Ludonarrative Dissonance: Is Storytelling About Reaching Harmony?
This paper is a literature review focusing on the term “Ludonarrative Dissonance” which was coined by the game designer and scriptwriter Clint Hocking in a blog post from 2007. Through diverse blog posts and academic papers that reused the term, this essay is attempting to identify a definition of the concept that factors the different ways it can be perceived. It identifies a dichotomy of concepts that participate in creating the dissonance: the opposition between incentives and directives and how it is handled both in the narrative and ludic structures.
Keywords – Game design, Ludonarrative dissonance, harmony, emersion, immersion, incentives, directives, emergent narratives
Relevance to design practice – This paper will help game designers and writers to understand what is at stake behind this concept of ludonarrative dissonance. It is identifying ways to avoid dissonance to happen, but also opens the possibility of a purposeful use of dissonance for designing deeper ludonarrative interactions.
“Ludonarrative dissonance” is a concept that was first described by Clint Hocking(2007) in a post on his blog. This blog post, which was first and foremost a critique of the videogame Bioshock(2007), had an extraordinary effect on the communities of players, game developers and scholars alike. It was putting a name on something that most players felt while playing the game: a certain sensation of detachment. Ludonarrative dissonance could be described as a specific form of what could be called emersion — a term chosen to be used in this paper to refer to the opposite of the experience of immersion in videogames. Emersion is the sensation of being pulled out of the play experience.
Through a review of the literature produced in response to Hocking’s blog post, this essay will attempt to identify a definition of the term and understand how it narrows the broader concept of emersion. Secondly, it will seek the different perspectives from which it was perceived and analyzed, in order to spot where the very potentiality of the term lies. Thirdly, it will try to use the pinpointed definition and prospect through its potentialities, in order to take a look at it through the lens of game design.
Ludonarrative Dissonance: A Working Definition
What is it about?
Starting from the basic consideration that there was a “lack of game criticism”, Hocking decided to write a blog post that would be a game critique instead of a game review. For Hocking, Game criticism is for professionals who “want to think about the nature of games and what they mean”, as opposed to game reviews which are there to help the public to choose which game they should buy. A definition that seems to narrow game criticism towards academic writing. It is somewhat an opposition between contents with promotional value and contents with professional value. Thus, the latter being somewhat very rare, he decided to write a critique of Bioshock, a game which was released earlier that year. Game critiques are rare, but game reviews are so prominent, that it is only after apologizing to the game developers, for the unusual harshness of what he had to say, that Hocking made his point: “Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story”(Hocking, 2007).
For Hocking, there are two structures in opposition in Bioshock, the “narrative structure” and the “ludic structure”(Hocking, 2007). In a nutshell, what is at stake — and in opposition — between those two structures, are incentives and directives. Indeed, on one side, still according to Hocking’s analysis, the ludic structure — or “contract” as he also refers to it — is inciting the player to embrace the underlying “Randian rational self-interest” philosophy that defines “Rapture” the world of Bioshock; while on the other side the narrative structure’s incentive — or rather directive — is to betray this philosophy by helping Atlas, a character which is not aligned with Rapture’s Randian philosophy. This narrative choice is vouching for the developers’ actual critical discourse on the Randian objectivist philosophy, but according to Hocking, it interacts poorly with the gameplay. When the Mechanics of the gameplay incite you to gain power by harvesting little sisters, you can still choose between your self-interest (by harvesting them) and their interest (by rescuing them). However, the contract proposed by the narrative structure of the game is way less malleable; as your only choice — in order to finish the game — is to help Atlas. It is no longer an incentive but a directive. Hocking puts it in the following words:
This is a serious problem. In the game’s mechanics, I am offered the freedom to choose to adopt an objectivist approach, but I also have the freedom to reject that approach and to rescue the Little Sisters, even though it is not in my own (net) best interest to do so […] Yet in the game’s fiction on the other hand, I do not have that freedom to choose between helping Atlas or not. (Hocking, 2007).
(Even if the game still rewards you for rescuing the little sister, that reward is nor as immediate nor as profitable as the other option.)
