Essay: Ludonarrative Dissonance Explained and Expanded

Hello everyone. This essay on "Ludonarrative" was originally for a blog I was going to start, but that was a few months ago and I've been sitting on this for a while, so I decided to just dump it here. It's completed, apart from the examples section at the end which I suppose I could do if this proves interesting. Basically I've dumped it "as is" straight into this post.

The reason I'm dumping it on the Escapist's forums is because, flattery aside, this community is the best for discussion high brow gaming topics.

No apologies for the wall of text, The Escapist has no fancy formatting options!

EDIT - I've used spoiler sections to ease it up a bit.

Without any ado, let's GO!

-Jezixo

Ludonarrative Theory - An Introduction

With this article I aim to define the term 'ludonarrative', and to explore some of its potential to aid videogame discourse. Let me first explain the basics of ludonarrative; what it is, why it's important. Then I'll move on to some examples of how knowing the meaning of this word, and using it correctly, can make it easier to conduct intelligent and accurate discussion about how videogames work and why they sometimes don't. I'm not going to give a history of the term's usage, or where it came from, since that can be found elsewhere. The short version: all credit to Clint Hocking, he invented the word but failed to excavate its full potential. The definition I am about to give is based primarily on his original usage but contains a few new elements. Collaborative discussion is how progress is made, after all.

Deconstructing the Word

Breaking down the Ludo

Breaking down the Narrative


Case Study: Metroid

Ludonarrative Dissonance


Ludonarrative Resonance

Ludonarrative Alienation

Conclusion


TO BE ... CONTINUED ????
JEREMY WATSSMAN

Loved how you talked about weaving story and gameplay, exposition is just crap as a way of fleshing out things.

--> check out yahtzee describing his favourite game and WHY Silent Hill 2 has an awesome story. No exposition. None.

Speaking of ludonarrative dissonance, check out Spec Ops: The Line. Seriously, just do it.

uh, [ img ] url [ /img ] should allow you to post pictures

and [ spoiler ] section [ /spoiler ] will allow you to present your essay in a way that's less of an assault on the eyes.

Have you watched/listened to Extra-Credits? I think you'd like them.

Pretty fantastic essay! I wish I had more time to answer you, but yes, this does sum up quite nicely what makes for an engaging game and what doesn't.

http://www.gametrekking.com/the-games/cambodia/the-killer/play-now

^ This is a nice, short (5min) example of the interplay between ludo and narrative. There isn't much of either here, and yet you somehow come out of it feeling satisfied. And yes, I know Extra Credits used "Loneliness," I just like this one better.

I do feel like this could be expanded upon, however. There are games that feature almost non-existent ludo (Heavy Rain is one, although a better example is Dear Esther) and heavy narrative, yet still - in my opinion - wouldn't work as well as films or books. And there are games that have hardly any story at all (Minecraft), yet feel quite engaging since you make up your own story.

Pfui, I can't spend any more time here, might come back later. Great post though.

One of my favorite examples of ludonarrative resonance is Shadow of the Colossus. The narrative portion of the game is obviously very compelling (conquering massive beasts and discovering the consequences), and the ludo aspect (solving each colossus like a puzzle) is extremely satisfying. The part I really love is how these things weave together and almost overlap. A primary component of gameplay is actively clinging to the colossi just as the concept of "hanging on" permeates the story, and the player must eventually let go (literally and metaphorically) in order to finish the journey.

ResonanceSD:
Loved how you talked about weaving story and gameplay, exposition is just crap as a way of fleshing out things.

--> check out yahtzee describing his favourite game and WHY Silent Hill 2 has an awesome story. No exposition. None.

Speaking of ludonarrative dissonance, check out Spec Ops: The Line. Seriously, just do it.

uh, [ img ] url [ /img ] should allow you to post pictures

and [ spoiler ] section [ /spoiler ] will allow you to present your essay in a way that's less of an assault on the eyes.

Have you watched/listened to Extra-Credits? I think you'd like them.

Thanks! That helps a lot. It looks a bit less awful now.

