In Defense of Ludonarrative Dissonance

First off, no this is not a retraction of my opinion (which I was apparently the sole defender of) that Ludonarrative Dissonance is a bad thing for a game to have. Instead this is a response to the growing antagonism towards the term itself. There is plenty of it about, most recently from a post of Corvus Elrod’s over at Semionaut’s Notebook. I wanted to write this right away after reading it, but other commitments kept me from doing so at the time. Although having just reread it I find that it doesn’t say a whole lot about the term itself, just that it’s use is unnecessary and rather ineffectual.

For those who don’t know (though if you are reading this I give 4 to 1 odds you do) Ludonarrative Dissonance was a term coined by CLINT HOCKING, here, in reference to Bioshock and was later applied by others to Gears of War, Uncharted and others. It is where the game elements conflict the thematic elements the narrative tries to convey. It’s why the normally happy-go-lucky “normal” guy of Nathan Drake becomes a disturbing sociopath in the gameplay. It’s why the “rah-rah kill them” mentality of the Cogs is somewhat undermined by the fact they cower behind chest high walls at every opportunity despite wearing refrigerators. Not included are getting stuck on the world geometry or running in place against an invisible wall.

First I want to address the common criticism that the word is pretentious. In most cases people don’t know what the word pretentious means. A word can neither be pretentious or not by itself. Not just words, but anything. It is the intent behind something’s use that makes that something pretentious or not. And in most cases the word only comes off being pretentious because people undermine their use of the term by making it seem forced or unnecessary. They prefix it with self deprecating crap like “excuse me for using the term, but…” or “no other way to say it than…” or “pardon me for being pretentious, but…” That crap undermines not only the term but also your argument. People prefix it so that they don’t alienate their so-called “cool” audience. Hint: They’re not reading this.

In a recent Experience Points podcast, Jorge Albor and Scott Juster just tossed the term into the discussion like it were any other word, made their point and moved on. I got what they were saying and everything kept moving. If you feel there is a stigma with such a term, it’s because you have placed the stigma there. It is a useful term. Really it’s because to most people it sounds so outrageous that they can’t help but feel that is shouldn’t belong. That feeling is the feeling that games are some lower form of creative work, because something highbrow sounding doesn’t belong; the feeling they aren’t worthy of in depth discussion. Because that is what Ludonarrative Dissonance is, a term for the facilitating of in depth discussion of games.

Of course there is the fear that this is a slippery slope towards not being understood in trying to broaden critical ideas to an expanded audience. Fair enough, but that comes down to writing. Contrary to what I normally argue, people are smarter than you think. If you present a word or term and they don’t understand they can figure it out. Especially if you are making an argument where you have to explain the Ludonarrative Dissonance. Give your explanation of how the game is guilty of it, a person can figure out the terms meaning. Not to mention that the definition is in the word itself. The ludo- prefix may stump some people, but every English speaking person knows what narrative is. They can figure out the rest from the explanation. It really is not as exclusionary as people make it out to be.

Now to the more relevant point Corvus Elrod brought up in his post that it is a pointless term, using the example of how we criticize movies or TV.

“So we have a situation where the fight choreography does not uphold the fiction behind the show.
But we don’t refer to this as choreonarrative dissonance. Nor, for that matter, do we refer to the poorly written and delivered dialog as dialonarrative dissonance. Or the lackluster camera work as cinemanarrative dissonance.”

No, no we don’t. Why? Because we say all of that in other ways. Yes we call it bad film making, but at the same time that isn’t good enough. If I asked you about a movie and you said it was bad and I asked why, would I really accept bad film making as the reason? No, because that tells me just as much as saying it was bad. Of course it was bad film making if it was a bad movie. Pointless choreography, bad writing, awful delivery, shoddy cinematography. These are reasons that can be presented, argued, and defended. I cannot argue something is bad film making, because I have no idea what you are talking about. You have to go further and explain what specifically and then why. The same is true for games. An example back and forth:

“This is a bad game.”
“Okay then what was bad?”
“It has bad game design.”
“Okay then what was bad?”

See my problem. You have told me nothing and I end up repeating the question. Tell me something. Ludonarrative dissonance is a something. It is a conflict in the elements of the game. It has a definition that is at least a sentence long so it becomes short hand for a concept that frankly is quite common in games today. It is a perfectly valid term for telling what specifically is wrong with a game. Yes you will have to back up and defend your claim, but that is fundamental to every argument.

The only people who have a legitimate gripe about the term are the Classicists who can’t stand seeing Greek and Latin in the same word. But it’s a bit late for that; it has taken root in the critical lexicon. (Edit: This assertion was based on an argument I had with kateri_t on twitter, I apparently misremembered the issue of that argument.)

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