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.

2 Comments

  • 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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