Videogame critical theory is a bit of a mess, lexically. I try to avoid fancy words because they’re often used inconsistently and can be a bit exclusionary. But then I just end up with my own private glossary, which is hardly going to help matters.

Nonetheless, “ludonarrative dissonance” is a really nice little term. Ludo is an ancient Greek board game, which is a bit like a computer game, so “ludo-” means “about games” (troll troll troll), and “narrative” is narrative and “dissonance” is dissonance. So ludonarrative dissonance is the dissonance between gamey stuff and narrative in a game. I’ve discussed this in terms of “a misalignment of system and metaphor”, or of ”procedural rhetoric and narrative rhetoric”. Ludonarrative dissonance is a pretty compact little phrase and directly picks out a real concept in videogame criticism — the number-one artistic fumble for the whole medium, I would say.

However, Wikipedia lists the term under “Ludonarrative”, which it says is:

“the aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player.”

Oh dear. First of all, this completely confuses “ludonarrative dissonance”, because if “ludonarrative” is a thing in itself then what is it dissonant with? What a mess. Secondly, as I have argued elsewhere, “the aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player” are not the narrative. They are not the narrative as a matter of fact, and it may even be impossible for them to be the narrative. (Chris Crawford keeps trying to disprove that one, and good luck to him.)

So, in the hope that maybe fewer people will be put off videogame critical theory, I’m going to do my bit for the discipline as a visiting Wikipedian. For posterity, here’s the old, bad version as of today:

Ludonarrative
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ludonarrative, a compound of ludology and narrative, refers to the aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player. It is contrasted with fixed or embedded narrative which are the purely narrative, non-interactive aspects of the game that are determined by the game's designers and told through cutscenes or other related devices. Ludonarrative is considered an essential concept in videogame theory.

 

Two notes

  1. Here’s the Wikipedia page, hopefully still showing my edits.
  2. Thanks to @TheGameCritique on Twitter, who was cited as a source for the erroneous definition, but agrees it was off. He remains the source for the correct version.

 

(Take a look at my browse page for more posts like this one.)

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The DayZ standalone alpha (2013) is a broken, punishing world, inhospitable to players, but excused because of its "pre-release" presentation.

The soothing rural idyll that is the Chernarus countryside

The soothing rural idyll that is the Chernarus countryside

Movement is buggy, so you might fall unfairly to your death while walking in the hills. Items are not fully implemented and not documented, so some whole categories either don’t work, or simply have no purpose and waste precious inventory space. Individual items might get glitched and fail to function. If you put an item on the ground, it may vanish completely. And putting things on the ground is the only way to pass items to other players: desperately sought and improbably found medical supplies could just snap into nothing.


Are you supposed to be here?

What if the game world wasn’t made for you? That’s the heart of every game: a world and a player character made for each other. Your avatar is the embodiment of your interaction with a world, and that interaction is the game. What if the world isn’t finished then? What if it’s broken and unreliable and not actually built around your goals and abilities? It’s not deliberately challenging the abilities of the player character; it just haphazardly frustrates actions that should be taken for granted. It should be a failure as a game, but DayZ gets away with it because it’s billed as an alpha. “Don’t worry: the world’s not ready for you yet, but it will be — it’s improving all the time.” So we forgive the problems and persevere.

It didn’t take long for players to murmur about whether DayZ will ever reach a final release — it had already raked in a load of cash anyway, and grown a huge community, and then there was the whole The War Z fiasco still fresh in people’s minds. But apart from that, DayZ is a game that maybe shouldn’t be finished: being broken makes it the game it is.

 

A broken game that works

In DayZ, you’re playing a rare survivor in a hostile post-apocalyptic world, and the hostility of your environment is perfectly modelled by DayZ being an untrustworthy “alpha”. You will die, probably unfairly. All you can do is concentrate on not doing anything stupid, to improve your odds. Even just going round the huge, beautiful map as a tourist is fraught with danger — falling, starving, getting ill, getting attacked by stray zombies — even if you’re experienced. This is a game where finding a rusting gangway or something in a disused dock counts as a highlight, just because maybe you could climb the steps and it might look cool from up there. But actions like climbing steps and walking platforms — although they’re seemingly intended to be straightforward — are perilous. How much do you really want to try out those binoculars you found? If the controls, clipping, and ladder-climbing were consistent, the danger would be gone: those subtly gripping and intrepid discoveries would be sterile and predictable. If your equipment wasn’t at risk of failing or disappearing then you would feel a lot safer hiking to find a ruined castle or shipwrecked hulk.

