Ludonarrative Dissonance, A Discussion.

Ludonarrative Dissonance, A Discussion.

Recently I was made aware of the term ludonarrative dissonance in relation to video games. The term generally refers to the gameplay not reflecting the narrative of the game. This is often brought up as a negative in video games. The reason for this post is for me to explain from my point of view, the relevance and influence that the ludonarrative dissonance issue has, and should have on games.

An example of this can be found in the video game GTA IV, where the protagonist of the game states he does not want to kill anyone, however the player is able to kill random people almost immediately. This goes against the specially crafted game narrative. Another example of this is in the Assassin’s Creed Games, where you are able to kill an infinite number of City Guards in any number of locations, without fear of narrative consequence. My first experience with Assassin’s Creed, actually went against the narrative completely. I spent my first three hours of the game killing what I thought were enemies. In fact these NPC’s were in actuality the main protagonist’s guild members, his closest allies. The game however gave no consequence to my actions.

A game which was designed around the problem of ludonarrative dissonance is the “Dishonored” video games. The game features a character with supernatural abilities designed to give him the ability to kill those who wronged him, however the games narrative reacts negatively to this. If you play the game as it was designed to be played you are given a negative ending, meant to scold you for your actions.  Having played the game, I was often annoyed with this aspect, finding myself unable to have the true fun advertised in the game, such as variety of ways to fight enemies. Instead I found myself sneaking around stuck with using sleep darts and choke holds as the only available option to defeat enemies throughout the game.

Having thought hard about gameplay vs narrative and reflecting on my own experience of ludonarrative dissonance, I have come to the conclusion that, while effective in creating a more immersive experience, ludonarrative dissonance should not come at the cost of gameplay features. My reasoning behind this is that the narrative of a video game is merely an accessory. What makes a game innovative, is first and foremost is in its gameplay. The most memorable games out there are the trend setters. The Mario’s, the GTA’s, these are the games that people remember due to their innovative gameplay.

Now, I am not in that camp of those who are obsessed with the gameplay and no story. I in fact, hate to play games without a good narrative. I often find them boring and unengaging. A good example I can think of are two video games in the same franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Call of Duty Black Ops 2.  The Call of Duty Franchise has received massive hate due to their lack of innovative gameplay, in that logic if you’ve played one Call of Duty (after Modern Warfare) you have effectively played them all. However, personally I love Call of Duty Black Ops) but much to my own surprise hated its sequel. I have finished both games narrative and spent many hours playing their online modes however, in many ways I very much detest the sequel. The gameplay is almost identical, however In Call of Duty Black Ops 1, I was hooked on its story. I loved every twist and turn and found myself questioning the narrative throughout (in a good way). It had a profound effect on me and still influences my taste and expectations of video games. Its sequel however, I detest. While it might be a minority opinion I felt that the story was lacking and rather boring. While writing this blog I wrote a lengthy piece on why I thought this was the case, but I felt that it derailed the point of the blog as a whole. To me, the narrative is the icing on top. Sometimes is superfluous, other times it elevates the cakes quality. However the foundations, in this case the gameplay is far more important. Call of Duty is the most successful video game franchise, based on raw sales numbers. Clearly someone enjoys the same gameplay year in year out.

For me personally, there is nothing more frustrating in a game, then when your gameplay is suddenly restricted.  Often times this is due to the demands of the narrative over the gameplay. Sometimes it can be used in order to add an extra layer of difficulty, as used to be the case about ten to fifteen years ago, but mostly in modern games it is used in order to serve the narrative.

Admittedly it would be strange to play a game where the narrative implies that the protagonist is a Gandhi like character while the gameplay implies that he is in actuality a mass murdering psychopath.  I am not saying that this should be the case at all. There should be a connection between the narrative and the gameplay however, the narrative should be moulded around the game.

The uncharted series received a lot of flak for having a protagonist who is portrayed as a charismatic, all round nice guys, who kills hundreds, if not thousands of people per game. In response to this the developers intentionally reduced the number of enemies in their latest game in the series. I would argue that this is not the way to go, as in my opinion, it reduces the amount of content in the game. At the same time though, they too acknowledge that they should not restrict gameplay in order to satisfy those who demand this aspect to be recognised in their games.

The Assassin’s Creed series use the narrative to its advantage, using the idea of the game within a game type scenario to excuse any bugs or glitches in the game, as being a part of the game’s experience.  While this might be somewhat of a cheat, in my personal experience, I found that it actually helps with keeping the player invested. Even if suddenly a characters face model disappears. Well almost. This narrative aspect did not come to a cost of the games overall experience. While as previously mentioned, the narrative conflicts with the gameplay in other aspects, this particular use of the narrative to enhance the immersive experience is particularly well done.

Just to finish, I would like to point out there are popular and well received games that lack a story, such as the original Star Wars Battlefont games, Minecraft and Terraria. These games focused on the gameplay over any sort of narrative. While a narrative may have been a great addition to these games, it was not necessary.

In conclusion, while admittedly having a game where the narrative does not conflict with the gameplay is preferable, the narrative should not hold all the cards and restrict the gameplay.

 

References;

  • Naughty Dog’s response to Uncharted criticism

http://wccftech.com/naughy-dog-ludonarrative-dissonance-uncharted-4-flashbacks-part-original-pitch/

2) The origins of the term ludonarrative.

http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

3)

Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Montréal, Ubisoft, 2007

4)

Call Of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch, Activision, 2010

5)

Dishonored, Arcane Studios, Betheseda, 2012

Other links

For an article on the positives of video Game story telling see the articles on the following websites:

The Girl with the Yellow Beanie

Pixel Peyote

 

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