Re: Tension in Papers Please and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Papers Please

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Jason Hawreliak wrote this article for Ontological Geek arguing in favour of the inclusion of ludonarrative dissonance (LD) within our critical lexicon. The short of it is Hawreliak thinks LD is a useful tool to have in our vocabulary, and that although it has historically been used in a negative tense to find fault in a game, LD can make for great narrative design if applied artfully.

I’m on his side there.

But then, Hawreliak goes about highlighting the benefits of LD with some questionable examples. I’ll take the two main ones: Papers Please and Mass Effect. Papers Please puts you in the role of a border inspector who must deny access to the country to people in need, even though that’s a cruel thing to do. Mass Effect lets you take squad members with you on missions, some of whom might be more suited to the mission narratively while others would be better choices ludologically (that’s an ugly word – basically, through gameplay).

In each of these cases Hawreliak describes a narrative dilemma – both choices available to the player are equally preferable but only one can be made. Letting a battered refugee into the country is overtly desirable but so is getting enough money to feed your family. Having Liara interact with her mother would be interesting but Wrex helps the team plough through combat. Being put in each of these positions might give you the feeling of your mind tearing apart a little, forced in two opposite directions by your desire to see both choice fulfilled, granting you discomfort and tension.

LD grants discomfort and tension, which is why Hawreliak prescribes these situations as reflecting LD, I think. But not all discomfort and tension in a videogame is an example of LD. Ludonarrative dissonance specifically refers to a sense of doublethink within a game, where it tells you on the one hand “Doing X is bad” and on the other “Doing X is good”. Or “character Y is relatable” alongside “character Y is a sociopath”, as is commonly cited of Uncharted.

Some problems in defining LD here, though. One of these hands is generally the game’s ‘narrative’, like how Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake is consistently presented through dialogue, character design, cutscenes, whatever. The other, more important hand is the game’s ‘gameplay’, which depicts Nathan Drake killing a thousand people. The two presented impression of Drake being a blokey everyman and Drake being an emotionless mass murderer do not mesh very well, creating a disconnect between the ‘narrative’ bits and the ‘game’ bits.

That’s fairly commonly how LD is defined, and I think it’s how Clint Hocking intended it when first coining the term. In this way, ludonarrative is a portmanteau referencing two distinct components, ludo (ie. game) and narrative, smashed together by virtue of their (dissonant) relationship.

I think a more useful way to consider and use the term is for ‘ludonarrative’ to mean ‘the narrative of gameplay’ in one fluid motion. The narrative fact that Drake kills thousands of people is not distinct from the gameplay act of Drake killing thousands of people. Looking at it this way, we don’t act as if narrative belongs in one box and gameplay belongs in a separate one, or as if ‘ludonarrative’ is not natively narrative, which I think is a better way to go forward.

You could consider that as an aside, or you could consider it as me restating and arguing for my understanding of LD, and so as the thrust of this small post.

Returning to Hawreliak’s article, the example of Papers Please does not demonstrate LD because it does not coincide the narrative of wanting to be benevolent or wanting to be selfish with its gamplay – the checking of documents for inconsistencies. In other words, checking documents for inconsistencies does not conflict with wanting to be a good border inspector (or wanting to feed your family). On the other hand, checking documents for inconsistencies does result in a dilemma where you want to let someone pass but don’t want to be docked for it, but this is not dissonance of ludonarrative with anything, rather a conflict between duty and empathy.

In Mass Effect, the tension between picking Liara or Wrex for your squad is based out of a desire for compatible themes or a desire for a potential gameplay payoff. It’s similar to Shepard’s decision to free or save the Rachni Queen, which is also a mechanical choice allowed of the player via dialogue options, similar to choosing a squad via a menu. Both mechanical, both offer a sense of tension from weighing your options and figuring out which choice you prefer. Even though many players perceive the Rachni Queen in terms of her potential use for them in the future (including her potential gameplay uses), the dilemma is not an example of ludonarrative dissonance because the narrative of gameplay (picking between narrative options) does not grate against anything framing it (the setting, the political history of the galaxy, Shepard’s character design, etc.).

Similarly, Shepard picking Liara for her relationship with her mother does not conflict with the narrative of Liara going on a mission where she will meet her mother. And Shepard picking Wrex for his tanking doesn’t conflict with the narrative of favouring strategic benefits over personal interest in a mission, since that’s within Shepard’s prerogative. Having to decide between these may create tension and inner conflict, but not, from what I can tell, dissonance.

