Opinion Piece

Marrying Mechanics, Theme And Story. Or Why Ludonarrative Dissonance is A Problem

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Ludonarrative dissonance became a massively popular phrase among journalists around 2012-2013, with Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider being two games heavily targeted as being guilty of the crime. Sadly, though, most people didn’t actually know what ludonarrative dissonance was and thus the phrase was often mis-used. Journalists would toss the phrase around but never bother to tell people what it actually meant, sprinkling it into reviews and leaving readers to figure out its meaning through context. Because of that the term became associated with games that had high levels of violence, and the importance of ludonarrative dissonance was quickly swept under the rug and then largely forgotten about. The phrase passed out of fashion.

So what is ludonarrative dissonance? To put it simply it’s when there’s an irreconcilable difference between the gameplay and what the story is telling you, a jarring contrast that cannot be explained or justified.  Take Far Cry 3 as an example; as Jason Brody you must rescue one of your friends who is being tortured. The story demands urgency as Jason must clearly hurry and save his pal from a horrific fate, and yet the gameplay allows you to simply disregard this and go shoot animals in the face, or drive quadbikes off of cliffs. There’s a clear divide between what the gameplay designers wanted and the writer was aiming to deliver, and it’s pretty common in open-world titles because freedom is placed above story requirements. A much clearer example would be like the main character loudly proclaiming he or she has never driven a car, before proceeding to clamber into the car and drive beautifully.

Ludonarrative dissonance, then, ultimately damages the game, and it’s a problem that has been around for a while now, one that often gets ignored. Gameplay is king, as they say, and that should always be true, but more effort should be made to marry the themes and narrative with the actual gameplay to avoid such obviously idiotic contrasts. Yet it remains fair to say that most gamers don’t tend to pay much attention to these glaring discrepancies, likely because they’ve been playing games for so long and have learned to just sweep such things into the drawer titled, “Whacky-Ass Videogame Logic.” A problem ignored, though, is still a problem.

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Speaking of Whack-Ass Videogame Logic it’s important to realise that most things that fall under that category are not truly ludonarrative dissonance, despite often being associated with the term. Once the phrase entered more mainstream usage people were pointing to things like the vast amounts of locked doors in shooters as ludonarrative dissonance. Games are absolutely filled to the brim with insane reasoning and weird lapses of logic, like how munching food can instantly heal you or that you can totally survive being shot hundreds of time throughout a journey, but none of these fall under the banner of ludonarrative dissonance, which is specifically for problems between what the game’s narrative is telling you and what the gameplay is actually doing. Are they jarring disconnects between us and the game? Yup, but they are not what we’re talking about today.

The most recent game that I feel is the best example of ludonarrative dissonance and why it’s something that developers need to focus on is 2013’s Tomb Raider, a game with a great story and great mechanics, but when you bring both elements together there’s some very obvious problems. Rhianna Pratchett, the woman who authored the narrative, had a very clear goal: to portray Lara Croft as inexperienced, terrified and vulnerable person, a hero that was not yet the hero that older gamers knew.  And during platforming, scripted sequences and cutscenes Lara Croft did indeed come across as scared and fighting every second for her life, but during the gameplay she was anything but these things. Though taking a life is supposedly a big deal for poor Lara she quickly becomes a deadly killer, and by the time she gets a gun she is capable of mowing down enemies with brutal efficiency.

It’s a chasm between the intent of the story and the desire to empower the players. The writing is undermined at almost every turn by the fact that Lara isn’t vulnerable during the gameplay, as she calmly takes cover and proceeds to blitz her way through hundreds of enemies. How are we to believe that Lara is barely surviving when she is the hunter, not the prey. On the flipside when Lara makes a jump the animations depict someone who is barely managing to make the leap. And cutscenes often show Lara being injured or otherwise mentally or physically punished by the island she is attempting to survive. When you get down to it I personally hold that the writing and cutscenes within Tomb Raider were outstanding, which is why the contrast in gameplay feels so awkward.

This is partly because of the concept of empowering the player. Many people still view games as, at their core, power fantasies, pieces of entertainment that make you feel dangerous and awesome, and indeed many, many videogames are just that. Call of Duty is a good example, portraying you as the ultimate soldier capable of mowing down the enemy with abandon. At the core of so many videogame stories is that the idea that you’re the ONE, the ONE person capable of saving the people/country/world/galaxy/universe from that dreaded terrorist/alien/bloke in a pink suit. And feeling so mighty is fantastic, but not when the thematic goal of the game is completely the opposite. In Tomb Raider we see Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics refusing to step away from the traditional bad-ass hero template during the gameplay, and thus Lara is portrayed in a typical fashion purely for the benefit of the player. After all, developer or publisher feels that nobody wants to spend the first chunk of the game unable to aim a gun properly.

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But is that true? I honestly have no idea, except for my own feelings, which is to say that I’d be happy to play such a game. Imagine a game in which Lara must at first stick largely to the shadows, relying on stealth because she can’t combat the enemy directly. Here crude traps and sloppy ambushes would be the key to survival, but only if pure sneaking wasn’t an option. You could have a gun, but Lara’s aiming would be unsteady and headshots would frequently backfire. The only way to get better with a gun is to use it more and more, but that means risking every enemy nearby being alerted and with minimal firearms skill it would be a death sentence for anything but the best players. Thus using a gun becomes a hard decision; should you try to use it where you can in order to become more skilled, or opt to stay quiet, perhaps relying more on the bow, which at least hopefully won’t alert everyone in the vicinity so easily should you miss.