For Makedonski(2012), ludonarrative dissonance “at its core” happens when the discourse conveyed through a game’s story and environment contradicts the discourse underlying its gameplay. From this contradiction, according to him, the player becomes “unimmersed” and “disconnected” from the experience. Therefore, it comes back to the concept of emersion. To put it in other words, ludonarrative dissonance could be a state of emersion that is triggered by a semiotic mismatch between play and narration. When in Hockin’s example there is clearly an opposition between the two structures, it can be assumed that a lesser form of mismatch might have a proportional potential for emersion.
The causes of dissonance
In another blog post reacting to Hocking’s critique of Bioshock, Nick Ballantyne(2015) makes an interesting comparison between cognitive dissonance and ludonarrative dissonance in order to highlight the fundamental difference between those two.
When confronted with cognitive dissonance (i.e., our beliefs and actions not lining up) in our boring everyday lives, people can cope in a few ways. If someone’s actions conflict with their beliefs, they can change their beliefs, change their actions, or just ignore it […], but ludonarrative dissonance isn’t about your beliefs, it’s about the system’s imposed beliefs. (Ballantyne, 2015).
To clarify, Ballantyne is telling us that ludonarrative dissonance only exists when the game “the system” forces the acceptance of its beliefs onto players by not giving them any choices to cope with those beliefs. (Which is seemingly not always perceived negatively by Ballantyne, as we will see later.) In like manner, what Makedonski(2012) defines as “the roadblock to ludonarratively consistent games” is very analogous. Indeed, from Makedonski’s point of view, “the developers, themselves” are often responsible for the ludonarrative mismatch to be experienced in their own games. According to him, developers would have to “surrender the power that they have over the story and put it in the player’s hands” (Makedonski, 2012).
Hence, Makedonski is advocating here for the adoption by game developers of the story-telling methodology that Schell(2008) is calling the “story machine”, or what is more recently referred to as emergent narratives. Games that don’t have a specific story to tell, but offering many potentialities of stories to be experienced by the player.
Dissonant Ludonarrative Perceptions
Maybe because of the negative subjacent meaning of the term dissonance, much of the literature that was produced around the term of ludonarrative dissonance, seem to be pinpointing it as an intrinsically negative aspect of videogame narration. Strangely enough, most of the articles making this assumption also seem to suffer from what could be called the “avatar bias.” The avatar bias being the assumption that a controllable character in a videogame always has to be considered as the avatar of the player.
For instance, when summarizing Hocking’s accounts on the dissonant narrative structure of Bioshock, Makedonski is stating that “anyone [any players] in this position had to merely accept that the game funneled them in that direction [or else they would have to quit playing]” (Makedonski, 2012), as if there couldn’t be a relation of alterity between the player and the controllable character. Same for Hocking himself, for whom blog post the lexical field referring to the game’s main character — “if I reject”, “I can help”, “and if I choose” (Hocking, 2007) — is often self-referential. Of course, with Bioshock featuring a first person camera, it is quite understandable that many players will assume that the character is their avatar, but the same phenomenon of dissonance can be perceived in games with playable objects that are way more characterized. Before diagnosing ludonarrative dissonance in a game, one should maybe ask if the ludonarrative dissonance would still be there once the alterity of the controlled character is accepted by the player. If it disappears, it might then mean that we were rather facing cognitive dissonance instead. In a movie, for example, the codes of the medium can help to create an identification with a position that the viewer might averse to take in real life, that’s the very principle of having such things as antiheroes. Even when taking into account the possibility that a game character is not always meant to be considered entirely as the player’s avatar, it does not erase the ludonarrative dissonance; instead, it might help us shed new light on the concept. Create a vision of the concept that would be less negatively tainted. Similarly, Daniel Dunne (2014), when advocating for a multimodal scope in game studies, laments the negative aura surrounding ludonarrative dissonance (Dune, 2014, p.1). Seemingly, for him, this negative vision of ludonarrative dissonance is a cue on a — biased — consensus among many game scholars for implicitly denying the multimodal or ergodic nature of games (Dunne, 2014, p.3).
