Friday, December 5, 2008

Essential Jargon: Ludonarrative Dissonance

I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” It sounds needlessly florid, and it's the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to the people who think that games writin' has gotten too fancy. Though it exactly describes the phenomenon in seeks to explain, it's the kind of phrase that stands in the path of common human understanding, and this is never a good thing. I wish I had a good substitute neologism at hand, but the plainer “story-game conflict” lacks zazz. Maybe the readers have a pithy and non-latinate alternative.

In a recent speech at the Montreal International Games Summit, Blow described ludonarrative dissonance as one of the three ways modern games are “conflicted.” (He calls it a conflict between story and “dynamic meaning”, but it's basically the same idea.) Here's the conflict: the game's mechanics lead you to have certain attitudes towards a character or situation, and the game's story tells you (or your character) to feel a different way. Because these two elements of the design pull in different directions, the game fails to achieve what it wants to communicate in either case. Hence the dissonance.

We might say: mechanics don't tell you anything. Mechanics are just sets of rules that define what you can do in the game: jump, run, shoot, whale on ninjas. This is right; textbook cases of dissonance revolve around a smaller subset of rules that define “progress” in the game: how it rewards you for doing certain actions by giving you new abilities and allowing you to progress through new terrain, and how it punishes you by forcing you to replay certain segments and preventing you from getting further. Blow advances the idea that these elements of the game's mechanics have a quasi-moral significance that is ultimately significant w/r/t the narrative. By giving and taking progress from the player, a game communicates a message about what is right and wrong to the player. Blow critiques World of Warcraft, for example, because he thinks that it showers unstinting rewards on the player's unpraiseworthy drudgery.

In the original case of ludonarrative dissonance, Clint Hocking's critique of Bioshock, the point of conflict was the player's decision to save or harvest the “little sisters”, a well-defended posse of bioluminescent poppets with a monopoly on a crucial resource which the player needs to upgrade their abilities. From the standpoint of the story, this decision is crucial; it's cast as a harrowing moral choice between virtue and self-interest, a decision that resonates with the story's larger thematic concern with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. But from the standpoint of the mechanics, either decision is more-or-less equal over the long term when it comes to progressing through the game. And this tells the player that the decision isn't as important as story says it is.

Almost all of Blow's examples focus on conflicts between narrative elements and the reward-structure of the gamplay. But there's a different kind of dissonance in games as well, which is as important to thematic coherence but is but harder to articulate. It's the way that game mechanics, the controls and movement and gameplay alltogether, invest your actions with a specific texture. Game mechanics (the controls, but also the structure of the levels and the enemy design) can create a certain tactile impresions to them that's hard to put into words. The way a game controls, the way it feels in you hands, can speak volumes.

An example might help: Mitch Krpata recently wrote a post on Gears of War 2, and said that he felt that there was a disconnect between the gameplay and the story. As a cover-based shooter, the gameplay centers around holding down a defensive position and keeping distance between yourself and the hordes of locust. But “The storyline... puts the COGs on the offensive for the duration. It's all rah-rah, take-it-to-'em stuff. You get all geared up to fight, pardon the pun, and then spend all your time with your head down. That doesn't make sense.” Krpata found the defense-based gameplay was satisfying in the context of the first Gears, where humanity was up against the ropes. But now that the story licenses the player to go out and get some, it seemed unsatisfying to spend your time cowering behind sandbags.

It's also worth noting where this marriage of narrative and gameplay goes right. I've been playing the most recent Prince of Persia game this week, and one of the things I like about it is distinctive feel of the platforming. Both the platforming and the combat have been likened to a rhythm game, and this is a strange-but-appropriate comparison. Because you don't control your momentum in midair, traversing the world is mostly a matter of timing your button presses correctly. The jumping and climbing has this nice tactile rhythm, and because the game is so forgiving, it allows you to focus on charting a fluid path through environment without worrying overmuch about death frustrated. With practice, you get the point where you can read the terrain like a row of glowing gems in Guitar Hero. The feeling of lightness you get from conforming to the tempo of the terrain complements the narrative, since the hero is depicted as a of carefree gadabout in a consequence-free magical kingdon. The banter, the visuals, the pace of the platforming, the supernatural aura, all these things work together to create this feeling of freedom and careless heroism. These gameplay systems wouldn't work in every game, but they function wonderfully in the context of the world and narrative that Prince of Persia attempts to create. Call it ludonarrative harmony.

