The Value of ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ within Games Discourse

As academics and journalists increasingly join the public at large for deriding/ outright laughing at the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, I believe that while the phrase may have become overused that it is still a valuable tool when discussing games as a medium. This article is in response to a recent Errant Signal episode “The Debate that Never Happened.” In it Christopher Franklin explains the history of games writing from an academic standpoint and eventually admits that the term (while popular a couple years ago) is largely seen as silly. My argument here isn’t that he’s flat out wrong, rather he misses an important aspect of the term’s use. As silly as the term may sound, I do believe we need a framework to critique games whose narrative is dependent on their mechanics, and ‘ludonarrative dissonance/ cohesion’ is vital to that understanding.

This article’s got pre-reading, here’s the video: (Most relevant section begins at 7:28)

I’m going to link to a few videos and articles here, and while I’ll single out the most important aspects of each one, I think these are all worthwhile to view in their entirety. In fact Christopher Franklin’s series Errant Signal was one of this blog’s major inspirations (coincidently its name ‘Resonance Frequency’ echos ‘Errant Signal’), and I’ve said straight up he could probably do this blog better than I am. /fangirling

>>> This article is in two parts. The first explores Clint Hocking’s article on ludonarrative dissonance, the second argues why it’s still relevant. In reading Hocking’s article I ended up writing way more on it than I anticipated. A lot of it echoes my earlier article on the same topic. If you want my discussion about how Hocking’s 2007 argument is interesting and somewhat ironic, read on. If you want to skip to the central thesis of this piece, I’ve marked where part two begins.

>>> Part One: Clint Hocking’s argument that Bioshock is ludonarratively dissonant. <<<

Franklin brings up Clint Hocking’s article ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock’, and the most relevant point is this: Hocking argued that Bioshock is a criticism of Randian objectivism, and while some mechanics enhanced this, the game’s big reveal did that theme a huge disservice. The easiest way to progress through the game was to ‘harvest’ the Little Sisters for Adam (which gives you power), and if you choose not to do this you will be put at a gameplay disadvantage. This is in keeping with Ayn Rand’s ideology that acting in one’s objective best-interest is morally right, while the game takes place in a city that has been destroyed by that very belief. If you harvest the Little Sisters, you’re buying into the very ideology that destroyed the city surrounding you. This is ‘ludonarrative cohesion’, mechanics meets story.

“By ‘dressing up’ the mechanics of this contract in well realized content I literally experience what it means to gain by doing what is best for me (I get more Adam) without consideration for others (by harvesting Little Sisters).” – Hocking, 2007.

Hocking’s critique of Bioshock stems from how you are in conflict with Andrew Ryan (get it? Andrew/ Rand, Ryan/ Ayn? Well I thought it was clever…) in support of Atlas (get it?!) who opposes Ryan’s ideology and is fighting against it. Yet following an objectivist approach to play through the game is most beneficial. The story condemns you for harvesting the Little Sisters, while the gameplay encourages you to do so. This problem is compounded by the fact that if you accept objectivism valid, you have no way to oppose Atlas and support Ryan.

Yet in the game’s fiction on the other hand, I do not have that freedom to choose between helping Atlas or not. Under the ludic contract, if I accept to adopt an Objectivist approach, I can harvest Little Sisters. If I reject that approach, I can rescue them. Under the story, if I reject an Objectivist approach, I can help Atlas and oppose Ryan, and if I choose to adopt an Objectivist approach – well too bad… I can stop playing the game, but that’s about it. – Hocking, 2007.

Hocking feels insulted by Bioshock because it’s revealed that the player/ Jack has been under Atlas’ control the whole time, and the story concludes that none of their choices mattered. This is par for the course for a lot of games, but Bioshock goes out of its way to emphasize the fact and in Hockins views this as an indignation.

“That’s the dissonance I am talking about, and it is disturbing. Now, disturbing is one thing, but let’s just accept for a moment that we forgive that. Let’s imagine that we say ‘well, it’s a game, and the mechanics are great, so I will overlook the fact that the story is kind of forcing me to do something out of character…’. That’s far from the end of the world. Many games impose a narrative on the player. But when it is revealed that the rationale for why the player helps Atlas is not a ludic constraint that we graciously accept in order to enjoy the game, but rather is a narrative one that is dictated to us, what was once disturbing becomes insulting. The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.” – Hocking, 2007.

