Most people who think a lot about video games hate the term “ludo-narrative dissonance.” It’s a mouthful, reeks of pretentiousness, and prone to semantic abuse. And people who don’t think about games almost always have no clue what it could possibly mean (the rabbit hole starts here).
Todd Harper would banish the term altogether. I’m sympathetic to this view. At the very least it would force people to be clearer about what they’re trying to say rather than loosely employing shortcuts like LND and letting things get sloppy. On the other hand though, I do think LND is a problem that actually occurs and really can detract from a game.
It’s not surprising that it’s become more and more of an issue just as games have sought to tell deeper, more complex, and more affecting stories than, hey, this monster stole your (supposed) girlfriend, now go get her back. The last decade in AAA game development has more or less focused on how to strap sitcom-level narratives onto Doom-inspired 3D shooters. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this has led to more than a few contradictions.
If LND is to some degree the result of that particular evolution of video games then, it would be wrong to think of it as THE problem in games, or even in game stories. Certainl, no one seemed that concerned about LND when playing games like Myst or Final Fantasy VII. And yet in many circles it stole the show.
But as room as opened up for games that are built from the ground up to tell a story (Dys4ia, Pablo y Yo), it has started to seem less pressing, even leading many to abandon it as a major concern.
For anyone that missed it, here’s a short recap of what the supposed problems were with video games as a story telling art form over the last few years.
If you were Tom Bissell circa 2010, the problem was that people making games were shit writers. If you were Tom Bissell circa 2011, the problem was LND. Good writers couldn’t tell good stories because the most common practices in (an extremely limited genre like first and third person action-adventure games) seemed inherently opposed to some of the best practices for writing good novels. And if you’re Tom Bissell (or a Bissell-ite) today, you probably think the obstacle is just technological. Give it a few more console-generations and it’ll all slowly sort itself out.
There are many other theories out there as well, some better, some worse, but I think these three categories at least help to illustrate one important point. Dissonance in games can result from lots of different things, and it would be a mistake to search for a single, root cause. Some games are poorly written (Mass Effect 3), others (the proverbial Bioshock comes to mind) have game systems that actively work against their themes, and some are just trying to do things which really are limited by the technology currently available (Last of Us).
All of which is to say the following three things:
- Ludo-narrative dissonance is a real problem in games, but it’s not always THE problem.
- LND is a subset of a much more general problem that plagues all types of media: dissonance/incoherence/form that’s incongruous with content.
- Even if there’s some agreement on what LND is, there can be many reasons why it occurs in a given instance, and to what degree it’s excusable.
I wanted to address the subject because of “gameims,” an idea that’s started to spring up in no small part thanks to Bissell (in fact, gameism might just the most recent in a string of Bissellisms…no joke).
The strange neologism for what anyone else would just call conventions obviously exists in games, just as there are novelisms in novels and filmisms in film. As far as I can tell, the particular spin on conventions that gameism is meant to capture is when media that are trying to depict reality do things that are totally unrealistic.
There’s plenty of LND in Mass Effect 3. The game is rooted (however superficially) in the RPG tradition, and as such requires the player to do lots of sidequest-y type things.
“Hey you! Yea, you! I found this down on a planet I was exploring while contemplating how best to defeat the Reapers. Yea, those giant god-like cyborgs that are shredding up the galaxy. Anyway it looks like a family heirloom I once overheard you talk about having lost. Yup, here you go. Yea, don’t mention it. Oh, well, if you insist! Thanks!”
What makes this LND is that it contradicts a number of narrative goals, like for instance creating a sustained sense of urgency, and a number of narrative premises, like the whole idea that Shepard doesn’t have time for X, Y, and Z because, *insert epic Hans Zimmerman synth beat* “Reapers!” Yet here the commander is, picking up intra-galactic tokens and making sure they get returned to the correct, but extremely inconsequential, NPCs.
The pacing and structure of Mass Effect 3‘s side quests certainly involve other forms of dissonance too. The plot and characterization surrounding them is almost always at odds with the plot and characterization elsewhere in the game. In most cases though this can be chalked up simply to poor storytelling. And most games are horrible at telling stories.
Greek tragedy is premised on certain rules, some of which are borrowed from reality. Getting poked with a sword will kill you, but also: oracles, gods, and goddesses. But on the other hand, there are moments when certain reality-based rules, like how people’s hearing works, don’t apply, so that you can have a chorus singing about things that the characters can’t hear, despite being right there next to them (soliloquies are another example).
