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Jason Hawreliak wrote this article for Ontological Geek arguing in favour of the inclusion of ludonarrative dissonance (LD) within our critical lexicon. The short of it is Hawreliak thinks LD is a useful tool to have in our vocabulary, and that although it has historically been used in a negative tense to find fault in a game, LD can make for great narrative design if applied artfully.
I’m on his side there.
But then, Hawreliak goes about highlighting the benefits of LD with some questionable examples. I’ll take the two main ones: Papers Please and Mass Effect. Papers Please puts you in the role of a border inspector who must deny access to the country to people in need, even though that’s a cruel thing to do. Mass Effect lets you take squad members with you on missions, some of whom might be more suited to the mission narratively while others would be better choices ludologically (that’s an ugly word – basically, through gameplay).
In each of these cases Hawreliak describes a narrative dilemma – both choices available to the player are equally preferable but only one can be made. Letting a battered refugee into the country is overtly desirable but so is getting enough money to feed your family. Having Liara interact with her mother would be interesting but Wrex helps the team plough through combat. Being put in each of these positions might give you the feeling of your mind tearing apart a little, forced in two opposite directions by your desire to see both choice fulfilled, granting you discomfort and tension.
LD grants discomfort and tension, which is why Hawreliak prescribes these situations as reflecting LD, I think. But not all discomfort and tension in a videogame is an example of LD. Ludonarrative dissonance specifically refers to a sense of doublethink within a game, where it tells you on the one hand “Doing X is bad” and on the other “Doing X is good”. Or “character Y is relatable” alongside “character Y is a sociopath”, as is commonly cited of Uncharted.
Some problems in defining LD here, though. One of these hands is generally the game’s ‘narrative’, like how Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake is consistently presented through dialogue, character design, cutscenes, whatever. The other, more important hand is the game’s ‘gameplay’, which depicts Nathan Drake killing a thousand people. The two presented impression of Drake being a blokey everyman and Drake being an emotionless mass murderer do not mesh very well, creating a disconnect between the ‘narrative’ bits and the ‘game’ bits.
That’s fairly commonly how LD is defined, and I think it’s how Clint Hocking intended it when first coining the term. In this way, ludonarrative is a portmanteau referencing two distinct components, ludo (ie. game) and narrative, smashed together by virtue of their (dissonant) relationship.
I think a more useful way to consider and use the term is for ‘ludonarrative’ to mean ‘the narrative of gameplay’ in one fluid motion. The narrative fact that Drake kills thousands of people is not distinct from the gameplay act of Drake killing thousands of people. Looking at it this way, we don’t act as if narrative belongs in one box and gameplay belongs in a separate one, or as if ‘ludonarrative’ is not natively narrative, which I think is a better way to go forward.
You could consider that as an aside, or you could consider it as me restating and arguing for my understanding of LD, and so as the thrust of this small post.
Returning to Hawreliak’s article, the example of Papers Please does not demonstrate LD because it does not coincide the narrative of wanting to be benevolent or wanting to be selfish with its gamplay – the checking of documents for inconsistencies. In other words, checking documents for inconsistencies does not conflict with wanting to be a good border inspector (or wanting to feed your family). On the other hand, checking documents for inconsistencies does result in a dilemma where you want to let someone pass but don’t want to be docked for it, but this is not dissonance of ludonarrative with anything, rather a conflict between duty and empathy.
In Mass Effect, the tension between picking Liara or Wrex for your squad is based out of a desire for compatible themes or a desire for a potential gameplay payoff. It’s similar to Shepard’s decision to free or save the Rachni Queen, which is also a mechanical choice allowed of the player via dialogue options, similar to choosing a squad via a menu. Both mechanical, both offer a sense of tension from weighing your options and figuring out which choice you prefer. Even though many players perceive the Rachni Queen in terms of her potential use for them in the future (including her potential gameplay uses), the dilemma is not an example of ludonarrative dissonance because the narrative of gameplay (picking between narrative options) does not grate against anything framing it (the setting, the political history of the galaxy, Shepard’s character design, etc.).
Similarly, Shepard picking Liara for her relationship with her mother does not conflict with the narrative of Liara going on a mission where she will meet her mother. And Shepard picking Wrex for his tanking doesn’t conflict with the narrative of favouring strategic benefits over personal interest in a mission, since that’s within Shepard’s prerogative. Having to decide between these may create tension and inner conflict, but not, from what I can tell, dissonance.
As a couple of counter-examples of LD as a potentially favourable design element, and I may be projecting my own reading of the game a bit here, but consider Mass Effect 3. I consistently got the impression from how Shepard was discussed by her friends and allies that she was perceived as the “best of humanity”, representing her race better than anyone in the scheme of galactic relations. But in my experience through gameplay, I found Shepard’s relations to her fellow humans to be quite emotionally distant and chilly, as if she was having difficulty relate to anyone around her. So in a twist of irony, here I had the symbol of humanity unable to comport herself as fellow to other human beings, even as everyone tells her how human she is. This fits in nicely as a projection of the stresses and emotional barriers that can face someone put in her position, so the ludonarrative dissonance (loneliness vs. fellowship) cleverly portrays her psychological removal from those around her.
In the case of Papers Please, I’ve heard some players tell of a time where they found themselves in the zone of checking documents for inconsistencies and disallowing applicants near-autonomously, where the flow of document checking became so aesthetically pleasing that they grew unmindful of the horrific undertones of their actions. In such a case one could convincingly argue LD is being used to great effect, since most players see the role of being a strict border inspector as cruel and undesirable, but then find themselves drawn into it because ‘being a strict border inspector’ turns out to be rather appealing. The game implicitly says “X is bad” but through gameplay we find that “x is good”. By this you would have an example of LD aptly used to depict the banality of evil of bureaucracy.