He’s referring to the “Would you kindly…” moment, when the story reveals that Jack is programmed to follow any direction that begins with those words. Hocking’s argument is that because all of the player’s progress was done in service to the story, that the player’s choice to embrace Randian ideals or not is completely inconsequential, therefore dissonant. That you were being asked to explore objectivism via interaction but the story discards that experience towards the end. That the gameplay didn’t mesh with the story.

Except it did.

My problem with Hocking’s argument is that he assumes that the player’s choices regarding objectivism (largely represented by the Little Sisters) are the central conceit of Bioshock. However if you play through the game you’ll notice that choosing whether to harvest the Little Sisters or not has very little gameplay effect, you’ll get Adam either way (harvesting only gives you more). There’s more than enough Adam to go around and in my non-harvest playthrough I never wanted for more. The choice regarding the Little Sisters really only effects whether you get a hilariously binary good or evil ending of little consequence/ memorability, rendering the choice moot from a gameplay perspective along with a narrative one.

Bioshock’s true conceit is far more subtle, and was accomplished through constant misdirection and subverting the player’s expectations (and the culture which bred them). Would you kindly watch its launch trailer:

What’s there: Shooting! Big Daddies! Awesome looking Art Deco city! Freeze enemies with special powers! More shooting! Improvise explosives! I can’t get that song out of my head! Use turrets against your enemies! This game is going to be fucking sweet! (Just ignore the ‘Games for Windows’ bit at the end, we had to put it there!)

What isn’t: A critique of Randian objectivism, or any hints of it. No mention of moral choice; in fact- hey that little girl really likes that big thing, KILL IT WITH A MACHINE GUN ANYWAYS. No mention of “Would you kindly…” (Or any complex characters at all). No context for why you’re in Rapture.

Bioshock ultimately reveals itself to be a meta-commentary on player agency, and how like Jack the player is compelled to follow orders in order to progress (and likely does so without giving them a second thought), both subject to the will of Atlas/ the developers.

Hocking admits that in order to progress the player must obey Atlas’ commands. This begins the moment you enter Rapture in a subtle (but in hindsight obvious) way when Atlas asks “Would you kindly pick up that radio?”, before “Would you kindly step out of the bathysphere?”. Eventually- “Would you kindly kill that bastard!” (Referring to Ryan). This all happens before the reveal of Jack’s programming.

That’s the point. Bioshock is all about the slow reveal, gradually pulling back the curtain before beating you across the face with a golf club with its true message. First it’s a shooter, then it’s about the ruins of Rapture’s society, then it’s about objectivism and then… It pulls the same trick that Spec Ops: The Line would years later: it plays dumb (classy, but dumb) for a while, then it hits you: Jack’s little choices didn’t matter, his free will didn’t matter, his morality didn’t matter- because ultimately he was at the mercy of the phrase “Would you kindly…”, just like the player! That’s ludonarratively cohesive as fuck, at a time when no one expected it. So while explaining the concept of ludonarrative dissonance, Hocking criticizes a game that’s brilliantly ludonarratively cohesive.

Bioshock’s cohesion is not absolute, and in fact one aspect of its gameplay made no sense within the story’s context: Reviving upon death. Or more accurately there’s big glass tubes called ‘Vita Chambers’ everywhere, and when you die you’re instantly resurrected at one without penalty, and nobody seems to care or mention that this effectively makes Jack invincible. That’s dissonance.

You know what game does suffer from ludonarrative dissonance? Bioshock Infinite. Rapture’s objectivist ideology was all about empowering the individual, so vending machines with drugs that let you shoot fire out of your hands (for a price) made total sense. Colombia’s religious ideology was all about service to the prophet, God, and living a clean moral life, so plentiful drinks that let you shoot fire out of your hands (that were just laying around) made no sense at all.

Infinite’s dissonance is not absolute, and in fact one aspect of its gameplay made total sense within the story’s context: Reviving upon death. Or more accurately the Lutece Twins probably sighed long and hard, went into another universe, and got another Booker (it’s implied there’s been more than a few) into another Colombia whose coin came up heads instead of tails during the fight, so he lived to progress. That’s cohesion.