Yes I love Yahtzee and Extra Credits, they're both a very strong force for good in the world of games. They inspired me to write essays like this. They have a restriction in the form of 5 minute videos and entertainment value, though, which writing long boring essays allows you to avoid.

I am very excited to play Spec Ops and can't wait to see how badly it screws up. I've heard great things about it though!

...and Silent Hill 2 is one of the greatest things ever made.

elwood612:
Pretty fantastic essay! I wish I had more time to answer you, but yes, this does sum up quite nicely what makes for an engaging game and what doesn't.

http://www.gametrekking.com/the-games/cambodia/the-killer/play-now

^ This is a nice, short (5min) example of the interplay between ludo and narrative. There isn't much of either here, and yet you somehow come out of it feeling satisfied. And yes, I know Extra Credits used "Loneliness," I just like this one better.

I do feel like this could be expanded upon, however. There are games that feature almost non-existent ludo (Heavy Rain is one, although a better example is Dear Esther) and heavy narrative, yet still - in my opinion - wouldn't work as well as films or books. And there are games that have hardly any story at all (Minecraft), yet feel quite engaging since you make up your own story.

Thanks! After following that link, I do feel that my worldliness has expanded a tiny bit and I now have an understanding of a part of the world which I didn't before. But unfortunately that's more to do with the beautiful article the game links to at the end, and less to do with the game.

I don't want to invalidate your experience with it - if you enjoyed it, then that's great - but I just found it quite boring. The problem here, I think is that the narrative is fine - the WHY of the game - but the player just isn't asked to do enough for it to be engaging - as you said, the ludo aspect is very minimal.

Now, I'm all for minimalism and I appreciate that these "not games" are experimenting with just how little you can ask from a player, but if this was an experiment, I'd say the conclusion is that you need more. At the end when it referred to me as a lieutenant in Pol Pot's regime - "Lieutenants like you" - I understood that the game wanted me to feel complicit, but it just didn't jive. All I'd done was hold down the space bar.

Imagine if the game had two controls - space bar to walk, and another button to bash the victim and force him to walk forward. At the moment, the player character does this automatically. Why? If I have to make him walk forward, which is not inherently incriminating, why not make me actually do some of the violence myself?

Of course you have to pull the trigger at the end but to be honest, that aspect was so obvious from the get-go that I'd had about five minutes of boredom to contemplate it.

I think this whole not-game scene is interesting, but it's too easy to lean on the idea of a not-game ("it's not a game, so it doesn't have to be entertaining!") to avoid actually doing game design. If you're making a game, no matter how simple, in order to have an effect on your audience - in this instance, to make us think about the Cambodian autogenocide - you need to try and design that game to have maximum impact. And I think the author here has shirked that responsibility.

As an aside, the ending where the body falls into a huge pit got me thinking. Wouldn't it be interesting to see a game which, through the magic of the internet, represented each individual playthrough of the game as a corpse in that pit? That is, what if each of those corpses was the result of someone else playing the game? Then the big reveal at the end would have a second layer of meaning - you would realise that, not only have you just killed a (pixel) person, but that hundreds of your fellow gamers have done it before you. I would love to see games start to question the shoot-first mentality of CoD and Battlefield, and throwing the collective digital barbarism of FPS enthusiasts back in their faces might be a cool way to do it.

Anyway, thank you for that link. It really got me thinking about a lot of things. Again, if you enjoyed the game, I respect that. This was just my view of it.

I will return to the point you raised about Dear Esther later on, after I've thought some more about it.

Thanks!
Jerry

elwood612:
Pretty fantastic essay! I wish I had more time to answer you, but yes, this does sum up quite nicely what makes for an engaging game and what doesn't.

http://www.gametrekking.com/the-games/cambodia/the-killer/play-now

^ This is a nice, short (5min) example of the interplay between ludo and narrative. There isn't much of either here, and yet you somehow come out of it feeling satisfied. And yes, I know Extra Credits used "Loneliness," I just like this one better.

I do feel like this could be expanded upon, however. There are games that feature almost non-existent ludo (Heavy Rain is one, although a better example is Dear Esther) and heavy narrative, yet still - in my opinion - wouldn't work as well as films or books. And there are games that have hardly any story at all (Minecraft), yet feel quite engaging since you make up your own story.