As a couple of counter-examples of LD as a potentially favourable design element, and I may be projecting my own reading of the game a bit here, but consider Mass Effect 3. I consistently got the impression from how Shepard was discussed by her friends and allies that she was perceived as the “best of humanity”, representing her race better than anyone in the scheme of galactic relations. But in my experience through gameplay, I found Shepard’s relations to her fellow humans to be quite emotionally distant and chilly, as if she was having difficulty relate to anyone around her. So in a twist of irony, here I had the symbol of humanity unable to comport herself as fellow to other human beings, even as everyone tells her how human she is. This fits in nicely as a projection of the stresses and emotional barriers that can face someone put in her position, so the ludonarrative dissonance (loneliness vs. fellowship) cleverly portrays her psychological removal from those around her.

In the case of Papers Please, I’ve heard some players tell of a time where they found themselves in the zone of checking documents for inconsistencies and disallowing applicants near-autonomously, where the flow of document checking became so aesthetically pleasing that they grew unmindful of the horrific undertones of their actions. In such a case one could convincingly argue LD is being used to great effect, since most players see the role of being a strict border inspector as cruel and undesirable, but then find themselves drawn into it because ‘being a strict border inspector’ turns out to be rather appealing. The game implicitly says “X is bad” but through gameplay we find that “x is good”. By this you would have an example of LD aptly used to depict the banality of evil of bureaucracy.



7 thoughts on “Re: Tension in Papers Please and Ludonarrative Dissonance

  1. Thanks for the reply, Stephen! I certainly agree that not all tension is LD. As I tried to express in my conclusion, there is also a tension within the narrative of PP – do I help others or my family? However, I was trying to conduct a close reading of a particular scene while using LD to describe the tension in that scene.

    The procedural rhetoric of the gameplay in that moment “persuades” me to process applicants according to a certain set of rules. I get a ludic benefit from doing so (also, in the early game it will be game over if you incorrectly process too many applicants). But the claimants’ stories, the narratological rhetoric, persuades me to break the rules and let them in. There’s a dissonance or tension at play here between two modes of rhetoric – ludic/procedural and narratological.

    The Mass Effect example was a bit offhand, but I think it still works. The narratological rhetoric persuades me to pick one party member: I want to see how Liara will respond to her mother. The ludological rhetoric persuades me to pick the member who will be most effective during the combat. Again, the tension here is – do I make the choice based on a narrative factor, or based on a ludic factor?

    I think part of the problem is, funny enough, not a misunderstanding of ludonarrative but a misunderstanding of dissonance. Dissonance does not mean contradictory, or in the case of games, doublethink. Dissonance is “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.” I don’t see why LD has to be confined to the sort of examples you give above. All it has to mean is a tension between the narrative and ludic units, however you want to (arbitrarily) look at them.

    I was trying to go beyond the well worn Nathan Drake/BioShock examples to demonstrate that LD is a popular instance of configurative analysis – i.e., analyzing a game according to the interaction of its component parts. To me, that’s the best kind of analysis, since videogames are made up of many different parts (hence why I cite Bogost’s Unit Operations).

    I’ll also take this time to address another criticism I’ve faced, one much less tactfully formed than your own. To say that LD has any “correct” definition is absurd. In the first place, language changes. In the second, it’s a portmanteau made up of two already poorly defined terms. We can’t come to a hard and fast definition of “game” or “play” or “narrative” for that matter. I think most of us know that. So to think that we can somehow come to an objective, “correct” and exclusive definition of “ludonarrative” is very strange to me.

    Does that mean we can have any term mean anything we want? Of course not. But just because I can’t give you a sufficient definition of “game” doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it. We can have a general sense of something without having to precisely pin it down. Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play makes a really good case for this.

    Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to respond, Stephen. I appreciate it and look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Hey Jason, thanks for your reply! I’m wholly on board with your closing point about not needing absolute definitions to premise our game criticism or even our general enjoyment of the medium. This whole business of pressing for a definitive version of one culturally ambiguous term or another has already gotten the field into a rut on more than one occasion.

      Like you say, sometimes it’s best if we all carry within ourselves a loose understanding of concepts that facilitates communication, rather than getting bogged down in etymological and pedantic debates under the pretence that it’ll be groundwork if anyone can ever decipher it.