I don't agree with all of Blow's arguments (and I take some issues with his examples, which I'll spare you out of an unusual dispassion for pedantry) but I do think he does an unusually good job of articulating the the problems and tensions in so many modern games. The challenge is finding ways to meld form and content, gameplay to story. These elements in modern game design have had one shotgun wedding too many, they deserve some happy nuptials.


Brian said...

Your article is interesting, as is your blog in general - I've been following it for a while - but what caught my eye today was your use of w/r/t.. an homage to David Foster Wallace, or did you pick it up elsewhere?

Regarding ludonarrative dissonance (I can't think of a more concise term), here are my two cents: I agree that in some games it hampers the storytelling and makes the experience of playing less enjoyable, at least from a cognitive standpoint. To me, the one really big exception to this was Deus Ex. There was a lot of confusion over who, between the three major factions, the 'good guys' were, or if they existed at all. The plot only occasionally nudged you towards one side or another, but never really came out and made a clear moral statement about any of them. All of them made poor decisions. It's the sort of moral complexity I wish more developers incorporated - to really make you THINK at the end of playing something, hopefully beyond the confines of the story or characters.

I really agree with your general games-aspiring-to-art schtick; I've been playing Fallout 3 recently and am really digging the care Bethesda put into creating the 'alternate USA', and especially the painstaking recreation of the DC area.

Anyway, yeah, just wanted to pop in and say I enjoy your thoughts, and keep 'em coming!

Bobby said...

I'm glad someone said it. I will admit right out that I'm the kind of person who dresses up concept with fancy words on occasion, but I'd prefer more accessible terminology. Part of the reason I disliked ludonarrative was my distaste for 'ludology' as a term to describe Game Studies. But I often think that people feel excused from explaining their point when they use a big word to describe it. This is especially important as we write for blogs that get passed around between intellectuals and the disinterested fan. If we want anyone else to care we should work to make our discussions more accessible.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree on 'ludonarrative dissonance'. Eric Wolpaw said pretty much the same thing at GDC earlier this year without resorting to such cringe-inducing jargon:

"We had this theory that games tell two stories. There's the "story story" which is the cutscenes and the dialogue, and the "gameplay story" which is the story that's described by the actions you take in the game world.

The theory was that the closer you could bring those two stories together, the more satisfying the game would be."


I think that this kind of jargon comes from exactly the same people who think calling the study of games 'ludology' makes it seem more prestigious. I actually have a post brewing on why 'ludology' is a completely useless term, so I won't harp on it here.

But thanks for the interesting post - some very good points raised.

Kylie said...

Here's my stab at a more accessible phrase to describe "ludonarrative dissonance" - gameplay/storyline conflict. Sure it's not elegant, not 100% precise (but more than precise enough for casual use), but saying it doesn't make you sound like you're invoking the spirit of Derrida.

chade fallstar said...

"Big ups" to the VCCL blog for requiring Mr. Monk and I to turn to our dictionary widget to look up a word. Big downs (is that a thing?) to my dictionary widget for not knowing what "ludonarrative" is.

I peobBLY HAD 1ish more sentences of comment, but mr. monk has firmly placed his butt on the keyboard, preventing futher discourse.

Sparky said...

Incongruity (my suggestion) between elements goes beyond interactions between story and rewards, or story and mechanics. The graphics and sound design of the game can also work badly with the mechanics or the story it is trying to tell. This is a kind of disagreement we see less often because in general developers are more committed to graphical excellence than narrative or thematic depth. Yet in a game like Mirror's Edge or No More Heroes the graphical direction is something that might not have worked. The cumbersome "ludonarrative" helps identify the category of disagreement, but not the fundamental issue. The question is whether the shortcut provided by "ludonarrative" is of greater value than the barrier introduced by the jargon. I tend to think that it is not.

Ben Abraham said...

Couldn't we start to make an argument, though, that by Clint's popularising of the term that we all know what it means now? I think that, in some circles at least (The Brainy Gamer circles no less), it's a well known concept. And there's a case that developers know the term now too, since Clint is quite a high profile speaker at GDC and the like.

