Ludonarrative Dissonance

 “Good gracious, look at that name. That’s, well… damn.”

Such was my initial response upon first hearing the term ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’. Seriously, Carson must have been in an absolutely vile mood when he decided I had to cram this bad boy into 10 pages. Really, this sucker deserves a whole course. Plus, its not like many people have really put pen and paper to the subject.

I actually just Googled the subject and, excluding this bit on The Escapist the general consensus is “it exists” with no meat and potatoes. I can’t believe I waited until Saturday to start this thing. This week I plan on discussing the aforementioned topic in some detail. You have to keep in mind, I’m barely literate on the subject myself so I might mince words. Also, keep In mind that I am seriously sleep deprived because I’m visiting my mother in Florida in 3 weeks and since I was a boy I have always slept poorly on the eves of major events. On top of that, unresolved PTSD means that restfulness is at a premium in the mind of The Author.

I’ve prattled on enough, so, you guys know the drill by this point, right? I first define terms, then give examples and try to figure out how we can use this to fine tune the +5 fascist-slaying liberty cannon that is our great medium. I am going to switch up the plot this time, however, as this concept is definitely a double edged sword. Seriously, I’ve had games killed dead on account of this wrecking ball of a plot device swinging the wrong way (I’m looking at you, SquareEnix, seriously, send your writers to a seminar or something. Don’t fire them, they tell a damn good story, they just don’t know how to write for games). Instead of the standard 3 examples I am going to give 2 good and 2 bad examples of how Ludonarrative dissonance affects story-driven games.

Well, I’ve wasted enough of your time, let us get down to definitions. Ludo comes from the latin word Ludus which can be used to describe education, play, sport, game or fun. It could be the root word from which Lewd comes from but I have no information to back that up, I’m merely speculating on that one. Narrative means… well… if you don’t know what a narrative is you’re probably in the wrong class, no big, common mistake, Pewdie Pie is 2 doors down on the right. Jokes aside, narrative, when refering to games, is everything. Narrative is the reference point from which all elements of a game are justified.

Okay, to the side, I could already hear the CoDheads moaning about how you don’t need high minded characters or byzantine plots to make a good game. For once, I agree with you. However, that is not what I meant by narrative. For the sake of this discussion, narrative is merely used as a reference for action. In short, “you’re a yellow circle with a pie slice cut out. Eat the dots and don’t get caught by the ghosts” is a narrative.

Dissonance is, as explained In my previous essay, the knowledge that 2 pieces of provided information are incompatible. For example, the statements “Joanie loves Chachi” and “Joanie is psychic construct that exists only in the mind of her killer, Chachi” could be considered dissonant statements (unless Joanie is really messed up, but who cares, she’s a ghost). In short, two things are dissonant if they appear contradictory to or contextually exclusive from each other.

So, to put it all together, ludonarrative dissonance is the experience of the game and the narrative being apparently contradictory. Typically this experience is entirely accidental, an unfortunate result of developers seeing the narrative as a layer to be thrown over the game’s mechanics like a blanket. Especially in the 90’s and 2000’s, a video game’s story line was often treated as an entirely different animal than the game it was supposed to contextualize.

Let us start with the most popular game in the world. I know, I talk about WoW way too much but look at it. You simply can’t discard the educational oppurtunities of a game that nets nearly the value of your country’s economy every year (sorry, Brazil, nothing personal, if it’s any consolation, you guys make some brilliant games and can whip up some breathtaking environments). “Hey, Author, WoW doesn’t need to care, it’s awesome.” Well, yes, sort of but I want to tell you a story. There was once a Warlock named Zaranus. This guy was an epic hero of mythical proportions, he defeated Kel’thuzad within the foulest reaches of the Lich’s flying fortress. Upon defeating this horrid creature, Zaranus heard a call from a distant tower named Karazan, a corrupt mage had opened a tunnel to the Twisting Nether in his tower. Zaranus immediately lead an elite team of heroes from across the world to slam shut the jaws of the Nether gate, but his job wasn’t complete. Cultists had opened a second portal to the Twisting Nether in the land that was once the elven kingdom of Quel’Thalas. Not to have his world destroyed by the very demons Zaranus had spent his life taming, he rushed to the holy Sunwell, but it was too late. Kil’jaeden had completed the portal between the Legion world of Argus and Zaranus home world of Azeroth and was climbing through. However, there was one thing that Kil’jaeden hadn’t forseen. You see, Zaranus had spent his entire life, destroyed his body and irreparably damaged his soul in a mad attempt to control the forces that wished to devour his world. Zaranus called his servants: Voidwalkers, Imps, Felguards, Hellhounds, Nightmares, all came rushing to their master’s aid and shoved Kil’jaeden back through the portal to the Eredar’s ruined world, sealing it and destroying the Sunwell, source of the Blood Elves power, forever.