The wreck at Rify. Source

The wreck at Rify. Source

Could anyone even make a game like this?

Simply getting from A to B without event can make your heart race. I doubt you could make a game like that that isn’t broken. With “early access” you’re supposedly contributing to ongoing development and things aren’t set in stone. In and out of the game, you’re on a frontier — dangerous, free, and real — and you’re going to have to look after yourself. The unplanned, hindering irregularities give the game an authentic atmosphere of independent survival, but without the “alpha” excuse, they certainly would’t be tolerated.

Could anyone produce that game on purpose? Could a developer make a deliberately cruel game with a ruleless, broken world, then call it an alpha just to buy some perseverance and acceptance from players? It would be like a writer of improbable fiction successfully passing their work off as factual, so that readers will allow themselves to be amazed. It would be an unlikely hoax, but would open up credulity and good faith from the audience that could otherwise only be dreamt of.

The DayZ alpha is a perfect, broken contradiction of a game that seems unlikely to happen again for a long time, if ever. It has struck an unlikely balance of being both unaccommodating and tolerated, perpetuating its theme of desperate survival. Pay a visit while you can, because eventually something will give: either it will get fixed or players’ tolerance will wear out.

 

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A quick recap: I defined two problems for interactive storytelling — the hero problem and the Freeman problem.

The hero problem is the tension between a narrative of heroic success and a game mechanic of failable challenges. That is, if the story is about a former policeman escaping an exploding island on a jet-ski with the President’s daughter, then what do we do with the fact that he might crash the jet-ski and get them both killed?

What we actually do in that situation is forget it ever happened and try again, erasing the event from our conception of the narrative. But that’s an untidy shortcut to telling a story, and although it looms menacingly over the land of videogames, total disaster can be averted.

Looms menacing… land of video… Oh wait I get it! A bit forced, but whatever. Source

Looms menacing… land of video… Oh wait I get it! A bit forced, but whatever. Source

OK, hero problem, got it.

Last time I looked at this, I noted that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Braid both resolved the tension of the hero problem with a time-rewind mechanic. How do you explain the apparent erasure of the hero’s failure you’ve just witnessed? By making the player’s mental “undo” explicit in the universe of the game: time really does rewind in that world.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000) suggests another time-related approach to the hero problem.

 

Which one’s Majora’s Mask again?

Majora’s Mask is the second N64 Zelda, re-using the Ocarina of Time engine and many of the assets, and setting itself up as more of a side story than a whole new Link-Zelda-Ganon epic. That, and the fact that it was the first Zelda game to be directed by Eiji Aonuma, gave it license to be quirky and try some new things. Its signature twist was a Groundhog-Day premise where the same three days repeat over and over, with the player and protagonist returning to the start each time.

The narrative explanation for this is that the moon is going to crash into the earth, destroying the land of Termina. At the final moment before it strikes the earth, Link plays a song on his ocarina that sees him reawaken at dawn, three days earlier. As he learns more about those three days’ events in Termina, he arrives at a way to save the land and its people.

This is wonderfully effective, not least because the people of Termina all know that the end is coming, and that they are all going to die. They go through their clockwork motions time and time again, mourning their own demise in unknowing, tragic repetition. Somehow, the fact that the end never quite comes is all the more painful: you go back to the start to witness again their fading naivety and growing fear as the moon gets bigger and bigger in the sky.

Oh right, that one. Isn’t that a rubbish one?

