Ludonarrative dissonance, a compounding of a video game’s story against what the player is actually doing, has some interesting facets that I think get ignored. This is primarily because a lot of focus is placed on whether the term means anything, whether it should even apply to video games, or whether it matters. So let’s explore the topic.
The individual who coined this term, Clint Hocking, used it in reference to Bioshock, in which Hocking explains (I am simplifying to make the point more obvious to those who haven’t played before) that the player is told through the narrative that they should act selflessly, but the gameplay is about building a powerful avatar through selfish means. In this way, the player is being told the opposite of what they are actually expected to do.
So why does this matter? Maybe, as a casual player of video games, or for those who play video games only for their mechanics, all this nonsense doesn’t mean anything. Its a two-dollar word and looks made up. Why I like this term is that video games can be made better with this phrase in mind. In particular, if your game is created along a path orthogonal to its narrative, either as imagined by the player or as told to the player, then the player may be removed from their immersion into the game. It immediately becomes obvious that its a game, and it can cause a player to reject either the narrative, or less often, the gameplay mechanics, and ruining the experience.
Generally, a lot of players have learned to ignore the narrative because more often than not, it just straight up sucks. Its either unimaginative, poorly written, cringe-worthy, or just not very well developed. Of all this though, it will be ignored most quickly if the player is doing the opposite of what the game is saying. It would be like in D&D if the DM said, “And so now you face a dragon!”, and then the players all proceed to loot the room for treasure and not fight it, all the while the dragon waits patiently for the players to initiate combat. It just feels weird. It ruins the suspense and the surprise. It takes away the theatrics (and makes the DM’s job somewhat frustrating, though the DM could just burn them all with the dragon’s fire-breath. Most players wouldn’t enjoy that).
There is so much that video games can explore from both a mechanical and narrative aspect, that to limit yourself to only one of the two can really limit the game as a whole. If the two can’t be reconciled with each other, then ultimately the player’s experience isn’t as immersed as it could be. Video games, like movies, can’t always express all the ideas of the creator. To get as close to those ideas as possible, many different mechanics and forms of narration are employed. Such as the overall artistic theme, the animations, the game play, the character’s dialog, the dialog of the non-player characters, the narration, and the overall progression path. By removing one of those vectors, the player has an incomplete picture of the game world.
This isn’t to say that all games should always have a narration component. Geometry Wars is tons of fun, and it probably wouldn’t really make sense to add a story, because the gameplay mechanics don’t provide any space for a story to occupy. The game play mechanics are so tight in their construction as to exclude a story or dialog. We could imagine what a Geometry Wars clone might look like with a story, but it wouldn’t play the same. And this is also OK. The opposite is also fine, such as in text games (Depression Quest). There isn’t much room for game mechanics because the story needs so much focus just to get across.
But what all this discussion is missing is that ludonarrative dissonance can be a good thing, and can be leveraged by either the game or the player for various positive reasons.
The most prominent example of this is with humor. Its great that the game can say, “and as a highly respected warrior of this ancient clan…”, but the player installed a mod that allows them to drive a car through this village. For the greatest example of this, take Goat Simulator. A game about being a goat, but the goat is doing things a goat could never do. The entire point is that its hilarious, its stupid, its fun. Or maybe the game says to take care crossing the bridge, but a highly skilled player takes that as an implicit challenge. Or maybe the game does it to compare and contrast the past with the present or future, so as to act as a warning or provide a backdrop for what this place was. For a game which absolutely depends on ludonarrative dissonance as a general theme in video games, see Hotline Miami. Its a critique against games with flimsy narrative that undermine, are in opposition to, or otherwise have nothing to do with the game.
Or maybe the game does it so as to build up an adversarial position with the player, as in Portal and Portal 2. There is a little bit of flexibility needed for the Portal example because the player is expected to rebel against the narrative to come out victorious. Whereas in all the other examples, the player isn’t expected to rebel against it, its just the way the game is designed, the player is forced to act in a way contrary to the narrative. And that is generally an important requirement for a game to be called ludonarrative dissonant. The player had no choice but to oppose the narrative in a way that is contrary to the overall game.
In the end, though, ludonarrative dissonance is an important term that, when designing a game, should be taken into consideration. It can be leveraged to critique the genre, to create humor, or to progress the player through the narrative. An aware designer will make sure their game doesn’t fall into the trap of ludonarrative dissonance which breaks immersion. For otherwise the designer created a game that is fractured into separate halves of “story” and “gameplay”, when the designer meant for the two to complement one another.