One of the Internet’s most overused and misunderstood terms, ludonarrative dissonance gets thrown around a lot in gaming, especially when a game has you killing a lot of people. However, as with most terms, it’s really not that simple.
See, there isn’t actually that much dissonance in a game like Uncharted. While you do kill a lot of people, and it may stretch the believability of how many private militias there can possibly be in the world, it doesn’t create dissonance. Uncharted never seeks to push the message that all human life is important or anything like that. It’s simply an action-packed adventure. So your ludic experience of becoming an action-hero style adventurer shouldn’t ever come into conflict with the game’s narrative of, well. Nathan Drake being an action-hero style adventurer. So the term doesn’t actually apply to one of the game series it’s most known for being connected to.
So, what exactly is ludonarrative dissonance? It’s a big term, for sure, it can seem confusing. But trust me, it’s easy to understand. Ludonarrative itself as a term is lovely to know. Ludology is simply the study of games and gameplay. Mechanics and whatnot, so ludonarrative is, by extension, the story that is created through the mechanics of a videogame. Simple. It’s the story you tell by playing a game. Narrative through mechanics.
If the messages you receive by playing a game come into conflict with the messages portrayed by the narrative and story of the game, it can cause this dissonance. Bioshock was the original example used by the person who coined the term: Clint Hocking. And people promptly misused it to refer to every game that makes them feel weird.
So if this term exists, there must be the opposite right? It’s called ludonarrative harmony, and while it’s a lot rarer, it can happen! And when it does, it’s truly incredible. I’m going to whip out my tried and tested videogame for this one: Bloodborne.
From Software’s games all have a certain level of ludonarrative harmony to them. But none of them manage it quite as beautifully as Bloodborne. The narrative, the story of Bloodborne tells a tale of monsters and beasts. A slow descent into insanity as the Hunter discovers more about the land which they found themselves in, and the dreamscape it was partially dragged into by beings beyond human comprehension. The gameplay, the ludonarrative built up by the player perfectly encapsulates this journey and the themes of helplessness in ways that blow me away to this day!
I absolutely adore the slow descent into crazy cosmic horror when playing Bloodborne. You start off fighting werewolves, witches and ogres but slowly over time, as you learn the truth you start to encounter celestial emissaries from the heavens, ancient beings from other worlds and incomprehensible horrors too unbelievable for the human mind to handle.
Not to mention the literal mechanic built into the game for insanity: Insight. A counter that shows the level of knowledge the hunter has received. However, what isn’t initially obvious is that it lowers the hunter’s resistance to Frenzy. This indicates that the higher your insight (the more knowledge you have), the more susceptible you are to insanity, encapsulating the themes of the game in one mechanic.
This is how ludonarrative harmony can be done blisteringly well, but there are obviously other games that do this expertly too. Undertale, of course, Final Fantasy X is another good one.
So, has this given you a better understanding of one of the internet’s most overused terms?
Did you hear about it before?
If so, did you hear something different?