Discussing Ludonarrative Dissonance

-by Dylan DiBona

There’s a concept very specific to video games, Ludonarrative Dissonance.

Ludonarrative Dissonance: When a gameplay mechanic in a video game betrays a thought or motive explained in its narrative.

A good example would be Grand Theft Auto IV, in which Russian immigrant Nico Bellic comes to America to escape a life of crime. The player, even in the first second of gameplay, can drive around killing people and committing terrible crimes.

Freedom is what we value in video games, especially in sandbox games like GTA. But is it worth completely erasing the emotional progress of a story? There are teams of writers trying to produce something great, but when gameplay can contradict or even tarnish the value of a story, we have a problem.

Image result for uncharted

Charming, kindhearted man during story, ruthless mass-murderer during gameplay.

We’re talking about a medium that couldn’t exist without its interactivity, so of course we have to value gameplay over even the strongest of stories.

I’d like to discuss if we as consumers get too caught up on any example of Ludonarrative Dissonance.

Developers like Rockstar clearly don’t care about the condition, since the freedom of a sandbox game doesn’t allow for many “laws” given by the story. Even Naughty Dog is at fault with their Uncharted series; what’s interesting is in Uncharted 4, there is a trophy titled Ludonarrative Dissonance. The company is not only aware, but Neil Druckman (director of Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us) had this to say about the idea:

“Because we don’t buy into it. I’ve been trying to dissect it. Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn’t? Is it the number? It can’t be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies.”

Perhaps Druckman isn’t the only one in the gaming industry with these opinions. The consumers could be the one making too much of a fuss about the small things. This is Uncharted after all, the game series where you can fall out of an airplane, climb mountains with your infinite amounts of stamina and survive hundreds of gunfights.

If we are the ones making something out of nothing, can you blame us? We want our medium to be taken seriously. In the world of sports, we would be hockey aka #4 (behind football, basketball and baseball). The gamer is a very passionate person and in most cases want their games to garner the same level of respect as a piece of cinema. It’s not too much to ask for our games to make sense, right?

Image result for mario jumping on goomba

Of course you could take the concept of Ludonarrative Dissonance too far. In the Mario RPGs, you can have conversations with obviously sentient Goombas. So in the platformers, is Mario just murdering these innocent creatures for no good reason?

There are the occasional airtight pieces of entertainment, but most mediums require us to stay in a place of suspensed belief. It is fiction after all.

To me, Ludonarrative Dissonance is no small issue, and it should be avoided if possible. I could easily be deterred from something if it just makes no damn sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional nonsensical craziness like Uncharted, but if the idea of forsaking a narrative for gameplay ever became a mainstream idea, then I would seriously think we’re taking a huge step back for our medium.

So what do you guys think about the idea of Ludonarrative Dissonance? Does it matter? Is it a big deal? Let me know down below and I’ll try my best to reply! As always, thanks for reading.


4 thoughts on “Discussing Ludonarrative Dissonance

  1. You know, when I reviewed Uncharted 4, I joked that the “Ludonarrative Dissonance” trophy was a sign that Naughty Dog doesn’t take constructive criticism well, but after looking at Mr. Druckmann’s quote, I kind of wonder if it was a bit closer to the truth than I realized.

    Anyway, I think the problem with the games he’s worked on is that, while they’re certainly over-the-top, they’re just realistic enough to cause this disconnect to become untenable for some. With Mario games, they’re way too focused on gameplay and it’s in a setting so detached from reality that the idea of him being a remorseless killer wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind (that enemies almost never explicitly die helps). I guess you could say it’s a video-game variation of “Uncanny Valley” effect.

    Though counter to how most fans feel, I felt this disconnect was at its worst in The Last of Us, which didn’t quite have the same “protagonist is a mass murderer” problem because Joel’s personality is more in line with someone who would resort to violence on a dime, but the switch a serious tone nonetheless exacerbated their weaknesses while not allowing their strengths to shine. A friend of mine put it best when he said that Naughty Dog’s attention to detail in regards to presentation doesn’t extend to their gameplay or their story. Contrary to how Mr. Druckmann feels, I believe it’s a valid subject to discuss, and the best story-heavy games out there such as Undertale tend to bridge the gap between story and gameplay, enhancing both while creating a narrative that couldn’t properly exist in another medium.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The best example (to my mind) of this is in the Tomb Raider reboot, in which Lara kills someone to survive and is all torn up about it. Then 30 seconds later she’s trotting around headshotting people because the player is now in charge. I imagine it’s very hard to get this sort of thing right!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Funnily enough I was just watching a video on Youtube that mentioned this while talking about Fallout. You witness your spouse being murdered in front of you, and the kidnapping of your son, and then you spend ~100 hours building houses. A lot of games suffer from this lack of synchronicity between the player motives and the character motives, but overall that’s the cost of giving the player freedom within a game.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting topic! I hadn’t heard that term before, although I’ve seen more than my fair share of memes about it! Now I am mentally going through my collection of favorite games to see which ones have it or not, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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