It’s worth mentioning that I think both Bioshock and Infinite are amazing works, far from perfect, but then something doesn’t need to be perfect in order to have value. Like Hocking’s article, he introduces an important concept even if I disagree with his argument. I do see his point about the Little Sisters, I just think that was part of a larger point Bioshock wanted to make about player agency. Both games set you up with an expectation and then subvert it. Here’s an entertaining, more in-depth version of what I’m trying to articulate (and more). Watch it. Relevant bit starts at 1:53, but I get a kick out of his intro.

Bioshock is a small story that gets big. Infinite is a big story that becomes small (and climaxes with some of the most clever and symbolic wordplay I’ve ever seen. Hint: Bird  Cage).

I believe the above supports what I’m about to argue, that ludonarrative dissonance is a valid concept when discussing games. If you were entertained, mentally stimulated, physically stimulated (Elizabeth is hot as hell, or maybe you’re a narratophiliac for benign words like ‘objectivism’, I’m not here to judge), and/ or engaged with this discussion, then was it not worthwhile? Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that allowed me to articulate my thoughts on important works and writers, and I’d like to think that contribution to the discourse surrounding them justifies the term.

>>> Part Two: Ludonarrative Dissonance is still a valid term within games discourse. <<<

“Story and play both exist in service to the overall work, not as two forces in conflict with one another. So why do we frame them that way? It would be like going to the movies and and then taking with friends about how the film worked as a story, and then how the film worked as an example of cinematography, but never at the same time. You’d never do that… We look at the work and what the work is trying to do and analyze the individual contributions to the whole. But we don’t look at film as a series of framed shots, and separately as a narrative. So why should we act like a game has to be viewed as a system, or separately a narrative.” – Franklin, 2015.

I agree with this statement, but not the implication that because cinematography and narrative are so closely intertwined in film that it’s not worthwhile to examine how a game’s systems and narrative interact with one another, or that it’s wrong to bring attention to the games where they conflict. I believe the only reason why we don’t have a term like ‘cinematic dissonance’ is because ‘cinematography’ encompasses all that it needs to, but games as a medium have an additional element which plays an important role.

A film’s direction and cinematography can be used to enhance its narrative more than the script alone ever could, and this makes a film ‘cinematic cohesive’*. The best example is Lost in Translation, a film about two people (one an aging action movie star, the other a directionless 20-something) who find themselves alone in Tokyo, and help each other to cope with their cultural and existential ennui. It is a quiet film with very little dialogue or action, but the director used cinematic techniques to express exactly what they wanted to.

*I swear I’m not trying to introduce this term, please don’t use this term. I’d prefer to be known as the girl who really likes Final Fantasy XIII and writes awesome/ strange articles analyzing BDSM and slashfiction.

Lost in Translation actually won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2003, and I fully support that distinction (it is my favourite film of all time). However its screenplay alone doesn’t make it great. It is great because the film uses silence, parallel imagery, colour, and Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson’s subtle performances to convey far more than their words or actions say alone. The film’s scenes linger and move slowly, instilling a sense of malaise that reflects how the characters are feeling; it reflects that haze you feel when you are so weary, but unable to sleep. The scenes within the hotel are quiet, with the only energy coming from the people surrounding the pair. This direction encapsulates what it feels like to be alone in a crowd, and emphasizes their cultural ennui by contrasting the quiet and familiar hotel, against energetic and unfamiliar Tokyo.

The film is not an action film or horror movie, so there’s no shaky cam (aside from one scene where they are running through a pachinko parlour), or violin strings within the soundtrack, or unsettling images/ props. These elements wouldn’t didn’t fit the tone of the film, and would obviously be singled out and criticized for not contributing to the narrative and the work at large. We’d criticize the cinematography for ruining the mood if smash cuts were used frequently. We’d do this because these things would have created a kind of cinematic dissonance between the narrative and cinematography. We would never call it that, but that’s effectively what we would be expressing.

