Ludonarrative Dissonance and You
What better way to kick off a blog with the word “sesquipedalian” in its name than with something called ludonarrative dissonance? But beyond that, it’s an interesting and important concept to think about when we’re considering the future of gaming. In a nutshell, ludonarrative dissonance is when a game’s narrative conflicts with the game’s design (mechanics).
One thing we need to establish really quick is what I mean when I say narrative. A lot of people work under the assumption that a narrative is always the written story, but that’s not the same thing at all. The writing in a game is just a piece of the whole. The writing is what the characters say in dialogue or the text documents you read in game. But unlike other mediums of expression, games have the power to deliver messages through interactivity (again, mechanics).
So as a quick example, ICO had very little dialogue. It was there, yes, and it was certainly a part of the overall narrative, but a majority of the story was told directly from your actions as a player. Ico and Yorda trying desperately to escape a castle filled with puzzles and traps was the bulk of that tale, thus making your actions a majority of that narrative, not the script.
The point I’m trying to make about narrative is that because the writing in a game is only a piece of the overall message, it can and often does conflict with the other pieces. The problem is most games don’t start with a written story, they start around a specific play mechanic or idea and are built up around that. In the mainstream game industry, oftentimes the script isn’t introduced until the game is almost completed mechanically speaking. In fact, a lot of times the writer isn’t even familiar with the game or games in general, so they try to tell a story in a more traditional manner without understanding how the game works.
That’s when we get ludonarrative dissonance. The game’s writers are trying to tell us one thing but the game behaves contrary to that. This is where we need the examples, so get ready to get all defensive as I mock some of your favorite games for being terribly designed. Are you as excited as I am? I’m pretty excited, you guys.
So by this point, everyone in the business of analyzing games has ragged on Bioshock, and I strongly considered eschewing it for that reason. However, it’s just such a prime example of a game almost everyone seems to love, players and critics alike, that mostly just exhibits really bad design throughout. Allow me to explain.
Think about the story in Bioshock, the message it sends. There are extremely strong themes of morality, altruism, and humanity. The game establishes this cruel, twisted world that you are unwittingly thrown into, and tells you in tragic tones how it was once a utopia, and that the inhabitants are really all just victims of a despicable corporate scheme gone wrong.
In this game, survival is difficult, and in order to stay alive you have to collect better gear and obtain stronger powers. In order to obtain those powers, though, you need a special resource that can only be harvested from possessed looking children known as “little sisters”. The game makes it clear that they were victims, that they are not monsters or inherently evil. But the only way to get the resource you need is to kill their guardians, called “big daddies”, and harvest the little sister’s body.
In this way, the game’s writing sets up this supposed moral dilemma. You need that resource to survive, but these are innocent little girls corrupted by past mistakes of a greedy company. And with all the themes of altruism and humanity, you’re supposed to feel an actual sense of anxiety while making this decision. Do you commit an evil to possibly save yourself, or do you free the little sister of her corruption and sacrifice becoming more powerful?
This would have worked quite well, only the game’s mechanics tell you a drastically different story. All games teach you about themselves through their mechanics, whether you realize it or not. And the mechanics in this game teach you to shoot everyone in the head from as far away as possible without hesitation.
Seriously, you learn very quickly that the only non-threatening characters in this game are little girls, so when you see anything else you just kill them as quickly as possible before they destroy you. So all that talk about humanity and compassion just seems kind of ridiculous, because as a shooter this game just tells you to shoot basically everything that moves. It’s telling you, in short, that the only valuable inhabitants of this world are little sisters.
The designers of the game know that as a shooter, it should be balanced. Why would you save a little sister if there’s far more reward for harvesting them? So they designed the game so that over time you get about as much of the resource no matter what you choose. This makes the game balanced, yes, but it also teaches you that the little sisters don’t matter. After telling you that they are the only things that matter.
It’s all so bizarre and insipid, and if you took this game to someone who had never played a single video game and told them that this was a profound work on the concept of morality and humanity, they would think you were bonkers, and they’d be right. The friction between what the game tells you and what it teaches you is so outrageous I half expect every copy to eventually burst into flames.
And as I stated before, it’s not just the little sisters, the game is riddled with conflicting messages like this, and as the player you can sense that on some level even if you’re not aware of it.
Bioshock isn’t the only culprit here though. Countless blockbuster games that made obscene amounts of money and achieved almost unanimous praise suffer this same pitfall.
Take the Mass Effect trilogy for example. The game writes these interesting characters that you come to care a great deal about, and so when it comes time to make decisions (which is basically constantly), you’re supposed to feel contemplative, like you’re making a difficult call based on your personal values and ideals. However, the game has a built in binary morality system of “renegade” and “paragon”, and choices that raise your renegade level are highlighted in red and choices that boost your paragon level are in blue.
The game also teaches you that in order to get the best dialogue options you kind of need to go all in one direction or another because playing a moderate character nets you basically no benefits whatsoever. So what you end up doing is just picking a side of the spectrum and then only ever choosing the red or blue options regardless of what they say in order to boost your levels.
