Ludonarrative Cohesion and Dissonance 101

I was browsing through some files and found a few articles that I had written but never published, all on game design. I do think that understanding Ludonarrative Design is important, especially as the ‘gaming’ (I hate that term, but we have no catchier name yet) medium evolves. ‘Ludonarrative’ is a term that entered the medium’s common nomenclature around 2012, and likely if you have any interest in games you’ve heard it. If you’re not quite sure what it means, or why it’s significant, here’s a primer/ crash course. Besides, I like writing about this stuff, and it’s on media so fuck it, why not?

Spoiler warning for: Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Braid, Hotline Miami, Telltale’s The Walking Dead (Season 1), Spec Ops: The Line, Tomb Raider (2013).

An Experience which has no Translation: Ludonarrative Cohesion and the Future of the Gaming Medium

There is one particular stroke of genius in Telltale’s The Walking Dead which has largely gone unmentioned: the timer. For nearly every dialogue choice, a small bar underneath starts long and becomes shorter indicating the time you have to respond. At least that’s how it first appears. It’s actually the time Lee thinks he has to respond before he might as well have said nothing. The distinction is important because this is one of the best examples of ludonarrative cohesion, when a game uses its mechanics to affect the player in a way unique to an interactive medium. Anyone who has played Telltale’s The Walking Dead has at some point scrambled to even read the dialogue options available as characters around them panic and the game demands you to answer. We’ve all had times when we’ve had to make a decision so rapidly, that our minds were only able to conjure vague ideas of what to do without time to consider them. The fact that the timer can go so quickly that you only get to glance over your options is a brilliant way to emulate this. Another touch are the times when you think you have time to respond, but the action says otherwise. You’ve been listening to characters argue back and forth, you still have time left, and then your chance to act ends when someone fires a gun. Lee, and by extension the player, believed they had more time to act; it was right up there on the screen. But there’s the twist, that one added bit of brilliance that adds to an already great experience.

‘Ludonarrative’ is a term which has only recently entered gaming discourse, but it’s an important one. It describes the stories which are told not only by the audio and visual elements of a game, but also the mechanics and how a player interacts with them. Mechanics which do their job and help draw the player in are referred to as having achieved ‘ludonarrative cohesion’. They integrate us into the experience in a way that simply watching a cutscene could never do. I cannot tell you how glad I am that 2012 occurred, because for some reason that’s the year when games explored what it meant to be interactive systems instead of ‘cinematic experiences’. The gaming industry is obsessed with cinema. Marketing is so often about ‘Cinematic Experiences’, as games journalists remark that most game directors really just wish they were making movies. Quantic Dream’s 2005 Indigo Prophecy even had a ‘New Movie’ option instead of ‘New Game’ on the main menu. The opposite of ‘cohesion’ is ‘dissonance’, when the elements are at odds with one another. It’s cutscenes that wrest control of the character away from you, or perform actions you could never do in-game. It’s when mechanics exist solely to exist, but lend little to the actual narrative, or even sabotage it to some degree. It’s when elements of a game are split apart, relegated to separate realms and never get a chance to interact. Ludonarrative cohesion and dissonance are vitally important concepts to understand as this medium goes forward, and fortunately there’s fantastic examples of both.