But hey, if anyone has a better name for it go ahead and use it. Until then, I think it'll stick. (Although Eric Wolpaw says it particularly well in that piece Daniel linked to).

Sparky said...

I don't think that's any defense, Ben. If blogging about meaning and narrative in games has any goal it ought to be widening the dialogue on these topics, not restricting it to the clique of people who know what all the secret words mean. This means finding a balance between whatever additional usefulness the jargon has and language everyone can understand. I can describe my day job as investigating a protein's structural energy landscape through transitions of the conformational ensemble, or I can say I study how proteins move. The former description may have additional value for the expert, but it slaps a brick wall in front of the wider audience. Which description I use will depend on my goal and my audience. So, who are you talking to? What are you trying to accomplish?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@brian: hey thanks for reading! the w/r/t is totally ripped from foster wallace, I've always kind of liked it.

As you point out, we focus a lot on dissonance but it's worth thinking about games like Deus Ex and figuring out how designers get the storyline and mechanics to mesh well. And needless to say moral complexity is a thing in short supply in the games arena.

@daniel: hey thanks for that link, it's an intersting speech. As to your point, I don't have any specific beef with "ludo-" as a prefix, but it does have this reek of needless fanciness about it. I don't think the people who use it to describe their own work are using it to look smart, or anything, I think it's just a matter of how it strikes the average person.

@mwc and @ben: I wasn't out to knock Clint Hocking at all in this piece. One of the reason you need new words is because you discover some new idea and you need something to describe it with. I don't think was looking to show off, I just think he was looking for a word that captured what he discovered.

And, you know, as ben points out it's served its function pretty well, because now a group of people know what he's talking about and can use his terminology to discuss it with others. And that's a good thing. I'm hoping that coming up with something more colloquial will help spread the idea, because it's a really insigtful concept and an important one.

Ben Abraham said...

Sparky - interesting perspective. However, I would like to make a small observation. You said "I can describe my day job as investigating a protein's structural energy landscape through transitions of the conformational ensemble, or I can say I study how proteins move"


Which is just a funny way of saying, because I'm not in your field BOTH of your explanations make no sense to me, so you might as well use the more verbose one. I think I may have even gotten a better idea of what you were saying from it, if you can believe it. =P

Iroquois - Thanks for saying it better than I could.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not convinced it's a useful concept, let alone a useful term. I think it's probable that ludonarrative dissonance is just a case that gets special treatment because it's so easy to point out. In other words, I'm not sure there's a distinction between "this game mechanic says this, but this story element says that" and "this art asset says this, but that sound effect says that."
In both cases, there is a disconnect between two elements of a design. This disconnect can be intentional or unintentional. If anything, I think the ease with which we notice game design/embedded story conflicts is an indicator of how readily we construct narratives out of interactive experiences. That is, I think we're continuity freaks when it comes to our own stories.
Another hypothesis is that these game/story splits get a lot of notice because we're starting to see the writer as distinct from the designer emerging as a profession in game development. It's a kind of growing pain while the medium feels out what kind of stories it can encode in art assets, text, game mechanics, and other design elements.
Simons writes in Narrative, Games, and Theory that characterization, plot, etc -- the elements of the embedded story, as well as the art and so on -- are determined by algorithmic rules related to the game universe, the characters' personalities, the needs of the design, and so on, even if those rules aren't encoded in the game interactively. So I think that the real issue isn't that the non-interactive (or pre-played, as I like to think of it) and the interactive elements conflict -- it's that elements conflict, period. It's just as bad as pixel-hunting in graphical adventure games or picking a lousy talent build in World of Warcraft. Conflicts between two systems can be intentional or unintentional, artistic or painful, but they're much broader in scope than merely cutscene death versus gameplay death.
To summarize my meanderings, the reason ludonarrative dissonance hurts when it hurts is that the embedded story conflicts with our synthesized, emergent story. It's not the mechanics per se, since there are other possible sources of conflict.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@joe: I think you're right that there's nothing unique, conceptually, about dissonance. You can find this kind of incongruity across all the other elements of the game.

