3 Ways Ludonarrative Consonance Makes Better Games and Players

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance

A while back, the games industry got itself all in a tizzy with ‘ludonarrative dissonance.’ The problem seemed to be discussing whether it is an actual issue worth addressing. For those who don’t know, this ‘dissonance’ is what occurs when actions in gameplay do not ‘jive’ or fit with elements established in the game’s narrative.

One of example could be the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. In Lara’s first adventure, she is portrayed within the game’s narrative as a vulnerable, inexperienced, young archeologist with no combat experience; yet in the game, she is cleaving through foes with such efficiency that she’d give Joel from The Last of Us (whom, by the way, is SUPPOSED to be a badass wasteland survivalist) a run for his money. Obviously, the dissonance occurs when the static narrative (of Lara being a terrified, inept scrapper) and the actual gameplay (where she’s one-shotting bad guys with a ramshackle bow and arrow) cannot be reconciled.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Pictured: A terrified post-grad.

Many contend that this is not worth over-examining. It’s a game after all, right? It’s about having fun – not following a rigid story line. In fact, if too much attention were given to reconciling the static narrative with gameplay, it could adversely affect the most important aspect of gameplay: Player Agency.

I disagree. Ludonarrative Dissonance is an issue worth examining and over-examining in games, and it can be done in such a way that does not adversely affect Player Agency and can, in fact, enhance it.

1. Every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.

In Zelda games, it’s taken as a given that whenever you wander into someone’s house, you can smash the pots lying around to find money or other treasures. Naturally, in the real world, this would be met with alarm and hostility. But, hey, it’s just a game –I’m having fun- this is just what you do, why poke holes in it? While being able to raid people’s homes with impunity is a trademark of the Zelda franchise, such mechanics do create ludonarrative dissonance and do nothing but reinforce that you are, indeed, playing a game.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Hey, you keep replacing the pots so this is like 50% your fault.

“So what?” you ask. “Are we just going to scrap every gameplay mechanic that doesn’t mirror the real world?” Of course not, but we can use the real world as a model to create better gameplay. The solution to ludonarrative dissonance is to not ‘get rid’ of everything that might be dissonant, but instead to seek greater opportunities for ludonarrative consonance.

Consider what happens in the Elder Scrolls games when you try to steal something from someone’s house: They call for the guard or attack you…just as anyone would. But what is gained from that? Well, not only is there ludonarrative consonance, but a meta-game is created where you have to be sneaky enough and deft enough to steal without being caught (or fast enough to flee from capture). But I don’t have to go that far ahead to make that point. In the first area of Chrono Trigger, you find a man pacing around the Millennial Fair, muttering about his lunch. A pink bag is nearby, so 99% of us (just doing what we do in an RPG) grabbed it. Little did we know that would come back to bite us when we got put on trial later. From then on, it got us thinking about our actions throughout the game. Would an action we take now get us into trouble later? To what authority must we ultimately answer to at the end of our adventure?

Once again, no player agency was lost in these examples; you can still steal if you want to. However, the knowledge that every action –positive or negative- will have some sort of result automatically requires the player to commit more thought to how his choices affect the game world which in turn enhances immersion.

2. Better consonance means better immersion.


Some might argue that ‘immersion’ is a fleeting ideal; a pipe dream. We can agree that when tromping around Hyrule, we can’t breathe the fresher air, we can’t feel the weight of the armor covering our bodies, and we –thankfully- can’t smell the odors that befit a medieval town. But it doesn’t mean one can’t forget that he’s playing a video game.

One of my most memorable game experiences, despite the smallness of its scope, was when I first played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After the starting area, I found myself within the walls of the great Imperial City. I had no idea where to go or what there was to do, so it occurred to me to ask directions. I approached the nearest guard…and, to my surprise, I was actually able to ask directions! That little bit of gameplay, mundane in the grander scheme of the game, made me feel like I understood (and was indeed a part of) this world –even if it was all new to me. Why? Because I arrived at a logical solution to a problem within the game world and that solution was accommodated.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Turns out Oblivion can also accommodate you if your shorts are too dry.