> Ludonarrative Cohesion

One of the most stunning moments in my gaming career came when I was playing Jonathon Blow’s Braid (2008). It’s a puzzle-platformer where you’re asked to manipulate time in order to reach various items and progress. At its core is the ability to rewind time. In the event of character death or getting stuck, you simply rewind the world and continue on. At first this is a clever way to make some puzzles, and a way to keep things moving (similar to Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003). What I was not expecting was how Blow manages to turn the entire narrative around in an instant through the use of this mechanic. I don’t want to spoil it, so skip to the next paragraph now if that’s a concern. It’s the moment where you seem to reach the endgame, a man descends with your girl who manages to break free of his grip. It’s your job to get to the end of the level and meet-up with her. She’s above you, you’re below. She’s flipping switches to help you through gates as you avoid traps and pitfalls. You finally reach the end of the level, climb a ladder, reach her bedroom and in that instant, time reverses. The entire level you just played was done backwards. Now you play the level going forwards, where the girl runs from you. She’s above, you’re below. She’s throwing switches in an attempt to slow you down, as you charge forward trying to keep pace with her. At the end, she throws herself into the arms of another man and ascends to safety. This revelation through mechanics is what gives context to the narrative. While Braid’s symbolism is debated to this day, the fact that you were playing in reverse factors in heavily to suggest that your character wishes they could go back on something. They’ve made mistakes that they want to undo. If you go really far into the game’s text, and if you acquire all hidden items in the game, there’s a lot of evidence that Braid is about the scientists who created the atomic bomb. What’s important to understand though is that Blow used the system which you were interacting with in order to better tell his story.

Bioshock (2007) has probably the most famous example of this, a watershed moment for how many of us think about games. Like Braid, it involves one moment which manages to re-contextualize everything which came before that’s directly related to the game’s mechanics. As stated, the twist is rather famous by now but skip ahead if you want it to remain unspoiled. Bioshock’s advantage was similar to Portal’s in that surprise was on its side. At the time, most people weren’t thinking critically about the narrative ties with mechanics. Certainly not with a FPS like Bioshock. The game still stood apart, mostly because of the underwater city of Rapture’s design. Striking Art Deco architecture, all decaying and about to break under the ocean’s pressure. You had unique hulking enemies named Big Daddies, and the ability to shoot bees from your hand after a few upgrades. Your character crashed in the ocean, found a lighthouse, wound up in Rapture and is being led around by a man called Atlas. Countless games have us on radio with someone, all giving us objective markers to follow, and explaining the way to progress. It’s not something we really thought about, and largely still don’t. It’s here that Bioshock delivers its twist. Everyone who’s played it, and many who haven’t, know the three little words that are coming up.

“Would you kindly…”. “Would you kindly step out of the bathysphere?” is the first request. “Would you kindly pick up that wrench?”. Later, “Would you kindly find a way around it.” At one point Atlas angrily yells “Would you kindly kill that man!?”

Bioshock is about a man named Jack who was pre-programmed to respond to the phrase ‘Would you kindly…’ and sent off to later return to Rapture in order to be used as a pawn in a power struggle. The phrase compels him to act. At the same time, the player is compelled to act, because the only way forward is to follow those commands. In games we are so often railroaded down a path, uncritically thinking about why we’re doing these things. Bioshock’s scene with Andrew Ryan and Jack where he explains what’s been going on not only forces you to think about all those times “Would you kindly…” was used, but also to realize that for us there was no other way forward. We had to pick up the wrench, we have to find a way around the barrier. We as players are at the mercy of a game’s designers so often, that we don’t even pause to think about it. This is one of the finest examples of ludonarrative cohesion, because it marries the mechanics of doing an objective with the narrative that this man is compelled to complete those objectives. It’s a twist that made a competent shooter something more, and for many (myself included) a starting point to begin to reflect on ludonarrative design as a whole.

Then in 2013, Bioshock Infinite was released. Now without the element of surprise, Infinite attempted its own exploration of ludology which was largely hit and miss. Infinite’s narrative is about the multiverse, where every decision creates an alternate reality and there’s an infinite (get it?) number of possibilities. In one universe you might be as you are now, in another the president, and in another dead. As you progress through Infinite you go through at least three different universes, all built around a similar theme but with differing key elements. Infinite’s story exists because of one binary decision, and ends when Booker (the protagonist) takes a third option and sacrifices himself in order to stop all of what has happened from happening. What interests me about the meultiverse are the choices the player is given throughout the story. These choices ultimately don’t matter, but in simply giving you these choices you effectively are creating more parallel timelines . There’s a man, and a city. That man might be Booker, and that city might be Colombia. Or it might be Jack and Rapture. “Variables and constants” the game begins to describe. When I sat at my computer on launch day, the Lutece “twins” handed me a coin and asked me to call Heads or Tails. No matter what you call the coin lands on heads (as does every other coin in the game). It wasn’t until some time later, after the multiverse was introduced, that I realized that as I made my call (tails), many other players were doing the same thing. In effect, we were all playing through Bioshock Infinite and experiencing the same narrative, but in slightly different ways. Some made different binary decisions, some people never died in the game, others found all the secrets, some never completed Infinite. In a strange way, we are all variables playing the constant. The act of playing Infinite is to engage in unique instances of a single event.