It was then that a bitter wind blew through Zaranus’s home in the ruins of Lordaeron. The Lich King had returned. Zaranus knew that demons alone would not kill the god of endings. He needed the help of the titans, so he immediately went to the cradle of life in Sholozar Basin to consult with the titans that created his world. On the way there, however, Scourge Gargoyles forced the plane he chartered to land in the wilderness a mile from the emissary of the titans where he was eaten alive by a lizard.

This is where WoW falls short. By considering the story of WoW as a layer draped atop the core gameplay, they created situations that made no logical sense. You mean to say that the Paladin that played an integral role in destroying the Lord of Undeath can get redshirted by a deer? This could have easily been avoid. If, instead of canonizing the concept that it’s the same hero every time (questgivers at the beginning of an expansion often congratulate you on your exploits in the previous expansion. Seriously, go to Hellfire Peninsula, the quest givers all assume you were the guy who shut down the Blackrock Orcs) they canonized the idea that you were a mere recruit at the beginning of each expansion it would make a lot more sense. Seriously, my immersion just shatters every time my Druid, who just got finished killing Neltharion the World Breaker gets sent to collect Mushuan meat so that the Stormwind Army doesn’t have to trouble themselves with getting fed (I refuse to call him Deathwing, if Thrall, Arthas, Malfurion, and the Hero of Azeroth can fight off the whispers of the Old Gods then so can the dragon who’s sole job was to maintain the mountains and oceans of the world, you don’t get to say it was Arthas’ fault for having his brain crushed by The Lich King then say Neltharion The Earthwarder was a victim of circumstance).

That one is a more mild example, lets go to something a bit more extreme. Seriously, you can not talk about ludonarrative dissonance without referencing the most infamous transgression in the history of video games. Here’s the set up. The hero’s name is Cloud Strife. He is a tragically romantic rebel without a cause, a wandering mercenary taking or declining contracts in accordance with his personal moral code. The man is an island to his peers and a wall to his enemies (and we will discuss how much of a load that description is another day). All of this changes on a fateful day in December. Literally minutes after ditching the cops after his most recent gig he meets a flower girl named Aerith. Aerith is full of magic. She is full of life and joy and wants nothing more than to heal the weeping earth. On top of that, she is literally full of magic being the only known mortal offspring of the Celestial bureaucracy (the organization of gods and demigods that maintain the flow of spirit energy throughout the universe).

Now that the important bits of the story are caught up for those who don’t know their FF (I’m looking at you, CBC) lets get down to mechanics. Final Fantasy was once the flagship of the RPG genre, the way the game works is that combat is simulated through a series of tactical choices made via menus with the cadence of battle regulated through a turn system (you attack, I attack, etc). Since these games lack the dexterity check that most video games have (there are no combos, no aiming, just select your move and the computer decides your degree of success) your efficiency in combat is decided entirely through your ability to plan out team makeup and your ability to do simple math (we’re talking the ability to understand what +/- n% means and the ability to register whether value A is bigger or smaller than value B). As a result of such a system, party members die all the time on account of bad damage rolls and damage affinity (certain damage types deal more than others). In order to combat the astronomical death rate of characters that you can’t actively move out of the line of fire, every RPG out there (with a few exceptions, which is why I don’t play Fire Emblem) RPGs use resurrection items, referred to as Phoenix Downs in Final Fantasy.

Now we have the ludo part down and the narrative part down. Every 90s kid out there knows where I’m going next. Final Fantasy 7 is broken into 3 acts much like a play. In a standard play, the first act usually revolves around the call to arms, here is where the hero recognizes the conflict. The second act is about preparation, the hero spends act 2 acclimating to the rules of the world as adjusted by the primary conflict. The third act is about resolution. This is where the hero makes or receives the adjustment that allows him/her to resolve the conflict discovered in act 1.

Now, here’s the problem. Aerith is the call to arms. Across act 1 Cloud falls in love with Aerith whom, at the very end of act 1 is murdered in cold blood by the central antagonist. That part is fine, normally. However, keep in mind, we just spent 5 hours learning how to use Phoenix Downs. Unless you spent a lot of time farming at the beginning of the game, Aerith (as well as the rest of the party) will have died over a hundred times. She will have been burned to death, eaten, frozen, cut in two, bathed in acid, shot in the skull, bashed on the head, etc. and every time you will have brought her back by throwing the down of the phoenix over her body, then suddenly this jerk drops in with an 8 ft. katana, runs it through her stomach (which isn’t even a fatal wound in the real world) and she’s gone forever.

