My buddy, ludonarrative dissonance

I felt ludonarrative dissonance long before I learned the term. I can’t remember which example stands out most strongly in my mind – it might have been Apocalypse, that PS1 game with Bruce Willis, except I can’t recall why. So when I first heard the term, it was like putting a name and face to an idea already nagging at the back of my mind.

It upsets a lot of people – the term, not the idea. Well, maybe the idea as well. I’m writing this after reading Chris Franklin’s bit kind of in defence of it on Errant Signal, so I’m going to use his text as a diving board. Truth be told, the debate’s been raging for so long that there’s a wealth of texts to reference, at least one of which I’m bound to full-on agree with, but Franklin’s piece is nicely sized and concise enough to use this way. It’s also freshest in my mind, so feel free to consider this a response, except I’m not going to be contradicting him really.

So, I’m going to break this up into three wee parts – what is ludonarrative dissonance, why some folk think it’s bad and should be done away with, and why I think it’s good and should be kept. Ludonarrative dissonance will often be shortened to LD, by the way.

What is ludonarrative dissonance?

[Edit – Let me preface this by saying LD is not necessarily a negative in a game. It can be a quirk of narrative in a games, a way to critique a game, an aid in how we consider games holistically, a method of deliberately conveying a specific narrative, and so on. LD in a game can be good in the right context – or rather, it can be wielded with expertise – just like ‘heavy controls’ can be good in the right context (I’ll give an example later on). It’s up to the critic to decide whether they felt LD and whether it was suitable to the game or not. I know we nearly always hear about LD in a negative context so it’s important to remember that it’s not intrinsically so.]

Ludonarrative dissonance is when the narrative conveyed by gameplay is contradictory to the narrative conveyed by other means. It’s a pretty simple concept, in my mind.

At the risk of overcomplicating it a little, let me clarify that traditionally “the narrative conveyed by other means” was just considered “narrative”. Prior to LD I don’t think “ludonarrative” was really a term.* Nowadays people generally accept the stuff the player does through gameplay as potential of narrative, except when it inconveniences them, as with much of the backlash against GTAV criticism. I hope in the future we’ll collectively internalize gameplay as a mode of narrative.

Even then, however, “ludonarrative” will still be a useful term to describe specifically the narrative conveyed by gameplay, just as cinematography describes narrative through camera framing.

For an example of LD, consider a game where all the aesthetic and plot elements ostensibly describe the player-character as a goody two-shoes hero, but the gameplay inevitably leads to them callously slaughtering thousands of people. Uncharted is a good example of this: Nathan Drake’s constant quipping and ‘everyman’-ishness contrasts sharply with his actions during gameplay. Drake is designed to be relatable and charming, but if you find his sociopathy hard to stomach you’re likely to experience this dissonance.

[Edit – Uncharted is a commonly used example of LD but it’s important to remember that LD can be a positive technique. If Uncharted were considered a critique of such ‘everyman’-ishness, this might all fit together quite nicely. Although, the game might need to be a little bit different before I’d be able to square that interpretation with my own.]

If you take this as my understanding of LD, it’s likely you’ll find it to differ to the next person’s explanation. I don’t want the above to be considered a definition, but more than that I don’t want an obsession with definitions to define conversation. There are plenty of words we use which most of us would find difficult to define – being, time, gameplay, art, existence, etc. – and yet we kind of intuitively get what these words mean without necessarily formulating or understanding their exact definitions. So long as we roughly cop the meaning of LD, we can use it productively.

Why some folk think it’s bad and should be done away with.

Unfortunately, many folks feel we’re not often on the same page when it comes to LD. They often feel it’s misused or used poorly, which I’m sure it is at times. In my experience, however, the understanding of LD is pretty common across the board – it’s when these bits are dissonant with these other bits – that difficulty only really arises on ultra-specifics. For instance, originally it was used in a pretty complex critique of BioShock; some folks contest this critique, and justifiably so. But even in such a rebuttal, Hocking’s concept of LD seems to have been understood. So although particular explanations and definitions of LD may differ, I get the impression that we’re not lacking an understanding of the term, even if it’s only loose at present.

If communal understanding is one perceived problem, communal application of LD is another. I’ve mentioned elsewhere about Robert Yang’s bit on LD in BioShock Infinite – my own interpretation differs but many readers have understood it to mean two things: there is no LD in BioShock Infinite because not enough people experienced it; and there is no such thing as LD because we can’t find any universal examples of it. The idea is that specific instances of LD are not universal, so perhaps LD doesn’t exist or it’s simply unfair to criticise a game down those lines.

(It would also suggest there’s no sexism in videogames (plural or singular) because, ultimately, feminists are in the minority. There’s a whole epistemology here I don’t agree with; I’ve broached it elsewhere so I’ll spare you the trouble just now.)

Some folks argue that LD is elitist. It’s a complicated term at first glance, no doubt. It warrants an explanation. These folks reckon that it exists only to separate game critics from the peasantry, as if it’s a means to inflate our sense of worth or masturbate to ourselves. I’ve never seen a single case of LD being used in critique without accompaniment by an explanation or a link to an explanation, though, so I can’t see how it could be construed as an attempt at elitism. It is a poncy sounding term, I’ll give you that, and it’s definitely cumbersome to say or type out each time. But it’s not complicated. Particular examples can be complicated, true, but the concept is easy to grasp.

