The games industry (along with every other industry and the entire Internet) operates on buzzwords. Every few months or so, the zeitgeist morphs and skews a little to accommodate a new bit of something. The pop culture scoots over and makes room for people to say “power fantasy” or overuse “literally” to the point that both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster slapped in the absolutely wrong definition into the global lexicon and called it a day. Before that, it was about “player choice” and “entitled” players.
Over time, these catchphrases become jokes: visceral, cinematic, emotionally engaging. You can basically plot it against the rise and fall of the abuse of the word “epic” (and if you still use it to just mean neat or cool, we’re no longer Internet friends). At this point, I’m guessing the next one will be “ludonarrative dissonance.”
What, pray tell, is ludonarrative dissonance? Well, probably not what you think it means (assuming you think it has something to do with Ludacris). Let’s start with the ludonarrative part. This is a portmanteau of “ludology” and “narrative.” Ludology is the study of games. This isn’t just limited to video games but rather all games so it often includes concepts like audience theory and content analysis. And a narrative is a story, and if you need more explaining beyond that, then you’d better call Jay-Z because you went from zero to 99 in a flash.
Put together, the ludonarrative in a video game refers to the storytelling controlled by the player. It’s the plot equivalent of emergent gameplay, the non-discrete (or at least non-explicit) complex interactions of simple systems and mechanics that unveil new events within a planned framework. This means that every time Mario jumps, you are building some implicit backstory on how this funny little Italian plumber has just the most amazing, Olympian-quality quads and calves.
So ludonarrative dissonance is when your actions contradict the non-interactive story told through a video game’s cutscenes and whatnot. You may recall that this exact problem was something people brought up as a point of contention with Red Dead Redemption: how is John Marston, a man attempting to redeem himself from a life of unsavory practices, able to so easily and recklessly rampage across an entire countryside and still feel like a changed man?
That was in 2010. The term itself was coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, former creative director at LucasArts and Ubisoft and current designer at Valve, in a review of BioShock, so the concept has been around for quite some time, if simply unnamed. And given that this is the first game since to bear Ken Levine’s massive signature, it seems appropriate that the discussion would come around again. If you look at the Google search trends for “ludonarrative dissonance,” you’ll see that it has reached an all-time high since BioShock Infinite‘s release (the initial spike from May to June of last year was when Tom Bissel mentioned it in his Grantland review of Max Payne 3).
And the discussion with the term has stuck around since then, in no small part, I’m sure, to Conan O’Brien’s Clueless Gamer series in which he, a self-professed non-gamer, reviews a video game. It surely is a frustrating exercise for his well versed Clueless Gamer partner, but when edited for mass consumption, it is hilarious, poignant, and unforgiving. All of the nonsense that we as avid players so easily gloss over and excuse as a necessity of the medium is immediately and harshly brought to light by Conan’s ever watchful eye (and blundering thumbs).
His review of Hitman: Absolution is a great example of this. Conventions of the stealth genre are basically digitized insanity, but we ignore it because that’s how we’ve been brought up to interpret and interact with games. Conan plays it for a minute and quickly and succinctly eviscerates our hallowed tropes.
The practice itself is something brought up in Tim Rogers’ amazing and lengthy review of BioShock Infinite over at Action Button Dot Net. He discusses how he almost uses the shortcut catchphrase of “ludonarrative dissonance” without fully understanding what it means, and when he finds out it isn’t exactly what he thought, he comes up with a new one: ludonarrative interference.
Ludonarrative interference is a convenient phrase for pointing out instances of game-mechanicky elements flopping dead-fish-like at the feet or into the face of the story a game is trying to tell. Ludonarrative interference is when a little taken-for-granted videogame design trope unceremoniously bubbles corpse-like to the surface of a game’s story’s otherwise pristine ocean.
Sound familiar? That is exactly what Conan O’Brien does with Clueless Gamer (as pointed out by Rogers; don’t think I made the connection first). The things we overlook are so easily and frequently noticed by those unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. How do you carry an entire armory with you in Grand Theft Auto IV without tipping over and collapsing? Who leaves exploding barrels next to stockpiles of munitions inside army bases? How does Link reappear at the top of a bottomless ravine after falling in?
Because no one wants search for ammo in the middle of a six-star shootout, you’ll say. Because it opens up new combat possibilities, you’ll proclaim. Because they can’t go building and designing the bottom of every chasm or not allow you to try to jump it, you’ll explain. And guess what: none of those are reasons. Those are all excuses, and bad ones at that.
The question, then, is whether or not they are necessary. True, all games being designed like DayZ probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun and would definitely be counterproductive to artistic growth as an emerging medium. Having to collect arrows in Shadow of the Colossus would have drastically changed the final product. These are the concessions made by designers and developers to ensure that the player is having fun.
Of course, there isn’t just one way to have fun, and just as that entire nebulous concept is still being figured out, most of us are still trying to get a finger on the pulse of ludonarrative stuff. Perhaps the answer is more consistency; why can I shoot out this wall to destroy and build cover when I can throw grenade after grenade at this potted plant and get nothing but dirt textures in my eye? Does it not bother even the most entrenched of gamers when guards don’t mind fresh pools of blood but freak the fuck out at a clink 50 yards away?
Maybe that’s our fault. Maybe our blind eyes to these most obvious of ludonarrative interferences have cultivated this current predicament—a Gozer of our own making, if you will. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to slip into the shoes of one of those fresh-faced, uninitiated non-gamers and look around at the daily absurdity we witness and are party to.
Or maybe give it like three more months and all of this will blow over.