Ludonarrative dissonance is a term coined to describe how a game may have a narrative that stipulates certain points, but the gameplay motivates, enables, or forces the player to act in a way that is contrary to what the narrative established. The original example used for this was bioshock, which acts as a critique from ayn rand style objectivism, requires the player to, much like many other first person shooters, act selfishly in pursuit of their objectives. Another example from more modern parlance is the Uncharted series which has a narrative establishing that the main character is having a fun treasure hunting romp across the globe, while not acknowledging that in the gameplay, the player acts as a mass murderer, killing literally thousands of people. For some reason, games that decide to acknowledge this, such as Spec Ops: The Line, are considered subversive or revolutionary.
For the purposes of this essay, I will be referring to narrative as all elements that exist “in-universe”, from the overall plot or story, the setting, the characters or artistic design excluding abstractions, the dialogue, and all written records that may exist to the characters. This includes main and side branches of a story. The narrative is effectively anything established as being a part of the character’s universe, and dissonance occurs when something that should be outside their universe interferes with it, or when gameplay constructs that should exist in-universe are contradictory to the way the universe is treated as being by the narrative.
Smaller examples of ludonarrative dissonance occur all over games, such as abstractions necessary for gameplay to occur, such as the inevitability of spawn points, ammo drops, carrying large inventories, save checkpoints, consumable items disappearing when you walk over them, countless abstractions in the interface, irrational NPC behavior, invisible walls, bottomless pits that respawn fallers back at the top, regenerating health, food healing flesh wounds, actions taken in cut scenes the player cannot perform themselves or vice versa. The list is nearly endless. These things are so commonplace and repeated that pointing them out is essentially the topic of every gaming webcomic. They have even come to be called, “gamisms” (not to be confused with Gamism in GNS Theory) much like truisms, being things that occur in gameplay that are dissonant, but we accept because they are necessary or fun. Gamisms are things that over time people have come to ignore-
On another level dissonance between gameplay and narrative may occur simply because players are enabled to do as they will. The plot may tell you the character is amazingly competent, but the player frequently blunders when they have control. The plot may say to hurry somewhere, trying to establish urgency, and the player takes their time. There may be a goal the character is actively engaged in and the player checks out, leaving the character behind.
Many games through their structuring also enable the player to do things out of sequence, breaking the law of cause and effect for events described in the narrative or producing weird game interactions. In Mirror’s Edge, the apparent narrative attempting to be established by the developers in the race with jackknife is that jackknife is so fast he manages to keep ahead of you, and you have to urgently pursue him. Many players however are actually faster than jackknife, resulting in his script teleporting him ahead, so he can be ahead of the player. Actual events do not coincide with the narrative here, producing instead a scene where you run along, as jackknife teleports around to his destinations.
In a number of game speed runs, players perform things out of sequence in ways that make no sense from a narrative perspective, or with regards to the nature of the game world. The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time run has the player clip through walls, turn a bottle into an ocarina, warp to the final boss battle, assemble all 7 sages without ever meeting them, get the master sword he has never even seen before knocked out of his hand, and defeat Ganondorf: King of Evil with a deku stick that repeatedly strikes anything it brushes against an infinite number of times. I’m aware that this is outside the developer’s intention, but I think these actions fit within the bounds of gameplay. The game is fine and intact despite all the abuses occurring, only the story is left in shambles.
A few games manage to completely avoid ludonarrative dissonance, largely by avoiding being games, downplaying their game nature, or by having minimalistic settings such that there is no established information to contradict. Examples include Dear Esther, which offers the player no options but to meander around and eventually reach the radio tower, not that there is much contradiction if they don’t. The Stanley Parable seemingly has an answer for every possible action the player can undertake with both the actual game and the demo as well, but it’s only able to accomplish this by severe limitation on the possibility space of the game, limiting the player to purely walking around, activating objects and moving a single physics object in some rooms. Beyond Two Souls takes a similar approach, making even all failure in the game redirect to another section of the game and ultimately change nothing in the larger plot. By limiting the possibility space this way it is much easier to keep track of all the ways interactivity could contradict the narrative, and keep dissonance to a minimum.
On the other end of the spectrum many old games like Contra or Castlevania have very little dissonance because they don’t try to create very specific narratives around the actions of the characters. In Contra, you follow the story of soldiers destroying an alien menace. There are no cutscenes that attempt to characterize the nature of the world, or explain your actions, so there is no narrative information that openly contradicts the actions taken in gameplay. In Castlevania you control Simon Belmont, tasked with defeating Dracula. This, like Contra, has no narrative information that directly attempts to say anything about the nature of the world or the actions of the characters, beyond the simple setting that there is a humanoid character. These games contain gamey abstractions, like chicken in the walls, or giant bullet projectiles that you can dodge, but because it doesn’t try to sell the setting as more realistic, these things can be accepted as a reality of the game’s setting rather than things that are obviously ridiculous.
My base point here is that a dissonance between the actions of the player and the narrative of the game is something that is massively commonplace across the medium. Currently this is viewed by a great number of academics as a bad thing. Games are currently regarded by many of the visionaries of our field as a young developing storytelling medium and to them ludonarrative dissonance presents a strong blow against the capability of the medium to effectively tell stories. The prevailing view on the matter seems to be that ludonarrative dissonance is something that we’ll have to work together to overcome, that for all the contradictions there must in turn be a form of ludonarrative consonance on the other end of it, and in the short term it’s something we’ll have to try our best to avoid or overcome.
Unfortunately for narrativists, games necessitate a trade-off. As more information is more solidly established about the setting or the intended sequence of events in a game, the smaller possibility space is necessary in order to prevent dissonance between the narrative and the game. Dissonance is not a hurdle to be overcome, it is an inevitability in the process of enabling emergent play. Being able to account for enough circumstances to produce branched narratives for them all isn’t clever nearly so much as it is consigning a game to irrelevance. The only games that can provide such an experience are ones that restrict any hope of emergence. As a game is less dissonant and more narrative heavy, it is necessitated that the game becomes less about player freedom and more rote following of the script established.
The reason ludo blah dissonance exists is because of the essential conflict between aspirations to create a narrative work of art, and the necessity of providing a gameplay experience. The products narratively oriented developers create are stuck in the interstice between these two and literally no medium exists, games must accept dissonance or be destroyed.