In the past I’ve argued in favour of making games criticism more accessible, like making my own writing easier to read and cutting down on jargon. LD is jargon, if given without an explanation or used deliberately to obfuscate, but then again it’s still a comparatively new term. Cinematography was jargon once, but through constant use it has become familiar. It is an entirely worthwhile pursuit to deepen games criticism at the same time as broadening it, and if we want to deepen it we need to invent the conceptual tools to do so. The co-existence of specialized games blogs with non-specialized publications demonstrates that deepening and broadening the critical sphere are not mutually exclusive activities.

It’s also worth noting that introducing new words and asking your audience to follow along is not such a terrible thing, especially if you grant them the opportunity to do so.

Another point made against LD is that it possibly establishes a false dichotomy between story and gameplay. I’m honestly not sure if this is a common complaint – Franklin raises it as a concern, though, so I’d like to consider it here because I think it’s an interesting one. I would suggest that the sense of LD we experience often comes about because this dichotomy already exists in the mind of the developers. It could be that gameplay is often parcelled out separately from narrative during development, or because narrative cohesion was overlooked or sacrificed for gameplay features, or because of any number of reasons. When the player plays the final product and experiences these two areas clashing, a horrible sense of dissonance comes through.

The interesting thing here is that LD is predicated on the player/critic assuming gameplay and narrative are not dichotomous, or shouldn’t be dichotomous. (A big old disclaimer belongs here that I’m generalizing LD into a design flaw, but that is not necessarily the case, as I will describe shortly.)

Why I think it’s good and should be kept.

You probably noticed I didn’t labour over the applications argument against LD even though it’s probably the strongest or most common of the lot. That’s because I think what LD’s detractors see here as a vice, I see as a boon in the form of critical discourse. Where you might feel LD, I might not; we disagree in our experiences of the game and we discuss why we felt differently. This isn’t a bad thing. Half of what criticism is all about is finding out why we feel this or that from a piece of media. If used earnestly, LD is a conceptual tool that enables critics to verbalize something they experienced. Without it the experience would only go undiscussed.

I feel I should say something that could have easily gone under the ‘explanation’ section but I felt was prudent to leave until now: my understanding of LD might differ a little to what is generally accepted. LD is often used in a sort of definitive sense – “this game gives the player ludonarrative dissonance because XYZ” – whereas I think it’s more accurate to emphasize its subjectivity – “I felt ludonarrative dissonance here because XYZ”. The latter allows for thousands of varied and conflicting applications; the former has people scratching their heads over consensus. In emphasising the subjectivity of LD, we contextualize it within our experience of the game, like how we interpreted the game within its own narrative framework and within our own cultural timeline.

Depending on who you ask it may be a no-brainer to say that games criticism comes from a subjective place, but the argument that LD requires consensus leaves me baffled enough that I need to stress it. I worry now that this discussion might verge into philosophical technicalities so I’ll leave the point at this: it’s perfectly OK for criticism to be subjective and for a critic to still speak with authority. It’s absolutely grand for a critic to say “this game suffers from LD”, just as it is to say “this game is sexist”. Although these things stem from our interpretation, I think these qualities, these meanings, can be immanent in texts and are made visible by our experiencing. Just like it’s OK to say sugar is sweet.

Perhaps that’s a bit heavy, but you don’t need to care in the slightest about epistemology to use LD to describe an experience you had. Like I said earlier, there’s a mountain of terms we don’t really understand full-on but still cop 99% of the time. Of all that have stimulated endless debate in games criticism but are often misunderstood or misused, the list includes:

Art Game.

The important thing isn’t that we’re all absolutely clear on the ins and outs of a term, just that we understand the gist well enough to be able to follow it colloquially. Which I think we do.

So LD describes a particular phenomenon. It doesn’t describe the cause of the phenomenon – you determine that on a case by case basis. And, in truth, it doesn’t describe whether the LD was good or bad. Because LD is so often used as a criticism, many people automatically link LD with negative critique. But LD could be used to reference a moment of realisation that your actions don’t reflect your intent, or to highlight the unfairness or hypocrisy within the games’ systems.

I can’t think of any overt examples so consider this hypothetical one: imagine a game that is constantly telling the player how finding a job is easy and super rewarding, but the player finds these activities to be difficult and frustrating. Much like BioShock perhaps falters in its critique of Objectivism by making Objectivist principles empowering and fun, here the projections of empowerment and fun falter in light of the reality of the actions. The LD at play describes an intrinsic unfairness of the gameworld, especially if the unemployed are punished or abusively mischaracterized (“if you don’t have a job, you’re just lazy”).

LD can be a very useful and helpful term in games criticism insofar as it describes a particular relationship between some of a game’s elements. I admit I’m a fan of the term; it’s unfortunate that it sometimes leads to confusion, since what it describes is very much real in my mind. I’d much rather see it maintained in our vocabulary than discarded, and appropriate critique alongside it.

*I’m taking “ludonarrative” to mean “the narrative that comes from gameplay”. I don’t know if it was originally intended this way or if it was supposed to mean the overlap between gameplay and narrative, as if the two are trains passing in the night or whatever. The latter’s kind of naff and the former warrants a term anyway, so I’m not really interested how it was intended, I’m taking it to mean the former.

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