Tilo Hartmann and Peter Vorderer (2010) who wrote an article about “moral disengagement” in videogames, also addressed the issue of dissonance, more precisely in violent videogames. When advocating that “virtual violence is only enjoyable when it comes with no or minimal costs,” they state that “distressful concerns” like “guilt” are more likely to emerge when the game’s moral standards are dissonant with the player’s own values (Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010). Even though the issue they are addressing here, is closer to the concept of cognitive dissonance, it might also be highlighting a form of emotional potential of ludonarrative dissonance. Indeed, we are touching here a concept that might explain how a certain gamut of emotions can be triggered only through gameplay. In a conference at Vancouver Art Gallery, Will Wright(2008), the famous game designer behind Sim City, was stating about games — in comparison to movies — that they “do not have an inferior emotional palate, but ‘rather a different one’ – feelings such as pride, guilt, and accomplishment, which are commonly felt when playing games, are not felt in the viewers of films”(as cited in James & Remo, 2008).
Even if Will Wright makes this statement to plead — like many — for the advent of emergent games, and to criticize game designers suffering from what he calls “film envy”, it is nonetheless implying that — just as filmmakers embrace the full emotional palate of their medium — game designers should do just the same, except with different emotions.
Coping with Ludonarrative Issues in Game Design
The quest for harmony
The use of the term dissonance suggests that the developer should be aiming for some sort of ludonarrative harmony. A harmony that is by its musical definition, an unattainable goal, as long as there is still any form of dissonance disturbing it. A goal that most of the literature on the subject indirectly imply as their own. Being now conscious of the ways narrative and ludic structures can contradict within a game, game designers should become more prone to create strategies to avoid this form of dissonance.
However, most of those who wrote on the matter seem to be pointing in the same direction: the annihilation of any form of pre-built narrative structure. A method that — in their eyes — would finally allow videogames to become coherent and harmonious. The inferred hypothesis behind this idea being that, games cannot reach harmony if game developers are trying to tell players a story. The idea is not that game developers should abandon creating games where players will experience a story, but that, game developers should abandon being authors of their game’s story. Thus, many are looking at games based on emergent gameplay as a potential solution to be rid of any form of ludonarrative dissonance. In Makedonsky’s words:
this would require the creators to focus on molding a world where anything could happen. Essentially, it would ask the developers not care so much about providing the experience that they visualized, but rather that they provide the means for an experience to occur. (Makedonski, 2012).
In a paper written for an FDG conference, Simon Chauvin, Guillaume Levieux, Jean-Yves Donnart & Stephane Natkin(2014), are trying to figure out a methodology for creating emergent game narratives, in order to provide the player with a satisfying ludonarrative experience. Within this article, the authors are attempting to present what they consider being five essential characteristics of emergent narratives: “coherence, agency, possibility space, uncertainty and co-authoring” (Chauvin et al., 2014, p.1) They first define coherence under two conditions, consistency and “persistence”(Chauvin et al., p.2) Consistency is for the rules of the game and the mechanics which should stay coherent and rational all across the game world. In emergent games, all objects of the same type — or class, as programmers may say — would behave consistently on a similar pattern. Persistence is for the effect of the player’s actions which should permanently affect the game state. To put it simply, if, in an emergent game, a rock can be broken with a hammer, every other similar rock should be breakable with a hammer; and if the player breaks a rock somewhere, that rock should basically stay in its broken state. Agency is simply the possibility for the player to have an impact in what they call a “dynamic, responsive world”(Chauvin et al., p.2). Developing on the previous concept of coherence, they state that an emergent game world, with its coherent rules, is more prone to allow players to plan their actions and anticipate the consequences, as one would do in the real world. In their essay, they describe possibility space as the “set of game states that can be attained through play.” To illustrate the effect of a large possibility space, they take the example of permanent death. When restarting to play in a linear game, would mean experiencing the same story again; in an emergent game, restarting the game after a permanent death would open totally new possibilities; especially in a world that would have evolved through the previous play. The wide possibility space of emergent games brings up the concept of uncertainty. When explaining their concept of uncertainty; the authors are stating that “it can be impossible for players to monitor every action taken by each entity of the game world.” What is implied in this statement might also be that every game object should have the ability to change the game state, just like the player. Even if the article itself doesn’t really dig into the subject, it is somehow putting an emphasis on the importance of AIs in the creation of emergent narratives. The last parameter they describe is co-authoring, a word they use to say that the game creator leaves control over the story to the player. “Authors do not intervene or impose mandatory events; rather they build a constrained space in which players are free to come and go as they please.”(Chauvin et al., p.2). Chauvin and his collaborators are suggesting that games with emergent narratives should target a specific audience of players that would have the creativity to assume the roles of “both player and director”(p.3). The collaboration from the game author here only comes from providing the story-telling assets to the player. And the article goes event further by suggesting that the freedom to create — or more precisely code — new story-telling assets should also be given to players. However it feels like following the latter idea literally, would rather lead us to the creation of a powerful story-telling tool for game engines. Then again, we might wonder if — in an actual game — such mechanics implying a necessity to code, would not be as emersive in the end, as ludonarrative dissonance?
