Is your game telling a story both through its narrative parts, and its gameplay, or is there a clear dissonance between the two?
Ludonarrative dissonance was once a term thrown around by game journalists as an excuse to criticize video games. However, if used correctly, it’s a valid argument against some games. It’s a state of a game, when the story and the gameplay don’t agree with each other. As an example, take the now classic trope – injuries to a character only count if they happen in cutscenes.
In gameplay, a character can be shot a million times, but always heals. Then they get shot in the leg in a pre-rendered cutscene, and suddenly, can’t walk for the rest of the mission. That’s ludonarrative dissonance. The story the gameplay tells is radically different from the story the cutscenes tell.
Mild spoiler warning for Tomb Raider (2013), Bioshock Infinite, and Bioshock.
Other, well-known example, is when Lara in Tomb Raider (2013) mourns for a while above a dead deer (story), but then the player can choose to shoot five other dears in the face (gameplay). It’s a problem many games meet, simply because of the interactivity of games. It’s pretty hard to foresee what a player is going to do if you give them freedom. Another reason for ludonarrative dissonance might be poor communication between teams of writers and game designers in AAA development. For these reasons, some developers (in my opinion, mainly AAA developers), don’t care. It’s a game, it’s just for fun, who cares if the gameplay is different from the story.
However, I don’t think the argument “it’s a game” is not a valid one. Developers should strive to tell stories both through the game’s script, and the gameplay, combining the two, weaving them together. It’s definitely not an easy task, but, if done correctly, can bring much value to the message of the game.
What Ludonarrative Dissonance Isn’t
As I mentioned before, this term was misused in the past. Before I talk about how you can avoid ludonarrative dissonance in your game, I’d like to clear up the term, so we’re all on the same page.
When a game suffers from this dissonance, it’s not a sign that the gameplay is bad, neither the story. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean either is good. It simply means that the two don’t fit together as well as they should.
It’s also not when a game is violent. You can find many arguments, that games like Bioshock Infinite, is ludonarratively dissonant, because of the massive amounts of violence. However, in the story of the game, Booker DeWitt is a violent man, living in a violent world.
Another thing to consider is that the deeper story a game is trying to tell might be different from the upper layer. In the original Bioshock, the theme of the game is Objectivism, which you can either embrace or reject, when dealing with Little Sisters. However, many critics say that you can’t make this choice when helping Atlas overthrow Ryan. This is not ludonarrative dissonance, I believe, because the story is about that lack of a choice – Atlas has to use pawns to achieve his goals, hence the famous Would You Kindly twist.
How to avoid Ludonarrative Dissonance in your game
In my opinion, game developers are storytellers, just as writers, and artists. A game can build worlds like no other media, and developers should strive to tell stories through their environment, and gameplay.
If you are in charge of teams of people, you should encourage active communication between writers and game designers (actually, between all teams!). If you’re a solo developer or have just a small team, this will be easier for you.
When designing a game, think about the story, and when writing the story, think about the game. Get to know your characters, and ask how they would behave in a situation like the one happening in-game. Then, consider how you would tell this through gameplay. For example, if the main character in an FPS game just went through a traumatizing event, their aim might not be accurate.
Overall, ludonarrative dissonance does not ruin a game. But it can prevent a game from telling a perfect, powerful story.
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