My explanation for why game/story conflict is especially important relative to these other conflicts: as the medium matures we're becoming ever-more conscious of the way that game mechanics can convey meaning. Game mechanics are an element that distinghishes games-as-art from other arts, and I think a lot of designers have come to believe that creating a tight coupling of mechanics and story is a step towards making games more compelling and satisfying, both as stories and as games.

The issue you point to-- the conflict between pre-scripted and interactive chosen elements of the game's story and mechanics-- is also extremely important. (this is another place where "story" and "game" come into conflict, because the story is usually something pre-scripted and the game is essentially interactive, but I don't take it to be a case of ludonarrative dissonance like the kind I'm talking about here.) On this issue I think the way forward is to tell story in a way that's maximally interactive.

Nels Anderson said...

Part of the issue also is how the audience normally views the reward system in games. Specifically, players don't like to be punished when they feel like they're "succeeding." In terms of Bioshock, saving the Little Sisters is arguably the "right" thing to do. As an audience, gamers generally expect that the "right" behaviour will yield significant reward. I would have been happier if saving the Little Sisters gave less than harvesting them, but I'm not confident that a lot of the audience would have agreed.

So one question is, how does one design rewards for moral choices without being bias towards the choice most would see as "right?" The "evil gives offensive rewards, good gives defensive awards" solution I find pretty boring. Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines did a good job of making moral choices interesting conveying a bias towards a particular decision. But given the player in that game is basically a soulless monster from the get-go, it might have had an easier time than a game where the player can be a real hero.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: You make a very good point. This is one of my objections to one of Blow's examples, the character Kate from GTA4. I don't know if you've ever played that game, one of the points Blow makes is that all of the girls you can date in the game except for Kate give you gameplay-rewards for dating them. But dating Kate is useless from a practical standpoint. No monkey business, no nothing. Blow says this conflicts with the narrative, which says Kate is really important to the protagonist. But I say, within the context of the story (which is about Nico's steady greed for money, etc.) the practical choices have a different significance.

It's the same with Bioshock, as you point out. Since the story is about virtue vs. self-interest, choosing to save the girls should *really* be some kind of self-sacrifice, right? It would make the choice have weight, as you say, if it made the morally "right" choice more difficult from a practical standpoint.

Also, never heard of this vampire: bloodlines game. i think I saw a TV show or something that was related tho.

Sparky said...

@Ben: That's not really the point, although I would expect anyone to rapidly reconcile himself to the fact that proteins move. You move, after all, and what does all that work? The problem is not that people don't instantly understand, but rather that the verbose form prevents them from even asking a question.

@ Nels & Iroquois: I actually thought both directions for dealing with the girls in Bioshock were flawed. The option to save the girls is pretty universally agreed to be too easy, but I thought the option to destroy them was also made too easy. The green swirly screen and the absence of a corpse meant that the murderer was never really confronted with the moral horror of the choice to kill. I can understand why this choice was made: the game could never have escaped AO otherwise. Still, the 'objectivist' route with the girls entails a truly horrible act and the player gets a free ride by not having to witness it or its result.

Julian said...

Iroquois said: "Since the story is about virtue vs. self-interest, choosing to save the girls should *really* be some kind of self-sacrifice, right? It would make the choice have weight, as you say, if it made the morally "right" choice more difficult from a practical standpoint."

Perhaps, but then everybody would be mad at the game for encouraging you to kill little girls, since theories of meaning in mechanics would tend to indicate that the game is endorsing what it rewards. We'd have a different kind of dissonance where the game is telling you that killing the girls is right, but the story is not only telling you it's wrong morally, but also destructive personally. You'd need a whole different set of game-mechanic-based drawbacks to illustrate the moral collapse of your character or the loss of support from other people that comes about in objectivism. Which would certainly be very cool, and probably a preferable approach, but more of a burden on the developers to essentially create two drastically different advancements systems, as well as altering major plot points depending on your approach. Indie game Iji does a decent job of presenting a moral choice and showing you the consequences of your actions, while making the game hard in different ways depending on your choices and fairly significantly altering the plot. But Iji took Remar four freakin years to make, and not all devs (especially commercial ones) have that kind of time to dedicate to one project.