The sad thing is that this could have been avoided. Not Aerith’s death, Sephiroth really loves swinging that thing around, but the immersion rip completely invalidated the emotional impact that Aerith’s death should have had on me. Blatant patriarchal overtones aside, Aerith’s death should have been a tragic turn of events that feuled Cloud’s mad quest for fratricide, matricide and, ultimately, deicide (I knew someone in highschool who bawled like a 2 year old when the woman was put to the sword). The easiest way would have been to change the ‘death’ status to ‘unconscious’ or ‘KO’ so that you understand there’s a difference between Aerith getting cut open in the cutscene and Aerith getting burned horribly and subsequently resurected 5 minutes earlier. It would be another 10 years before people cracked the rom and figured out that there was, in fact, no way to save her (and I’m sure that the Aerith-only gear and ultimate weapon that she couldn’t possibly acquire without cheating didn’t help that either. In Tales of Symphonia one of the characters reveals that when you resurrect someone they aren’t actually coming back to life, you’re simply healing the corpse to the point where its theoretically inhabitable by a soul, and it doesn’t actually work if the soul has already vacated or isn’t interested In waiting to see if someone is gracious enough to use the spell. That’s a bit of a cop out but its a hell of a lot better than “hey, your million dollars worth of restorative items don’t actually work!”.

Wow. Page 6. I really let my tirade go. Not all cases of ludonarrative dissonance are negative. Take for example the game Eversion. I really wanted to get an interview with the guy who made the game so that I could see exactly what he was thinking but he took one look at my third rate firm and decided I wasn’t worth the calories it took to answer. The premise is simple, this world is an illusion in order to escape you have to traverse the levels. Problem is that you can’t even beat the first level without going into purgatory. As you continue you find yourself in more and more horrifying hellscapes. The narrative indicates that you want to be In the real world but the mechanics make it impossible to get past all the trees and flowers, in order to get to the end of the game you have to get as far away from the world of light as you can. The entire game I spent dreading the next step because the game mechanically incentivized continuing down into the lower planes despite the implicit indication that I should be going back to the real world.

You can even use ludonarrative dissonance intentionally to tell a meta narrative. Consider Metal Gear Solid 2. Consider Act 3, on the Arsenal Gear. The entire game intentionally fakes at being a badass military stealth game while intentionally deconstructing and mocking the genre that the Metal Gear franchise helped define. Now, if you’re anything like me or the 5 million other people who played MGS2, then the nudity scene in MGS2 hit you hard. You have a guy who’s supposed to be an action hero, yet he’s so self conscious that he can’t even let the guards see his naughty bits.

This was done intentionally to draw a metaphor for fans of the burgeoning war simulation movement of which we are currently in the midst. Kojima intentionally invoked ludonarrative dissonance in an attempt to make people think about the glaring distance between fantasy and reality. Video games had been used for years already to allow people to slip fleetingly into the minds of heroes and villians, but nobody actually went and called out the fact that ultimately we are all simply pretending to be heroes. No matter how much you beat Contra you will never actually know the sorrow and glory of being the last living member of your squad. No matter how many elements you whip together you will never be the wise mage or the legendary warrior. Unfortunately, nobody was thinking that hard the first time they played MGS2 and Kojima had to release MGS3 as an apology to the fans. I’m not saying MGS3 was a bad game. I’m just saying it was a bit more ham fisted than MGS2.

So, how do you artificially create such a sensation? Well, I’m hardly qualified to talk on the subject but I think I can see a few patterns common to all games that use ludonarrative dissonance effectively. This is far from a complete list, you have to keep in mind that this is merely some autistic guy who’s good at pattern recognition.

Firstly, every game I’ve ever seen that successfully used ludonarrative dissonance involved some fairly noticable turn around. You have to be very careful with this. Too blatant and people will mentaly disconnect from your game, which will appear too inconsistent. If you’re too subtle, however, people will chalk it up to bad writing (like what happened with MGS2).

An important caveat here, when I say “noticable turn around” I don’t intend to tell you that you need to be pretentious. I also don’t mean to tell you you need to have some byzantine plot that will only be understood by the people a thousand years from now. What I do mean is that when you make your game, your first instinct should be to make the laws of the world appear consistent with the narrative, then intentionally deconstruct them. This was done in MGS2 by putting you in the shoes of an awesome action hero named Solid Snake, you know, the guy that the whole franchise was named for, then executing what I call ‘the greatest cord-pull in gaming history’ by switching him to the “just as good” Raidan, then making Raidan look like a pansy.

The second tip I would give is to create a clear disconnect between the implied goal of the game and the progression of the narrative. So, what does that mean? It means you have to intentionally make the player feel like what they’re doing makes no blasted sense.

