Woah, that’s a pretty wordy title. Let’s see if we can condense and contextualize it.
When we play video games, we experience the gameplay (ludology) and the story (narratology) attempting to entertain and immerse us in the game’s universe (no, this won’t be a talk about hyperreality and immersion, but it is related). Developers want us to be immersed in the games they create; they want us to continue playing the game so we praise it and help the developer to sell more units. It really is as utilitarian as it seems. When we cannot immerse ourselves, we aren’t entertained by the game, and we either sell the game back to a retailer, tell our friends not to buy the game, or both. This is something developers attempt to work against. However, due to the sole fact that the game is, in fact, a “game” and not reality, the gameplay often comes into conflict with the story the game is attempting to tell. This, when gameplay and story contradict one another, is ludonarrative dissonance.
The term was first coined by game developer Clint Hocking, in a 2007 article about how the themes of selflessness presented in Bioshock‘s story are at odds with the rewards of selfishness in its gameplay. I’m going to outline how three modern video games, all released in 2013, are affected by this contention of gameplay and storytelling.
Tomb Raider acts as a prequel to the critically-acclaimed franchise. Before she became a world-famous archaeologist and adventurer, Lara Croft goes on her first exploration on a deserted Japanese island, shrouded in mystery and mythology, as she attempts to find her friends after their ship crashes offshore. Stumbling through the forest, she is even squeamish about killing deer for food; she is uncomfortable with weapons. Fast-forward a little bit and she’s attacked by a crazed man attempting to rape and murder her. In an act of self-defense, she shoots the man, killing him. Before this point, you are not given any weapons. As you play, however, you learn to pick up items, interact with the environment, and finally, you’re given the ability to fight against humanoid enemies with weaponry. Within the process of play, you’re taught how to affect the environment with your items, and so when you finally get your hands on a gun, you use your gamer instincts to kill. And kill. And kill. You slaughter hundreds of humans throughout the remainder of the game without a second thought. The game inherently encourages your acts of violence while telling you that Lara is discouraged by them. What should be a difficult and traumatic act for Lara has become trivialized in the context of action-adventure gameplay. Though the game attempts to make Lara more comfortable with killing after shooting her would-be-rapist in the head, it doesn’t make sense how she is now okay with mowing through other people as easily as a war veteran.
The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, Booker DeWitt, is given a task by enigmatic figures, who tell him to “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” a vague set of instructions that has the private detective travelling to the paradisaical city of Columbus, hidden above the clouds, to steal away Elizabeth, the daughter of the city’s leader and chief religious figure. Given the importance of this task, and the fact that you’re being chased by the city’s police force for being a False Prophet, you would expect to find and extract Elizabeth as quickly as possible. But between fighting through Father Comstock’s unending army, you search through trash cans and alleyways to find health-replenishing food. Booker becomes the epitome of a glutton, chasing away seagulls for a few bites at a half-eaten hot dog. Finding restorative items makes sense to us as gamers; the character is hurt and needs to replenish his/her health. You can accomplish this by using medical kits found throughout the city, but as these are few and far between, your primary source of healing comes from sifting through the Colombians’ refuse.
I want to quickly address, however, a concern that many analysts had with Bioshock Infinite‘s gameplay, chiefly the amount of violence in it. Most critics had an issue with the fact that the gameplay was violent, as this did not reflect the nature of Booker’s character, in a similar vein to Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. However, the violence in Tomb Raider is dissonant because Lara goes from never having killed to massacring hundreds with barely any transition; she does not come from a violent background. Booker, on the other hand, is a veteran of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where over 150 Lakota Native Americans died. Booker is a war veteran who has experience with violence and weapons. The fact that he fights through Comstock’s forces in Columbia is not a ludonarrative issue.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us, despite being my favorite game of 2013, is not free from the grips of ludonarrative dissonance. Twenty years after a fungal epidemic plagues the planet, grizzled smuggler Joel attempts to escort Ellie, a young girl who is somehow the key to a vaccine, across the country. The visuals are breathtaking, the story is heart-wrenching, and the gameplay is…well, it has problems. It’s your standard third-person shooter, with the added difficulty of stealth and survival horror elements. Going into an encounter guns-blazing is not the best option, so you’re forced to scrounge for materials in a post-apocalyptic world and take out soldiers, gang members, and Infected as sneakily as possible. Each of these elements adds to the narrative the developers are trying to create, but in an effort to ease frustration on the part of the player, they have instead created a hilariously dissonant gameplay element: Ellie cannot be seen in stealth. Sure, enemies can attack and grab her once you’ve made your presence known, but while you’re skulking in dark corners, the AI cannot see Ellie, even when she’s literally right in front of them. Yes, it makes sense from a gameplay perspective to not punish the player for the work of the companion AI, but from a narrative perspective, it makes little to no sense why these bloodthirsty and vicious enemies don’t notice a fourteen-year old, foul-mouthed, badass girl.
Ian Bogost, in his article on procedural rhetoric, discusses how the inherent rules of a video game can reflect and make arguments about the real world because of its interactive nature. Each of the aforementioned games attempt to follow this process by having a story that is reflected through its gameplay. However, when the gameplay and storytelling elements clash, it is ultimately the gameplay that wins out because of the very definition of a game: it is a digital, interactive, structured form of play. Storytelling and art can be part of how the game is experienced, but it is the rules and forms of play itself that inform how a game truly is a game. So because the story is so integral to these games, to the point where it can affect how the gameplay is experienced, ludonarrative dissonance occurs and we are forced to reconsider the processes by which we create and enforce the rules of a game.