And aside from that, I think we need to determine if something is really dissonant, or if it's just saying something unexpected. Joe said we're continuity freaks, and I totally agree, but that also means that devs can use that to tweak the experience. What if Bioshock's game mechanics are REALLY saying that the choice between virtue and self-interest is a false dichotomy: there are intangible drawbacks to self-interest and tangible benefits to virtue. Oftentimes, helping others or otherwise doing the right thing ends up helping you, perhaps in unexpected ways, down the line. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but not harvesting the little sisters doesn't give you immediate benefit. You're worse off for the next couple encounters until the rewards system kicks in, and there is initially no indication that you'll get the additional rewards. So it doesn't seem terribly out of place to me in the end, taking into consideration that even Hocking asserts the game is essentially a critique of Objectivism. If the game is a criticism of objectivism and the mechanics call objectivism into question as well, where is the problem?

Kirk Battle said...

Interesting discussion. I suppose the chief complaint all this boils down to is that the term is supposedly encapsulating an incredibly broad range of emotional responses and complaints.

Film has dozens of terms for viewer dissonance. Some are technical, like explaining why the sound is off or the lighting is bad. Some are plot based, like a Deus Ex Machina or Love Interest component. Books have their own set of terms for describing the various hang-ups that can come from writing.

I suppose the fun part will be hashing out the various terms and methods for recognizing them that make up the sub categories of ludonarrative dissonance.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@julian: you bring up a really good point.

Maybe the message the game is sending is: altruism is just as advantageous in the long-run as narrow self-interest. This explanation would explain away the apparent conflict between narrative and mechanics, since narrow self-interest is portrayed as destructive and evil on the narrative level.

I think this issue (self-interest versus altrusim) is an issue that games would be unusually well-equipped to handle. As you point out, maybe it would be worthwhile to use different game mechanics to express these kinds of idea, like the ones you mention.

Steve gaynor said...

Was reminded of this post by Clint's most recent entry in his blog, and thought I'd comment, late as I am.

I really wonder what the impetus behind finding a more simplistic term for this conflict would be. Is this simple anti-intellectualism? Jargon arises within fields of criticism to describe phenomena unique to that field, and I wager that ludonarrative dissonance (or harmony) is just such a phenomenon. Are film and literary criticism not filled with many such phrases that are just as obscure, but universally accepted as part of the critical vocabulary? Mise-en-scene, montage, diagesis, denoument, intertextuality, cinema verite, the auteur, and so forth. None of these are terms one is expected to intuitively understand, but they all have a purpose very specific to the form they help dissect. Ludonarrative dissonance could be recast as "story-mechanical friction" or something else more approachable, but in any case I can imagine only serves to make the specific meaning of the term less precise, and hence less useful. A sharp blade is useless in the hands of the uninitiated, while a dull one is useless even in the hands of an expert.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@steve: I think your point is well-taken. I have an aversion to impenetrable vocabulary (it comes from being in academia), but on reflection I don't really see the use of coming up with something new and possibly imprecise if an established, reasonaly-exact analytical term is already out there in the water. (I kind of think it's better to gather around one term now anyways, for the sake of communication.) Maybe I'm better off just trying to use the necessary jargon clearly and effectively when I"m thinking and writing about games. even tho it's ornate we're in need of good analytical terms

Anonymous said...

Now, I agree with this and it is a problem. I think that as games develop, their parts develop at different rates. The problem is partly to do with games being pulled in difefrent directions. As games try to tell greater stories and provide filmic resonance with players, they are required also to introduce more control. However, I also think that as gamplay design seeks to restrict us less, gamers can find the two clashing. This happens even in games like Oblivion and Fallout 3, which despite having complex morality systems, still produce instances where the story and characters don't match the players style of play or attitude to the game. However, the problem of Ludonarrative Dissonance has existed since games began, particularly in the hardest of games. Who can believe that a hardened War veteren, decorated with countless medals and achievements, would die stupidly from a stray bullet to the leg, or require the gamer to complete a mission by soaking up bullets, racing his rapidly diminishing health metre to the checkpoint at the end of the level.

