Imagine meeting someone saying they’re a committed pacifist, and the next thing you know is they punching you right in the face. That phenomenon will probably leave you disoriented and confused about which side you should believe in. Is the fact that this person is firmly against war and violence, or the fact that the same person can physically hurt others?
This feeling of conflict can also be referred to as Ludonarrative Dissonance.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look into this fancy term to see what it’s all about, and why it is important.
What is ludonarrative dissonance?
Ludonarrative dissonance is commonly used by game critics. If you’ve played Bioshock, you might have heard of this term.
Ludonarrative dissonance is made up of three words:
- Ludo or ludology refers to the ludic structure of games (i.e., the mechanics of a game, its design, etc.) and how it influences the players.
- Narrative refers to the connection of events in a story, film, game, etc.
- Dissonance refers to the lack of harmony or the clash of two entities resulting in a combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.
Putting these three words together, you get Ludonarrative Dissonance, which means a disconnect or conflict between the game’s story and gameplay.
Who created the term ludonarrative dissonance?
Ludonarrative dissonance is a term first used by Clint Hocking, a former creative director at LucasArts (then at Ubisoft) in his blog post. Hocking used this term in his response to the game Bioshock. According to him, the game promotes the theme of self-interest through its gameplay. However, the game is promoting the opposing theme of selflessness through its narrative.
This conflict created a violation of aesthetic distance or gap between a viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented in the game. It destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to the game.
As the offense becomes more severe, the player becomes increasingly aware that this gap in logic and presentation exists. It results in a sensation that undermines every gaming experience. Thus, forcing the player to do one of two things: abandon the game in protest or just accept that the game and the story can’t be enjoyed simultaneously.
Hocking used this term as constructive criticism of the game Bioshock. Since then, the term ludonarrative dissonance has been used widely by critics in the gaming community.
Bruce Straley is an artist, designer, and former game director of Naughty Dog. He is well known for co-directing the games The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. His aspiration to create something different has unleashed one of the biggest Uno reverse cards in ludonarrative dissonance. This is after being criticized with the same conflict seen in Uncharted.
This conflict is often seen in games that involve violence, while the storyline says otherwise. A common scenario is when the protagonist wants peace and order but proceeds to get through violence and chaos.
According to Straley, with this article from gamesindustry.biz, they wanted to change that. So they did in the game ‘The Last of Us.’ We’ve seen Nathan Drake turn into a killing machine in Uncharted, despite having morals and motivations. They changed that in The Last of Us by introducing inevitable threats in the post-apocalyptic game environment. This created a more realistic and player-driven experience.
Instead of just following the gameplay and shooting enemies, the players are put in situations where they need to figure out solutions to help them through the obstacles. — A change in gameplay that was well-received by many.
Ludonarrative dissonance in video games **spoilers**
1. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
When we talk about Ludonarrative Dissonance, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune must be one of the well-known games to have this conflict. The Ludonarrative Dissonant element revolves around the game’s protagonist, Nathan Drake.
In the game’s story, Nathan is presented as a young, carefree individual who loves to travel the world. He seems to be a modern-day Indiana Jones who loves adventures and all that. But once you get to the actual gameplay, the fun and goofy Nathan suddenly becomes a cold-blooded killing machine that is an expert with guns. For a character presented as a plain adventure-loving dude, the estimated body count of his kills in the game is quite shocking.
Bioshock was the game that gave birth to the fancy term of ludonarrative dissonance. The game was about the tale of Rapture, a dystopian settlement that operated under a Randian philosophy that emphasized free will and self-interest. The game provided its players the free will to choose whether they want to harvest or rescue Little Sisters.
If the player chooses the Objectivist approach — they’d opt for harvesting all of the Little Sisters. This would allow them to act in their own self-interest, which aligns perfectly with the ethical ideology that the game wanted to emphasize.
But the problem lies within its main story. Players are forced to help Atlas in his conflict against Ryan. Although you can choose to adapt the Objectivist approach or not, you have no other choice but to take Atlas’ side and oppose Ryan. You can only choose to accept how the game goes or just quit.
3. The Last of Us
While The Last of Us eliminated narrative dissonance in its story and gameplay, some players say that there’s still this conflict but within its game mechanics. The main conflict talks about Joel’s X-ray hearing. This ability seemed unrealistic and a bit too superhuman-like for a man who’s old, tired, drunk, but skilled at survival.
Naughty Dog allowed the option to remove this ability on Joel, so it’s not much of a big deal.