It’s the best. Majora’s set-up is romantic and melancholic, and videogaming’s familiar die-and-respawn ritual is explained away to boot. When we do the old mental “undo” and reorganise our cognitive dissonance about the narrative, as always, like performing a gamers’ salute, we don’t actually need to break any of the rules of the game’s narrative universe. We don’t have to step out of the story and say “that didn’t happen”, we can stay within the story and say that it did happen, but now — and this is the brilliant part — the fact that none of the NPCs seem to know about what happened has suddenly become interesting.

Whenever you play a game, restarting and retrying, you know things that the characters in the game don’t — so you’re not like them. You know that things happened that you’re pretending didn’t happen: you died; you failed. The problem of the hero problem is that you’re forced to go through that suppression to make the narrative hang together for yourself. You still have that epistemic privilege over the NPCs in Majora, but now, for once, the protagonist is in the same boat as you: you are like Link, and you can be part of the game’s narrative universe. It’s a beautiful resolution of one of story gaming’s eternal tensions.

 

Aren’t there loads of holes in this theory?

Well… yes. Or, more to the point, there are loads of holes in the narrative structure of the game once you get into the nitty-gritty:

  • How come Link keeps all his items?
  • When you open new areas or defeat bosses, why aren’t those things ever reset?
  • What if you just fall off a ledge or something? You don’t play the magic song then, but somehow you’re back up on the ledge — just like any other game, pretending you didn’t die.

There are lots more. I can’t really defend the game against these charges. I do think the Groundhog-Day mechanic makes those holes less of an affront to narrative engagement than they would be otherwise, but in all honesty, this is probably another case of projection, charitable interpretation, and rose-tinting.

Anyway, if I haven’t really shown you an interesting example of narrative delivery in a videogame, I have at least shown you the idea of one. Hopefully, one day, solutions to the problems of interactive narrative will be varied, imaginative, and intentional, instead of the rare and imperfect accidents we seem to have had in the past.

 

Find more posts like this on the browse page.

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“The specific purpose of this post,” explains Jordan Shapiro near the end of his brilliant article about the two planes of rhetoric in videogames, “is to say something about both games and schools.”

School. Source

School. Source

His post made me understand my own project a little better. Although good thinking and writing about games is filtering through to the mainstream more and more, it almost always comes with a spoonful of sugar in the form of a social lesson or entrepreneurial tip. That fact niggles in two small ways. First, the implication is that discussing games cannot be valued in its own right — it must be attached to something of real value. Second, I know from discussing these types of article with non-gamers that the sugar is gobbled up and the medicine ignored. The messages about games don’t make it through.

9pp is a little fantasy world where everything can just be about games for games’ sake, with no payoff in the real world whatsoever. My work will never be sabotaged by a gross, parent-baiting headline about “The Hidden Moral Messages In Video Games” (and the other side of that coin is I certainly don’t have to worry about having any readers).

So here’s a digest of Shapiro’s article in which I demote the good and interesting message about schools to a mere example that explains the equally good and interesting message about games.

 

Jordan Shapiro’s exposition digested by a gamer

There are two forms of rhetoric in games: narrative and procedural. Narrative rhetoric is just “the same laws of persuasion that Plato described”. Procedural rhetoric is the values inherent in a system of actions and rewards. Videogames are interactive systems, and so express procedural rhetoric. To help explain that, consider a more familiar (for some) interactive system: school.

The narrative rhetoric around school is that being a good, compassionate person counts most. Shapiro provides evidence to back this up in the form of surveys of teachers and parents. However, the procedural rhetoric around school is different. Which actions are rewarded? Which traits lead to progression in the system? “Sitting still in rows” and other “behaviours associated with listening, retention, and perseverance”. (Evidence provided: this time surveys of kids.)

And that’s how it is in games. There’s a narrative metaphor saying one thing, and a system saying something else. Schools show us how when those two planes of rhetoric aren’t aligned, there’s a confusion of purpose. The full rhetorical power of that interactive construct has not been tapped. There lies the route to better videogames.

 

And what that gamer thinks

Shapiro’s opening to the whole article is, with my emphasis, “Things get confusing when thinking about video games because the narrative content and the mechanics are rarely aligned”.

