Ludonarrative Dissonance: When Actions Don’t Fit the Character

Ludonarrative dissonance is what happens when gameplay and story collide. Whilst it can have a jarring effect, it is part and parcel of the industry. Let's have a look at 3 games that feature this dissonance, and how it can be a problem, how it can be overcome, and how it can be used as a storytelling tool.

Ludonarrative Dissonance: When Actions Don't Fit the Character

Video games occupy an interesting place in media. Given the interactive nature that is fundamental to games it opens a unique form of contrast in storytelling. Ludonarrative Dissonance is this conflict between a games story and gameplay. When the story tells you one thing, but the gameplay tells you something else. For example, your character is a pacifist, who in cutscenes wouldn’t hurt a fly, but the gameplay revolves around shooting everyone like you’re on a GTA rampage.

Dead Space is a great example of a game where the gameplay perfectly matches the story. Both are claustrophobic, isolating, and violent.

The term was coined by Clint Hocking, the creative director of Ubisoft at the time, in reference to Bioshock. He lauded the harmony of gameplay and narrative in the choice to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters, and how this resonated with the game’s examination of Randian Objectivism. However, he critiqued the dissonance between these themes of free will and self-interest and having to do what Atlas tells you without question. It’s arguably part of the games commentary on objectivism but that’s its own kettle of fish.

Bioshock's story and game mechanics inspired the term

Bioshock’s story and game mechanics inspired the term

It’s a common clash you can see in games. The drive for engaging gameplay often means that internal consistency must take a back seat. It’s not necessarily a problem, no one is mad that eating food heals your wounds in an otherwise realistic world. But it can be jarring depending on your ability to suspend disbelief and how significant the contrast is.

Assassins Creed: Get out of Jail Free

Ah Assassins Creed. A true classic and a long-lasting franchise. However, the earlier instalments have a problem. That is, how are you a secret assassin society when you massacre hundreds of guards daily? The gameplay, especially in the earlier instalments, makes melee combat very easy. You’ll end up being the city’s most prolific serial killer in front of numerous witnesses but can just blend in and everyone forgets about you and your organisation despite your matching outfits.

Fortunately for Assassins Creed, it does have its ‘Get out of jail free card’ in the animus. The story is set around the modern day with a character experiencing the past through their ancestors’ memories. You aren’t technically in the past and you can desynchronise from the memory if things get too different. For example, you die before your ancestor actually died. This is further addressed in later additions to the series with the ability to get 100% sync with the memory by fulfilling certain criteria. The series may be looking to return to more stealth focused gameplay, and it will be interesting to see if they change the mechanics up.

The lack of stealth and secrecy is less of a problem in the later games

The lack of stealth and secrecy is less of a problem in the later games

Other video games with similar stealth oriented mechanics also found ways around this as well. Dishonored used the chaos system to have the amount of violence affect the game world and story. It’s nice to see diegetic reasons for this ludonarrative dissonance as it helps fill plot holes that can pull you out of the experience and immersion.

Tomb Raider: Moving On

Tomb Raider provides an example of when a games narrative and gameplay collide. It has some pretty good cutscenes surrounding Lara Croft killing for the first time. Both animals and humans. It functions well to show the traumatic nature of her circumstances and explore her character growth as she hardens to survive. The problem is that you will be gunning down dozens of humans throughout the story, including shortly after these cut scenes. The 2013 reboot saw some criticism over this as many found it to undermine the character of Lara Croft and the story being told. It’s not particularly egregious ludonarrative dissonance, a lot of her kills are in self-defence. But the story suggests this character should try alternative methods to killing. In the end murder is the go-to solution.

The game succeeds in other areas. The way the character and player learn to traverse the environment is done extremely well. You start out clumsier and more uncomfortable when climbing but it becomes more fluid as both character and player learn the mechanics. This aids the immersion and helps us connect to the character.

The Story and Gameplay are good, but sometimes contradict each other

The Story and Gameplay are good, but sometimes contradict each other

With the action gameplay, it’s an unfortunate case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. You may want to tell a story that covers those darker aspects of the human experience without having prolonged moments of psychological anguish after every kill. But games can be more compelling when they justify and engage with these elements in a thorough way. With some tactical editing the two aspects could flow together better. The developers could put more distance between Lara’s first kills in self-defence and her stealth killing guards who aren’t immediate threats. Or they could have non-lethal takedowns as an option.

Spec Ops the Line: Ludonarrative Dissonance as a Tool

Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps the best example of how this conflict can be used as a tool. It’s a great testament to the way video games can tell stories in unconventional manners.

You play as Captain Martin Walker, sent on a mission to Dubai that has been devastated by sandstorms. The game plays like many other shooters, engaging with cliches and throwing the player into the power fantasy we expect from these types of games. There’s the usual turret sections and environmental kills. However, the developers use this to tell a subversive story.

The game’s most famous moment is the white phosphorous attack. You use the chemical in a mortar strike on what is believed to be an enemy position but is largely a group of sheltering civilians. It is in these moments where the game effectively uses this contrast. White phosphorus is used in other franchises more casually. Call of Duty Warzone has it as a kill streak reward, but here you must walk through the aftermath of what you have done. There’s even your characters face faded into the background as you commit this atrocity, quite literally making you look at yourself as you do it.

It’s a genius and horrible scene. Without delving too far into spoilers, much of the story after this is about the psychological ramifications of this moment. The game uses the mechanics against you to tell a story that is anti-war and anti-violence in video games to an extent. The cost of what we do for fun and to complete objectives is shown to us. What is typically a fun artillery section is now a horrible war crime. The gameplay and story are at odds with each other in a way that enhances the whole.

Spec Ops: The Line - White Phosphorus

Conclusion

Ludonarrative, and the harmony and dissonance that it can cause, is a fascinating part of video gaming. It’s one of the strongest and most unique aspects that allow games to tell stories in new ways. It’s a fundamental clash at the heart of the industry. Making engaging gameplay is so important that it can undermine other key aspects of the game. Some games can find a way around the issue, some just choose to ignore it. However, it may be a mistake to see it as a problem to overcome. It’s a tool that can be used to create meta effects to the games story.

What games do you know that deal with, or engage with, this dissonance well? Let us know in the comments.

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