and more applicable to a general three act “adventure” structure, but it mostly fits. (I guess I was exaggerating a little when I said it fits “exactly”. Mea culpa.)

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        the conflict is not between the game mechanics and the story, but between the two stories presented

        But thats precisely why the term ludonarrative dissonance is so good and much better than any proposed “solution”,like gameplay/story discord.The ludic component describes the story defined by the player well,because its a spontaneous story,one defined by the moment when the game is being played.Meanwhile,narrative describes the written story well,the unchangeable story given by the developer.It encapsulates the disconnect between what you are experiencing and what the developer wants you to experience without the need to insert any other explanation into it,or expand on the term beyond explaining just the meaning of “ludic”,”narrative” and “dissonance”.

  11. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Its also a fun sounding term thats amusing to make fun of.Some words are like that.Like gorn.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Maybe the term itself is unsalvageable now

    You shouldnt be defeatist like that.If you asked me a decade ago about the word sapient,I wouldve told you that its a lost cause.Everyone was saying sentient.But now,Im hearing sapient more and more,which never wouldve happened if people simply succumbed to those who were reflexively screaming “who the fuck cares” whenever the distinction was brought up.

    So if you think a term is being misused,then you start using it correctly whenever you can.This is doubly true for people who have an audience that listens to them like yourself.Follow in archers footsteps and start injecting it whenever its appropriate.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      I still see sentient far more often than sapient, but, in general, I’ve noticed most people side step the issue entirely (perhaps out of fear of being called out for using the wrong word) and just talk about “intelligent life.”

      • Echo Tango says:

        There’s a lot of things that are “sentient” – slime molds can detect their surroundings, and some plants can hear certain frequencies (e.g. tomatoes can hear the wings of the aphids that prey on them). It’s also a very grey scale between “sentient” and “sapient”. Chimps only count as “sentient”, but they’re way smarter than dogs, which are smarter still than houseflies. Where is the line drawn for “sapient”? Is it only things capable of introspection and self-analysis? Does that mean that children under age X don’t count? Is a drunk adult temporarily non-sapient[1]? You can argue that we need both of these words, but I think it’d be better if we first had a definition of what made the distinction. What’s the point of using such specific words, when the definitions are fuzzy?

        [1] I would argue “yes”, but that’s me. :)

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          One good definition Ive stumbled upon is that sapience refers to the ability to plan for the future.Humans can see(imagine) how their actions would affect them(and the world) days,moths,even years in the future.As to whether chimps can do that to a much lesser degree is debatable,but its clear that other animals cant.

          Also,one other very useful term to differentiate different kinds of intelligences is self awareness.Very few mammals are self aware.

          But yes,the problem with all these terms is that they are easy to spot,yet very hard to precisely define.

        • Alrenous says:

          You’re sapient if you can alter your behaviour to follow a contract and thus perform arbitrary trades.

        • MrPyro says:

          The definitions I’ve heard have a few stages between sentient and sapient:

          Sentient
          Intelligent
          Self-Aware
          Sapient

          So your slime-molds, plants etc. sit in sentient. Most animals sit in intelligent. A few animals are self-aware (elephants, I think? Maybe chimps and other primates). Sapient is currrently restricted to humans

    • Philadelphus says:

      Stellaris with its latest patch a few weeks ago actually made the jump from using “sentient” to “sapient” which kinda surprised me.

  13. TMC_Sherpa says:

    I mean, in a book or movie nothing exists off camera and there is no variance in the story. No one sees a different ending. Games are (more or less) stuck in the silent movie era and I have no idea what their version of “sound” is going to be.

    • Syal says:

      No one sees a different ending.

      Clue had different endings.

      …it wasn’t a good idea.

      • Echo Tango says:

        You are so wrong! All of the endings of Clue are the best! EQUALLY! :D

        • Syal says:

          They’re good when they’re all shown together with one being the “true” ending, but separate, without changing anything before the reveal, it stresses that Clue’s clues aren’t meaty enough to let the audience solve the mystery ahead of time.