Of course Infinite’s ludonarrative cohesion suffers at the hands of one big game mechanic, Vigors. Vigors are Colombia’s version of Plasmids in Rapture. They’re potions you drink which allow you to shoot lightning from your fingertips, or summon an earthquake, or throw up a shield. In Rapture they made sense, that entire society was a Randian paradise which emphasized individual power and agency above all else. Plasmids bestowing great powers are a natural part of that ideology. There are no Gods, no kings, only man. A man free to becomes as powerful as their will allows. A large number of the enemies you encounter in Bioshock are people who became addicted to plasmids, to the point of ruining themselves. This stood as an effective parallel of Rapture as a whole, how the libertarian utopia turned ugly and collapsed under its own ideology.

Colombia is not Rapture though. Colombia is a land of Gods, where America’s founding fathers are deified and everyone lives under the will of a prophet. The fervent belief in individual agency doesn’t exist here, so why Vigors (which give you godlike abilities) exist is never explained. Worse still, it sabotages the setting to an extent because Vigors are so incompatible with Colombia’s ideology that it takes the player out of the experience when they start thinking about it. This is not a society which values the individual, this is not a society that wants to empower the individual. Colombia isn’t communist by any stretch, but it is a far cry from the libertarian ideals Rapture was founded on.

Vigors are an example of how Infinite is largely hit and miss on its efforts to be as cohesive as its predecessor. The idea of choice becoming a variable within a constant plays right into the narrative, but a lot of the design decisions around combat feel very out place. The ‘Big Daddy’ substitute of ‘The Handyman’ is never fully explored and Colombia quickly becomes devoid of much of its booming civilian population whereas Rapture had an excuse for being so lonely. You could argue that because Bioshock featured plasmids, Irrational felt obligated to include vigors in Infinite. You would likely be right, it’s an unfortunate quandary given how important plasmids were in Bioshock, but ended up taking making no sense to the world of Colombia. I got the sense Irrational got trapped by their earlier work to an extent.

As an aside, I feel that Ken Levine and the rest at Irrational Games did a great job at playing with audience expectations. Infinite carried the Bioshock name, so people went in expecting a twist. As The Escapist’s Movie Bob described in a ‘Big Picture’ segment, Bioshock was a small story that got larger. Infinite was a large story that got smaller. Whereas Bioshock eased you into the narrative, before the sucker-punch, Infinite begins by throwing everything at you before reining it in to “A man, and a city”. You should look up the segment for more details, but I think it’s worth mentioning because it shows how aware the writers are of what Bioshock did and how they managed to subvert expectations.

Another subversion within the narrative deals with one meaningless decision, which choker Elizabeth should wear. The bird, or the cage. Anyone with a basic understanding of symbolism would see that the bird represents freedom, and the cage represents oppression. The decision is made early in the game, and you’re probably not thinking about it too hard. The subversion takes place later on, as you learn more about Elizabeth. At one point Elizabeth begs Booker to kill her should Songbird (her giant mechanical flying warden) capture her again. Then later on, a future version of Elizabeth gives Booker a clue on how to stop Comstock’s vision from coming true. The clue is ‘Cage’, later revealed to be ‘C-A-G-E’; musical notes used to control Songbird and turn it into an ally who helps you escape. In effect, the traditional symbolism associated with the bird and the cage are reversed. Where the bird is oppressive, and the CAGE leads to freedom. It’s a great little detail and I wish it got more attention.