Cutscenes are not the only form of story telling, and if games are like an interactive movie, then every action that the player does is part of the story. Whether or not crouch behind that mossy log, or stand under the cover of a burnt out helicopter, it is all part of the greater narrative, independent from cutscene story telling. In this way, dynamic and interactive story telling has been provided by games since they began. As soon as people started visualising themselves as the pilot in that hapless space ship in Asteroids, or as a champion tennis player in Pong, poeple started writing their own stories in the way in which they played. That is why poeple rarely say that their character ever does anything; they always talk about gameplay in the first person: I did this and I did that. It is make believe and gamers put themselves into the game scenario and they expect the narrative to fall in line with the story they they are inventing with every one of their actions within the game.

I remember in particular the issue of this dissonance whilst playing Perfect Dark 0. Miss Dark is presented as this cool super-spy, if not a little reckless, and the story side of the gameplay tries for a level of reality that doesn't mesh well with the bullet-sponge nature of the gameplay. One level in particular asks the player to protect a crashed aircraft in the jungle. Visability is incredibly low and while that doesn't seem to hamper any of the AI enemies, it makes the player's task incredibly frustrating. The fact is, this one section of the level required so many attempts that I needed to switch it off and come back to it later. If I had succumbed to the bullet-sponge approach of the game play, I could have easily made it through by the skin of my teeth and breathed a sigh of relief. However, after the game's narrative had spend so much time instilling a sence of reality to the game, it appeared to me completely incongruous that Miss Dark would only be able to succeed after being riddled with bullet holes, let alone survive that in the first place. Exacerbating that was the fact that it would never have taken Miss Dark 40 minutes of failed attempts to complete successfully something that in reality only took 2 minutes to do. However this issue of trial and error gameplay and how games demand us to try and try again against often cryptic demands so that we can progress, often leads to a seperation between the character in the mind of the player, and that of the cutscene narrative.

I am not demanding that games become so easy that all challenge is removed. Not at all. It is a fine balance, and many games try so hard to keep it. It is the main reason for Gears of War 2's end boss being nothing more than an interactive cutscene. Epic chose to make the final chapter of the game a boss of sorts, and allow the final moments of the gameplay experience and narrative mesh so much more satisfyingly. In contrast, the boss battle on the raft and sheer amount of attempts required to beat it, made the heroic music and victory cutscene that followed incredibly jarring; Wahoo we kicked its ass! No sweat!. Really? I remember cursing at the screen and wondering what the heck I had to do. It seems to me that the much lauded and also criticised Quick Time Event mechanic was invented as means to put the player back in character again. Despite being sometimes challenging and sometimes requiring memorisation, these moments in games allow the player to experience success and character moments just like in the movies, whereas if the moment had been a typical gameplay one, the player may have completed it feeling much less than heroic.

I remember when Dreamworks attempted their illfated Jurassic Park tie in game, Tresspass. It was a grand idea and touted unbelievable freedom and immersion, but it ultimately failed, both technically and in execution. It wasn't just ideosyncratic things like having to refer to a tatoo on your bosom to see your health level, or bugs like getting your arms stuck in doors and seeing your limb trail for metres behind you as you walked. The problem was the game asked you to do too much. It asked you to do things that really would be second nature and automatic for the character the game was presenting. Similarly the same could be said for a great many games that present seemingly invulnerable heroes that ultimately clash with gameplay mechanics that are unforgiveably realistic. Imagine James Bond constantly falling foul to unpredictable ballistic physics. Though clearly he does deal with such things, they should never EVER pose a problem to him, because he is 007! He can calculate and account for wind direction and speed, gravity and coriolis effect in a split second. The only time he misses is when the story dictates that he needs to. His is James Bond.

However, no one would be stupid enough to try to turn a 007 game into Rainbow Six, but I am sure you can think of many examples off-hand, right now, where you have experienced what I am describing. Ludonarrative Dissonance is an interesting measure and I can see it becoming more important as games develop to higher and higher levels of freedom, but we shouldn't forget that the simple act of playing game also creates a story and that too should match what is being presented in narration. It is a delicate balance but it is an essential equilibrium to maintain.

dongs said...

SiXX said...

In too many games I played in years. There're almost always the moment that the storyline reaches the critical point and tell you to do anything in a "hurry". (save the girl, chase after the villain, get crucial item)

But if there's no countdown clock show up on the screen, you'll know that all motivation the game try to put you in is a bogus.

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