It’s time for me to finally explain two topics that I have offhandedly mentioned on multiple occasions (and will talk about a whole lot more in the future): ludonarrative dissonance and ludonarrative interference. But before we talk about them, let’s talk about Bioshock. Bioshock’s release in 2007 was a milestone for video game narratives. It was a console shooter that said things and made points. It had choices (even if the black and white nature of the Little Sister harvesting decisions wasn’t all that compelling) and it commented on the nature of player interaction with a game. Plus, it was basically the sequel to Atlas Shrugged (if John Galt’s weird pure-capitalist society hidden in the mountain was a modern-ish Atlantis). And since it was critiquing Ayn Rand’s philosophies, it had to be smart. (I mean, not really. A monkey pointing to 2008 on a calendar would be making a pretty compelling argument for some regulation of industry, although Bioshock was released before the economy blew up but that’s not the point. I digress.) It also received some serious academic-style criticism in a way that few games before (or after, to be honest) had.
And I find it ironic that one of the most enduring critical analyses of the game also missed the game’s most interesting hook.
In Michael Abbot’s thoughts on Bioshock’s narrative failings, he says the following: “To mock us for accepting the weaknesses of the medium not only insults the player, but it’s really kind of ‘out of bounds’ (except as comedy or as a meta element – of which it appears to be neither). [emphasis mine]
The reveal that ultimately defines what Bioshock is about is a comment about player interaction. When Andrew Ryan reveals what exactly “Would you kindly?” means, he is talking to the player. It is as meta as anything that has ever been put into a game ever. He is saying, “You are doing what the developer has told you to do. And in every game you have ever played, you have only done what the developer has told you you can do. You have never made a choice in a video game. Now enjoy watching me die.” That is a fascinating thing to say, and it even if it’s kind of an insult to the player (though I find the idea that anything is completely “out of bounds” even more insulting), it was important. It made players, for better or worse, a little more aware of the artifice of their medium-of-choice.
What does that have to do with ludonarrative dissonance or ludonarrative interference, you may ask? Well, that article I just quoted is called “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” It’s where the phrase was coined.
The bulk of the article is actually focused on this idea of “ludonarrative dissonance,” a phrase that is often misused and misrepresented. And it’s admittedly somewhat difficult to understand. The basic concept of ludonarrative dissonance comes from a disconnect between a game’s play (ludic aspects) and its story (narrative aspects). Bioshock is an interesting example: Its gameplay is fundamentally Randian while its story is fundamentally not. The big narrative “choice” in the game is whether to save or harvest the Little Sisters. Saving them makes you feel good and harvesting them gives you currency. You also get gifts every so often if you save them, but those gifts don’t actually equalize . In both the short and long term, it is in the player’s best interest to harvest the little sisters. In other words, the gameplay pushes you in a direction that says you should be completely and totally selfish. You don’t have to (I didn’t), but the game rewards it and punishes selflessness.Which stands in direct contrast to the actual narrative, because the ideals above absolutely represent Ayn Rand’s philosophies. But the narrative is predicated on the failure of those ideas and your character isn’t doing everything for himself anyway, because honestly, he doesn’t have anything he seems to want. Only things that others want for him to do, which he does, because he’s selfless.
Perhaps an easier way to think about ludonarrative dissonance is as the consequence of a disconnect between the ideals of the player and those of the player character. In the base of Bioshock, Jack, the player character is essentially a soulless husk for players to throw themselves into, so he doesn’t really have any ideals of his own, but he is under a spell, and that spell externally creates those selfless ideals for him. He’s doing things because he’s told to. But what about you, the player? If you want to make this selfless being selfish through gameplay (while he continues to play as selfless in the narrative), you’re going to have to jump through a few intellectual hoops to reconcile that. It’s going to distract you from what you’re doing.
And that’s really all it is. And it’s something that will only really strike you if you’re trying to think about what a game means and what gaming means. If you don’t think too hard, it will never bother you. That would be kind of a shame, since it is something that both players and developers should be aware of. And it isn’t always bad; Spec Ops: The Line embraced the concept and used it to help tell its (excellent) story.
But dissonance is not the only ludonarrative problem that games have, and with that, we turn to Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite is a fascinating game, and the critical response to the game has been even more interesting. The intellectual hatred is kind of stunning, actually, considering how well-regarded it is in the mainstream press. But through all of the vitriol, the one term that really stuck out to me was in Tim Rogers’s Action Button Dot Net review: “ludonarrative interference.” It’s a phrase that nobody else has used, but it’s one I’m going to use a lot, because I think it’s important. In fact, I think it might be the most important vaguely-academic sounding neologism to come out of any criticism of a video game, because it comes from the most fundamental flaws in game design. (Which is probably why very few people in the industry talk about it.)
Ludonarrative interference manifests itself in the form of “Why…?” or "How...?" with only one answer: “Because it’s a video game.”Example: “Why doesn't the fat man dressed in overalls jumping into floating blocks hurt get a concussion?” and “Why does walking into the mushroom that came out of the floating blocks make him grow big?”
“Because it’s a video game.”
And if someone who wants to play a Mario game is unable to enjoy the relative non-narrative because of that, it’s their loss and nobody’s going to feel bad for them. Tim Rogers uses the example of Link falling in lava only taking away a heart in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess rather than actually killing him (which is probably a better example, but if I’m just quoting other people then why even write this?). (Here again, because it’s a video game, but more importantly because it’s a video game that isn’t trying to frustrate the player at every lava-covered turn.)
There is one example that people point to as dissonance that I think is actually interference: In games like Call of Duty, you can technically fire bullets at soldiers in your squad, but they will still be on your side. The thing is, you can’t kill members in your squad. You can’t even hurt them. If you could and the game still continued on like you were a perfect soldier, that would be the cause for some dissonance, but without friendly fire the question should more immediately be “Why can’t I kill him?” or “Why does he not notice me shooting him?” rather than “Why is my attempt to kill this invincible character not being addressed by the other characters, and what affect is this having on my ability to connect with my character in terms of the heavily scripted narrative?”
It’s essentially the thing that requires you to suspend your disbelief. You have to accept this thing because it’s a video game and it has limitations. And most of the time that’s fine, but when a game is trying to matter? When it wants to push the medium forward? That’s when ludonarrative interference becomes a problem. If you want to make a game that really makes people think (about something other than flawed game design), then you need to watch out for this stuff, because everything that interferes with your ability to simply interact with the narrative is a problem. If the player has to mentally consider the fact that they can just hide behind a bush for five seconds and suddenly have full health or can magically teleport things from one location to their inventory (which is in all likelihood a theoretical construct in itself rather than some physical in-game object).
These things make it harder to take a serious game seriously, because they’re silly. And that really gets to the heart of the issue: sometimes video games are just silly, and that silliness can completely destroy a game’s intended effect. If you’re playing a survival horror game and then you see something that only a game would do, it will wreck the immersion and you will remember in an instant that nothing is real, art is a lie, and everyone around you has an expiration date.