Editorial: Ludonarrative Dissonance

Well done adventurer, you have taken down the Warchief. Now bring me ten wolf pelts.
MMOs are more guilty of ludonarrative dissonance than most other games.

Wow, this post sure does have a fancy title, but what does it mean? Ludonarrative is a portmanteau of ludology (the study of games) and narrative, and is now an essential concept in videogame theory. The idea refers to conflicts between a games narrative and its game play, and was created by Clint Hocking, a creative director for LucasArts (then at Ubisoft), on his blog in October, 2007. Hocking coined the term in response to the game Bioshock, which promotes the theme of self-interest through its gameplay while promoting the opposing theme of selflessness through its narrative, creating a violation of aesthetic distance that often pulls the player out of the game.

It boils down to this; if a game has lots of cut scenes describing the main character as an altruistic hero that risks anything to protect the innocent, but in game the player is able to slaughter said innocents (perhaps even reward such blood shed) then there is problem. This is highlighted often in World of Warcraft, where the player, fresh from killing the latest in a succession of evil tyrants, is sent to prove themselves by slaying wolves in a forest.

Another way to describe Ludonarrative dissonance is when the scripted parts of the game does not make sense with the choices taken by the player. Like forcing the player to trust and ally themselves with a villain, despite the game leaving obvious clues as to the guilt and wickedness of said villain. A player would never willingly find themselves in a situation like this unless the script called for it, and it would leave players feeling frustrated at their inability to prevent the situation from happening.

As I sit here writing this post, I occasionally stare at the box for South Park: The Stick of Truth and will myself to write faster so I can live in the South Park universe for a while. A feature on the back of the box states ‘you are the new kid!’ and ‘design your kid and choose your path.’ When I finally finish up this article and sit down to play the game, I wonder if I will be able to experience everything I want as a resident of this quiet redneck mountain town. In my epic ques to become cool, I would have to insult Cartman’s weight at some point, but will the game allow me to do this, and would I be pulled out of the experience if my character could not do it?

Review coming soon!
Can I live out my South Park fantasies while playing the game, or will I be disappointed?

Developers cannot deliver a story to a player without there being a little disconnect between how a game plays out and how the players wishes it played out, such as what happened at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, unless we have an ending that is finely crafted to our choices throughout the game. This would need to go deeper than explaining the consequences of siding with a particular faction. What if a game tracked whether members of a faction were alive, and if they were slain by the player of not? This would allow us to have an ending with: ‘while trying to steal the McGuffin for faction X, player slaughtered every member of faction Y standing guard over it’.

Ultimately, it is hard to have a truly open game without upsetting a few players whose unusual choices are not considered when a story is being told, unless the story is removed completely. Just give the player a motivation and a target and send them on their merry way. Throw in a few random encounters on their journey, and let them craft their own story based on the events they encountered along the way. This is how the majority of rogue-likes work, providing many interesting stories to share with other people who play the same game, yet each person will have a different experience and view the game differently.

Ludonarrative dissonance is a phrase that will stick with our industry for a while, but as more developers become aware of how we would like to play games, we will find its use slowly ebbing away, like the time I have left to play South Park after writing this post.

Have you experienced ludonarrative dissonance while playing a game? Did you know there was a term to express the feeling of disconnect with a game? Have you read ‘dissonance’ so many times it has lost all meaning? Let me know in the comments!