And that’s what ludonarrative consonance is all about: doing what makes sense in the context of the established world. Lara Croft is a skilled acrobat, and an expert mountain climber. So it makes sense that she’s able to navigate her world through means that make use of handholds, and sheer drops. A guy like Gordon Freeman could only watch her in slack jawed awe as she clambers over terrain that he would have deemed impassable. But just as it makes sense for Croft to navigate in such a fashion, so too does it make sense for Freeman to navigate in the fashion he does.

Freeman is a physicist. His entire job is to solve problems about the nature of the universe us dummies just can’t. So it’s ludonarrative consonance that when Gordon Freeman encounters difficult terrain; he builds a ramp, a bridge, or attaches a car battery to a generator and opens the door. When Freeman sees a tentacle monster impervious to grenades and satchel charges; he opens the oxygen feed, starts pumping fuel, flips on the generator, and burns that alien sucker in the rocket engine test chamber. That’s how he thinks. No one asks why Freeman can’t backflip from a narrow beam to a four-inch handhold and it can’t be argued that player agency is being affected here. Gordon just can’t DO that because it makes no sense for him to be able to do that.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Dammit, I’m a doctor, not a gymnast.

3. Creative solutions allow greater consonance.

There has been no little to-do made over the ‘dissonant’ impression certain games have fostered due to their (apparently) over-violent content. Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider 2013, and even The Last of Us were subject to complaints over how ‘violent’ they were and how said violence seemed to break with the games’ narrative or presentation.

Bioshock Infinite is a particularly intriguing example due to its idyllic imagery and the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt. I’ll admit that on my first playthrough of BS:I, I found it difficult to bring myself to harm the policemen chasing after DeWitt in the opening segment. When I reached a point where I had no choice but to kill the police officers, I found it to be…distasteful though not ‘dissonant’ per se. Columbia, I felt, might be a flawed community; but I was not interested in adding to their troubles. I felt no reason to harm anyone apart from what was strictly necessary for self defense, and there was thus a twinge of regret whenever I put down one of Columbia’s defenders.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Don’t worry, that feeling eventually went away.

While I suffered no such distaste in The Last of Us, I did find the constant killing peculiar. This was not so much because I felt it didn’t fit with the narrative, but because the droves of bandits I was killing didn’t seem to notice how many of their cohorts had fallen. No matter what number of bodies I Joel left in his wake, they all attacked with the same confidence and fury as they did in the beginning. Humans don’t act like that. When faced with a clearly superior fighter, a real person is much more inclined to break and regroup than attempt a suicide charge. This, I think, is where the alleged ‘dissonance’ occurs in that the player has become so engaged with the worlds they play in; that when they are effectively distilled to nothing more than shooting galleries in gameplay, the seam between ‘game’ and ‘story’ becomes all the more apparent.

As stated earlier, the issue is that the game world isn’t reacting to the player’s input and is simply exercising the same tactics. This is no different from the countless cottage owners blankly staring on as you smash their earthenware and nick their rupies.

Interestingly enough, the failed SiN Reboot actually made a bold attempt at a dynamic solution for this. Depending on how effective the player was, the game would adjust enemy spawns and behavior. Mowing down mobs with no problem? Get ready for bigger mobs and more ambushes. Head-shotting with ease? Not with your enemies wearing helmets, you’re not.

Laser Time, ludonarrative dissonance
Too much blood flowing to your brain? Not anymore!

However, even if such dynamism is impossible, Dishonored and Deus Ex have both demonstrated that games can be designed in a way that the most obvious solution is not necessarily the best one. Such fostering of lateral thinking allows each player an experience that’s the most consonant for him and makes for better games overall.

Ryan J. Hodge is a science-fiction author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment US (His opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook & paperback.

You can now follow Ryan on Twitter @RJHodgeAuthor.

10 thoughts on “3 Ways Ludonarrative Consonance Makes Better Games and Players

  1. Really good read! I honestly didn’t know that this was like an “issue” until Tyler kept bringing it up as a joke. But it makes total sense in retrospect. I’d love to read more dissections of ludo narrative consonance in other games. This article actually has me curious about Half Life 2 now. Yea I know super late but I never had a reason to check it out.

