Some Thoughts Concerning Narrative and Ludo-Narrative Dissonance
”Ludo-narrative dissonance” is a difficult term, one that has become unfashionable in critical circles. But, to put my stall out early on, I think it still has a place in the language of game criticism. To justify my belief, I wish to offer a partial deconstruction of the term and then why I think its use is still justified.
Now, to get a little bit Wittgenstein-ian. Both “ludo”, from ludus, and “dissonance” are easily defined, because their meaning isn’t particularly subjective; there is no bewitchment involved in their use. Neither is narrative, in terms of meaning: it is simply a series of events, told or shown by a person or persons to an audience. It is one of the defining features of artistic endeavour, to tell a story or message to an audience.
What constitutes a narrative, however? In simple media (which is to say, media that has only one method of communication involved in its production, such as spoken word, books, paintings, sculpture etc.), the narrative is presented to you through a single mode of transmission: the words you read in a book or the shapes you can see in a painting. In more complex media, such as plays, music, TV, and films, I believe that there are two methods of communication:. what I would term an explicit and an implicit narrative.
Let me describe an example. Imagine a play, where a couple is having an argument. It is set in a squalid flat; the windows are dirty, the decorations cheap and worn. Now take that same argument, verbatim, and transpose it to another couple, this time arguing in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. The explicit narrative, what the two actors are saying, has not changed, but the implicit narrative, one generated by the audience’s inference from the scene, of the underlying reasons for the argument, have.
Media like music (with lyrics), TV, and films use these twin approaches to convey information to the audience in a way that media with only a single method of communication cannot. An example would be Me And A Gun by Tori Amos. The lack of instrumentation in the song allows Amos to express better the fragility and helplessness she felt in that awful situation. It is a deliberate manipulation of the audience’s expectation of music, done to benefit the song’s emotional effect on the audience.
The interwoven nature of explicit and implicit narratives in media is extremely complex (more complex than the man who has just made up these terms probably fully understands), and is unique to each media. Most often, they come from different senses, such as what the audience hears (dialogue, music), and what it sees (set design, cinematography etc.) However, it also uses the memory and understanding of the medium the audience already possesses. Starship Troopers doesn’t work as a satire of jingoistic depictions of war if the audience isn’t already au fait with those depictions.
The narrative of video-games, for the most part, borrow a filmic, or televisual, approach: there is dialogue, either written or spoken; there is often incidental music; aspects of cinematography are used in scenes; the design of locations and backgrounds play important roles in the narrative; more recent titles use facial expression to convey emotion.
These aspects, from which the majority of big budget games borrow, were not designed for use in video-games though. Most media have a “passive” audience: one where the audience does not have to participate in the medium presented to them. Therefore the narrative is also passive- the audience has no control over where the narrative is going. Games are the first medium to possess an “active” audience: the player is the audience, someone whose presence in the world is tacitly acknowledged by the designers. Games therefore contain an active narrative, one where the audience experiencing the narrative can affect both the outcome of the narrative and the way they themselves interpret the narrative presented to them.
This means there are three ways of telling narrative in games: the explicit, the implicit, and the interactive; what the audience is told by the designers, what the audience infers from the game’s incidental sounds and visuals, and what the audience experiences through the design of the game’s systems. So how does all of this relate to ludo-narrative dissonance? Well, I hope I have established that there are multiple aspects to the conveyance of narratives, and that the “ludo”, the playing of the game, is a fundamental part of that in the language of video-games. Therefore, ludo-narrative dissonance is the same as any other dissonance found in art, just one, instead of being two parts of the narrative that would contradict each other, that manifests itself as something that comes between the player’s experience of the interactive narrative or systems, and the designers’ explicit and implicit narratives presented passively to the player.
Each method of guiding the narrative has its own language, a set of rules and mores learned by both the creators and the audience over time. For the first two narrative methods, this language is well established, understood by the writers and creators of games as well as the audience. Borrowing the language of film and television has aided this. Yet, the interactive narrative, arguably the most crucial in a video-game, is still in its infancy. The first video-games which even attempted basic storytelling only came about in the 1980s.When people talk about the “Citizen Kane of video-games”, we’re not there yet, historically. In comparison to film, we’re in the early 20th century, just beginning to learn the full capability of the technology at our disposal. This medium is still growing into itself, realising and then attaining the potential of which it is capable. Forget Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick, we have yet to have our Cecil B. DeMille.
Any system, any interaction with the world is part of the construction of an interactive narrative. Scavanging systems imply that your world is disjointed, disorganised, or that the main character is highly practical. Having a stealth mechanic suggests the protagonist is weak, or at least too weak to take on multiple enemies at once. If these systems fail to work well with the rest of the narrative, or contradict one another (such as having a stealth mechanic when your character can absorb damage like a kitchen towel), this leads to what I would call “ludo-narrative dissonance”.
Critics should be critical of mistakes games make, and I believe ludo-narrative dissonance is one of them, because it is a failing of a game to understand how to marry its three methods of imparting narrative: its play and its more traditional narrative structures are fundamentally at odds. Ludo-narrative dissonance is not “the game allowed me to mess about for a dozen hours so it wasn’t made well”, or “I could make my character a blue-haired guy with no clothes on so it wasn’t immersive”. That’s you, the player, being an arse. If you went to a film and shouted over the top of it the entire way through, no-one would consider your opinion of the film worth listening to.
Games, like any art (yes games are art, folks), require the audience to meet the creator(s) half-way, to allow themselves to see what the vision the creators have. If you find this vision dissatisfying, or poorly executed, that’s fine. That’s criticism, in fact: a nuanced, intellectual approach to a piece of art which takes into account the vision of the creator, the message the artwork conveys, and its relation to the surrounding social, political, philosophical and religious conventions of its time and culture. Is Call of Duty problematic because it suggests that a militaristic attitude to the non-Western world is completely all right? Well, that’s a discussion we, as people who play games, have to have. If you’re happy with it, that’s fine; if you’re unhappy, that’s fine too, but if we never discuss it, games are never going to improve.
There will always be dissonance in artistic endeavour, especially ones over which the main creator cannot exercise complete control. Look how big games are. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, contribute to a AAA title, each with their own personal views on politics, religion etc. I think this is why big-budget games are more susceptible to ludo-narrative dissonance: I don’t think the people with their hands on the purse-strings think of gameplay and story as interconnected. Far Cry 4 is perfect exemplar- it was deliberately designed to be just like Far Cry 3, almost identical to Far Cry 3 systemically.. Most of the gameplay, the interactive narrative, has barely changed. It takes steps to address the racial problems Far Cry 3 (I think inadvertently) brings up, but when the primary method of engaging with the game remains KILL EVERYTHING THAT MOVES, the overall narrative of a game isn’t going to change either.
Chris Franklin, in a recent video, argued that using “ludo-narrative dissonance” exacerbates the problem of believing that “games as narrative” and “games as systems” are two separate things, and I agree that they should not be considered as such; as I have stated above, the systems within the game actively contribute to the narrative the game conveys. I think this is a slightly idealistic view, however. It’s one I wish were true, but evaluating AAA games shows that this is not the case. The fact that these games refuse to marry their explicit and implicit narratives with their interactive, ludic one means it is still, in my view, serves a purpose. As long as game designers, and the people who fund the creation of games, believe that the systems and the narrative can be designed separately, why should we as critics not make the same distinction?