Pfui, I can't spend any more time here, might come back later. Great post though.

Thanks for posing that link. I was trying to remember the name earlier today since I wanted to give it another go.. What a splendid little experience it is.

Well, the all-nighter is over, but since it's still too early for me to go to bed, I'll just rant some more.

I definitely see your point, Jezixo. It's true that, as I pointed out, both the gameplay and the narrative aspects of "The Killer" (that's the game i linked to) are minimalist at best, and completely lacking at worst. But allow me to make a few points nonetheless.

Jezixo:

Now, I'm all for minimalism and I appreciate that these "not games" are experimenting with just how little you can ask from a player, but if this was an experiment, I'd say the conclusion is that you need more. At the end when it referred to me as a lieutenant in Pol Pot's regime - "Lieutenants like you" - I understood that the game wanted me to feel complicit, but it just didn't jive. All I'd done was hold down the space bar.

First of all, you do have an in-game choice: you can choose whether or not to actually kill the guy, which gives you two possible endings. Now I'm not going to pretend like this is an Earth-shattering design element, but I think the overarching question here is, "Would this work as well, if not better, in a different medium?" You mentioned that all you felt was "informed" after playing, but if this had been a Power Point presentation, or a lecture, would your experience have been the same? (Side note: the music has a lot to do with why this game strikes a chord with me, so if you don't like SIgur Ros then yeah, I can see why you're not enthralled). At least for me, the answer is no.

Jezixo:

I think this whole not-game scene is interesting, but it's too easy to lean on the idea of a not-game ("it's not a game, so it doesn't have to be entertaining!") to avoid actually doing game design. If you're making a game, no matter how simple, in order to have an effect on your audience - in this instance, to make us think about the Cambodian autogenocide - you need to try and design that game to have maximum impact. And I think the author here has shirked that responsibility.

This is where I disagree with you. The whole point of these "not-games" as you call them is not, in my opinion, to avoid having to design a good game. Incidentally, many of this guy's games were made at Ludum Dare, which has always been about "proof-of-concept" rather than "fully implemented game design." I think that these smaller games can tell us a lot about what gaming as a whole is capable of - that they can provide an incredibly close and focused perspective on what it means to be a GAME, as opposed to a FILM or a NOVEL. Your concept (or Clint's concept, I forget which) of ludo-narrative resonance is fascinating, and while it puts many of my own gaming experiences in perspective, it is still very broad and (as you point out yourself) rather vague. Ask any film director (I should know this, I'm in film school) and they'll tell you that short films are the hardest to make, because the scope is so reduced that literally every frame of film counts. When people tell you how Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story using only 6 words - "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." - they expect you to be impressed. And you should be. Just as narrative is more than the meaning of each individual word, so gameplay is more than the effect of each individual design element. Ludo-narrative, in short, is more than just the sum of its parts - or at least it should be.

And that's where I see games like The Killer or Dear Esther coming in. Short narrative? Yep. Easily implemented game design? You bet. Yet the experience of playing Dear Esther for the first time is so special. Of course, one cannot forget that this is all entirely subjective, and I know loads of people who didn't even make it through Dear Esther, they were so bored. Still, I will return to the fundamental question: what is it about these that make them games? And not novels, or films?

Let me put this another way. What separates film from other mediums? What makes a film a film, and not a play, or a series of photographs? Is it the effortless and attractive nature of the camera? The ever-changing sets and costumes? The rapid and continuous process of editing? This is not about medium specificity, but rather about learning what it is that our medium does better than any other so that we can continue doing it and improving upon it.

And we haven't even begun to talk about games that actually create ludo-narrative resonance. I mean real games, awesome games, like Shadow of the Colossus, like Bastion, yes, even like Half-Life 2. Remember, Half-Life 2 (and the original to some extent) present you with a completely believable, meticulously thought-out universe without relying on cutscenes.

