Ludonarrative dissonance, thematic incoherence

Originally published 24 Aug 2016; recovered after tragic server shenanigans.

“Ludonarrative dissonance”: I’m going to say that it’s become something of a cliche in games criticism. It’s a term that was coined by Clint Hocking to describe a peculiar situation in the 2008 game Bioshock.

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 (even over time according to this fascinating data).

Yet in the game’s fiction on the other hand, I do not have that freedom to choose between helping Atlas or not. Under the ludic contract, if I accept to adopt an Objectivist approach, I can harvest Little Sisters. If I reject that approach, I can rescue them. Under the story, if I reject an Objectivist approach, I can help Atlas and oppose Ryan, and if I choose to adopt an Objectivist approach – well too bad… I can stop playing the game, but that’s about it.

That’s the dissonance I am talking about, and it is disturbing. Now, disturbing is one thing, but let’s just accept for a moment that we forgive that. Let’s imagine that we say ‘well, it’s a game, and the mechanics are great, so I will overlook the fact that the story is kind of forcing me to do something out of character…’. That’s far from the end of the world. Many games impose a narrative on the player. But when it is revealed that the rationale for why the player helps Atlas is not a ludic constraint that we graciously accept in order to enjoy the game, but rather is a narrative one that is dictated to us, what was once disturbing becomes insulting. The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.

In other words, the game allows selfish behaviour as part of normal play behaviour, but narratively players have no choice but to act in another’s interest. Since its popularization, ludonarrative dissonance has become a popular concept to explain the way in which some games fail to create a sense of immersion. The term’s definition has loosened somewhat since its coining, but at its core is the idea that the player’s behaviour is at odds with the narrative trappings of the game. To take just a few examples:

  • In GTA IV, protagonist Niko Bellic can angrily shout that he’s sick of all the violence and death that he’s had to cause, first as a soldier and then as a member of the city’s underworld. This has absolutely no impact on the player’s ability to immediately go out and murder a random civilian just because.
  • In the 2012 reboot of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is a shaky girl who breaks into tears when she kills a deer in order to feed herself, let alone later killing a man in self-defense. Cue multiple sequences where the player guns down waves and waves of mooks, with nary a comment. After a couple of these stages, Cutscene Croft goes back to extreme remorse.
  • In Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, wisecracking thief explorer Nathan Drake is constantly shooting witty one-liners and cracking jokes while kicking men off ledges to their deaths and otherwise killing them with wild abandon. In fact, the series is so often chosen as an example of ludonarrative dissonance, it’s the name of an achievement in Uncharted 4, which is unlocked by killing a thousand enemy characters.

These are all great examples of ludic behaviour and narrative trappings creating a deeply dissonant result. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Ludonarrative dissonance is almost universally considered a bad thing. It jars players out of any sense of immersion. It is akin to a great big plot hole staring you in the face. It is a sign that whatever effect the developers intended, it just plain isn’t working.

But what if it is?

I present the example of Hotline Miami, set in an alternate 1980s Miami. Much has been written about its unsettling atmosphere, the way it employs its thumping, fantastic soundtrack and larger-than-life neon colour scheme with a satisfying combat system. Its soundtrack is an engine that drives the visceral combat in the game, and when I say visceral, I mean gory. It doesn’t shy away from showing blood and guts strewn on its colourful floors, with pixellated renditions of brain matter and organs splattering over neon tiles. Its sprites are grotesque interpretations of human faces; there is not a single attractive or merely good-looking character in that game. Everything is ugly, except for the part where it’s gorgeous.

After completing a level, probably in a variety of creatively violent ways, you steer your character back through the level and to your getaway vehicle. The music cuts out completely. The corpses, the gore, all that remains. You walk back through the halls in absolute silence. Without the soundtrack and the puzzle of how-to-finish-the-level loming over your head, you deflate. It is about as good an example of ludonarrative dissonance as any of the ones listed above: that enticing loop of violent gameplay clashes with the narrative, the reality that you’ve just walked into a casino and murdered everyone. And, every time you died, for a little moment your player character is just another smear on the wall; no special fanfare, no acknowledgement of your otherwise superhuman ability to kill, just… dead.

And that is the point. Because if there’s anything that Hotline Miami is about, I think I can make a pretty good case that is about the seductive nature of violence; that even as we see just how ugly it is, we keep going despite all the warnings. In this case, ludonarrative dissonance is absolutely something to aim for.

My problem with “ludonarrative dissonance” is simple: with this term alone, how are we to distinguish between instances where it is undesirable, and instances where it is? Or when aspects other than ludic behaviour and narrative create dissonance? Where can we even draw the line between ludic elements and narrative ones? For example, is art direction something you group under “ludic” or “narrative”—are the distinctive silhouettes of Team Fortress 2 ludic or narrative? What about user interfaces and menu design? Sound cues? Level design? Environmental storytelling? I believe it is fairly apparent that, depending on context, any of these examples could fall into either or both categories. What do we make of the term then?

Instead, I propose the term thematic incoherence or thematic inconsistency to indicate what we often mean when we reach for ludonarrative dissonance. In the first three cases I discussed, the problem is not just that player behaviour is at odds with the narrative. It’s at odds with the thematic elements of the game. Let’s go through those bullet points again:

  • GTA IV is trying to tell a story about a disaffected veteran trying to start anew, only to be drawn into the same cycle of violence, but the player’s range of possible behaviours can run completely counter to those themes.
  • Likewise, Tomb Raider is trying to tell the story of Lara’s transformation from scared victim to the confident badass of the old Tomb Raider games. The problem is that narratively Lara may still be feeling vulnerable and unconfident, yet in gameplay she mows down enemies at a pace that’d make Nathan Drake (see below) blink. That just doesn’t make sense.
  • Uncharted is a lighthearted summer blockbuster of an action game, and I would actually argue that Drake’s wisecracks aren’t quite as jarring as the others. This is because he fits into a clichéd genre character role, the wise-guy protagonist who’s up for adventure. He’s like a more murder-y Indiana Jones (do remember he straight up shot a man). I’d start getting concerned, and possibly throwing around the L-phrase if Drake suddenly started taking the sanctity of human life very seriously in cutscenes and nowhere else.

I believe that ludonarrative dissonance, properly employed, is potentially an extremely powerful tool. After all, dissonance can have a powerful impact. But as an analytical tool, ludonarrative dissonance” is simply not useful. Alone, it is not versatile enough to account for the possibility that thematic elements of a game can be driven forward by clashes between ludic systems and a game’s narrative. By going for a thematic analysis of a game, we can more effectively examine the effect of its parts working against or with all the others. By not automatically seeking out and pinning unsatisfactory thematic or character work in a game on ludonarrative dissonance, we widen the possibility for deeper analysis, and also allow ourselves to look for instances where such dissonance enhances a game.

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