This was done in Heavy Rain by putting the character into situations where he had to do worse and worse things to progress the plot (like the infamous finger chop). Now, I haven’t played Heavy Rain (mostly because I don’t get paid enough) but I have read plenty enough to have a general idea as to what you are put through. This also done in The Last of Us by slowly revealing the protagonist was a bloody psychopath. The game is all about survival, yet you play as someone who is clearly getting his jollies off murdering and butchering the zombies and other humans alike. Thirdly, this was also sdone in Eversion by making the easiest world to survive in also the hardest to progress in. see, in Eversion, the patten to the worlds (not the levels) goes as such. The topmost world (world 1) has very few enemies, all of which use predictable patterns (seriously, we are talking Mario Bros NES levels of complexity). However, the first world is also the hardest to traverse because it is littered with bushes, trees, and other harmless (if bothersome) obstacles. As you descend further into the lower worlds (2-8) the trees and bushes start to decay and crumble. This leaves the previous paths open to traversal. However, as you descend into the lower planes (which are, paradoxically, given higher numbers), enemies get smarter and faster, requiring you to decide whether you should pick a higher plane which are nearly non-traverseable (in addition to where you’re supposed to be, as indicated in the last level) or a lower plane which is nearly unsurvivable (in addition to where you invariably end up, as indicated by secret level).

Thirdly, because you know how I feel about the number 3, repetition. I can not stress this enough, whatever shenanigans you decide to pull in your game, do it consistently. If you simply do it once then people will simply brush it off again as bad writing and I dont think I need to tell you this but bad writing, even if it’s only perceived as such, is bad. This is where MGS2 failed, this is why MGS2 is considered the worst Metal Gear Solid entry. Kojima was not consistent in his delivery. You see, human brains are constantly in search of a coherent narrative. We find narratives everywhere. We turn genocides into moral plays, we turn wars into poetic epics, we insist that there is something to learn from every single thing that happens to or around us. How do we figure out exactly what the epic narrative of human existence is? Repetition. Why is there evil in the world? Well, 6 thousand years ago there was this angel named Lucifer that didn’t want to bow before man. As punishment for that, Jehova cast the renegade into a deep pit where not even god’s love could be felt. Since then, said angel has made it his life’s purpose to tempt us from the path of righteousness. This narrative is at first, second and third glance easier to swallow than “Hey, some people are jerks”. It gives us a way to fit the evil that men do into a narrative. This makes history into a clear struggle between good and evil.

The point I would have you take from this essay is that ludonarrative dissonance is best used to indicate that the story is not intended to relay a literal string of events. What does that mean? Lets go back to MGS2 (sorry for only using MGS2, nobody I know of has really done it acceptably since). Kojima did not go into MGS2 desiring a literal continuation of the Metal Gear storyline. Kojima went into the project intending to use the Metal Gear universe to make a statement about confirmation bias and the danger of mimetic (for the record, mom, that’s the practice of creating subconscious queues and then exploiting them to implant thoughts and beliefs). MGS2 was never meant to be a continuation of the Metal Gear storyline. Unfortunately, Kojima neglected to use repetition to make his point (probably because measured repetition is a mimetic technique) 111and was thus forced to make that 20 hour apology letter set in the “tropical rainforests of the USSR,” which was likely an attempt to spell it out for the fans that simply hadn’t tried hard enough to get the point in the last game.

Ultimately, Ludonarrative Dissonance is a very difficult thing to master. It requires a level of finesse and team cohesion that, frankly speaking, most design teams don’t have. I wouldn’t recommend using it regularly if this is the first game you make as it’s so difficult to pull off. Using ludonarrative dissonance as a plot device not only requires a massive shift in design from the standard fare of modern plot design but it also requires you aim for a more intellectually present crowd. Simply put, don’t expect the CoD crowd to get the point. The type of person who considers a video game to be an entertainment to be consumed will likely not be looking hard enough to get your point.

Well, there I go. Sorry again for last week, I simply wasn’t aware that my essays weren’t posting. I will definitely be more regular from here out. I’m going to be in Florida next month visiting my mom. You shouldn’t see any interruption in releases but if you do then I simply wanted to explain right out of the box why it would be happening. This will not represent a decline in interest for this blog, it will simply indicate a temporary shift in availability.

Oh, and while I’m here. Carson told me that I should point you to Need Additional Pylons. This blog isn’t easy to keep up, many fail to reason that the time I spend here is time I’m not spending with my wife. It takes a lot of work to put together such coherent arguments. In order to keep this thing free and regular we would ask those of you with a little more to give something to the cause. Those of you who can’t afford to give a little something can help by spreading the word so that this beast can start turning a profit. I don’t like talking money any more than you do but Something Wicked Games is run out of Carson’s in-laws decrepit old house and he would like to expand our operation so that we can deliver higher quality content.

Now that I have that out of the way, send me questions and comments. I won’t even pretend to have all of the information here and would love to see what I got wrong and what I got right. I would like to see this thing blossom into a thriving forum of intellectual debate. So, you know, post away in the comments. Thanks for reading, see you next week.

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