That’s what discussing ludonarrative dissonance is; not a blanket condemnation of a game for elements which didn’t work- rather using the term as a means to quickly reference certain narrative elements which impacted our experience with a game. It’s a term like any other. We say “cinematography” instead of “the artistic and technical skill involved with filmmaking that encompasses shot composition, transition, and movement.”, because terms are a useful shorthand; that is their purpose.

Here’s expert cinematic cohesion/ cinematography at work: (Most relevant part begins at 4:04)

‘Every Frame a Painting’ is one of the most fascinating channels on YouTube, go watch the rest of this series.

Games developers borrow heavily from cinematography, like film they are a visual medium. Fallout 3 begins in a vault buried in an unknown location, where you spend the first forty-five minutes or an hour or so in cramped quarters, under artificial lighting, and nothing is natural or organic. While that’s the introduction, the game doesn’t truly begin until you escape the vault, and the developers employ cinematic techniques to punctuate that fact. The moment you step outside light fills the screen (simulating how your pupils need to adjust to bright light), before it fades to reveal that you’re standing on the side of a mountain looking over a vast expanse, stretching as far as the eye can see. The world is yours to explore, go where you will.

The problem is that film medium is not interacted with, filmmakers always has total command over the audience’s perception and therefore film doesn’t require a term like ludonarrative dissonance. If we see the seams in the sets, or a boom mic, or a medieval peasant wearing a watch, we’ll call the filmmaker out on these- but they never have to worry about the viewer picking up pieces of the set and throwing it at a character’s head, laughing about how the characters don’t react during a supposed serious scene. Film medium may decide when and/ or if to kick down its fourth wall, but games medium’s fourth wall is completely illusory and always subject to invasion.

Games have mechanics and systems, that’s what makes them games. At some point the player is going to play/ interact with them (despite Hideo Kojima’s best efforts). We need a term for when those mechanics don’t mesh with the story, or take you out of it completely. This is where ludonarrative dissonance has its place.

HOWEVER: Ludonarrative cohesion is not always necessary, and should be used as a component of our critique of the whole, rather than a binary measure of whether the game is well crafted or not. It is an tool when discussing the medium, not a lens. This distinction is important.

When analyzing media I believe there are three types of analytical ‘instruments’ we have at our disposal. We have the tool, the lens, and the department. Tools are our base, mechanical understanding of a work. We use them in analyzing the language, articulation, or grammar in the case of literature, or a television show’s pacing both within and across episodes. Ludonarrative cohesion is an analytical tool. A few grammatically incorrect paragraphs within an otherwise inspiring novel does not damn the whole work, even if they gave you pause. Some works don’t even require analysis on certain fronts. You’re not going to criticize an experimental film that’s solely concerned with contrasting colour composition to represent mental illness for its pacing- because that’s not what the work is about.

In search of the beating heart of a work we’re often looking/ analyzing through a lens- a frame of reference/ angle at which we approach it. Example: A feminist lens analyzes the representation of women in a film, a cinematographer’s lens analyzes how shot composition enhances or diminishes its effectiveness, and a narratologist’s lens examines what its theme is and if it’s successful conveyed. These lenses are more impactful on our judgements of media because they operate at a high level, they examine every facet of a work through different angles and arrive at conclusions coloured by them. Lenses differs for everyone, many will use multiple lenses in their analysis, and even when viewed through the same lens some people are going to arrive at different conclusions; feminists have debated whether Kill la Kill shows femininity being used as a weapon that empowers its female characters, and some view it as masturbation fodder for men that objectifies those same women. I don’t give a damn about any of that and just love it for being goddamn incredible. That’s because I view it through the lens of a kinky masochist with a blood fetish.

A department is a way for us to gather, pool resources, lenses and tools, and allow for people to structure their discourse. Franklin’s video mentions that academics and journalists needed a way to amalgamate their fragmented studies of games across other fields (sociology, economics, etc.). ‘Ludology’ (the study of games) was the obvious choice of name for this new department (of which someday university students might wander the hallways of, searching for their specific ludology professor only to discover said professor wrote down the wrong office hours, because seriously would it kill them to double-check? This shit is getting old, I swear to god-

According to Franklin, shortly after the phrase ‘ludology’ was coined, there came a divide between those that wanted to study how games present narratives (narratologists), and those that studied a game’s systems and mechanics. Aside from being two separate lenses looking at the same medium, I think the fact that I can’t find a term for people who study games systems may have contributed to the problem. The best term I can find is ‘ludologist’, but that term needs to apply to everyone working within the ludology department (like sociologists, economists, etc.) rather than only those that look at game systems. Ludology’s vocabulary is limited.

