ludonarrative – a portmanteau of ludology and narrative, refers to the aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player. (source: Wikipedia)
I play a lot of single player games. This isn’t due to an aversion of multiplayer matches but rather a love for a good interactive story. Ludonarrative is exactly this. It is the combination of game design (ludo) and story (narrative) that create a wonderful single player experience.
The trick to sound ludonarrative is a balance in game design and story. If the story of a game is the player’s muse, be it motivating them to hunt terrorists, stave off alien invasion or rescuing a princess, then the design of a game needs to adhere to the guidelines set by the narrative. For example: a counter-terrorist must never kill an innocent bystander. And while simple instances like desynchronization in Assassin’s Creed when innocents are killed are commonplace, there are still examples of contradiction in ludonarrative. This contradiction, coined by former Lucasarts creative director Clint Hocking, is referred to as ludonarrative dissonance.
Hocking brought up the concept of ludonarrative dissonance in regards to the original Bioshock. He pointed out that the underwater utopia of Rapture had its philosophical roots in the Randian concept of objectivism. This objectivism, or acting in one’s own self-interest, manifested itself in gameplay as the choice to either rescue or harvest the little sisters throughout the game. The big carrot in this instance is whether the player will accept objectivism and act in their own self interest (harvest) or reject the notion (rescue).
The ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock, according to Hocking, is that that same choice cannot be applied to the overall direction of the story. You are only given one direction: side with Atlas to take down Andrew Ryan. If you break the story down into two parts, one either sides with Atlas or with Ryan. Hocking surmised that if the player rejects the objectivism of Rapture, they will naturally side with Atlas. But if they fall into the belief of acting in self interest, siding with Ryan is clearly the philosophically sound direction to take. Hocking continued to say that by nature, single player games exist entirely on the (ludo) rule of acting in one’s own self-interest, falling into line with Rand’s philosophy. But since the narrative of Bioshock forces the player to stray that philosophy, it created a dissonance.
Brett Makedonski elaborated on this concept by citing recent titles of Max Payne 3 and Mass Effect. He pointed out that Max Payne, who is presented as a depressed pill popping alcoholic during story elements, can leap and dive firing a plethora of firearms without a hitch. Makedonski also cites that Commander Shepard, no matter how many renegade choices are made in Mass Effect, is still regarded as a hero. Because of the way a game plays, how can one ever accept the narrative that the creators of games are attempting to portray?
In short, it is not easy. Games absolutely need to have a balance between the design and the story. It is that perfect balance just might be the holy grail of game design. But in order for a game to be in perfect ludonarrative balance, concessions will need to be made. On one hand you could create a game where the in-game paramaters adhere 100% to the story presented (which sounds boring and practically impossible). Or a game could take every little tiny decision ever made throughout a game and have it alter the course of the story as it progresses (which sounds awesome and also practically impossible).
As much as I agree that ludonarrative dissonance is a problem in the way that elements of design and story can conflict with each other, it is important to remember exactly what games are. Games are an experience. An experience that is not necessarily dictated by the designers of the game. Sure, in their hearts, game designers are artists. Weaving a message through their medium. But the artist also loses control of their work once it reaches an audience. To assume that one’s intended message, is not altered by an audience’s perception is pretentious and naive. No one person views the same painting in the same light, a film can impact audiences in a myriad of ways, and gamers, no matter how often there are conflicts in the ludonarrative, may end up soldiering on an actually enjoying a game in spite of contradictions.
Take a look at Final Fantasy VII, where Aerith is brutally murdered by Sephiroth and laid to rest despite the game having the Phoenix Down, an item specifically used for resurrections. Aerith’s death was textbook ludonarrative dissonance, yet the game is still highly regarded as one of the best entries in the long running JRPG series. Ultimately the dissonance did not matter because the overall story and the solid gameplay trumped the upsetting of the ludonarrative balance.
Games are a fantastically powerful medium that can explore complex themes and emotions all while keeping the player immersed, but maybe games aren’t ready to transcend into dictating how their narrative is perceived. I don’t think any artist has the right to dictate perception. Ludonarrative dissonance may fade with time as games evolve, but the perception belongs and will always belong to the audience.