Back in 2007, Clint Hocking wrote a game critique (he also specified that it was a critique, not a review, and the difference between the two) of the game Bioshock. He introduced the term ludonarrative dissonance to refer to the difference in what a game is as a game, and what it is as a story. If you think it’s a complicated concept, well it is, so much that it is not easy to define when a game presents it and when it doesn’t.
But as a person quite obsessed with the relationship between video games and storytelling, I couldn’t do without digging deeper, because I think that player agency is going to be quite an issue in the future of gaming, given how fast technology is progressing.
According to Hocking, the thing that prompted him to write the critique was a feeling he got while playing, a feeling of emersion, of being “pulled out” from the story due to the clash between the directives and the incentives in the game. He specifically made the example of the choice he had to make about how to deal with the Little Sisters. They are sick, and the player can decide to harvest their power (killing them) or save them. The problem with this choice is that by killing the Little Sisters the player gains a lot of power, making the rest of the game easier.
In general, in Bioshock, there is a discrepancy because the objective of the game (fighting against a Randian objectivist system) can only be carried out by making “Randian” actions, and it’s not possible to avoid making this choice.
In my opinion, well, it had to happen, due to the nature of the videogame as a medium. Since by definition a game is an experience where the player has to make meaningful choices, it was inevitable for these choices to become more and more complicated over time. Long gone are the days when there was only one possible way to save the princess Peach, and I’m glad they are, both as a gamer and as a storyteller. But we see that they are already getting too complicated and it’s time to as the question: how to deal with the newfound complexity of story-based games?
In his book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, game designer Jesse Schell suggests that in the future videogames should avoid pre-coded narratives and be based on emergent narratives. This means there should be little to no main storyline, and what matters is the story created by the player as they play. In a certain sense, games such as Fortnite can be seen as an example of that. In a certain sense, even Skyrim can fit into this category, given the fact that the main storyline quests only account for 8% of the game quests total.
This seems to be in agreement with what Will Wright (creator of the Sims series) once said: games have to get rid of film envy. Stop trying so hard to model the videogame’s storytelling to the movie’s storytelling, because they’re two different mediums.
As much as I agree on the fact that movies and games are meant to tell a story in different ways, this explanation doesn’t leave me 100% satisfied. Is that really all? What if it was possible to use ludonarrative dissonance as a narrative device? Stay tuned to find out.