The term "ludonarrative dissonance" is useful, but it's making you an idiot

Bioshock Infinite Screenshot - 1150179

There’s a term being thrown around the video game industry these days: “ludonarrative dissonance.” It’s a phrase that’s unique to video games, as it essentially refers to situations in which gameplay and narrative feel like they’re at odds with one another.

The phrase is hardly new at this point. After all, it was coined way back in 2007 by a man named Clint Hocking. But I’ve been seeing it come up a lot more lately, especially in discussions about games like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us. That’s kind of fitting, actually, since Hocking was using the term in reference to the original BioShock.

It's currently popping up in conversations about combat. In telling a story in which you’re meant to feel something for the protagonist, how many people can that protagonist murder before you start to have an emotional disconnect?

For example, Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series is supposed to be this lovable treasure hunter dude, but he goes on these rampages where he’ll murder hundreds upon hundreds of people, spewing witty one-liners all the while. There’s even a brief mention of this during the boss fight of Uncharted 2, when Zoran Lazarević delivers this classic line: "You think I am a monster, but you're no different than me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many - Just today?” Of course, Drake, that handsome rapscallion, seems to just shrug it off as easily as he shrugs off Chloe in the game’s ending. (She’s cool with it, though, because she has an awesome accent.)

Uncharted 2

In BioShock Infinite, the beauty of Columbia is tainted by the fact that you’re spending all of your time there turning people into smudges of red goo. (Or, at least that’s one of the current arguments floating about the interwebs. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, but that’s a discussion for another time, I think.) There's an argument that Infinite’s story would have been better fitted to something that wasn’t a first-person shooter (though, what that magical genre is, I can’t really say.)

It’s awesome that the medium of video games has evolved to a point where it demands its own esoteric jargon in order to be talked about intelligently. The very fact that the term “ludonarrative dissonance” exists is a testament to gaming’s potential as something that can spawn insightful commentary from legitimate critics rather than just being a collection of children’s toys. It's more evidence that games are actually becoming art. I love this.

On the other hand, there’s danger here. Video games have a very vocal audience, and those people love to get their hands on phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance,” because it makes them sound smart. It’s the sort of thing that often gives them what they feel is a leg to stand on in what’s an otherwise flimsy argument.

For example, The Last of Us. Is there really a disconnect between story and gameplay here? The game is absurdly violent, yes, but it feels intentionally so. Joel is not a good person, by any means, nor are we ever told that we’re supposed to think so. In fact, the game’s ending seems to drive this fact home (for me, at least; I’ll let you interpret the ending however you’d like.) So when Joel kills a dozen people who are hunting him because he left the safety of the miliatry compound, I believe that’s how his character would act. It doesn’t make me like Joel, or agree with his decisions, but it makes me feel like I at least understand who he is as a character.

Now, back in the day, the term “linearity” was being thrown around all willy-nilly like. This was back when Grand Theft Auto III came out and revolutionized gaming as we knew it. It showed us that a game world can be more open than we’d ever imagined. Remember, this happened in an era when corridor-style FPSes were still all the rage. GTA3 was important.

Grand Theft Auto III

Here’s the thing that people failed to understand, though: Just because a game can be that open, doesn’t mean it needs to be. Portal was completely linear, minus the fact that there were some alternative solutions to puzzles that the developers hadn’t necessarily intended, yet it was completely groundbreaking and exciting. The story was fantastic, and the gameplay felt new and original. But there were people who were tempted to call it a bad game because of its linearity. Am I the only one who thinks that’s absurd?

Some of the best games ever made – in fact, most of the best games ever made – are completely linear. Yes, it’s great that we have the term to throw around when we want to express why we’re dissatisfied with, say, Final Fantasy XIII’s narrow hallway design approach.  However, it’s completely silly to judge every post-GTA3 game extra harshly because of linearity, yet that’s exactly what a lot of people have done. We’ve taken a very useful term and have used it as an excuse to hate on things that don’t really deserve it.

And that’s what I fear is happening with “ludonarrative dissonance.” How much longer will it be before we start judging every game with combat against humans extra harshly because this term exists? I mean, as far as I can tell, we’re doing it already.

Terms like “ludonarrative dissonance” are great when they allow us to talk about video games intelligently. That last part is key, though, because so many people use terminology to sound smart while positing really stupid arguments.

Go ahead and use the term. It exists now, and it’s a good tool to have in discussions about gaming. Just don’t use it as an excuse to hate things unfairly and try to sound smart while doing so. That really just makes you a pretentious ass.

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Josh Wirtanen
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