For clarity, below are the Oxford dictionary definitions of the four main words and concepts that will be used in this article. The understanding of these words and how they impact upon mechanics, storytelling, rule-sets and the language of games is important when looking at the examples and discussions in this article.
the study of games and gaming, especially video games: ludology, like the games it studies, is not about story and discourse at all but about actions and events
a spoken or written account of connected events; a story
force that stimulates change or progress within a system or process
what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action
Now, a short explanation on the different concepts from ludology to narrative and then to dynamical meaning and implicit messages within a game’s mechanics. Ludology in the sense of this article can be used as a blanket term in reference to mechanics and the different interactions the player encounters during a game session; the implicit input and output experienced. Narrative here will refer to the use of storytelling elements external of gameplay; such as cutscenes, static text or menu tutorials, instructions or in-game codex etcetera. Dynamical meaning is the use of implicit ludological elements of a game to tell the story, infer plot points, character motivations and/or provide players with their own means to tailoring a narrative themselves.
Some quick examples of these ideas are;
- Ludonarrative Dissonance – Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy XIII, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto IV, Spec Ops: The Line
- Narrative & Mechanical Symbiosis – Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls, XCOM, Mass Effect, God of War
- Dynamical Meaning – Dwarf Fortress, The Endless Forest, Passage, Noby Noby Boy, Journey
The lists above provide some recent and past examples of this divide from the current 2005-2013 console generation. A discussion on some of these games and their concepts will follow with specific examples of where the dissonance appears and potentially theories as to how it can be eradicated or “fixed”. Also note, there will be plot points getting spoiled here.
Spec Ops: The Line
The general consensus on Spec Ops: The Line, developer Yager’s 2012 ode to Heart of Darkness, is one of a game that features middling gameplay and a stellar narrative, detailing the fall from grace of a Delta Force reconnaissance squad of three soldiers as they enter a post-catastrophe Dubai to find the player characters former commanding officer, John Konrad. The story follows Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now in the psychological destruction of its central character, with principal lead Captain Martin Walker making egregious and often harrowing choices at the expense of human life in a war-torn, ravaged and dehydrated desert landscape.
The dissonance between player actions and cutscene choices is used as a device to further the concepts of the narrative, which some people can argue allows the different elements of the game to compliment each other. This idiom is extended to the game’s developers, who explained that turning the game off and never playing it again is a viable ending to the story being told. While this is an interesting concept, the problem lies in the dissonance and how, if the narrative was tailored in a way where you had mechanical input over something like this, the concepts would work in tandem with the plot.
As for the point in question, Walker chooses without the player’s input to kill distant figures with white phosphorous (an incendiary used in real life military operations; Vietnam historically). Throughout the game, there are small moments where players influence a binary choice by either deciding upon killing someone or not. However, the control is arrested for this one plot integral scene, which loses a sense of immersive realism given the implications and outcome; that you used the white phosphorous on civilians. To hammer home the pathos artificially created externally from the gameplay, there is a small scene including a mother & child, wrapped in a Pompei-esque contortion, burnt to a crisp by Walker’s (not the player’s) doing. As a proxy of this kind of fumbled pathos; think about the representation of Earth and Shepherd’s fears of defending it in Mass Effect 3 through the cipher of a scared child being blown up by the Reapers.
This is an example of ludonarrative dissonance. Something external to the gameplay has shaped the characters motivations in a way that is removed from the players own motivations. This action around the half way mark of the experience creates a dichotomy between the player and the character the player controls. Also after you walk past the charred corpses Walker has murdered a squad of 33rd division, your assigned enemy for the majority of the game, run towards you and begin another bout of shooting. Not a moment is left to linger on the actions of a character outside your influence. Not a moment to end the frivolous and unjust killing of soldiers. Just the same gameplay is continued without invested impact. No implicit message was put forward, instead the player is subjected to being told an explicit and hollow message, as they have no influence over what happens. Maybe this was intended but that doesn’t necessarily follow that it created an impactful gaming experience.
Final Fantasy XIII
Though there are a few examples of this dissonance in the annals of the long-standing Square Enix franchise, this recent example is pertinent in how characters and their cutscene portrayal shouldn’t oppose player controlled gameplay without good reasoning or narrative explanation. The example to highlight here is the character of Hope and his arc; which does work to an extent but due to the dichotomy of gameplay against writing and the inherent ludonarrative dissonance created it ultimately becomes an unconvincing contrast.
Hope Estheim begins the game as a fearful child losing his mother in the opening moments of the game and witnessing her death first hand. After this, he appears fragile and unwilling to fight, with a weakness reserved for someone in his predicament. However the cutscenes relay this information to the player without any impact on the gameplay. Hope retains the same ability to fight and level up as Lightning, a former Guardian Corps soldier (elite special ops for the less FFXIII lexicon endowed among us), while also having access to the same items, equipment and experience points as the other party members that gradually join the two starting characters. This extends to airship pilot and gun-wielder Sazh Katzroy, the enigmatic NORA resistance leader Snow Villiers, the mysterious Oerba Dia Vanille and finally Vanille’s companion Oerba Yun Fang. Each of these characters, sans Vanille to some extent, display characteristics of soldiers or at least people familiar with combat in the game’s ranged cutscenes.
This is reinforced in the gameplay, where the inferred skills they display are used in the active time, Eidolon summoning, paradigm shifting battle system of the game. However, as Hope blends into the party of characters without a mechanical allowance or acknowledgement to his narrative proclivities, the divide between these two elements becomes unreliable and facile. This superficiality in the narrative provides a context for distrust of the game in general terms. The corridor level design, the lack of control in the hyper-speed battles, the stilted dialogue and paucity of world building or hub areas all form into cohesive arguments against the game, even if other RPGs and Final Fantasy games had these same problems, sans the ludonarrative dissonance. There is no concession made for what the narrative is relaying to the player, that Hope is weak and is learning how to fight, instead no impact on the game is made and the plot point is voided as a result.
This occurs in many Final Fantasy games and various other titles use this same empowering gameplay/dis-empowering cutscene juxtaposition, including the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, Heavy Rain and Tomb Raider. It reinforces a disconnect between the information being presented to the player in a contextual storytelling sense and the implicit mechanics presented and how the dynamical narrative and the characters are processed by the player as they play through the game. If Hope started off noticeably weaker than the other characters and was harder to level up through gaining less experience per battle, then a suitable mechanical allowance would have been made to incorporate what the story is telling the player about the character, that he is learning to fight and is distraught/fragile.
Fixing The Problem
There is a simplicity in developing ways in which to fix this problem of ludonarrative dissonance. As alluded to above, it comes from the use of implicit dynamical meaning and narrative reinforcement (if the game contains any flavour text, dialogue or cutscenes that is) of this mechanical storytelling. Games like Gears of War, God of War, Assassin’s Creed, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, XCOM, Thirty Flights of Loving, Dark Souls and many many more provide this with characters whose motivations and actions, however ham-fisted or atrociously written, are reinforced in the gameplay as well as cinematics.
However, games with minimal to no text or spoken word narrative provide the best examples of amending or even removing this disconnect; Journey, Noby Noby Boy, Dwarf Fortress, Bientot l’ete and Gravitation all revel in this idea of inferring storytelling through gameplay first and foremost. The player tailors their experience based on how they interact with the world instead of finding a dissonance between the information being fed to them and the interaction layer after it. David Cage take note.