Hmmm, this is all starting to feel a little rambly. It's the whole no sleep thing, it's just not good for rational arguments. Anyway, bottom line is you're wrong about The Killer. Haha jk, bottom line is, The Killer is just a small, rather narrow example of a much larger concept, one which you outlined very well in your OP. It's probably not worth talking about as much as, say, why the Metal Gear Solid series really doesn't work within these parameters.

Just thought I'd leave this here for those interested in this topic. This was just posted on Destructoid: http://www.destructoid.com/ludonarrative-dissonance-the-roadblock-to-realism-235197.phtml

I read your whole essay. Just thought you'd like to know that given all your effort. I enjoyed the read.

Sorry I haven't responded to this for a few days. But don't think I don't have more to say on the matter! I enjoy a good debate. And so, here we go.

elwood612:

First of all, you do have an in-game choice: you can choose whether or not to actually kill the guy, which gives you two possible endings. Now I'm not going to pretend like this is an Earth-shattering design element, but I think the overarching question here is, "Would this work as well, if not better, in a different medium?"

I'm not sure why that should be the overarching question - the point we are disagreeing on is whether this not-game is "good", by which I mean "effective". I say that it lacks enough design to provide the desired effect. It would NOT work as well in another medium, but I think that's besides the point.

elwood612:

You mentioned that all you felt was "informed" after playing, but if this had been a Power Point presentation, or a lecture, would your experience have been the same? (Side note: the music has a lot to do with why this game strikes a chord with me, so if you don't like SIgur Ros then yeah, I can see why you're not enthralled). At least for me, the answer is no.

No, the experience would not have been the same. But it would have been quicker. I'm not sure why I had to walk for 5 minutes to the beach with absolutely nothing happening besides a change of scenery. It set the scene, certainly, but that time could have been better used, for instance by implicating me more in the role of this lieutenant using elements of ludo, that is, gameplay design. Boring me with a scenery crawl went a long way towards making me dislike the experience. My frustration manifested in a fast trigger finger during the end sequence, which skews the element of choice somewhat.

If the only meaningful part of this game comes at the end in the form of a binary choice, then why not cut straight to it? What is the purpose of the scenery crawl?

elwood612:

The whole point of these "not-games" as you call them is not, in my opinion, to avoid having to design a good game. Incidentally, many of this guy's games were made at Ludum Dare, which has always been about "proof-of-concept" rather than "fully implemented game design."

Firstly, the term "not-game" is not mine. I took that from the website you directed me to. The author himself described "The Killer" as a not-game. It's a term which tends to be used by developers of avant-garde minimalist games, in order to take emphasis off the "entertainment" side of videogames and put it on the "artistic" side of them. I neither approve nor disapprove of the term "not-game". I used it only because the game's author did.

elwood612:
I think that these smaller games can tell us a lot about what gaming as a whole is capable of - that they can provide an incredibly close and focused perspective on what it means to be a GAME, as opposed to a FILM or a NOVEL. Your concept (or Clint's concept, I forget which) of ludo-narrative resonance is fascinating, and while it puts many of my own gaming experiences in perspective, it is still very broad and (as you point out yourself) rather vague.

The idea of ludo-narrative resonance was mine, not Hocking's, and you're right, it is very vague at the moment. I hope to enhance it via debates such as these, and future essays.

I'll reiterate that my problem with this game is not that it is a game, but simply that it doesn't embrace "what it means to be a GAME" as much as it could. You referenced Ludum Dare, which is great, but the best Ludum Dare winners are much better designed than this game. For instance consider Beacon, which won a few years back. There was a game which was fully interactive, never boring, and yet which carried its themes of abandonment, trust, protection or whatever else through the ludo and the narrative. It was engaging, exciting, and most importantly it used the rules of the game - the ludo - to enforce what the narrative was telling us. And it lasted precisely as long as "The Killer" did. THAT was a game which showed us what gaming is capable of.