We see much the same problems occurring in Far Cry 3, although with lesser impact largely thanks to the often fascinating but sloppy narrative. As Jason Brody you are supposed to merely be some rich-kid tourist, a bit of a douche placed into a situation which he is far from equipped to deal with. Yet he has an almost terrifying ability to combat the enemy. As Jason you’re supposed to be playing as a character afraid to kill, a man terrified of the world he has found himself in, and yet before long you’re quite literally driving swords through people’s heart, a gruesome and challenging task for someone who has never killed before. Like Lara Jason may be portrayed as scared and confused, but once the player is control he’s a one-man army. Far Cry 4 was the same, although since little is know about Ajay Gale the dissonance is less obvious, but still there.

But let’s jump over the fence. A victim of supposed ludonarrative dissonance was Bioshock Infinite, which was often accused of the sin due to the high levels of violence within the game. This largely owes to the fact that a large amount of people were unsure of what the term ludonarrative dissonance was supposed to truly mean, and because it was most often used when talking about violent games it seemed that any title with high levels of blood was targeted as being guilty. It was, to be fair, an understandable assumption as it is often violent games that are guilty of narrative dissonance, most usually due to having some character that magically becomes awesome at using weapons. Above all else they are the most common perpetrators of ludonarrative dissonance because the sheer amount of killing often feels at odds with whatever is going on in the story, unless of course you’re playing something like Call of Duty where it’s justified by the fact that you’re at war. Games like Uncharted 2 felt like there was a divide between Drake’s personality and the immense bodycount he leaves in his wake.  Indeed, in comparison to films and books it seems odd how videogame “heroes”  so often translate into “person who kills a lot of other people.”

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The claim against Irrational’s work was that the sheer brutaility of Bioshock Infinite created narrative dissonance, except it didn’t. In fact Bioshock Infinite’s themes, narrative and mechanics were all quite well tied together. Booker Dewitt is a self-confessed violent killer with a history of mental instability and a military background, plus some mild racial problems as hinted at several times. Indeed it’s these very facts that mean Booker can become Comstock in a different universe. Booker solving much of his problems through violence is hardly surprising, especially when we consider that one of the core themes within the game is that of an incredibly violent, bloody society that hides beneath a civilised veneer, a dark core lurking beneath a beautiful exterior. Booker reacts violently to a threat because that’s who he is, and the city reacts violently back because that’s who they are too. Let us not forget that Booker is a soldier and a kidnapper, his objective to simply grab a girl and get out, hardly a noble cause. The violence, while extreme, is justified at almost every turn.

That’s not so say Bioshock Infinite is entirely bereft of ludonarrative dissonance. Within the first 15-30 minutes the game slips up. The first Vigour you can encounter is within a fair and is called the Bucking Bronco. Not only does Booker seemingly gain the power without chugging the required drink that is usually associated with these things but he fails to react to suddenly being granted what would essentially be to him magical powers. Mere moments later you come across the Possession Vigour and Booker reacts as though it’s the first time encountering such a thing.

Above all else Bioshock Infinite is about Booker and Elizabeth, and it’s important to remember that. Booker is simply a visitor to the world of Columbia, a passer-by, while Elizabeth is actually a sort of Rapunzel, trapped in her tower, and while she may be more familiar with Columbia than Booker she is still clueless. The game’s background may be utterly fascinating, but that’s exactly what it is: background to the character driven plot of Booker and Elizabeth.

Though the term has fallen out of fashion, especially with journalists who are undoubtedly searching for some other phrase that can make them sound insightful, its meaning remains important. Gameplay is the king within our medium and with good reason, but learning to marry that gameplay to the story and overall themes of the game is what will allow videogames to become an even more powerful force within the world. What it will take is for those that design the gameplay to work with the writers, rather than them being entirely separate entities.

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Ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t ruin a game. I still loved Tomb Raider despite the very clear divide between its story and gameplay, but on the flipside it was Bioshock Infinite’s marriage of its themes, narrative and mechanics that helped completely immerse me into the game. It doesn’t seem that developers are in any rush to finally put gameplay designers side-by-side with the writers in order to craft a more seamless experience, but I hope that as we progress through this generation more attention will be paid to merging storytelling with the creation of gameplay mechanics.

But that isn’t to say every developer needs to focus on eliminating ludonarrative dissonance. If the goal of a game is simply to be fun then as always gameplay should be put first. The simple fact is that only games that claim to have a hefty focus on story should actively combat ludonarrative dissonance. I’d still much rather be able to venture where I want at any time in Skyrim, but for the likes of Tomb Raider, a character and narrative driven game, the concept of ludonarrative dissonance is an important one.

Games are still growing, and they face problems movies and books simply don’t. A movie can certainly have a disconnect between what is known about a character’s personality and their actions on-screen, but they don’t have to also worry about a player who can interact with everything, a player that must be entertained via a series of mechanics. Games are a young medium, still finding its feet and combating the angry mainstream world who treat it with suspicion, just as they did film. And as games grow things like ludonarrative dissonance, or whatever term you’d like to use,  need to be tackled.

Thanks for reading.

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