    • Echo Tango says:

      We do actually see different endings, though. The original two Fallout games[1] had the endings change depending on your actions and relationships with different factions; The recent West Of Loathing game did pretty much the same thing. Another way of doing it is with smaller changes to the story, like which characters live and die, or who ends up with the loot; See the Telltale games[2].

      [1] Drink responsibly!
      [2] The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales From The Borderlands all do this pretty well.

    • Bubble181 says:

      There’s also the movie Terror (German movie, I don’t know under what title it may have been shown in the USA).
      It involves a fighter pilot who is on trial for shooting down a hijacked passenger airplane. As presented, he killed some 160 people to save thousands of others (in a 9/11 style attack on a full football stadium).
      At each showing, the audience are the jury, and get to vote whether or not the pilot is acquitted. Both endings exist, and only one is shown based on the audience’s choice.

      The public excuses the pilot by a more-or-less 80% margin in almost 95% of the viewings, by the way.

  14. Fade2Gray says:

    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.

    So, basically like virtually every political debate ever. Got it.

    I’d point to a recent example in gaming news, but I’m already a little uncomfortably close to the no politics line.

  15. Dave Rolsky says:

    I think the degree to which ludonarrative dissonance is relevant depends on the game. Do either the makers or players of Diablo 3 _really_ care about the story, or is it just a framing device so there’s some sort of structure to the progression of levels while we slaughter thousands of monsters and collect all the sweet loot? I’d argue it’s the latter.

    OTOH, my go-to game for ludonarrative distance is The Last of Us. The designers clearly put a lot of thought into the stories and characters. I was really impressed by the story they told, with its focus on morality and the cost of violence.

    Meanwhile, in the gameplay, there’s the section where you play as Ellie and you can slaughter a good thirty or more adults. And one of the ways you can kill them is by sneaking up on them, jumping on the back, and stabbing them repeatedly in the head! Ellie is supposed to be the voice of morality and humanity but the gameplay lets you play her as a stone cold serial killer. You can choose to not kill all but one person when you play as her, but it’s way harder that way, so I imagine most folks abandon the pure stealth approach and do at least some head-stabbing. If Ellie had refused to kill people in this section I think it would’ve fit the gameplay much better.

  16. Thomas says:

    Whenever Ludonarrative Dissonance comes up, all people want to talk about is Ludonarrative-narrative dissonance. How the narrative framing the gameplay clashes with the narrative framing the game.

    People talk about whether the game calls the healthbar ‘HP’ or ‘Shields’ or ‘Stamina’ or ‘Luck’, not that all the enemies have great big frigging healthbars that take ages to chip down.

  17. Agammamon says:

    I have an example where LDN turned my off a game completely.

    Read Dead Redemption . . . 2? I think. Playing that on a friends console, I had a great time in the opening. Riding around, herding cattle, taming horses, meeting interesting people.

    Then I did the first big story mission – go into a mine and steal a gatling gun from some bandits. I killed 30 bandits in 5 minutes (and never even got to the objective) and, after spending a couple a four hours in the game previously where I had killed maybe 6 people total, it was such a major clash with that way the world was presented that it turned me off the game. I turned it off and haven’t been back.

    Its not that I didn’t expect to have to kill anyone there, its that with the way the rest of the world was presented, killing 3 dozen mooks in one go was just too much out-of-place stuff jammed in there for the sake of ‘gameplay’.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      Leaving aside the fact that you’re talking about Red Dead Redemption 1 and not 2 (which is not out yet), that’s not a proper example at all. The protagonist of that game is a wanted criminal who’s killed more than his fair share of people and while he’s turned over a new leaf he still has no compulsions about killing.

      And the world presents itself to you as a large, open expanse of land filled with people and animals of all walks of life. If you hadn’t encountered any major conflicts until playing a story mission is because you’ve been actively avoiding them. That’s not the game to blame, as if you had happened into a taken post, for instance, you might have had to kill a few dozens mooks in a couple of minutes.

      • Agammamon says:

        No compulsions about killing – but there’s a difference between that and a world presented to you that is sparsely populated, most people are law-abiding, and then you run into a mine where you kill more dudes just going through the first part than there were total NPC’s in the whole game up to that point. That’s on top of the PC not being a super-human killing machine but simply a famous bandit past his prime trying to deal with his past catching up to him. The rest of the world meshed with that. But, like GTA, once you get into the story missions all that is thrown out and you’re a remorseless killing machine – until the end of the mission.

