Have you ever played a game where narrative and gameplay seemed to be somehow disconnected? Maybe even in conflict with each other? That’s exactly what Clint Hocking was talking about when he coined the term ludonarrative dissonance in 2007.
I’ve come across this kind of phenomenon a few times in the last few years. Hocking found it Bioshock. And I recently found it in, at least, 3 games. Those games are Tomb Raider (reboot), Metal Gear Solid 3 and Uncharted 4.
There are some minor spoilers on the following text about those 3 games.
The Tomb Raider reboot launched in 2013 is a fantastic videogame. To restart the saga by Crystal Dynamics is clearly inspired by the Uncharted saga, though, in my opinion, it improves the formula giving some moments of pause, more exploration (some but not much) and a higher level of freedom. Being a reboot, the team decided to start over with Lara’s story, giving us a character that is living it’s first adventure. To make that point clear, they show us a Lara Croft fragile and naive, that sees herself forced to fight and kill. Is in this first killing where they show us how bad Lara feels, how terrible it is for her.
After this little cut scene you take control over Lara again, and in less than 30 minutes you find yourself killing like there is no tomorrow. Through cut scenes and dialogues, the game continues to emphasize the fragility and how disturbing the whole situation is for the character. But it fails, as it is not consistent with the gameplay, and we can even say it’s in conflict with it.
Metal Gear Solid 3
I have a complicated relationship with the Metal Gear saga. I love the games, they’re stories, game design, etc. but I profoundly hate it’s control and camera. Every time I land my hands in one of the Metal Gears is a struggle that takes me a few hours to enjoy. I’m saying all this because the kind of dissonance that I’ve found playing Metal Gear Solid 3 might be my fault.
Though its topic, setting and narrative, the game tricks me into believe I have to be extremely cautious, like playing an espionage simulator. The problem comes when you try to play like that. The game doesn’t give you tools to do it. The control is completely arcade. I found myself repeating a million times that last fight of the game. Trying different strategies, being careful. At the end, I realized I only had to run constantly and be extremely aggressive.
There is nothing wrong with that and the game is truly awesome. But for whatever reason, I feel that the gameplay is not true to the game setting. Never heard complains about this so maybe it’s just me.
The Uncharted saga has been always an example of ludonarrative dissonance. Nate, Sully and company are truly charismatic characters, and it’s really difficult (for me) not to like them. But if you pay attention to the gameplay, you’ll see that it suffers of the same issue as the Tomb Raider reboot.
On the fourth game in particular, there is a scene that where this comes to light very clearly. On the last third of the game, you find yourself confronting Rafe Adler and Nadine. Sam is pointing at Nadine and Nate intervenes to save her life. By this point in the game, you have easily killed 300 enemies with Drake, what makes the situation a bit odd.
At Naughty Dog, they’re aware that their saga has been related to this topic several time, so they added a trophy to U4 called “ludonarrative dissonance” that you get after killing 1,000 enemies. You can’t say they don’t have a good sense of humor.
Is ludonarrative dissonance a problem?
In my opinion, is not. But I also going to say that is not ideal. Videogames are game first, and gameplay mechanics should be (in most cases) the core of the product. Making an action-adventure game where the “hero” only kills a couple of people would make the game incredibly short or boring. That doesn’t mean that game creators should ignore this. Videogames is a young medium, and there’s a lot of progress to be made.