Or even the new Tomb Raider. The creators did an excellent job of rebooting the franchise as something more mature and worthy of respect. Lara seems like a good person, someone you can’t help but like, who gets unwittingly thrown into a fight for her survival. You feel pain and anguish right there with her, but she’s a strong and resourceful young woman so in the end she prevails and you feel good about that.
But the game establishes that she’s not a seasoned raider of tombs yet. This is her first expedition, and she’s just a passionate and young archaeologist. And yet once stranded in the wilderness, she knows how to modify and upgrade guns and perform astounding athletic and combat feats. That’s just a common game trope, but it still conflicts with the writing and as a result the overall narrative feels conflicted and strange.
There’s also little side quests like lighting stone idols with a torch and collecting rare bird eggs. They’re in the game because, hey, it’s an adventure game, there has to be collectibles! But it doesn’t make any sense within the story because lighting the statues would only draw unwanted attention to you from the baddies, and the mechanics don’t even reflect that, and collecting eggs seems pointless and irresponsible when you’re supposed to just be trying to survive and escape. When you come across rare artifacts, Lara will give a short speech about the historical and cultural significance in excited tones to the player, as if two minutes before she wasn’t limping and shivering desperately trying to find food.
I could make examples all day. And my point is that these games all did quite well, they were well liked by almost everybody, made lots of money, and maintain high ratings consistently. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed those games. They may have been designed terribly, but they offer other things like ambiance or fun or interesting stories and characters, and that was enough for me to feel they were worth my time. But I’m not here to review them, I’m here to analyze them, and on a design level they fail miserably. Furthermore, I don’t think they’re advancing gaming in the direction it needs to go.
And this is important. Games will need to find ways to overcome this dissonance if they want to progress and mature in meaningful ways. But how do they accomplish that? If it’s so obvious what they’re doing wrong, shouldn’t it be obvious to fix?
Well, part of the problem is game tradition. By that I mean we as consumers have come to expect a certain set of things from games, and the industry delivers because that’s what makes money. But some of these things, like collectibles and meaningless side quests, are only outdated concepts that are holding games back from evolving as well as they could be.
And as games evolve, we also want them to say more. We’re not happy with just plain fun anymore, we want elaborate stories to give us context for our actions. And so the industry delivers by hiring writers, bust as stated before it’s not easy to make the writing and the other narrative elements line up all the time, especially when some of the gaming elements are just those outdated vestiges of a bygone era.
Is it even possible to make all those elements agree? Obviously the answer is yes or I wouldn’t bother raving about all these games I love week after week. There’s a few different ways to tackle the ludonarrative dissonance problem, so let’s start with the most obvious: kill the writer.
Since the most common conflict in design is the script conflicting with the play mechanics, you could opt to just not have a script. Take Journey for example. There’s basically no writing whatsoever. The entire narrative is conveyed through scenery, music, and the actions of the player. There’s literally no way for the story to conflict with the mechanics because the mechanics are the story. Even if you refuse to reach the goal and just dick around in the desert, that’s actually part of the story; that’s how you chose to experience the adventure. I’d go into more depth about this concept but that’s something for another article.
Obviously, not all games can simply not have writing. Sometimes, stories need words. That is, after all, our most common and convenient method of conveying ideas to each other. So let’s look at Portal. There’s an extensive script, but it never conflicts with the mechanics because it’s kind of a puzzle game and the story is basically that you’re a test subject forced to solve the puzzles.
It sounds gimmicky, and the developers thought so, too, making the game a mere extra packaged with Half Life 2. What ended up happening in practice, though, is the talking A.I. GLaDOS became one of gaming’s most iconic personalities, and the game never felt shallow because the mechanics were fresh and unique and the writing was witty as fuck, and since the mechanics were a part of the scripted story there were no pacing problems at all, which is indeed no small feat.
Now let’s crank it all the way to the other end of the spectrum where the game is almost entirely scripted dialogue. The Walking Dead is basically a game about people talking, although I will concede sometimes you have to mash buttons to kill a zombie once every hour or so. At this point, the game is just interactive storytelling, a sort of animated choose-your-own-adventure book. But you never feel like your actions are in conflict with the story because most of your actions are, well, choosing the story.
Basically, the trend we’re seeing is the best solutions are to make the play mechanics a bigger part of the narrative. My most repeated plea to the industry is for games to start using interactivity as narrative more and stop emulating movies and books. Games need to start presenting ideas in a way that can’t be accomplished by any other medium before they can be respected elements of our culture.
Games need to let go of outdated gaming tropes like collectibles, because it doesn’t make sense that a master assassin in Assassin’s Creed would take a break from his missions just to collect 100 flags hidden in Damascus.
Games also need to stop coloring the player character in a certain light if the play mechanics don’t make sense with it. I love the Uncharted series because it’s an extremely well made homage to all your favorite classic Hollywood action movies. I rarely have more exciting times playing games than with Uncharted, but it doesn’t make sense to tell us that Nathan Drake is the everyman hero with a heart of gold and a romantic spirit if all we do with him is kill countless thugs for five hours.
The solutions aren’t always all that easy, and in some cases there may simply not be a way to reconcile the conflict between writing and design. The development process is a tricky thing, and no one really knows how to effectively write for games on a consistent basis yet. Maybe in that case developers should just start making a different kind of game altogether. We’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with.
As always, thanks for reading. Until next time!