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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.