        Seriously – that mine had more opponents than the ranch my character was working prior to that had employees. There was a very definite disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay at that point. A massive one.

        And sure, its not Red Dead Redemption 2 – it was however the second game in the series.

  18. Don Alsafi says:

    The first use of “ludo” I encountered in a computer game was way back in 1986.

  19. Grampy_bone says:

    Dan Olson? Uggghhhhhhhhh I can’t stand that guy.

  20. Charlie B. says:

    Oh boy I just about wanted to pull my hair out the first time I saw that Moviebob video. He just completely did not understand it at all.

    • Echo Tango says:

      He spends a lot of time pointing out that games will always have a disconnect between player actions and the story given to them. The actual problem is the story, or motivation, or type of character the gameplay / mechanics / systems encourage / enforce on the player, rather than whatever silly things the player does when they choose to ignore the story. :)

      • Jabrwock says:

        He did oversimplify quite a bit. His example of “oh, it’s just pointing out how in an RPG you can loot people’s houses when that would never fly IRL” seemed to miss the second half, narrative.

        It’s one of those things like suspension of disbelief. “I won’t talk about it if you don’t.” If the game ignores the issues (you loot everything, and other than a lampshade joke nobody notices) then it’s not an issue, there is no clash between gameplay and narrative because the narrative ignores it. But when the game specifically spotlights the issue (your character is a pillar of justice, there’s quests where you hunt down thieves, but you can freely and without consequence loot entire houses) then the game presented a narrative that is counter to the gameplay, and so we have dissonance.

        • RCN says:

          Or when you can loot whatever you want from people’s houses but then at some arbitrary point you try to steal something and you get thrown in jail for it because the narrative demanded that you be in jail at that point in the game, without even mentioning the dozens of acts of theft you’ve done in the past.

          And then, after the obligatory jailbreak, you can steal from people’s house at will consequence free again.

          • Jabrwock says:

            Looting the police station on your way out. :D

          • The Rocketeer says:

            Final Fantasy VII bases a joke on this. Rather late in the game, you can pick up an Elixir from someone’s bed while they’re in the room. When you try to walk out the door, the owner calls you out on it. If you try to lie your way out, he takes it back, but if you admit you took it, he respects that and lets you keep it.

            There’s also the one kid in Midgar with a secret stash of 5 ENTIRE GIL! If you don’t steal his money early in the game, he manages to get hold of a Turbo Ether by the time you return late in the game… which you can then steal. It’s a dog-eat-dog town, kid.

            I know there are more examples from the series, but I can’t remember them at the moment.

  21. I think “cohesive” and “non-cohesive” can serve a similar purpose to “ludonarrative dissonance”.

  22. Mousazz says:

    Warning: spoilers for the original Hotline Miami

    After watching both videos of Folding Ideas and Errant Signal, and reading the post of MadTinkerer, I’m finally starting to get what the issue of ludonarrative dissonance is all about.. from the narrative perspective, at least.

    But what about the mechanical perspective? Do we have terminology ready to describe the ways in which videogames separate the story from the gameplay via the use of its systems? For example, taking away the agency from the player by using cutscenes; alternatively, lacking any sort of transition from the cutscene back into gameplay itself (especially if a loading screen is used in the gap ala Sonic ’06). I remember one of the selling points at the show case of Splinter Cell: Conviction was “look at how smoothly we cut from pre-rendered cutscene to in-game cutscene! And how smoothly we transition from that to gameplay!”

    Jennifer Snow made a comment that, according to her, “If they want to pass games off as an art form in themselves–an interactive art form that is distinct from movies, novels, etc. then integrating the story and the gameplay is MANDATORY.”. Well, to prod further – could Hotline Miami be considered art? Mechanically, the levels where you bash dudes’ heads in are separate from the little story vignettes taking place in the protagonist’s house or inside his mind. The gameplay is also abstracted from the story – the narrative treats you as having survived everything on the first try, yet likely you’ve died dozens of times in gameplay already. However the “gameplay narrative” and the “story narrative”, while giving off a feeling of discomfort, mesh together really well, in my opinion – you slaughter humans in extremely graphic and gory ways, and the game calls you out on it. The game makes you pay attention that what you’re engaging in is practically violent lunacy. It strives through visuals and music to embed the idea into your head that this game isn’t just harmless, light-hearted fun. I still remember how much fuss there was in gaming journalism over that whole “Do you like hurting other people” line, as it seemed to reach out directly to the player rather than just the character.