  2. This was a great article. One of the thing’s that made GTS 5 great for me was that you finally got to play as a character that made sense in the GTA world. Trevor made it so that when you were giggling while mowing down civilians for no other reason then they are there seem like it could exist in side of this universe. Unlike Nico who went on and on about how he wanted to be a better person while killing more people, in worse ways, than Ted Bundy. When a game has ludonarative consonance, rather than dissonance, it makes for a better game.

  3. I guess I suck then…I don’t agree at all with Tomb Raider. You have to complete A LOT of tasks to become “the bad ass”, otherwise all through out that entire game Lara goes through hell. She “learns skills” along the way and becomes better at it. Thus earning her place as that bad ass. Now they do go a little overboard by the end because by then you are nigh invulnerable, at which point the game becomes Rambo 8. I don’t think this is a good example of any sort of Narrative Dissonance, we can agree to disagree I suppose. However, it’s a really interesting topic and also one that very much is a product of both something to consider for better storytelling and oversensitivity by gamers.

  4. Wait a minute I reread that part about Bioshock. I almost do not want to reply again because I feel like I am coming on strong and while I am being as diplomatic as I can be. I very much am trying to hold back the condescension I want to express so badly. Concerning Bioshock, you mean to say you did not want to bother the good yet flawed people of Colombia and add to their daily dismay? You mean the people who are TRYING to actively murder you because they believe you are the false prophet?

    I don’t even know what to think right now. Someone actually has this opinion? I mean Tenchu I can truly get, the vast majority of people you can kill are irrelevant to any wrong doing or mission the assassins have. Many are out right innocent. So I get that. But Bioshock gave you a morality issue?

    1. @Jzilla989, a ‘moral’ issue? Hmm…not sure. More of a ‘motivation’ issue. I felt that killing the people who believed Booker was a false prophet would only make the situation worse (self-fulfilling prophesy and all that). Beyond self defense, I felt I had no particular reason to hurt anyone; they were reacting out of fear and doctrine. In their way, they were protecting their community. I’m not super thrilled about offing a guy for that.

      As stated in the article, I got over it. But initially, yeah, I was uncomfortable.

      1. I full agree with this concept. I still don’t know how to respond but I respect your opinion Ryan and I want to apologize for anything I may have said that was rude. I would like to put it out into the ether that I have been ranting for the past 2 hours about this very article. I have calmed down and realized I am getting too upset over something that’s probly not that serious and acting stupidly. Thanks for replying. I can disagree with the article but I like what your doing, if that makes any sense. Hopefully you can find games you can better enjoy.

        1. Wow. 2 Hours. Well, glad I got you thinking.

          It’s no problem, Jzilla989. I’d like you to know that I enjoyed all of the games on here just fine. Just because I thought certain elements could’ve been handled better doesn’t mean I thought the games weren’t fun or worth the money. I only meant to illustrate how more attention to consonance in design can make these great games even better.

          Thanks for reading!

  5. Great article Ryan! I don’t necessarily agree that total immersion is necessarily in all games. For example, I think it’d get tedious if someone attacked you every time you broke a pot in a Zelda game.
    But I definitely think it’s something that should be considered during development and it’s really interesting to discuss. I totally agree about point number 3 and find that when you are given more options to solve a problem, the game becomes much more entertaining and rewarding.

  6. The problem is, you will never get true ludonarrative-consonance as people will undoubtedly get offended at something and developers are worried about negative press.

    This isn’t limited to the games media but across all media streams, take for example Django where despite the fact that based on the era it was set and the n word would have been used excessively people complained about how often it was used. Alternatively look at how many Sitcoms/films have scenes in a strip club or “topless bar” where all performers and dressed.

    In games look at Resident Evil 5, it was deemed racist as it’s setting meant majority of zombies were black. Or GTA getting criticized because somehow they need to portray a criminal lifestyle without any crimes.

    The TL;DR version of this is until we as people can learn not to be offended at anything or realize the importance of context we will never get so called full immersion.

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