Wow. People are really starting to get impatient with the idea of ludonarrative dissonance, aren’t they? We’re getting downright hostile toward the phrase itself, and that I sort of get: it’s a clunky phrase. “Lugoscababib Discobiscuits,” harrumphed a moderately irate Jim Sterling just a few days ago. Har har.
But it’s the backlash against the premise that’s so striking. In that, Sterling is far from alone. MovieBob recently dismissed the concept of ludonarrative dissonance as idle puffery, and a veritable deluge of blog posts and videos and podcasts have expressed similar impatience, consternation, and just-plain-grumpiness.
Trouble is, ludonarrative dissonance is a real thing, even if a great many people play games without noticing it or caring. It’s a phenomenon that indisputably exists, and more to the point, understanding the term means understanding the oddball sectarian controversies of early videogame theory, and if you’re into videogames, that’s pretty neat. So come along with me, if you will, on a journey from the primordial soup of deepest, darkest prehistory (1938), through the tumultuous Iron Age of videogame studies (2007), and into the glorious present.
If you’ve done the whole college thing, and especially if you’ve done it at the graduate level, then you’re probably familiar with “literature review.” The idea is that, before arguing whatever you’re going to argue, you offer up a (hopefully brief) roundup of other people who’ve written about your chosen topic. You never want to presume that you’re the first one who ever asked the questions you’re asking, because you virtually never are, and also because the search for previous work on the topic can’t help but refine your thinking. If you think you’re starting from scratch, you simply haven’t done the research. In academia, context is king.
OK, then, what happens if you really are the first person, or one of the first people, to write about something academically? Somebody has to be the first, after all. What goes in your literature review, in that case? Since you can’t presume that you’re starting from scratch, where do you start? Generally, you’ll use an established approach from some other field of study, or a blend of several, the way that early film scholars lifted the descriptive language of paintings, photographs, novels, and plays to explain how movies meant what they meant.
Employing similar techniques of methodological remixing, an academic who wanted to talk about games was, at first, likely to do so in one of these two ways:
(a) Videogames tell stories, not just through their images and text and sound, but also through their interactivity. So to describe them, let’s borrow the language of film, literature, theater, television, and media theory.
(b) Videogames are rule-sets, and also virtual places. So to describe them, let’s borrow the language of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and economics.
(There were also fields of study that both camps used, like computer science and mathematics and philosophy).
I promise you this was a thing. Battle lines were drawn, territory staked out, dinner parties ruined. That first approach became known as narratology, because it focused on narrative, and the second approach became known as ludology, because it focused on play—the word choice being a call-out to Johan Huizinga’s 1938 tome Homo Ludens, one of the then relatively few scholarly works on games and play. (The book’s title is Latin for “Playing Man,” the same way that Homo sapiens is Latin for “Thinking Man”).
This, by the way, is where a lot of people get off the ride and decide that the whole discussion is bullshit. Jargon ahoy.
I know, I know, jargon is goofy (yet self-serious), exclusionary (yet ubiquitous), vaguely condescending. But it’s also the price of entry if you’re going to get deep into any formal field of study. If you stopped reading Marx as soon as he mentioned the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, you’d miss out on pretty much all of what makes his ideas so important, and also what makes them such terrible, terrible ideas.
Even if we all declared a sort of linguistic truce tomorrow, and all future academic writing was jargon-free by law, there would still be an awful lot of past scholarship—fascinating, vital, bewildering, wonderful scholarship—completely inaccessible to those with jargon allergies. So let’s not lean too heavily on jargon when we write, but also, let’s not fear it when we read, is what I’m saying.
Now, plenty of writers, scholarly and otherwise, were keenly and immediately aware that games are rule-sets and narratives, virtual places and interactive fiction. If you’re having a hard time figuring out whether your favorite games writer is a narratologist or a ludologist, that’s probably because most writers are now comfortable being a bit of both. But if games convey meaning in these two different ways—or at the very least, if we use two different kinds of language to describe how games convey meaning—then what happens when the two don’t align? What if a game’s narrative means something different than its play does?
Or to put it another way, think of a game you like. Now describe its plot, its characters, its purported themes. Now describe what you’re actually doing when you play the game, minute to minute. If you’re playing Mega Man X or something, those two descriptions probably sound pretty similar. But you’ll often find that your two different descriptions sound suspiciously like two different games.
Clint Hocking wasn’t the first to tangle with this problem, but he was the one who decided to call it “ludonarrative dissonance” in his 2007 essay on Bioshock. Hate the word if you like, but do understand that Hocking was tapping into a foundational debate about game criticism (as opposed to pulling some smart-sounding portmanteau, as well as its two component parts, out of his ass).
Hocking’s argument was that the game’s “ludic contract” (get stronger, decide where you stand on Objectivism) conflicts with its “narrative contract” (help Atlas and he’ll help you, too). Atlas is this doofus with a broad, put-on accent, and it’s not clear why you’re working with him after the first five minutes or so, Hocking argues—but hey, sometimes games have stilted premises and bad voice acting, and that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, so you, as a player, go with it.
Then there’s that part where Atlas makes fun of you for being so easily fooled, and for believing that such a stupid voice could actually have been his voice. Hocking sees this as a dick move. As he puts it, “The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.”
(Incidentally, this is the same problem that I had with Mass Effect 2’s “Arrival” DLC. If the player-character is going to make a disastrous, plot-important mistake because he’s been deceived, but the player is never deceived, then that’s cheating. It makes the plot seem flimsy, the protagonist lunkheaded).
That’s ludonarrative dissonance. When the Uncharted games frame Nathan Drake as a charming good guy hero even while the-player-as-Nathan-Drake murders hundreds of people, that is also ludonarrative dissonance. Ditto when a game tells the player to hurry up and do something right away—it’s urgent!—but then offers up hours of consequence-free side-quests to do first. Or when you can do magic in front of a guy who’s hunting mages and he doesn’t notice. Or the way that the last few Grand Theft Auto games oscillate between Scorsese-aping gravitas and nihilistic tomfoolery.
Important and often-ignored point: ludonarrative dissonance is not a blanket term for all things weird and videogamey. When Link tromps into someone’s house and smashes their pots and steals their stuff in A Link to the Past, that’s not ludonarrative dissonance. It’s counter-intuitive that a hero would do that, but the game never establishes that a hero in Hyrule, in the game’s own world, wouldn’t or shouldn’t do that.
Maybe it doesn’t even count as stealing, diegetically. After all, there are thieves in the game, and they don’t break into people’s houses; they forcibly knock items out of Link in the street, or in the forest. Maybe home invasions are merely rude in Hyrule, because everyone keeps their most valued valuables on them at all times, as Link himself does. Now of course, I’m retconning, and doing so in a way that’s neither realistic nor naturalistic, nor am I sure what (if anything) my little theory about Hyrule really means—but it’s internally consistent, so it isn’t cheating.
The concept of ludonarrative dissonance is a diagnostic tool. It helps us to notice when games aren’t internally consistent, or when they’re cheating. We intuitively know the difference between consistency and inconsistency, and if we want to understand how games mean what they mean, then it’s useful to keep that difference in mind. That’s all.
If drawing a firm line between narrative and play seems musty and unnecessary to you, then ditch the distinction and ask whether games are “whyproof” instead—or else come up with some other, clearer way of isolating and analyzing the parts of a game that work and the parts that don’t. Help give games a descriptive language all their own. And by all means, make fun of jargon for its jargony airs, and continue to call people out when they use terminology lazily or incorrectly.
But don’t roll your eyes at a useful core concept, or at the history surrounding it. That leads us nowhere. Context is king.