Ludonarrative dissonance…

20 Nov
November 20, 2012

…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. 😉

11 replies
  1. Daniel says:

    Yeah, Story and Game-play dissonance is defiantly noticeable in games and when I play through fallout, baldur’s gate etc, I notice little things that could’ve helped with immersion, but inhibited it instead. I think theres a fine line in Story/Rpg based games and I think developers advice rings true when they say: screw your story because players will make their own.

    On the flipside, I think there should be narrative “hooks” to pull you in, but give players lots of dialogue options, because who doesn’t like: (Intimidation) Give me your money or I’ll bash your head in!

    • Scotticus says:

      Daniel, I’m interested to hear some examples of these little things you mention which would have helped with immersion that weren’t in there. I’m certainly not saying your wrong, but I am working on a similar RPG and would like to know your thoughts.


      • Daniel says:

        It’s pretty subjective to the person playing, however I my main advice would be: Don’t lock the player into a ‘role’ give them a choice to become the ‘hero’ or become a hero for the selfish glory seeker type or the selfless martyr to the neutral everyman just trying to survive. Talking about game examples: I’d say in (fallout 3 example) When you find your father in the vault simulation there was a wasted opportunity to tell him about his friend getting killed.

        He says he doesn’t want to know what happened in vault 101. however to me it seems like a copout to cut down on voice acting. You should have been able to tell him about his (long time mind you) friend’s death and had a father/daughter moment of comfort or even vowelled revenge against the overseer.

        P.S If I remember other instances of dialog that should of been there or scenes that could have been better I’ll post again. Cheers.

  2. dx0ne says:

    btw if you like Constantine and Dresden you will like Felix Castor series from Mike Carey

  3. Daniel says:

    I just thought of someting: dialog to me is a ‘representative’ of the player’s morals, ethics, emotions.

    I Think each dialog option needs it’s own ‘voice’ speaking with different outlooks on life. Say a monk is walking down the road and is accosted by bandits. If he believes all men can be redeemed he may try and talk his way out of the situation and appeal to the mens humanity or if he’s a paladin type personality he may warn them, and if they keep pushing the envelope. He may go Bruce Lee on their asses for example.

    If he’s a corrupt monk e.g worships an evil god, He may try bribing them or even recruiting them.

    • Daniel says:

      Sorry about spamming up your blog Gareth, but i’m on a roll. 🙂 (bows humbly)

      Another thing I think would help with immersion is like Gareth pointed out above. Npcs retaining some kind of memory. Skyrim is good game (don’t judge me here lol.) I believe the developers squandered the possibilities of their “radiant quest” system. Instead of an infinite job list (that’s essentially what it is) They could’ve really done some cool things with it.

      Example: When you walk into the trader in Riverwood, the proprietor is arguing with his sister about a stolen item of theirs.

      The upshot is you can say you’ll get it back, and you accept, dugeon delve and then bring the claw back.

      This is how I would have done it: If your a mercenary offer to get the item back ‘if’ he pays you, or play the hero and vowel to get it back. Or if your a pacifist refuse to get involved even just run get it and hoof it.

      When you get to the bandit hideout, a thief has the item, however a giant spider is trying to eat him. when you let him go, he betrays you and runs.

      He ends up getting killed and thats that.

      I would have him escape with the claw if your not fast enough. Which leads to a quest chain for example, or just kill him right off the bat and end it right there.

      It turns it into a more exciting story if you add ‘hooks’ like bandits discussing a rich client they’re intending to sell to. Who could lead off onto a little political intrigue.

      Right there I’ve turned it from a ‘fetch’ quest and made it into a mystery which could have far reaching implications (Or not).

  4. GhanBuriGhan says:

    I’m happy with Cyberpunk too, but wouldn’t it have been easier to stick with the urban fantasy setting and just adjust/simplify the narrative (to warring mage gangs, instead of warring shadowrunners) could the same narrative not be told in either setting?

  5. gareth says:


    But I was struggling to write a story that worked within the constraints but felt satisfying for me personally.

    Perhaps I failed to find the right approach/inspiration, or it’s just a lack on my part, writing ability wise.

    But I’m finding it easier with the Cyberpunk theme. The nature of the amoral mercenaries in an amoral world taking on dangerous work for money means I can plot a story arc filled with these regular combat runs without it feeling forced.

  6. GhanBuriGhan says:

    I can easily imagine that, especially when your sources of inspiration for the urban fantasy theme were all pointing into a different narrative direction. Either way I got to thank you for bringing the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to my attention. I am sure it will be invaluable on the geekboards we both frequent :monocle:

  7. gareth says:

    :monocle: 😉


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