      That being said, building even a general consensus of what a term or an idea refers to can be very useful for getting us all on roughly the same page. The fact that many well-read critics still get confused as to what ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ means at any given time is a prime example of when it is pertinent to regather ourselves on a thought. (I recently went back and reread Hocking’s post on the matter and found I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, despite having been keen to it in the past. Moreover, I found it relied on a fundamental representation of game narrative that conflicted with my own ideas of the medium, to a point where I couldn’t accept LD in the form he presented it.)

      So this post is just in the spirit of that – a regathering of my thoughts on LD, a recap of what I’ve said on it before together with my feelings on narrative in games in general, in case it might be useful to anyone as they process their own thoughts on the matter.

      In that context, I want to re-stress that ludonarrative dissonance as a term doesn’t mean ‘tension between gameplay and narrative’ because that’s such a broad area as to be useless. Or at least, it shouldn’t, because then we’d be sacrificing a specific and useful term by diluting it to every end. Wanting to line up all your Tetris blocks but being unable to because they fall too fast would constitute ludonarrative dissonance by this standard. Any time there is conflict between what the player wants to do narratively and what they want to do (or can do) through gameplay would suffice, and that encompasses nearly everything.

      So I’m afraid I still don’t see how the case in Papers Please constitutes ludonarrative dissonance. I think this is because of the difference in how we see the term ‘ludonarrative’ – you’re using it to refer to the intersection of ludology with narrative as two disparate bubbles, whereas I’m using it to refer to the narrative of gameplay, itself a unit in Bogost’s UO framework. For me, it’s less about “how will the gameplay reward me for doing the thing?” or “what will the narrative consequences be after I do the thing?” and more about “what is the narrative of doing the thing?” Less “gameplay facilitates narrative”, more “gameplay is narrative”.

      I’m not sure if my stance can be understood within a ludology versus narrative theoretical school, but I hope this comment has helped to accentuate the distinction between our understandings.

  2. No this definitely helps. I think I’m seeing where some of the disconnect is now.

    I’m certainly using LD in a broader sense than usual, but not so broadly that anything goes. In your Tetris example, that’s all within the ludic unit. There the tension is between aligning your blocks and the speed at which they fall – both of those are in the realm of gameplay. There’s no narrative element telling you that you *shouldn’t* align your blocks to complete a line. If after every level there was some cutscene showing you that each completed line kills a puppy or something, then there would be LD. The narrative unit would be pulling you in a different direction than the ludic unit… unless you’re a monster of course.

    Also I think many games (most?) are consonant, not dissonant, but it depends on how you organize your analysis. If you look at the first Modern Warfare games in terms of a rhetoric of Western war heroism, everything sort of lines up. The narrative is that the war on terror is just and necessary, the gameplay has you doing “heroic” and powerful things (i.e. shooting bad guys who want to kill you), the visual unit sets up a clear us vs. them… even the music is heroic. If heroism is the organizing function, then everything aligns more or less (those anti-war message loading screens are an exception).

    Now there are other ways to look at it. Other approaches or organizing functions could find some dissonance. What’s important to me though is to always look at how these disparate elements interact with each other, whether they line up or not.

    I think another distinction is that I certainly see narrative and gameplay as two distinct but permeable and dynamic things. That’s why I like Bogost’s “discrete units” – the concept acknowledges distinction but also stresses that one part radically influences the other(s). Again, these are difficult terms to define in the first place, but I know that receiving a quest to fight a dragon in Skyrim is a different thing than fighting a dragon or something.

    On the other hand, I completely get your point about a narrative of gameplay. I think sports games are probably the best example of that, if I understand you correctly. How I complete a pass and score a goal in FIFA or something is constructing a narrative. Or to use the Skyrim example, fighting that dragon is a narrative in itself. I guess I would categorize that as a different sort of (somewhat emergent) narrative. I’m fine with having different sorts of narrative in games, and I totally get the value in focusing on one over the other.

    For me though, the interesting dissonance in the Skyrim narrative/gameplay is that you’re told you must urgently save the world, but you can go pick herbs for days on end without any ludic penalty. The narratological rhetoric is one of urgency but the ludological rhetoric is one of “meh, get around to it when you can” (unlike Dead Rising or something). That depends on distinguishing narrative and gameplay.

    What’s important I think is that we don’t confine ourselves to just one “correct” idea of what constitutes narrative, or gameplay for that matter. I don’t think you’re doing that, btw. But in the kinds of analysis I’m interested in, that initial division is important.

  3. I’m puzzled by the confounding of gameplay and narrative into a single concept. You need two separate things in order to have dissonance.

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