He’s a little too invincible, too, for an average guy. He can take down not just the infected but a group of human enemies too on his own. However, these conflicts didn’t stop players from loving the game. It’s well-received by many because of how good the story and the gameplay are.
4. The Last of Us 2
While The Last of Us was well-loved, its sequel, The Last of Us 2, was heavily criticized and sparked the argument with ludonarrative dissonance once again.
This game has the ‘revenge’ theme going on quite a lot. Ellie seeks revenge for the death of Joel by killing Abby and her friends. But players will also play as Abby, who wanted to avenge her father’s death caused by Joel. Basically, the gameplay will drive you to go on a killing spree. And because you have no other option, and the killing mechanic is very satisfying, you have no choice but to take down everyone.
The problem is that the story wants to show the players that ‘revenge begets revenge’ and violence is not good.
Here’s where the ludonarrative dissonance element comes in. How can you not choose violence if there’s no option to do so? Plus, why do they have to make the shooting combats too good, to the point where you’ll actually want to eliminate everyone? No wonder why a lot of players had mixed feelings over the game.
5. The Stanley Parable
In the game Stanley Parable, the player controls Stanley through the office where he works. His decisions and actions are commented upon by The Narrator. The player can disobey the instructions of The Narrator and choose different paths, which lead to numerous endings of the game. It’s a game of control from The Narrator and choice by Stanley.
Same as how Stanley can make choices on whether to do a particular action or not, The Narrator can also change the flow of the story depending on what Stanley chooses to do. The Narrator even taunts and mocks the player every time Stanley chooses to disobey its orders.
This love-hate relationship between Stanley and the Narrator, where they seek to destroy each other yet still need each other, shows the ludonarrative dissonance in the game. The primary conflict is that player freedom is a danger to the narrative because it can “interrupt” it. At the same time, a too linear story without freedom would be uninteresting to play.
6. God of War
Despite it being a great game, critics think that the God of War also employs ludonarrative dissonance in many ways. One in particular, and probably the most apparent, is Kratos being a mighty ‘God of War.’ The game presents Kratos with god-like abilities, including jumping 100 meters in the air, surviving a severe crash, fighting and winning over another god, etc. And yet he can’t walk through ankle-deep waters or hoist himself over a fallen log.
These character abilities presented in the mechanics are opposite to what the story implies him to be.
Another factor is how the ruthless Kratos is paired with his empathetic son. Having a good and likable secondary character that makes you question the protagonist’s morality and how the story is about the morals and sins that are passed from father to son created the divide between the gameplay and the narrative. Thus, the ludonarrative dissonance.
7. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3’s Ludonarrative Dissonance centers around the protagonist Jason Brody. In the game’s storyline, Jason started as a big slacker who wants a lot of partying and having a good time. However, as the game progresses, you’ll see how Jason evolves into a relentless killer who could easily take down his enemies using various weapons. It’s kind of bizarre how quickly he becomes an expert killer from being a typical dude.
Another disconnect is how his goal is to save his friends who are in imminent danger. But the gameplay pushes him to do many side quests, which undermine the urgency implied in the story. Thus, creating a story and gameplay conflict.
Can ludonarrative dissonance be used in board games?
Ludonarrative dissonance is common in video games because most have plots and different plot types laid out. Unlike video games, board games tend to be more open with their gameplay, meaning there’s no storyline you should strictly follow. It’s also because there are multiple players in one gameplay, so it can be anyone’s win.
Although there could be an instance where ludonarrative dissonance may apply, it’s fitting to say that board games are more prone to having ludomechanical dissonance instead.
Ludomechanical dissonance refers to a conflict within the game’s mechanics and its rules to intentionally limit or punish the player. If a game involving player vs. the AI design has asymmetric balance, dissonance comes into play. It’s mostly when the game presents a situation or rule that contradicts the rest of the game, simply to make the game harder.
The more elements and mechanics you are trying to balance in a game, the greater the chance of creating Ludomechanical dissonance. A common feature seen in tabletop games is to use special cards or actions that can alter the game’s rules or nature.
Power is usually the primary reason for dissonance to exist. But ludomechanical dissonance isn’t easily avoided in a game; in many designs, it’s impossible to eliminate it. However, the more dissonance you have, the weaker your game’s design will become.
Is ludonarrative dissonance good or bad?
Ludonarrative dissonance is generally viewed as a negative thing by most game critics. Although this problem could indeed undermine the entire gaming experience, some people do find the contrast interesting in one way or another.
In the end, finding a balance between the gameplay and the narrative is what’s most important. Suppose a ludonarrative dissonant game still delivers and gives you satisfaction on both ends. In that case, we can say the experience will still be worth it.