Why are some people down on the term 'ludonarrative dissonance"? I've heard murmurs that the concept/phrasing implies gameplay and story are separate, but I thought the whole point of the word is to admonish those who fall into that trap, not to be a symptom of it.
I have no idea how old this ask is, but I get this question on occasion so I'ma try to answer it.
In short, the term “ludonarrative dissonance” was coined by Harvey Smith almost 10 years ago now to describe what he felt were issues in the way the original Bioshock attempted to comment on Objectivism. Basically, he felt that the game was clearly critical of Objectivist philosophy via the fall of Rapture and the hypocrisy of Andrew Ryan - that an all-for-one mentality inevitably lead to the collapse of this society. But the mechanics of the game were all about prioritizing self-interest and accruing power to leverage over others (guns, plasmids, even the moral choice system about whether to harvest the Little Sisters). In Smith’s view the story and the gameplay were in conflict with one another and what they were trying to achieve thematically and tonally, and he called that conflict “ludonarrative dissonance.”
And superficially this seems like a really handy term, right? Like how Fallout 4 presents you with this urgent job of saving your missing child but the game’s open-ended design encourages you to screw around in the wilderness forever instead, or how in Human Revolution Jensen is full of self-loathing about his augmentations, but as the player they’re just a conduit for making us more awesome and we love them and want more. We can just point and go: “Ludonarrative dissonance!” and everyone understands what we’re saying. And I guess to a degree that’s true, especially given how common it is for game stories and game play to be at odds. We want emotional beats (“I’m falling in love!”/“I’m mourning my dead husband!”/“I need to save my child”/etc) but our gameplay systems are very spacial, and the results often don’t gel.
So if it’s a useful term why the distaste for it? Well, the reason the phrase has fallen out of favor with a lot of critics is that we’ve seen something of a philosophical shift take place in terms of how we approach games. Historically “story” and “gameplay” were seen as discrete, separate things. It was just the way games were thought about for the most part. DOOM the game was a shooty adventure about blowing up demons, DOOM the story was a blurb in an instruction manual that let you know the setup about Mars and a door to Hell. Final Fantasy the game was one of turn based battles and inventory management, Final Fantasy the story was something that took place in cutscenes and dialog boxes. Mario the game was about jumping, Mario the story was about a lizard that kidnapped a princess and a plumber that had to save her. It was widely believed for *years* that these two elements were both part of any game and yet wholly apart from one another. Consequently we had a whole generation of players, critics, and developers who largely thought about story and play as separate constructs, even if there were games that blurred that line a bit.
But we’ve reached a point where that line is regularly blurred. The very point of playing games like Gone Home or Dear Esther or Her Story is to exhume the story. In Western-style RPGs players sculpt the story as they play with their decisions and actions. Games like Minecraft and The Sims allow players to tell their own stories by building their own locations and characters. Games like Dwarf Fortress are built around *generating* unique stories with each playthrough from the very game mechanics themselves. The point is, story and play are increasingly not thought of as separate or discrete, but inexorably entwined. Where do the systems end and the stories we tell with them begin? Gameplay has little to no meaning for the player without the narrative (even an abstract, non-representational one), and the narrative is not separate or independent from the act of play. Left 4 Dead isn’t a story about 4 survivors and a game about shooting zombies, it’s a game that generates narratives about four survivors trying to survive a zombie apocalypse by shooting their way out.
That’s not to say games can’t be internally dissonant. Human Revolution *does* fail to make us meaningfully empathize with what Jensen has lost, and Fallout 4 *does* fail to treat the Shawn plot with the gravitas one would expect a missing child to generate. But to phrase the failing as a conflict between story and gameplay feels increasingly misleading - it’s a failing with the game itself, full stop. Like, you can shoot a scene in a movie completely wrong - you can use the wrong lens, the wrong framing, the wrong focus, and the wrong camera movements to completely fail a scene. My go-to example of this remains Battlefield Earth, given that half the damn movie is shot in dutch angles for absolutely no reason and completely in defiance of all cinematography conventions. But you wouldn’t call it “cinema-narratively dissonant” because the cinematography is not a force at odds with the narrative. It’s just crappy cinematography. Similarly, mechanics and narrative are both part of the experience of playing a game, and they’re not forces at odds with one another but parts of a whole.
Now, this is a relatively new position, and one that’s largely been taken up by younger critics who are generally interested in games with more narrative meat than formal systems meat. I am sure there are game critics and academics who are quite comfortable deconstructing a game down to systems and narrative in pursuit of more rigid formalism and more specific ontologies. I’m also sure there are devs who, having seen stories written separately from game systems their whole lives, would struggle with a more holistic interpretation of how games can or should work. So like everything I say, take it with a grain of salt, do your own research, and reach your own conclusions!
And now I’m wondering if this should just be a script for a short episode. Goddamn it.