It’s right to argue that narrative and mechanics are not mutually exclusive, that you can critique games from a narrative or mechanics perspective, and that academia apparently cleared that up in 2004. However the general public wasn’t convinced, and this sentiment was intensified by Hocking’s article where he coined ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. Still, notice how even then he did not use it as the sole measure in determining Bioshock‘s worth to him:

“If this was a review, it would be glowing, but as a critique it’s going to be pretty rough. I mostly really enjoyed this game, and aside from a few minor quibbles that are inevitable coming from a guy who lists System Shock 2 as his favorite game of all time, I basically think the game is great. In a very important sense Bioshock lives up the expectations created by its ancestor by inviting us to ask important and compelling questions, which is wonderful. But unfortunately, in most cases, I think the answers Bioshock provides to those questions are confused, frustrating, deceptive and unsatisfactory.” – Hockin, 2007.

Three-thousand words later and it feels like all I had to do was quote the man who coined the term, and now we realize that ludonarrative cohesion/ dissonance should simply be one aspect of games analysis. The reason why I wrote this, and why I believe Franklin is wrong about the term being silly/ irrelevant, is because we haven’t yet developed the vocabulary and understanding needed to properly study games as a medium. We don’t have the proper shorthand, and ‘ludonarrative’ and ‘ludology’ are being conflated when the former is a game that relies on mechanics to express its narrative, and the latter a blanket term for all study of that game (and others). Asking if a game is ludonarratively cohesive or dissonant is a useful tool we have when studying its overall effectiveness in conveying its narrative. In film cinematography and narrative are often more closely intertwined than in games, that’s because games are a different beast, one that a wide array of people are going to interact with- as such ludology requires terminology and analytical approaches that differ from film studies.

Bioshock is a ludonarrative about how the player is bound to the will of its developers, so asking if it is ludonarratively coherent is worthwhile. If the story stated that Jack had to obey “Would you kindly…”, yet allowed the player to progress by ignoring those commands, then we’d have a problem. Bioshock includes a narrative with its mechanics, and thus requires the two to align in order to express its theme- hence making it a ludonarrative. By contrast, the game that Franklin plays for most of the video (Geometry Wars 3, used to represent a game purely focused on mechanics) shouldn’t be subjected to ludonarrative coherent* scrutiny because a ludonarrative is not its intent. You can do it, sure, but it would be like complaining that George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four fails at exploring the innermost thoughts of a masochistic courtesan, or asking if Orwell could’ve added a bit of flourish to his prose. That’s not the point, it’s obviously not the point, within twenty seconds of reading you’ll realize that’s not the point; why subject it to your analysis on how authors use opulent prose to establish a place of decadence and overwhelming sensations? Why are you using a hammer to chop down a tree?

*I propose we use ‘ludonarrative coherency’ as the general term as ‘coherent’ covers a larger spectrum than ‘dissonant’. It’s cleaner to ask if something is coherent, and how much so, rather than if it is dissonant. At least when discussing the analytical tool as a whole.

*I also propose that all ludonarratives are games, but not all games are ludonarratives. I think instead of debating what is and isn’t a “game”, it’s time to recognize that different games have different aims. I’m certain that now this distinction has been made the debate will conclude.

I think people have made fun of ‘ludonarrative coherency’ a little too much, sure it’s a term that only academia could have bred, but it’s a worthwhile one. It is a valid tool when studying games where the developers aim to articulate narrative through mechanics. It also applies when discussing if dissonant systems hurt the developer’s efforts to establish a sense of place. Franklin is right, it’s not the sole measure of a work’s worth- but we do discuss different aspects of a work, even if they are all in service to the work as a whole. Cinematography and screenplay within film studies are often analyzed separately. More so games as a medium requires user input, and that means mechanics, and the interaction of those mechanics in relation to narrative (if one exists) is important to study. Ludonarrative coherency is an important tool in doing so, and at a time when ludology is still in its infancy we should recognize the term’s rightful place amongst the field’s growing vocabulary.