The chorus isn’t dissonant so long as the rules about how it works are somewhat well defined, just like I can use a metaphor about having butter fingers despite the fact that I don’t intend for anyone to actually think my fingers are made out of butter–we have certain language rules with which that metaphor is consistent (and therefore doesn’t create confusion).
The classic example of Nathan Drake being a hero but also a mass murderer is actually an interesting one. The conventions of a third-person shooter like Uncharted are such that the player understands that the individual enemies aren’t characters so much as obstacles*. They are effectively a chorus, just one that serves a very different purpose. Just like I’m not going to view the body count in a Die Hard movie the way I would in The Wire, I’m not going to look at the Nathan Drake’s death toll the same way I might look at Cole Phelps’. The different genres they’re working in should help inform the expectations I start playing through each with, and the hermeneutics/grammars/interpretive schema with which I try and analyze them.
If I’m supposed to think that Drake is an innocent hero by the end of Uncharted, then there’s dissonance between various story elements (the plot/themes are not correctly aligned with the characterization, at least in so far as the intention was for me to think Drake is a good guy). An actual source of LND would be how cut-scene drake is effected by bullets, vs. how in-game drake is effected by bullets. I spend the whole game feeling like Drake is semi-invincible, so naturally I would feel cheated if the narrative at some point relies on Drake being injured in a way that quasi-conforms to reality, but is totally dissonant with the game’s rules re: gunplay.
Or, as someone like Bissell might maintain, is this seeming dissonance actually just a gameism? A convention of third-person action/adventure shooters, and specifically of the Uncharted series? The biggest reason I think that claim fails is just how focused games like Uncharted are on collapsing the gap between those gameisms and the story proper (which is always at least loosely based on reality, or informed by various strains of magical realism).
One of the holy grails of modern Citizen Kames (Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite) is to gut cut scenes and make everything pseudo-real-time. Whatever’s left will be a QTE. But this has the unintended consequence of denuding the gameisms so to speak–of removing the contexts which make them acceptable. How much easier it is to switch back and forth between the rules that govern cut scene Drake and in-game Drake when the camera cuts and the visuals shift. RPGs have done this marvelously for some time, with different aesthetics for different modes (battle-mode, field-mode, overhead-map mode, etc.)
Like the Greek chorus, I understand that characters are governed by one set of rules when I’m selecting battle commands from a drop down menu as the camera pans (think Final Fantasy VII), and another set when my characters are cornered by a handful of the NPCs I’d just easily dispatched in battle and then forced to surrender (ah, what happen to my Lightening 3?)
Even in these cases though there’s some residual dissonance, but it’s ultimately less detrimental because certain traditions of RPG (those born out of interactive fiction), do a better job of consistently applying different overlapping sets of rules. Think complex traffic patterns–lots of managed chaos. The rules can be complicated, with several exceptions, and different meta-rules governing which set gets applied when, but if well conceived (in addition to well designed infrastructure), surprisingly few accidents (or mix-ups) result**.
So when is something LND, and when is it just a gameism? In part, it probably has something to do with a variation on the uncanny valley. The closer something gets to feeling realistic, being a simulation, and accurately representing reality***, the more we take notice of the parts that remain absurd—not only because they go against the logic of the world out there, but against the other internal logics (rules-sets, systems, etc.) that the game is working with.
In addition though, I think it has to do with the demands placed on the player. How often are they expected to switch rule-sets? Are these shifts signaled by easily recognized visual cues? How much does the game actively try to compartmentalize disparate systems rather than fuse them together (imagine if for instance different states required people to drive on different sides of the road, and the boundaries between them were poorly defined).
Of course, conventions, rule-sets, expectations and so on can always be subverted or intentionally undermined. But each of those choices has to be justified, whether by a creator or player. Why did you go out of your way to employ that contradiction? How does it help the game to accomplish X, or create experience Y, or elicit analysis Z?
*The exception would be if/when Drake is captured because he is supposedly “outnumbered” even when I had previously escaped situations in which the odds were even less favorable.
**I’m sure someone out there can explain how Wittgenstein is applicable here, and how what I’m saying is a mangled rehash of his general points regarding language-games, in which case please do.
***I’m not trying to impose a particular ontology here—suffice it to say that “reality” can be switched with “subjective experience of the world out there” or something similar.