    Unfortunately, while the story of Hotline Miami doesn’t conflict with the gameplay, it doesn’t interact mechanically either. An emotionally obtuse player could simply not care about Jacket visiting the shops to engage in conversation with the shop-keeper, because he isn’t getting scored on it. He could be annoyed at the story the game is trying to invest him in, because this isn’t the gameplay he was after. He could simply not give a damn that Jacket’s girlfriend was shot and that this is now proper motivation to start rampaging through a police station, as having fun was already enough justification for him to play the game. And yet, all that arises only because the story isn’t mechanically integrated into the gameplay – it’s possibly optional, even if it meshes really well narratively. Let’s say that what such a player feels isn’t Ludonarrative dissonance, at least according to how Shamus defines that term – but what should his experience be called then? And is this what Jennifer Snow meant when she said that video games aren’t art – because this type of person wouldn’t consume it as a work of art, even if he could?

    • Syal says:

      because this type of person wouldn’t consume it as a work of art, even if he could?

      Eh, that’d be like saying music isn’t art because some people are tonedeaf.

      Part of the problem with using Hotline Miami as the example here is that the story is a violent fever dream, and the gameplay does integrate with that; the background is trippy and the camera swoons like the game is barely keeping upright. You also need to do mundane story tasks, like check your answering machine and climb into your car, that serve no gameplay purpose.

      …Didn’t Jacket shoot his girlfriend?

  23. Daemian Lucifer says:

    How come no one said yet that the whole article is on the front page?

  24. Dreadjaws says:

    Fun fact: “Ludo” is the spanish term for the game english speakers know as “Parcheesi”. I played that game a lot when I was a child, so I’ve associated the word “Ludo” with games my whole life.

  25. Ivellius says:

    Shamus, this article is probably going to make me late for my class, but as an academic who focuses on video games I’m coming back to comment later.

    In short, I absolutely agree that “dissonance” of all kinds is important and wrote a conference paper examining some different types and trying to expand that concept (haven’t finished your article yet).

  26. Paul Spooner says:

    It’s interesting that you balk at defining terms, and yet put disclaimers at the beginning of some of your articles. You don’t have to define a phrase every time you use it. You could even define it thoroughly in one article (this one?) and then just link to the article when you use the term again.

    I also recommend ignoring reactive know-it-all wrong-definition mongers, which I’m going to refer to as “pedonts”. Someone who is interested in engaging in an intelligent examination of the internal consistency of video-games will probably pause to figure out how you are using a term. A pedont will just laugh at you, which is fine.

  27. Ivellius says:

    Okay. I return. I am going to try to be relatively succinct, but I think this is an excellent subject to discuss.

    As someone who’s fairly new to the academic world, I think I understand why “LND” as I’m choosing to abbreviate it caught on as a particular term due to academic conversations around video games in general. (I’m oversimplifying the conversation somewhat, but I think it captures the essence.) On one side, you had “narrativists,” who believed that games, like other media, tell stories, and so while there might be differences between games and other media you could still use similar tools of analysis and view them as narratives. This view posits a kind of “ideal playthrough” that consists of the narrative events all players will or should experience and provides for a way to discuss universal experiences and conversations about the game’s thematics.

    “Ludists,” on the other hand, focused on the unique features of games: if players can really make choices (and you can), then each playthrough is its own narrative experience. They’re more considered with the rules with which players interact and how these rules are conveyed.

    Personally, I think most people in the field are kind of “done” with this conversation, but it’s been around a long time and I think the identification of a term to encapsulate this tension solidified the conversation and was perhaps inevitable.

