Ludonarrative: dissonance and harmony

Narrative hasn’t always been a core concern for video game developers. Even today, the majority of games don’t have dedicated writers. Ludology has always been the main focus, perhaps even rightly so. Video games are designed to provide players with systems and mechanics they have to learn in order to progress. The player is given skills, powers, tools, and challenges to overcome. Games are spaces where ordinary people can explore new places, atmospheres, and have otherworldly experiences. In a medium geared so much towards a player’s experience and freedom to express themselves, stories must be told, or shown, in an unconventional sense. The interactivity of video games adds a layer of realism, tangible to the player through manipulation of the game’s systems, that cannot be achieved in other forms of media. The player becomes a narrator, more than just a witness to events, and this is what makes video games such a unique and compelling medium.

The idea that players form narratives through the act of playing is not a new one. The term ‘ludonarrative’ has been used to describe this process in the past. Consider the success of the Soulsborne series, which requires players to learn the movesets, strengths, and weaknesses of their enemies in order to develop their own method for overcoming them. Each player’s experience of defeating a boss is a personal one, and the journey to reaching these milestones will vary between players. Furthermore, there is no clear sense of plot for the player to follow, creating an element of mystery which encourages players to form their own theories.

However, whilst the ludonarrative is what makes the Soulborne games such memorable experiences, it does present a unique challenge for developers who want to exert more control over the narrative that the player extracts from the game. Essentially, if the game’s system allows the player to do things which conflict with the game’s narrative elements – a character’s principles for example – then a disconnect occurs between the player’s experience and the overarching narrative. This is otherwise known as ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’. One often cited example of where this occurs is in the Uncharted series, where the player slaughters hundreds upon hundreds of people in tense and life-threatening situations, whilst Drake remains his typically cheerful self, apparently unaffected by the amount of death and destruction surrounding him.

To avoid this dissonance, many developers have opted for the route of minimal interaction. Take Telltale’s games as an example: the player is given enclosed environments, tools designed for specific tasks, and limited options in how they are able to progress. For the most part, this approach works. By giving the player less opportunity to pursue their own impulses, they are forced to give more consideration to the motivations and desires of the game’s characters. In other words, by having simple mechanics, it is easier for the developer to align the game’s ludonarrative with the narrative witnessed through conversation or cutscenes. Despite my love for many of Telltale’s games, I don’t think they are among some of the best games ever created. That honour would have to go to games like The Last of Us, Dead Space, or the recently released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which exploit the otherwise problematic presence of a ludonarrative to create highly evocative and meaningful experiences. After finishing The Last of Us, and thinking on what had happened, I became increasingly aware of how abhorrent Joel is as a human being, and how paradoxical it was that I still had so much empathy for him. I eventually came to the conclusion that the game’s ludonarrative had reinforced the theme of survival so well (especially when playing on the hardest difficulty), that empathy with Joel became inevitable. I had suffered the entire game, struggling to keep Joel alive in his harsh post-apocalyptic world. By the end, I understood on a personal level why Joel had to save Ellie, that the mere thought of losing his daughter again was too much to bear.

If more games can replicate the likes of The Last of Us in its treatment of gameplay as a narrative component, then I think that games will one day carry the same cultural significance that the mediums of literature or film currently have. It is happening already – just think of the mental health issues Hellblade addresses – but eventually games will be remembered for far more than the escapism they provide.


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James Nicholls

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August 2021
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