Gameplay, narrative, and dissonance in 2017

"Ludonarrative dissonance." Just reading the term likely makes half of you scoff at me like I’m some sort of pretentious pseudo-intellectual, and the other half of you swarm to this article like games-as-art flies around indie-game honey. It’s become a very loaded term over the past few years, one that many reviewers shy away from using for fear of a backlash. \

But why has this term become so hated, and what does it even mean? It’s been about ten years since the term was coined, so it’s about time to take a deeper look into one of the most polarizing game criticism terms around. 

Narrative vs. Gameplay

Ludonarrative dissonance was coined by Clint Hocking in 2007 to describe a disconnect between a game’s narrative and its gameplay. The example he used was the original BioShock. That game gives you a choice, in gameplay, as to what sort of character you want to be. You can either harvest the Little Sisters, taking their power for yourself and prioritizing your own strength and inevitable success – a Randian Objectivist sort of approach – or you can save the Little Sisters, committing yourself to the greater good – a more Communal Utilitarian approach. Setting ethical jargon aside, you can choose to prioritize yourself or prioritize others.

The problem, according to Hocking, is that the game’s narrative doesn’t give you the same choice. You can play through the whole game prioritizing yourself, but the game continues telling you that you are prioritizing others. Every mission you go on is for the sake of someone else. You can’t, for example, make a choice to team up with Andrew Ryan, accept his objectivist point of view, and decide to hoard all the spoils of Rapture for yourself, because the narrative won’t let you. In fact your very lack of choice is baked in to the story. The reveal of your lack of agency is one of the hallmark scenes of BioShock.

This criticism ruffled the feathers of more than a few BioShock fans. It’s not a stretch to say that BioShock was a good game, but Hocking pointed out its ludonarrative dissonance as a flaw, a flaw that most people who played BioShock didn’t care about. This is what originally started brewing up skepticism about the newly formed term.

Over the next several years, more and more critics began using the term in their reviews and analyses, and it began to wear itself out. In fact it seemed like nearly every game was ludonarratively dissonant. This is what made the term lose all meaning for many people. If every game is ludonarratively dissonant, even the good ones, then why does ludonarrative dissonance matter?

Most games do not match up their gameplay and story. Most action games revolve around killing hundreds of enemies, even if your protagonist isn't supposed to be the world's greatest soldier. Most shooters will tell you that you are storming the enemy stronghold with a squad when it’s really just you who is playing the single super-soldier that saves the day. RPGs will often tell you that time is of the essence and that the world will be destroyed if nothing is done, but then send you off to wander around doing sidequests for who knows how long. Don’t worry – Armageddon will wait for you to win that chocobo race.

I think the point at which this discussion broke down was near the beginning, in Hocking’s original criticism of BioShock. It made it seem like being ludonarratively dissonant makes a game, by default, bad, or at least worse than it could have been. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Ludonarrative dissonance is, essentially, a descriptive term, one that is fundamentally neutral. If we think of the term in a more neutral context it begins to make more sense.

Gameplay First

Video games are still very young as a medium. Games being used as narrative devices is something that has only really come about in the last 20-30 years. Early games were constructions of gameplay and only gameplay. Pac-Man was built around its maze mechanics; Mario was built around his jump. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into why Dr. Wily wanted to take over the world or why Dr. Robotnik wanted to put animals in robots. The narratives in these games were afterthoughts, built to give you a flimsy excuse for the gameplay.

When technology advanced to the point that we could tell more complex stories with video games, this tradition of “gameplay-first design” didn’t change. We still developed gameplay systems without regard to narratives, and vice versa. We simply designed two parts of one game and smashed them together. This is what caused such widespread instances of ludonarrative dissonance.

But the fact is, this dissonance simply doesn’t matter for most games. Gameplay traditions have already been established. Breaking those traditions for the sake of the narrative will cause more confusion than any story/gameplay dissonance that already exists.

Persona 5 is a great example. Persona 5 is ostensibly about a group of high school students who moonlight as thieves who pull off daring capers in a mental world, stealing the emotional treasures of their enemies. While some gameplay aspects, such as the stealth system, do mesh with this narrative, most do not. Instead of avoiding most enemies and sticking to the shadows, you sneak up behind them only to proceed to have a massive drag-out fight, blasting them with magic and summoning your own demonic emotional projections. Instead of earning your cash through pickpocketing or larceny, you simply get some cash whenever you defeat an enemy. Instead of nabbing someone’s treasure and sneaking away with it, you always have to have a climactic boss battle. Persona 5 is wildly ludonarratively dissonant, yet it was still voted as Famitsu’s best RPG of all time (and we at GameCrate loved it too).

How can such a good game be so dissonant? Simple: its ludonarrative dissonance is, at best, tangential to the narrative. Turn-based battles and boss fighters are RPG conventions and Persona is an RPG series. Removing them would create, essentially, genre dissonance.  So which dissonance do you choose?

Persona 5 chose a dissonance that didn’t negatively impact the plot, and to good effect. While its gameplay did not always support its narrative, it also did not detract from it in any major ways. A game can be ludonarratively dissonant without that dissonance counteracting the plot.

Imagine playing Persona 5, but when the time came to infiltrate someone’s mental world, you were given a bazooka and air strikes and a giant robot. If the narrative was still “you are a member of the stealthy phantom thieves,” this gameplay would directly counteract the narrative, and it would be a worse game because of it.

What this reveals is that being ludonarratively dissonant is only bad if it somehow pulls you out of the gameplay experience. However, dissonance is a powerful storytelling tool and can actually be used to pull a player into the experience as well. Spec Ops: The Line, for example, specifically called attention to how the violent, repetitive, and destructive acts of the protagonist, Martin Walker, fell in line with genre conventions but did not fit the narrative that was being told. This uncomfortable feeling only aided in Spec Ops’ deconstruction of the shooter genre.

And that is why ludonarrative dissonance has become such a questionable term in game criticism these days, because by itself the term doesn't actually idenitfy a problem with a game, just an aspect of it. Ludonarrative dissonance can have several different effects on a game. It can draw the player in or keep them out. It can build an incredible narrative through mechanical storytelling or it can offer a mish mash of half formed gameplay concepts that barely work to tell any story.

Ludonarrative dissonance is a useful concept, and a tool for examining games, but it is only a tool. It is not a label that immediately describes quality or lack thereof. It is an observation of one aspect of a game’s design. Further examining that aspect is the only way to determine the effect that ludonarrative dissonance has on the total game experience.