I would even argue that the difficulty curve in Tomb Raider (2013) is an example of Ludonarrative Cohesion. The game as a whole is like Infinite in that for every element which works, there’s another that leaves you wondering why it was included. Regardless, the game starts with Lara completely disempowered and unequipped. Combat is fast and lethal in that game, and in the early hours I dreaded having to fight. I didn’t have much to defend myself with, and what I had was pretty weak. Early on, you don’t even have your ice tool to defend yourself with in melee, making it a nightmare to engage in. Tomb Raider is the story of how Lara Croft goes from frightened young woman, to one of gaming’s biggest badasses, and one of the ways they show this is through the game’s mechanics. As you defeat enemies, skin animals, find collectibles, you gain experience points which allow you to unlock various skills. Pretty standard stuff. Except in the context of this game, it marks how Lara gradually becomes stronger. At the same time I’m scared to death of fighting, Lara is feeling the same way. As I gained experience and new tools, my confidence grew as Lara’s did. After maxing out my skills in melee, I started to enjoy it. At that point I could take a man out in a heartbeat with that ice tool. This happens on pace as Lara begins to enjoy the thrill of combat, her frightened screams becoming shouts such as “Run you bastards! I’m coming for you all!”. The game became far easier in the later levels because I was so well equipped, but it reflected how adept Lara becomes. It was a simple way in which the mechanics helped enforce the narrative.

I want to write an article on how Tomb Raider (2013) is essentially an amazing abuse victim’s power fantasy sometime. The process of growing stronger as the game is just one facet of how Lara Croft overcomes the metaphoric and literal demons she faces, and manages to reclaim her life. It’s worth exploring, but this article is long enough as is.

> Ludonarrative Dissonance

On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s ludonarrative dissonance. The Final Fantasy series is a great example of this. There’s a rather infamous scene in Final Fantasy VII with the death of a major character. She’s killed by a sword, and that’s about it. In battling to that point many of your party members have probably met the same fate, and all you did was reach into your inventory for a Phoenix Down to bring them back. However, because this death happened in a cutscene, that character is dead (despite what the rumours say). We know that Phoenix Downs exist, we know that the party probably had one on them, but the character is laid to rest without even a mention of it. Even if the experience as a whole is enjoyable, it’s moments of dissonance like that which pull you out of the experience and do the opposite of what an interactive medium should be doing.

Hotline Miami (2012) explores ludonarrative dissonance in a far more overt way. Unlike Final Fantasy which keeps gameplay and story clearly separated, Hotline Miami invites you in to explore how mechanics affect narrative before tossing it all out the window. The game is a series of levels all preceded by your unnamed character (referred to by the community as ‘Jacket’) hearing messages on his answering machine to go and slaughter people at various locations. You go and do this. A lot. It’s a gleefully bloody game.

At one point you’re visited by three people wearing animal masks. The man wearing a rooster mask asks you if you enjoy killing people. Naturally, most took this to be the game asking the player if they enjoy the violence they’re committing. You don’t even get a chance to respond before you’re thrust back into more levels of slaughtering men in white suits. This game came out in 2012, the same year Spec Ops: The Line was released. Spec Ops is a very subversive shooter which examines the cognitive dissonance between player action and what those actions represent. A lot has been written on Spec Ops’ commentary on violence (including an entire book entitled ‘Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line’ by Brendan Keogh) so in its wake, we were more aware that the game had just asked us if we liked killing, as we were going through levels killing everyone in sight. Many people took this that Hotline Miami was making a commentary on violence in games.

You could make an argument for that, but I think it’s more a bold statement that ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t matter if you’re having fun. This is a game which deliberately shoots its own narrative in the foot, effectively killing the protagonist only to start the game again with a character you previously killed. At one point Jacket kills a man with a helmet (so people call him Helmet) and carries on. Jacket loses his girlfriend, seeks revenge, then goes through a traditional boss fight for an ending. Except that’s when Hotline Miami yanks you away from that narrative and places you in the role of Helmet. The game then carries on as it did before. You go on mission after mission of killing people, and even while Helmet starts wondering what it all means, the game carries on. Who you are, who you were, the people you’re killing, none of it matters. All that does is the beat of the soundtrack, each level’s opposition, and getting a high score.

