-Hey, kids! It’s everybody’s favorite whipping boy of the critical term! It’s ludonarrative dissonance. Off the top here, this is ultimately going to be a defense of ludonarrative dissonance as a critical concept, as a tool for descriptive criticism. But first, a bit of backstory. “Ludonarrative dissonance” as a term was coined by Clint Hocking in a 2007 blogpost titled “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: The problem of what the game is about.” In the post, Clint argues that there is a disconnect between the story told by the game’s mechanical interactions and the story told by the game’s narrative interaction, that while the game appears to thematically criticize Randian Objectivism as a foundational philosophy and works this criticism into the game’s interactions, the same doesn’t hold true for the game’s fiction. Quote, “Yet in the game’s fiction on the other hand, I do not have that freedom to choose between helping Atlas or not. Under the ludic contract, if I accept to adopt an Objectivist approach, I can harvest Little Sisters. If I reject that approach, I can rescue them. Under the story, if I reject an Objectivist approach, I can help Atlas and oppose Ryan, and if I choose to adopt an Objectivist approach – well too bad… I can stop playing the game, but that’s about it.” This idea of pointing out when a game’s mechanics are being dissonant with the game’s fiction enjoyed a brief period where it was all the rage, the hot, new thing to point to in games, and subsequent to that, it also saw a pushback and reevaluation of its value as a concept. On his series “Errant Signal,” Chris Franklin, AKA Campster, described it this way in his 2015 video, “The Debate That Never Took Place.” CHRIS:
-Like, story and play both exist in service to the overall work, not as two forces in conflict with one another. So… why do we frame them that way? It’d be like going to the movies, and then, afterwards, talking with friends about how the film worked as a story, and then talking about how the film worked as an example of cinematography, but never at the same time. You’d never do that, and definitely not in a way that would posit a film as “cinemanarratively dissonant.” DAN:
-Now, I love that video, and I love that clip in particular for a couple reasons. First, that video as a whole makes a great point about the need for games criticism to accept games as a whole text, that we should evaluate games not as a collection of systems on one side and a collection of fiction on the other, but as a coherent whole that either works or doesn’t. In particular, Chris is concerned with this approach to games criticism, especially the forms of games criticism that exist in reviews, that very much compartmentalize the two faces of the game in a way that will lead to discussing games as “Great gameplay, but the story sucks!” or “Great story! Shame about the gameplay!” And on this front, I should say yes! I agree. We should, as a baseline, treat games as a whole text. If the story is bad and doesn’t set up coherent themes or if it is ugly, dehumanizing, and insulting, then that should count as a mark against the game, no matter how fun it is to bend bullets. However, in calling for that sort of holistic approach, critics have inadvertently tossed the baby out with the bathwater, which brings me to the second thing that I loved about that previous clip. Chris has, in setting up a counterexample, accidentally created a great mechanism for criticism, because there absolutely are films that I would describe as “cinemanarratively dissonant.” “Transformers,” for one. By the text of the script for the two films that she is in, the character of Mikaela Banes is smart, funny, talented, driven, hard-working, quick-thinking, courageous, and mature. She is an active agent in the plot, she comes up with plans, and her personal arc meshes with the rest of the film. The simple fact that she is a mechanic gives her more thematic connection to the Transformers than anything going on with Sam. However, the camera treats Mikaela as a piece of meat. People perceive her as being superfluous eye candy, as nagging, as irrational, because that is how she is consistently framed. The cinematography is not, strictly speaking, bad. It is, in its own sphere, competent and well-executed. Mikaela’s writing simultaneously is not bad, but they are not in agreement with each other. There is cinemanarrative dissonance there. The story told by the camera does not agree with the one being told by the script. I actually think that right there is a great conceptual tool for critics to use to describe why something that is technically proficient on the whole isn’t working, and within games criticism, I think the idea of ludonarrative dissonance is a valuable tool that complements a holistic approach to games criticism rather than detracts from it because it makes it easier to describe when the story is telling one message and the mechanics are telling another. Now, taken as a whole, this kind of dissonance is less common in film. Film as a medium is more mature, the language is more established, and the production methods have generally worked out most of the kinks in terms of getting everyone involved on the same page in terms of theme and tone. That’s not so much the case in games. Even asking about the themes of gameplay, the story told by mechanical interactions, is still a really new idea. Most filmmakers today have learned the grammar of film by virtue of growing up watching films made by filmmakers who grew up watching films made by filmmakers, who’s tinkered around asking themselves questions about theme and story and structure and tone. With video games, we are right now still in that first wave of creators and critics and readers who are asking questions like “What story is the gameplay telling?,” and because games are often made in compartmentalized ways with the writers over here and the designers over there, it is simply more common for the two disciplines to tell different stories. Clint’s example still stands. It’s not that the fiction of Bioshock is bad or that the gameplay is awful, but simply that the two aren’t in agreement with each other. To me, the idea of ludonarrative dissonance gives us a way to acknowledge when both teams have done their jobs well in isolation, but have, perhaps, failed to support each other, or whoever has led the project has failed to keep everyone pointed towards the same thematic/tonal goal So what do you think? Let me know in the comments if you think the idea of dissonance is a valuable critical tool for descriptive criticism, or are they just, like, games, man?