Dissonant Games

Words: 2042 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

Last week I mentioned the idea of ludonarrative dissonance in a game as a method for storytelling. I gave a brief suggestion of how such dissonance could be made a core component of a game’s theme to compose its own meta-theme or meta-narrative.

Having played through a handful of games at this point that in some way are built on the concept of ludonarrative dissonance. Games that come to mind are Dude Stop, The Stanley Parable, and There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension. These games are designed to present the player with a set of instructions that the player is expected to defy. The idea is getting the player to work against the game, although in a way that is built by the game’s own systems.

To begin, some definitions, and here is where we run into a problem. The idea of “ludonarrative dissonance” is used pretty frequently, but has been largely expanded from its original meaning. Initially, the term referred to how a game’s mechanics and its narrative told two conflicting stories. The quintessential example is Bioshock: the game’s story is about how people should not be selfish, and that pursuing personal power through selfish means is wrong or destructive; the game’s mechanics, though, suggest that pursuing power through selfish means may actually be the best way to succeed and may even be the best option to go with. Because the game is trying to sell an idea, but goes about that sale in a confusing manner, it creates a dissonance between those two components of the game.

Another good example can be found in Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives. Bissell notes how Grand Theft Auto IV had a similar problem. The narrative of the game was about the main character, Niko Bellic, trying to make a life in the United States and escape a violent past, and struggling with that escape in a world that would rely on him because of his proficiency for violence. The game’s mechanics, though, essentially encouraged being as violent as destructive as possible, occasionally just for the mere fun of it. This was strictly speaking a matter of the player’s choice, but insofar as the game’s systems would often encourage or reward destruction, it created another dissonance between the game’s storyline and its gameplay.

So these ideas of ludonarrative dissonance refer specifically to the idea that a game’s thematic structure is being directly contradicted by the game’s mechanics and systems. The game is trying to tell the player “don’t do this” through the narrative, but then turning around and saying “go ahead and do this” when it comes to the gameplay.

Other uses of the term – particularly as the discussion started unfolding and the term was applied to other games such as the Uncharted series – were about how a game’s story and gameplay didn’t fully match up. So with Uncharted, the story was supposed to about treasuring hunting, but the gameplay focused primarily on gunfights.

The broadening of the term meant that ludonarrative dissonance transformed from a specific contradiction to a lack of full agreement. The degree to which it’s useful to apply this term in both manners is something I won’t touch on. But it does mean that we have to specify what we mean when we’re using the term.

As the term has entered the language in a more common capacity, you can occasionally see the term to mean a few more things. These can include how a game’s mechanics may not be perfectly reflected in a game’s story. We might point out how shooting games might have characters fire their weapons but not actually use any of the player’s ammo as an example. Or it might refer to how the player can perform actions that might not be fully “intended” by the game, even if the game’s programming allows for those actions to take place.

I’d like to suggest that these final uses should be separated out and given their own term (or terms). The more we broaden out a concept in this way, the harder it is to actually get a grasp on what the concept means and how it is applied. Because a core component of ludonarrative dissonance is supposed to be how the game is designed, and how these two parts of the design – gameplay and narrative – directly conflict with one another. These examples often don’t capture this conflict, and in fact may bring to light how a game is specifically intended to draw attention to how the player can flaunt the game’s “official” design and beat their own path.

Dissonant Games

I give all of this discussion to help setup the discussion about these games that are, in a sense, built around ludonarrative dissonance. Because their dissonance really only exists in that final – as I suggested, improper – sense.

Let’s use The Stanley Parable for our example. The player controls a character, Stanley, who is guided by a narrator that explains what the player is “intended” to do. Sometimes the narrator explains what Stanley did or is doing, but sometimes the narrator explains what Stanley is going to do, which serves as a suggestion to the player. But the player – being in actual control of Stanley – can choose to ignore that suggestion and take a different course of action. That, in turn, causes the narrator to react to the choice in various ways. The game then becomes about exploring the different ways in which the player can exercise choice, about the relationship between the player’s choices and narrative, and how narratives can evolve through a player’s choices. The game is a really great example of how to make narratives more interactive, although it arguably serves more as a proof of concept for the idea, and more work is certainly needed to explore the idea in its fullness.

The Stanley Parable invokes the specter of ludonarrative dissonance: the idea that the game is trying to directly tell you what to do, but then giving you the choice and even somewhat encouraging you to not follow those orders, seems to fit with the stricter definition about there being a contradiction. Taken this way, the game might be suggesting that it is using ludonarrative dissonance to tell its own story.

