Well, we’re starting a place on the Internet for college students to talk about video games and we clearly can’t cut the ribbon on this fresh new publication without taking a swing at the Dark Souls of amateur games criticism terms: ludonarrative dissonance, a term that’s been misused since its inception.For the uninitiated, ludonarrative dissonance was coined by game designer Clint Hocking in a blog post back in 2007, which you still can and should read, titled “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: The problem of what the game is about”. Hocking used the term to describe a specific criticism of the way in which Bioshock presented its themes.
Bioshock allows players to directly engage with its themes on Randian Objectivism in the ludic content surrounding Little Sisters; one may choose to reject the ‘virtue of selfishness’ and rescue the Little Sisters or adopt the doctrine of rational self-interest and harvest the Little Sisters for their precious Adam. According to Hocking, the goal of this engagement is to show the player that “the notion that rational self-interest is moral or good is a trap, and that the ‘power’ we derive from complete and unchecked freedom necessarily corrupts, and ultimately destroys us”; he claims that the game would be most effective if it gets the player to adopt the objectivist approach and then pressure the player into realizing this trap.
Hocking finds that the ludic contract of the game (“seek power and you will progress”) supports this goal, while the narrative contract (“help Atlus and you will progress”) does not; the narrative contract, by forcing a path through the game world, apparently forces us to reject the doctrine of rational self-interest, interrupting our potentially visceral ludic experience of objectivism’s flaws. During the player’s rise to power by means of child murder, the infamous “would you kindly” plot-twist reveals that the player themselves had been used as means for another actor’s power, giving firm narrative justification for the dissonance between ludic and narrative contracts in a way Hocking found utterly insulting.
Ludonarrative dissonance, as Hocking found it, occurs when ludic and narrative themes of a text are inconsistent; as in Bioshock, this is when the player is allowed to engage with the work’s themes through actions in a way that contradict the themes presented in the narrative, spoiling those ludic experiences.
It has been eleven years since that blog post was published. In that time, the term has been adopted, abused, and retired by dozens of mainstream game critics, made its way into a Trophy name in Uncharted 4, and evolved to mean something much broader than Hocking’s intention.
Where it once was used specifically in reference to crucial thematic elements, it is now used in reference to any inconsistency between “the gameplay” and “the story”. Has the player character been shown in an in-game cinematic to have never shot a gun before but in gameplay they are popping headshots left and right? That’s ludonarrative dissonance! Is the player character on an urgent quest to find his long-lost child but the player has chosen instead to do a bunch of seemingly meaningless side quests? Sounds like ludonarrative dissonance! Is the player’s sword gold in a cinematic but silver in gameplay? Ludonarrative dissonance!
The term can still be used in situations like Hocking was referring but it can just as easily now refer to basic continuity errors. A cynical follower of Hocking’s may claim it is time to purge the term from our vernacular, now that it has been tainted by the use of commoners (an unfortunately common attitude among communities that talk about games…), but that’s clearly both an impossible plan (as if any amateur games essayist has the power to remove a term from discourse) and a regressive one; the term still refers to something we should consider. We should instead look to adjust our understanding of its connotations.
The world seems to have abandoned Hocking’s understanding of ludonarrative dissonance and that is mostly a good thing, since his original blog post that coined the term was mostly garbage (no offense to Hocking, discourse on games has just come a long way in eleven years). He has a somewhat weak grasp of Randian Objectivism (a topic for another paper), his need to compare games to film is frustrating (well, it was 2007…), and he even failed to clearly define the term he coined; the term only appears in the work’s title and never in its body.
Only a careful reader may understand that Hocking is referring only to dissonance regarding ludic interactions with theme, probably leading to the broad definition we have today. His only clear definition comes in the etymology of the term. Though ‘ludonarrative’ was clearly a term thrown together out of ludology (the study of play) and narrative, it is not totally clear where the dissonance exists. Is it a dissonance between ludic elements and narrative or a dissonance between ludic narrative and traditional narrative? If a player has fun while performing a gruesome act of violence in The Last of Us, is that ludonarrative dissonance? Can we understand ludonarrative dissonance to exist in the player’s experience as well as the game’s narrative? By defining the term only through etymology and brief casuistry, Hocking left these questions unanswered, though the current broad definition of the term answers yes.
Aside from these flaws, Hocking’s primary failure was in understanding ludonarrative dissonance as a failure of the text; in doing so, he is effectively not only understanding games as having two sources of narrative (diegetic operator and machine actions, as explained by Galloway) but also misunderstanding games as having two distinctly separate narratives. Games, like film (what is this, 2007?), have several sources of narrative but only one narrative, and theme, at the convergence of these sources: one thing that the game is about. Hocking almost gets to this point, hinting at it in the piece’s subtitle, but his critique of Bioshock falls short. Theme exists within the narrative of the player’s emotional experience, not only in either of the game’s narrative sources.
Hocking’s critique misunderstands Bioshock as having two disparate themes when in fact it has one at the convergence of two sources. If one accepts the Objectivist ludic contract to selfishly pursue ones own power to progress, believing themselves to be in control of their own pursuits, one will be surprised, if not insulted as Hocking was, when it is revealed you’ve been explicitly under the control of Atlas (revealed to actually be Frank Fontaine, using the Atlas alias as a sort of astroturfing appeal to influence the working class). This may have apparently ruined the theme Hocking imagined the ludic contract was building towards, but it has actually asserted a different, still strong, critique of Randian Objectivism; freedom, under objectivism, is an illusion.
Though Rapture is theorized to be a place of absolute freedom, and the player seems to explore this freedom in their pursuit of power, this freedom is clearly a farce, a tool of their oppressors (the bourgeois, if you like) to keep them subservient. Hocking was right to feel insulted, but wrong to think this was a failure of theme; Hocking was feeling Andrew Ryan’s words, “A man chooses, a slave obeys”, as the inevitable consequence of an objectivist utopia, according to Bioshock (and to me), is a sort of slavery. Hocking thought Bioshock would place him in the place of the slaver and show how that role fundamentally corrupts, but instead it surprised him as the slave.
With this understanding, it seems that Bioshock might not be ludonarratively dissonant in the way Hocking claimed, but it did use ludonarrative dissonance, as we now understand it, to establish its theme. Ludonarrative dissonance is not a failure; it’s a ludic device, akin to literary devices like juxtaposition.
So, why spend so much time and so many words on an over-analyzed piece of non-academic game studies from eleven years ago? Because one brilliant kernel of truth from Clint Hocking has brought so many to accept the beautiful premise that games allow players to engage with theme through action. In this way, games do not only contain art, through their traditional storytelling or visual; games are art. Since they exist as aestheticized action, which is characteristic of all games, all games are art (though maybe not all games are particularly good art).
Ludonarrative Dissonance was an attempt to establish some part of a language to talk about games: a language we’re still struggling to develop and a language we still desperately need. Talking about video games is difficult because it is effectively ‘dancing about architecture’, and it will remain that difficult until more serious academic work is done to establish games criticism, “as distinct from game reviews”. For a while, our work will be, as this paper and Hocking’s blog post was, ramblings of “a semi-literate, half-blind Neanderthal, trying to comprehend the sandblasted hieroglyphic poetry of a one-armed Egyptian mason”.
Eleven years later, I’m not sure games need our Citizen Kane, perhaps because we already have it but are not equipped to know it. What we need is our Foucault or Barthes, some successors to Steve Swink and Ian Bogost, who will create the language necessary to guide us out of our cynical cinema-focused era of games criticism and into the sunlight of true understanding.