All the Killer does is ask us to hold the spacebar for no reason while the scenery moves past, and at the end offers a choice, apropos of nothing, to either kill someone or not kill someone. I don't believe that is the essence of good game design. It is so minimalist that it's empty.

elwood612:
Ask any film director (I should know this, I'm in film school) and they'll tell you that short films are the hardest to make, because the scope is so reduced that literally every frame of film counts. When people tell you how Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story using only 6 words - "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." - they expect you to be impressed. And you should be. Just as narrative is more than the meaning of each individual word, so gameplay is more than the effect of each individual design element. Ludo-narrative, in short, is more than just the sum of its parts - or at least it should be.

I also went to film school, and take no issue with the point you make here. Yes, minimalism is one of the hardest and most rewarding challenges an author can take on. But you said it yourself - "literally every frame of film counts". I believe 'Beacon' used every frame of gameplay to further its themes. But 'The Killer'? From the moment you consent at the beginning to press down the spacebar, to the moment at the end where pressing spacebar is no longer required, nothing actually happens. Some suggestions are made as to where you might be going, and if you let go the character stops, but this is not interaction. It is a cutscene which only plays when you hold down the spacebar. It is not interesting, and it performs no function. And most importantly, it wastes time.

elwood612:
And that's where I see games like The Killer or Dear Esther coming in. Short narrative? Yep. Easily implemented game design? You bet. Yet the experience of playing Dear Esther for the first time is so special. Of course, one cannot forget that this is all entirely subjective, and I know loads of people who didn't even make it through Dear Esther, they were so bored. Still, I will return to the fundamental question: what is it about these that make them games? And not novels, or films?

Interactivity is what separates them in my opinion. But again, I don't think that this is the "fundamental question". We disagree on whether The Killer is worthwhile, not on what makes games "games".

Dear Esther does not waste the player's time. Both games feature slowly moving scenery up to the end, but Dear Esther's scenery crawl is directed by the player. It is up to them which direction they go, which nooks to explore, how long to watch the tide come in for, and so on. The player is always in control of the character, even if that character moves slowly and can't jump. The same can't be said of The Killer.

elwood612:
Let me put this another way. What separates film from other mediums? What makes a film a film, and not a play, or a series of photographs? Is it the effortless and attractive nature of the camera? The ever-changing sets and costumes? The rapid and continuous process of editing? This is not about medium specificity, but rather about learning what it is that our medium does better than any other so that we can continue doing it and improving upon it.

Interactivity is what separates gaming from other mediums. It's the only aspect that other mediums don't have. So when games like The Killer reduce that interactivity to the point of non-existence (i.e. press the spacebar or don't) I feel that it is doing the opposite of what you are arguing that it does. I believe The Killer is rejecting the thing that makes games special.

elwood612:
And we haven't even begun to talk about games that actually create ludo-narrative resonance. I mean real games, awesome games, like Shadow of the Colossus, like Bastion, yes, even like Half-Life 2. Remember, Half-Life 2 (and the original to some extent) present you with a completely believable, meticulously thought-out universe without relying on cutscenes.

You're right, there's still loads to be said. Many essays to be written. All of those games are worthy of analysis. I have some grumblings about Half Life 2 and its supposedly cut-scene free world, but they're totally off topic here.

In any case, I think we do agree on almost every point save for one - I don't think The Killer is a prime or even decent example of what "not-games" can do. I think it uses a high-impact emotional message about auto-genocide to hide lazy game design. I think it could have used my 5 minutes more effectively.

But I don't disagree on the importance of minimalist games. Games like Passage or the later Gravity, or indeed Dear Esther or The Path are all games which are slow and tedious but are worthwhile because of it, which appear to frustrate but must do so in order to make their point. The Killer, on the other hand, frustrates and bores for no good reason.

fuzzy logic:
Just thought I'd leave this here for those interested in this topic. This was just posted on Destructoid: http://www.destructoid.com/ludonarrative-dissonance-the-roadblock-to-realism-235197.phtml

I read your whole essay. Just thought you'd like to know that given all your effort. I enjoyed the read.

Thanks so much! I'm reading that link now. It reminds me of Tom Bissel at Grantland taking apart LA Noire. Bissel hardly ever gets through an article nowadays without bringing up ludonarrative dissonance. He's my hero.

You gave me a link, so here's one for you - http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6625747/la-noire

 

Reply to Thread

This thread is locked