Life, The Universe, And Gaming: Ludonarrative Dissonance
Or: How Suspension Of Disbelief Is So Nineties.
Picture if you will, you’ve just arrived at a predetermined location with your ally in tow. Opting to look around rather than head straight to your objective marker, you head towards a nearby trash can and opt to look inside. Only you don’t look inside it at all but rather a small window flashes into your view, showing its contents: money and food. Without so much as a second thought, you decide to grab both, at which point the money magically appears in your wallet together with the sound of coin falling onto coin, and the food goes straight from the trash can and into your mouth accompanied by a few seconds of chewing. The meal is over in record time and you begin to feel slightly healthier.
Of course, this entire scene would be ridiculous in real life with so many things that are so wrong about it that it makes you wonder which fool would even consider doing such a thing. Yet this is, basically, a fair portion of BioShock: Infinite, which I’ve just described to you.
Ludonarrative dissonance is just a big and fancy term for something quite easy to explain. Which we’ll get to, but first, since I have your attention, allow me to use this opportunity to teach these words to you all. (Assuming you don’t already know it.)
Ludonarrative is the mix-up of ‘ludology’ which is the academic study of games, and ‘narrative’ which requires no further explanation. It relates to those parts of the narrative which are player-controlled, and so entirely reliant on player interaction, and is an essential part of any videogame. If you think of player-controlled narrative, think of exploring an underwater city and discovering audio logs left behind by various inhabitants, and you’ve got a better idea of what ludonarrative is all about. It’s about showing, and not telling. A golden rule of gaming which allows the player to do and discover.
Dissonance is of course a clash of some sort, which results from usually two opposing factors coming together. It can also relate to music but for the purposes of this column, we’re referring to games. Specifically, we’re referring to in-game presentation versus real-life logic.
When you put them together, ludonarrative dissonance is the error in logic between what is shown on screen and what you know to be true.
For example: Eating out of a trash can and regaining health in BioShock: Infinite. Ludonarrative dissonance. In-game, you wouldn’t once question such an action but in real life, you’re thinking, “what the f-…”
Actually that’s not quite spot on, see, ludonarrative dissonance, strictly speaking, relates to a slightly different form of logical fallacy. That of a conflict between narrative and gameplay. The term was actually coined by a former Ubisoft employee known as Clint Hocking, who in an extremely interesting blog post, explained how the first BioShock promoted the theme of self-interest through gameplay while promoting selflessness through narrative, effectively creating a dissonance. Somewhat ironic then, that it was BioShock: Infinite which brought about the creation of this particular column, on the same topic.
Since we can’t really redefine the term, we could probably call it something else. Perhaps ludonarrative befuddlement. But the original term works well enough, I suppose, if we take narrative and gameplay and put those together, then add in logic. So instead, we’re going to say that my definition of ludonarrative dissonance is a conflict between narrative and gameplay and logic. *
Let’s use some examples to further illustrate this definition:
- You’re fighting a war with your allies. You take damage while running to cover, but once behind that cover you simply stand there for a few seconds, and you’re magically back to full health. Meanwhile, you’ve emptied five clips into your commanding officer and he hasn’t yet fallen.
- You’re running through a nuclear wasteland, carrying at least twenty weapons you’ve picked up through your adventures. All in an invisible knapsack which carries that plus thousands of rounds of ammunition and a full set of bobbleheads. Then you pick up a piece of paper and can no longer run, from the combined weight of it all.
- You are about to climb up a ladder, so you look at it and move forward and magically scale the ladder. Neither your legs nor your arms actually grasp this ladder but somehow, as if willed on by the universe itself, you reach the top of the ladder while making climbing sounds, without actually touching it.
- Strolling through a massive city in the sky, you discover something that grants you fire powers for no understandable reason, but only after drinking it, not knowing what would actually happen to you at the time of consumption. It is never questioned nor explained, how a law-abiding citizen could be allowed to wield such powers.
All of these examples speak for themselves.
You know, it’s at this point when the differences between non-gamers and gamers become so dichotomous. And annoying. A non-gamer will instantly point out that you just took food out of a trashcan and didn’t get ill or fell from a height of 10m and didn’t so much as feel it, while you sit there asking them to just go with it, as if a suspension of disbelief is required in order to enjoy games.
Are we still in the nineties era of gaming?
Now sure, I’m not saying that games need to be the most realistic simulations of everything always, where if you get shot in the game you start to bleed in real life, but it’s been so many years and we’ve gone so far in terms of narrative, plot structure, and everything else that we can get away with doing in games. Why are we still running around in first person shooters without feet?
This is something of a glass-shattering revelation to those who seem to always ignore it, as well as a dual-role declaration of hope that with the next generation of consoles we might see less of this type of ludonarrative dissonance in our games. I want my character to do certain things that won’t require a suspension of disbelief. And I’m not talking about ‘aliens don’t look like that’ suspension of disbelief, I’m talking about, ‘guns have weight’ or ‘I can’t eat out of a trash can’ and so on. That’s not asking too much, is it? Certainly, it might lend some authenticity to games, if we play a first person shooter and can actually see our character’s hands and legs, or reflection in mirrors (which was the case in Doom 3, mind you) or just feel as if we’re tangible in a world, not just a floating pair of hands with a gun attached.
It might actually feel, after all these years, like progression.
* I just want to emphasise that my definition of ludonarrative dissonance is a loose interpretation, not the exact definition of it as set forth by Clint Hocking.