It might also to be taken into consideration that emergent game-play might be “too mechanical” to favor a truly immersive experience. As an answer to ludonarrative dissonance, some propose the opposite approach to emergent gameplay. In her thesis about The Last of Us(2013), Karen Stanley (2014) analyses how the game is making an elegant interlacing of scripted events and game-play in order to avoid dissonance. When addressing the behavior of the companion AI in the game, she states that “the subtlety of the events is the key in maintaining player immersion” and that events that are “too obviously scripted or repeated in the same manner” can cause “distance between the companion AI and the player.”(Stanley, 2014). What we can fear with emergent narratives, is that their deeply mechanical — or automated — nature, might have them falling into this form of emersion described by Stanley. However, for the writer Matthew Burns(2012), the whole “mechanics vs. narrative” debate is a “false dichotomy”, he’s rather pointing at the omnipresence of the combat mechanics as responsible for the dissonance that can happen between those two. For this reason, he states that “games that explicitly exclude combat— such as Dear Esther, Journey, and others of their kind— seem so promising right now. As an industry, we still haven’t developed anything as mechanically complex as our combat, but at least we’ve figured out that we can remove it. “(Burns, 2012).
Toward a purposely ‘ludonarratively dissonant’ game design
As we saw, many authors who reutilized the concept coined by Hocking seem to advocate for emergent narratives as the ultimate cure for the evil of ludonarrative dissonance. However, among the literature reviewed, the point of view defended by Ballantyne is truly standing out. Indeed Ballantyne seems to be one of the only authors who’s advocating for purposely using ludonarrative dissonance as a story-telling tool instead of putting so many efforts into avoiding it. For Ballantyne, “if we are not given the allowance to change our play-style or ignore the contradictions, we’re only left to justify the dissonance”, still in his own words, it “might not be the worst thing in the world to […] be forced to think why it’s there.”(Ballantyne, 2015). It seems that Frasca(2001) in an essay about The Sims (which was not yet referring to Ludonarrative Dissonance) was probably agreeing with Ballantyne’s standpoint. Frasca was stating that the characters in The Sims were “flat” because they avoided any form of ideological conflict. Frasca was comparing videogame to drama, and stating that The Sims probably corresponded to an Aristotelian vision of drama — with an emphasis on immersion before all. Frasca was doing so to propose a solution which would be aligned with Bertolt Brecht’s idea of drama. For Brecht(1964) theater could take a form that could be non-aristotelian, where the viewers — and also the performers — would be purposely pulled out of immersion in order to create an interactive and dialectical relation to the performance. The solution proposed by Frasca was to give the player control over the drama by implementing themselves some character traits (like alcoholism, depression) to create what he calls “means of consciousness raising.” Even if it doesn’t necessarily proceed by giving control over the code of the game as advocated by Frasca, this notion of ludonarrative dissonance may have exactly the effect of “consciousness raising” that Frasca was aiming for.
Even when their content is controversial, games will generally tend to avoid ludonarrative dissonance. If we take a classic example, a game like the wonderful Silent Hill 2(2001); despite addressing themes like guilt or remorse, will address those themes by detaching them from the main character. To symbolize the main character’s guilt, they introduced the character of “Pyramid Head,” a purposely faceless foe that cannot be killed. The player — and his character — are always only witnessing the horrendous actions of this monster. A monster, which is nonetheless probably an avatar of the character controlled by the player. At the time the game was released, it was an incredibly inventive way to address such provoking themes in a video game. However, it would be interesting to see more recent games addressing these kinds of themes through a rationalized use of ludonarrative dissonance.