– Jaydra

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2 Comments

  1. Christian Nibler

    I think one major problem with the whole discussion about the term ludonarrative dissonance is, that it is always used in a judgemental way. Dissonance is bad, coherency good. But it shouldn’t be seen that way. For example in the ‘Thief’-reboot there are moments when Garret is walking and balancing on a narrow board but the player can’t make him fall down in contrary to Thief 1 – 3. The designers explanation was, that Garret was a master thief and wouldn’t just slip and fall down. Well, that indeed would be a ludonarrative dissonance where the story element that Garret is a master of dexterity is contradictet by the game mechanics. Still the fans prefered the earlier game mechanics because they were more challenging. So this dissonance makes the game a better game…still a ludonarrative dissonance happens when Garret just falls down for no apparent reason other than the player’s lack of skills.

    And concerning Bioshock: Yes it is a ludonarrative dissonance. Because the player has no choice but to follow the ‘would you kindly’-commands and doesn’t even think so. Jack thinks he is choosing to follow Atlas’ commands and the possibility that he chooses otherwise even exists on the narrative’s level (if his will was strong enough or the brainwashing would not have worked for some reason). On the narrative level there is an alternative world where Jack disobeys the commands, on the ludonarrative level there isn’t. And that’s why the revelation makes Jack ‘suffer’ (who had thought he was an autonomous individual) but not the player (who had known all along that he has no choice but to follow Atlas).

    This can be seen as an intelligent twist or a clever commentary on game mechanics, but also as mocking the player. This is left open to depate. But it nevertheless qualifies as a ludonarrative dissonance because the game mechanics contradict the narrative.

    So the term’s value might not be that it can be used to judge a game’s narrative or way of storytelling. But it can be used to describe and explain the effect a game has on the player.

    PS: English isn’t my mother tongue so I can only hope that what I’ve written is halfway comprehensible.

  2. Hi, i’m another Christian who’s mother language isn’t english, what are the odds?

    So… there’s another LudoNarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: the Twist, so it’s explained that you aren’t in control the whole time, that’s explain the lack of options you have in the Narrative, and the fact that you have a fucking GPS telling where to go, you don’t have any choice but to follow, yay that’s clever and all but here’s my problem: After the twist, the narrative tells that Tenenbaum removed the mind control thing, you are not controlled by anyone anymore…. except the gameplay is the same, with the fucking GPS and all, it’s really weird this, you are still confined by the gameplay, and while I agree it is impossible to make a game as open as Bioshock Needs to make this Twist work… it is still weird, it should have ended with the twist or something, the way it is is kinda of weird as hell. I kinda of love and hate the Bioshock series, to me it always feels like the games think they’re more intelligent than the others, but still fails on the same things, it hurts more. It’s like if Bioshock is Bully in school that keeps calling you fat and laughing at you but he’s more fat than you, and you just sit there thinking what the fuck is wrong with him

    Anyway, I’ve found your site now because I was searching for someone who have found a “CinematicNarrative Dissonance” or something like that, I’ve always thought it would technically possible for something to have a somewhat passible Cinematography(and i’m using it more loose in here to make a point) to be in dissonance with the story or the style, but I’ve never found it. But I think I have found one in the most bizarre of places:

    JonTron

    i’ve never been a fan of him, however I did enjoy his videos and would watch some of them from time to time, but recently he started making videos with more “production values”, and it was really weird, I can’t really explain but to me those “AVGN-Styles” of videos worked because it was kinda of amateurish, it was basically a guy (pretending) to play a bad video game while mixing some humor and explaining and pointing why the game is bad, it works better when it feels amateurish, when it feels like he is playing a game and commenting at the same time, this contrast heavily with the bump in “Productions Values” his videos received, now he’s in a cold, fabricated environment that looks like those New York apartments you see in sitcoms, the idea that he is playing those games is gone, it’s REALLY weird. From a visual standpoint it’s feels like a sitcom, while the actual content is AVGN Style review, it make the “combined” thing less than it should

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