…is a rather fun phrase to say, don’t you think? Say it with me : Luuuudonarrrrative dissssonance. Marvelous.
Not only is it fun to say, it’s also the primary reason why I switched themes for my game, from Urban Fantasy to Cyberpunk.
So what exactly is it?
Basically, ludonarrative dissonance is when there is a conflict between the explicit narrative being told by a game and the “story” that is told by the actual gameplay, ie the player’s interactions with the game’s mechanics and reward structures.
For example, say non-player characters (NPCs) keep lots of valuable loot in their houses but those same NPCs aren’t programmed to notice the player stealing their wares. This can (and frequently does) result in the player stealing the silverware in front of an NPC, only to have that NPC greet the player warmly in conversation later, as a “hero” and “a welcome guest”. This sets up a conflict between the observed reality of the gameplay and the explicit story being told by characters and cutscenes.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of ludonarrative dissonance in games, many of which have entered the fabled halls of memedom.
The infamous Skyrim NPCs, who you can shoot full of arrows and still hear them conclude that it “must have been nothing” once you’ve been out of sight range for a while. The games that urge you to make all haste as your quest is of utmost urgency, only to have every actor in the game wait patiently in place while you finish up your side-quests and chase all the achievements. The games where you’re the only hope for the survival of everyone on the planet, but weapon sellers still demand that you pay for each upgrade. And perhaps worst of all, the ones where you’re soundly thumping the end-of-game boss, only for it to fade to a cutscene once his health gets low, where you’re informed that the boss is “just too powerful to defeat” and you need some special ritual or item to actually defeat him.
This collision between the experience of the gameplay and the narrative is rather jarring, and it is one of the ways in which writing a good narrative for a game can be difficult. You have to make sure the mechanics are not sabotaging the narrative, and vice versa.
This is essentially the problem I was was running into, with the Street Sorcery theme. The setting was inspired by World of Darkness and Constantine and the Dresden Files, supernatural intrigue and treachery. But the story told by the mechanics is much simpler, and more akin to an RTS. The player has only one real way to interact with the story, fighting. Straight-up skirmishes between two small groups of opponents. If I had more mechanics in the game, more support for branching dialogue and choices and exploration, if it had been an RPG or adventure game essentially, it would have been fine.
But that isn’t the case. And the card battle mechanics are not abstract enough to represent a generic “conflict” that could be adapted to represent social interactions too. This is a game about dudes fighting other dudes in groups. I needed a narrative where it felt like a more natural fit.
If you look at other CCGs, you generally see that the theme is designed to provide a context for regular strategy battles. Magic is a world where mages can create just about anything out of thin air, armies included, but the source of that magic, mana, is drawn from territories they control. A perfect setup for frequent conflict with disposable armies. The world of Pokemon is one where it is normal for children to wander around, collecting monsters and training them by fighting other Trainers in non-lethal Pokemon gyms. Again, the narrative fits the mechanics.
I got tired of feeling like the story I was writing wasn’t fitting the mechanics. So I decided to put that setting aside until I could do it the justice I feel it deserves, and pick a more appropriate context.
After trying a few things, I finally settled on Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk fit my needs well, “Runners” are essentially mercenaries, so it makes sense if most plot points are built around a clash with opposing forces in a “run” on some target. Also, since they’re mercs working for money, it’s ok thematically if both you and your enemies have access to the same pool of Agent cards. Helpful, when you’re working on a budget and need to minimize your card count. And finally, I really like Cyberpunk, as a setting. I like the “low life meets high tech” themes and conflicts. And it feels like an under served niche, though with games like DX:HR and CDProjeckt’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, that’s starting to change.
So now you know the reason. Ideally, I shouldn’t have changed direction, should have had the theme fixed from the start. But some things you learn only by doing, and now I know what to consider for the next game. And I’m sure I’ll continue to learn these kinds of lessons, as I make more games and more mistakes. 😉