I think (-slash-hope) that the typical and accidental misalignment of system and metaphor will turn out to be the defining characteristic of this era of videogames. The era considered as such probably began as technology advanced and non-abstract, narrative-driven metaphors became normal and expected. I guess that means we were certainly here by the time we got to Playstation. The era will end once the deliberate and inventive alignment of system and metaphor is normal and expected.

Maybe when we get to that point, games will be discussed in mainstream publications without any sweetening. Maybe games will even be the sugar to help the schools go down.

 

(Check out my browse page for more articles like this one.)

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Resident evil 4 (2005) is amazing. 96 on Metacritic, so everyone loves it.

But dear me, what a terrible ending.

Whoosh.

Whoosh.

Let me set the scene

The super-villain cult-leader, a defected agent who used to be your partner, touches the scar on his face and announces in a deep, sinister voice, swishing his long, black cape,

“I will help you awaken from your world of clichés!”

An east-asian action-woman in a slit, dragon-embroidered evening dress and stiletto heels dives suicidally off the roof of a building only for a helicopter to rise up, carrying her in the back. Flashing her meticulous nails, she activates an electronic countdown timer that will detonate the whole island and everything on it — including you, as the American beefcake hero, and the president’s daughter who fell in love with you when you saved her life. The helicopter lady throws a novelty keyring down onto the rooftop: the keys to her jet-ski.

Capcom did an incredible job of hiding all traces of ironic awareness in this scene.

 

Cool!

If this were an action movie then sure, throw in a jet-ski. It’s novel, it’s exciting — it’s a high-octane move. It probably has even more octane in it than shooting a massive scorpion-octopus-spider in it’s only eye with a "Special Rocket”. And the octane levels in that scene were pretty wild, as you would imagine. Exciting, the whole world agrees: “96 — Universal acclaim”.

Now, a film can just show you a jet-ski race at any time — even if the film hasn’t been anything to do with jet-ski races until that point. It’s not my field, but I’m sure a great many classic works of cinematic art have done exactly that. Equally, a game can show us a jet-ski race whenever it wants, too. But it can’t make us play a jet-ski race whenever it wants.

In addition to film-like audio-visual experiences, videogames provide some sort of interactive structure. If a game’s interactive structure is carefully developed to be about moving in a stilted way, selecting weapons lethargically from an implausibly large ammo box, and splattering assorted mutations sprouting from the necks of rustic villagers — if it has been carefully and artistically developed to explore those themes — then it can’t suddenly pivot in the final scene to jet-ski racing without defusing its atmosphere.

So how do you cram an exciting variety of playable action scenes into a game with only a single focus in terms of playable mechanics? QTEs! Brilliant. As I decided last week, QTEs are a risky approach to interactivity to say the least. They will destroy engagement with a game’s story unless they are connected to thoroughgoing mechanics that teach us the meanings of individual button presses.

 

But 96 though

A game can readily pivot the content of its metaphor, just like a film, but its system can’t switch as rapidly, so suddenly varied plot events can’t offer the full interactive depth that games can achieve. Jumping from sniper rifle to “Special Rocket” to controlling a crane to racing a jet-ski is not going to work when the interaction mechanics are so focused on something else. I would much rather finish a game engaging with the sophisticated core of it’s interaction model than slamming left and right repeatedly until I learn the pattern and get to watch a cut-scene.

Of course this doesn’t really apply to Resident Evil 4. Everyone loves Resident Evil 4.

 

And now, to prove myself wrong

Just quickly, in conclusion, to prove that videogames will always solve the problems I find for them, I suppose I should mention a game whose subject matter constantly fluctuates, whose mechanics change and are retaught to the player every few seconds, and which could easily throw in a jet-ski, a rocket, and a scorpion-octopus without anyone even noticing.

WarioWare sleep.png
WarioWare sniff.png
WarioWare potato.png

Sleep! Sniff! Potato! What? Octopus! Wait— Jet-ski! Whatever! It’s WarioWare, Inc. (2003), that postmodern gamer’s-game of meta-gaming about games — now on my list for a later post.

 

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