Stanley, writing about The Last of Us, highlights an interesting moment in the game. At some point, there is a momentary disruption of one of the game mechanics the player has gotten used to. One of the recurring mechanics of the game was the ability to lift Ellie, the main character’s companion AI, on Joel’s shoulder; so she could do something to open the way for Joel. Along the game, the player gets used to this recurring mechanics as part of what might be the rules of the game.
However at a certain moment, the player can press the button to call Ellie, but she doesn’t come.
This disruption of a recurring gameplay pattern creates a kind of, momentary ludonarrative dissonance.
But at the same time, it tells us something more about Ellie at this precise moment of the game. She is sitting far away from Joel because she is emotionally hurt, even more than usual (Stanley, p.11). This same principle of disruption of the gameplay routine as a potential semiotic tool for narration is something that was also identified by Seraphine(2014) in a Kindle publication where he explains that changing a game mechanics or making it disappear will sometimes have the ability to create meaning about the game world or its characters.
This moment of dissonance in the gameplay of The Last of Us is only momentary, and in the end, it is highlighting the narrative structure of the game. However, the game’s true stroke of genius is that it was hiding the narrative structure’s directives, behind changes in the ludic structure’s incentives. The disruption of the game mechanics that the player got used to, suddenly creates a new incentive within the game-play. The player needs to walk toward Ellie — the player needs her to go further, and is probably not going there with the intention to cheer her up — but through a masterful use of incentives, the game manages to have the player acting in the best interest of the story’s dramatic tension. And this might be only a tiny example of the potential use of ludonarrative dissonance as a game-design tool.
Through the different analyses of debates on the term ludonarrative dissonance, it became clearer that the real issue behind dissonance was coming from the opposition between incentives and directives in the narrative structure on one side and the ludic structure on the other side. To face this issue, some scholars and designers advocate for the use of emergent narratives, as an intrinsically more harmonious way to create narrative experiences within games. Others are advocating for more interconnections between the ludic and the narrative structure, as it permits a form of guided storytelling that feels harmonious to the player. But one interesting alternative that stands out is the purposeful use of this dissonance, in order to create interrogations or dissonant feelings in the player’s mind. And after all, despite all the debates it sparked, this might have been exactly the goal pursued by the designers of Bioshock. The game tries to draw our attention on the linear play that most FPS usually put us through. Atlas gives directives by addressing the player with a very polite “Would you kindly”, but when the game reveals that you were manipulated by Atlas, it actually draws the attention to the clichés of linear gameplay. The debates it sparked shows us that this game actually had an influence on the way we think about games. Recently, the French studio Dontnod Entertainment — famous for their previous game Life is Strange(2015) — announced a game called Vampyr(2016). A game where the player controls a doctor during the epidemic of Spanish influenza. A doctor, who also happens to be a vampire, is forced to drink people’s blood in order to survive. The game seems to be based on the dissonance between trying to save people’s life from influenza — which is your duty as a doctor — and the incentive of the gameplay which pushes you to drink people’s blood in order to survive and become stronger. The trailer of the game ends with the following sentence: “I did not choose the thing that I’ve become, but I can choose the lives that I’ll not take … Cursed be the choice…” (Focus Entertainment, 2016, 1:17-1:30). It seems that more games in the near future might use ludonarrative dissonance as a way to tell more compelling stories. In essence, stories are about characters and the most interesting stories are often told with dissonant characters; as it is the surprise, the disturbance, the accident, the sacrosanct disruptive element, that justifies the very act of telling a story.
As always, I would like to thank the Professor Akira Baba for his solid support and for his trust. I would also like to thank the Professor Karlin for his essential help in narrowing the focus of this paper. And finally, I would like to show my gratitude to Ms. Fernanda Branz and Mr. Philip Leth Möller for proof-reading this article and giving sound and useful comments.
PhD Candidate at The University of Tokyo