The problem with this description, though, is that there isn’t actually any contradiction at all. The intended design of the game is that the player ought to disobey the game’s commands. The game’s own themes are about obedience and disobedience, and so the decision to disobey in no way goes against the game’s design.

The same is true of most – if not all – other games like this. The game gives player a set of instructions about what they are not supposed to do, but those instructions are intended to be defied. So the ludonarrative dissonance is a sort of veil, a disguise that the game puts on, but doesn’t not actually give the player the feeling that there is a disagreement about the expectations that are set up for them. Instead, the game is simply setting up an obstacle for the player through the narration.

I do not suggest these games as examples of games that are specifically attempting to create ludonarrative dissonance. I would guess that the development of these games had a different intention behind them. But they are still useful for helping us to think about what ludonarrative dissonance ultimately is. And just as importantly, they provide insight into how a game built around ludonarrative dissonance might work.

Full-Fledged Dissonance

So what would a game that was trying to capture this ludonarrative dissonance – specifically, trying to capture it for a purpose – look like?

The steps require thinking about the game’s themes in layers, as I suggested back in my essay on philosophical narratives. There has to be a surface level story provided to the player that has its own set of themes. What the exact themes are is ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is that those surface level themes will need to be contradicted by the game’s mechanics in some way. The objective, of course, will be to create ludonarrative dissonance for the player.

That is the first step, or couple of steps. The key component, though, is then setting up the meta-narrative theme: getting the player to think about ludonarrative dissonance and what it means. More broadly, we can think of this theme as how the player relates to the game and its story.

There are quite a few ways in which a developer could do all of this. What would matter is making sure to very subtly signal to the player that this dissonance is by design, rather than an accident, and that the player should be thinking about how they relate to the game they are playing (and, by extension, video games in general).

This task will be tough, though. You could avoid any pretense of subtlety and just tell the player that the dissonance is intentional and supposed to make them think about their relationship with the game. But that strategy will likely turn off a lot of players who will find the command annoying. Players likely won’t feel much incentive to really think about the game and its themes for more than a few minutes before moving on.

Comparatively, you could be a bit more subtle, such as by having characters in the game mention the problem of ludonarrative dissonance in some capacity without explicitly connecting it to the game that’s being played. That would allow players to make the connection themselves, but it may come off as such a ham-handed attempt to get the player to think that it actually hurts the game.

As another alternative, the game can try to be as subtle as possible by avoiding the topic of ludonarrative dissonance entirely. Instead, the developer would need to leave small clues here and there that signal that any issue of dissonance is intentional.

As an example, imagine encountering a character who is constructing a machine of some kind. The player is given the opportunity to examine and comment on it, and state that there appears to be a flaw in the design. The inventor can then point out that actually the player is incorrect: while there appears to be a flaw in the machine’s design, the flaw is actually important to the machine’s purpose, and the inventor would explain what that importance is. This process could then plant the seed in the player’s mind that maybe any ludonarrative dissonance they are experiencing is also by design and serves some larger purpose.

Of course, the downside of this method is that not every player will necessarily grasp what’s going on, or feel inclined to apply the lesson to what they are doing. In other words, it could be so subtle that people just don’t notice it.

So any way that you choose to tackle this problem is going to have costs and benefits. Ultimately, if you favor having more people know that you are trying to explore the topic of ludonarrative dissonance, then you want your clues to be more obvious, though that will likely mean that you’ll have to sacrifice the depth of that exploration. Whereas if you want people to think more deeply about the subject – even if that comes at the expense of fewer people realizing what you’re up to – then you’ll want to make your clues as subtle as possible.

Concluding Remarks

The point of all of this is to think about ludonarrative dissonance as a potential concept to be explored. While we often talk about ludonarrative dissonance as a negative quality that needs to be avoided – and generally, that’s right – the dissonance raises interesting questions about the nature of storytelling, about how players relate to games, about the expectations we have going in to games, and so on. There is a great deal of good intellectual material lurking behind the topic.

But really diving into the topic requires exploration, and that exploration ultimately needs to be carried out through trial and error. Ludonarrative dissonance in and of itself is not necessarily difficult to replicate, but getting a player to stop and think about it – to ask of themselves these big questions, is much more difficult.

Further Reading


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