Earlier in the game Jacket is hospitalized, and the game’s mechanics change to suit the narrative. However because you’re wounded and in a hospital, the game completely disempowers you. You now move at a snail’s pace, you have to keep completely out of sight as you escape, and there’s no weapons to fight back with. I’ve always felt like this was the developers holding the player’s face to the screen and going “So you want story? Here’s your story! Are you having fun?!”. I don’t mean that in a mean way, only that it’s very overt and in-your-face. It’s criticized as being a weakpoint in an otherwise stellar experience for the very reasons I outlined, a point of ludonarrative cohesion. The dissonance that you would have experienced if Jacket got out of bed and started blasting his way out probably would have been more fun.

I bring up Hotline Miami because I like that it takes a step back and argues that ludonarrative cohesion isn’t necessary. The great thing about all media is that there’s room for all kinds of experiences. Bioshock left an impact because of its cohesion, while Hotline Miami is content to do its own thing. You can still love Final Fantasy, even if its mechanics and story rarely (if ever) interact. While I do think that achieving ludonarrative cohesion is vital to exploring this medium to its fullest, that doesn’t mean we have to leave the arcade-like games behind. The great thing about this medium is that we can produce so many different types of experiences through so many ways. When I think about how 2012 changed the way we think about games, Hotline Miami stands as a great counterweight.

Ludonarrative design marks the difference between games like Dear Ester and Gone Home. Both are games with only an environment and a story to tell. The former might as well be a cutscene, as you slowly walk forward through a pretty setting as story and dialogue is told to you as you progress. The latter certainly has a story to tell, but it’s through walking through that home and interacting with objects through which the experience flows. In Dear Ester you walk forward down a very linear path, as story is periodically spoon fed to you. In Gone Home you read journal entries, your search under beds and look over stuffed animals, you pick up cassette tapes and find a player to listen to what’s on them. You’re free to walk around the house (although it’s cleverly gated) and rifle through boxes of unsold novels. Your interaction with the system is what makes or breaks the experience in both. It’s what makes Gone Home something I want to cover in more detail elsewhere, while Dear Ester is largely forgettable aside from its novelty.

> Why Does This Matter?

Adaptations of novels into films are often decried of being ‘not as good as the book’. Adaptations of films to games are notoriously awful. I believe this to be because a great work in one medium plays to that medium’s strengths. A novel is one voice talking to one person, an intimate experience between author and reader done entirely through text and both persons’ imaginations. Comics have the space between panels, and an entire language of their own to describe actions and tone. A film has cinematography, direction in order to guide the audience’s experience. We are just coming to understand as a community that games are an interactive medium. They are not films, they are ludonarratives (in desperate need of a catchier name). The marriage of mechanics to narrative is when the medium comes into its own. When our interactions with a system begin to affect how we view that system and what it means to us. If the experience of playing a game could be translated into a film, while losing very little of the experience, I consider that a missed opportunity. The player’s interactions with a game are as important as any other element. Even if I’m not arguing all games should seamlessly blend narrative and mechanics, it’s important to note that doing so is this medium’s strength. 2012 is arguably the year phrases like ‘ludonarrative’ came into the mainstream gaming consciousness. At least if you keep up on gaming press, including wonderful videos on web shows like ‘Extra Credits’ and ‘Errant Signal’ among others. The GDC Vault is another excellent source, with many free videos of designers talking to other designers on all manner of topics pertaining to the medium.  I want to see it explored more, and it’s great that we’ve begun to do so.

Of course Dave Theurer, the creator of arcade game Missile Command, sadly understands all-too-well that effective ludonarratives have always been with us.

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