    I would surmise that all or very nearly all games suffer from some ludonarrative dissonance–as well as other types–and I agree that giving this kind of dissonance its own special term elevates it in a strange way. Take, for example, a MOBA like League of Legends, in which it’s hugely important to level up your skills so that your character will be more complete, but all they once gave you was a small “+” box that blinks every so often and a brief message when you initially gained a level. Yes, you can probably tell that you should do something, but you’ll experience ludovisual dissonance because the visual cues are relatively small and easy to miss and don’t communicate the tremendous importance of making the gameplay decision on leveling a skill. (They changed the leveling system as I was finishing the paper, and it’s now better but not that much.) Heroes of the Storm, on the other hand, doesn’t remove the prompt to level your talents until you do it, and it tells you how to bring up the skill menu, and it flashes to get your attention. That is a much better way to teach players the importance of what’s happening in the game. Honestly, we need more identification of other types of dissonance as well as examples of assonance so we don’t sound overly critical.

    I wish I’d checked this post yesterday; it’s a fascinating conversation, and I’d love to discuss these things in more detail. This may have been kind of meandering.

    • Jabrwock says:

      Gameplay *can* be the narrative, but if there is an existing narrative (world building, character interactions, etc), then it needs to deal with it. Dissonance occurs when there is no attempt to consolidate the two if they tell different stories.

      • Ivellius says:

        Sure. But other kinds of dissonance in games exist, too. I wasn’t really discussing the point of the term “ludonarrative dissonance” itself, just its origins and why we should probably add other vocabulary. I agree that dissonance is generally a bad thing.

  28. Dreadjaws says:

    After much debating with myself (we do that a lot, me and me), I think I figured out the problem: the term is wrong. I mean, yeah, yeah, you and I understand what it means, but I see why it’d be so easy for others to misinterpret it, and it’s because “Ludo” means “game”, but the gist of Ludonarrative Dissonance is not the conflict between gameplay and narrative, but the conflict between gameplay narrative (the narrative you create by playing a character in a game) and story narrative (the set narrative established by the game’s writer).

    As an example, since someone mentioned Red Dead Redemption up there, I’ll use it. In that game, you have a mechanic called “Dead Eye” that temporarily slows time so you can aim easily and have an easier time lining up shots on moving and/or multiple targets. So let’s say you run into a group of bandits. You kill four of them normally, then other two using the Dead Eye mechanic and then one more normally.

    Now, in terms of gameplay, two of those kills were widely different from the rest. But in the terms of narrative, they weren’t. In the narrative you create for yourself as a player, you just killed seven guys, and that’s it. Slowing down time happens for the player, not the character. In the same way, opening a menu forms part of the gameplay, but not of the narrative. Getting killed and reloading is gameplay, but it’s not part of the narrative (YMMV on this one, maybe you like to pretend you’re playing as a completely normal guy who has the power of resurrection and time travel).

    The point is, when they use the term “ludonarrative dissonance” they’re implying that the conflict exists between gameplay and story while the real conflict is between two entirely different narrations, one of which is gameplay related. So, unless they were willing to go with “ludohistonarrative dissonance” or something like that it’d probably be more proper to merely say “narrative dissonance”. Then again, that’d be too broad a term for people to easily associate the term with videogames. It’s probably a lost battle now. Maybe if they had come up with a shorter term instead. One that’d need to be analyzed before being misinterpreted (like “Ludiscordia”, for instance) they might have had more luck.

  29. PPX14 says:

    Watching Total Biscuit, this word comes up all the time haha.

  30. default_ex says:

    Unfortunately we have to deal with this crap at every level when it comes to games. Really does set the medium apart from other creative mediums. It’s by far the most poorly understood as what is really is simply due to so many people spreading misinterpretations. It really does go into every single field involved with developing a game. Most common to see it with graphics type of things but the other big ones are user input, graphics, audio, networking, public relations and several bizarre combinations of them.

    However at least this time it calls to light an actual problem games are getting worse about. It used to be weird and out of place for the game to tell you to do A but railroad you into doing B even though both do the same thing. Usually when it happened there was some circumstance and a reveal of why it went down that way. Now however it’s so common that we sometimes miss that no reason at all was presented other than because there was a button that needed pushing instead of just going in and shooting the two terrorist in the face.

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