Ludonarrative Dissonance Re-Examined

I assume you know the term. Here’s a rel­a­tively recent review of the con­cept if you needed. As much as I’ve mostly enjoyed the online dis­cus­sion, I think we’ve failed to exam­ine the sim­ple rea­son why nar­ra­tives can fail in games. As a result, we’ve missed why things are unlikely to change.

The issue may be more obvi­ous than the weighty term requires. Main­stream video games pop­u­lar with the core audi­ence – includ­ing the bet­ter ones, the Last of Uses and Bioshocks – are com­bat games. Splen­did vir­tual cel­e­bra­tions of vio­lence. I’ve enjoyed many of them, and I con­sider them wor­thy of their numer­ous awards. Yet let us be hon­est. This is com­mer­cial art. We build combat-filled games because they sell, and as a result of their pop­u­lar­ity our cor­po­rate patrons keep pay­ing us to cre­ate them. We have suc­cess­fully built an empire of adrenaline-filled mur­der sim­u­la­tors. Twenty years ago, in the era of and Doom, that was enough. We didn’t ask too many ques­tions. Today, as we’ve grown up a bit, game devel­op­ers fash­ion nar­ra­tives more com­pli­cated and more inter­est­ing. Some of them are fan­tas­tic and emo­tion­ally mov­ing sto­ries that the genre has strug­gled toward for a long time.

We use these nar­ra­tives to jus­tify our dig­i­tal mas­sacres, much like a gov­ern­ment twist­ing rea­son to sup­port a just war. We make our ene­mies for­eign. Or alien. Or undead. In short stints, tricks like these work. Over a game last­ing ten, twenty, forty or more hours, they don’t. The sto­ries we are telling, no mat­ter whether fan­tasy or mod­ern, can’t bear the weight of so much blood. Now, I am not some­one who wor­ries much about the effect of vio­lence on game play­ers, but I can see its effects that wear down a game nar­ra­tive. Games can’t suc­cess­fully graft a nar­ra­tive onto con­tin­u­ous vio­lent action. We can’t end the lives of hun­dreds of AI and explain it away with the nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of “Yeah, but they were all bad.” Not with­out mak­ing mock­ery of a good narrative.

One option is to retreat. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has no ten­sion between story and game­play. Well. What’s the other option, for an artist who wants to craft a more ful­fill­ing nar­ra­tive? Pre­dictably, the body count would have to drop. Given the con­tract we have with our con­sumers for game length, that means we need a new moment-to-moment action to replace vio­lence. Some­thing replayable and repet­i­tive, to sus­tain hours and hours of play. It has to be a game action as exhil­a­rat­ing and effec­tive as shoot­ing and stab­bing. It also has to be some­thing we can build in a some­what rea­son­able time and bud­get. Oh, and it should look great, with stun­ning graph­ics and real­is­tic ani­ma­tions, because that is another part of the con­tract with today’s audience.

Yeah… I’ve got nothing.


  • Kyle Barrett wrote:

    It’s like some­one needs to trawl through all the games of last gen­er­a­tion (when the ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance really took hold) and find the sat­is­fy­ing core mechan­ics that aren’t shoot­ing or stabbing.

    I’d say that Red Fac­tion Guerilla’s destruc­tion was pretty sat­is­fy­ing. But again, that’s so extreme and adren­a­line fueled.

    I liked speech trees in Fall­out New Vegas, espe­cially when my cho­sen skill allowed me to change the con­ver­sa­tion and action need­ing to be taken. I feel stuff like that comes from a very early sub­set of adven­ture games.

    Dri­ving and plat­form­ing tra­ver­sal can be sat­is­fy­ing too, on it’s own merit.

    But beyond that I really start to struggle.

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