Lets start with a definition for those who aren’t aware. Ludo-Narrative Dissonance was coined by the game designer Clint Hocking in a blog post in 2007. The term is used to describe the difference between the narrative told by a games story and the narrative of it’s gameplay. In his post Hocking singled out Bioshock where he explained that the narrated story demands the player be selfless but all the while the gameplay mechanics enforce a selfishness and the pursuit of power.
This was something I was thinking about as I wrote up my review for The Last of Us Part II. How Ellie would stab, shoot and blow up several people just so she could kill one person for killing another. Any kind of self-reflection would tell her that if it wasn’t for the camera crew following her around she would be the bad guy in this story. Abby by contrast is on a mission to kill someone who slaughtered her father as well as many others and succeeds in doing so without anyone else dying. This in contrast to the Ludo-Narrative consistency of the first game was one of the few things that rubbed me the wrong way about the game.
Another example that comes to me is that of the Tomb Raider remake. Again this was a game that I thoroughly enjoyed and had it not been for The Last of Us would have been my Game of the Year. There was a moment in the game where Lara kills her first person. You can see the terror in her and see the very moment that a piece of her soul breaks. This as a scene in isolation really brought depth to Lara’s character, However from that point on she starts gunning, stabbing, exploding people like it’s going out of fashion rendering her early breakdown almost meaningless.
The use of Ludo-Narrative Dissonance isn’t always something to avoid and if used properly can be a powerful story telling tool. To illustrate this lets look at Spec Ops: The Line where the use of ludo-narrative dissonance was a conscious choice. The actions of Walker are seen as a horrible warning to enforce the games message of “War is bad and you should feel ashamed for enjoying this game”. The game uses the hypocrisy of the playable character to reinforce the message of the story. This is how the Ludo-Narrative Dissonance differs from that in Spec Ops then it does in both The Last of Us Part II & Tomb Raider. Ellie & Lara never get that revelation that what they are doing is a bad thing, Walker on the other hand gets to the end of the game and it’s brought to light everything he’s done in the game and he realises his actions cannot be justified.
So to sum everything up, if your game is show signs of Ludo-Narrative Dissonance you can do one of 2 things. 1) Fix the inconsistencies by either adjusting the narrative or gameplay elements so that both elements go hand in hand; or 2) Highlight these difference in such a way that the contract makes the player question their in game choices and actions. The latter is more difficult to pull of but if managed successfully can make for a deeper gaming experience and give the player something to ponder once the gaming is done.