Intro to Game Criticism: Ludonarrative Distance

Intro to Game Criticism: Ludonarrative Distance

Posted by CJ Wilson

18 Dec, 2020


“Ludonarrative dissonance” (not “distance,” in this case) is a contentious term, and not only because it squeezes eight syllables and 23 letters into two words. Among game developers and critics, it’s a negative term used to describe situations where the tone or message of the story in a game seems to be directly contradicted by the gameplay. Think of a happy-go-lucky, incredibly likeable, or peaceful character… who you play in a shooter that has you gunning down thousands of hapless minions. Or a tale where the overarching message is that you must sometimes fight to do what’s right, but whose climax involves little or no combat.

Something just doesn’t “click” in both of these cases and we, as an audience, notice that discrepancy. Sometimes enough to pull us out of the game and break our immersion entirely. 

That is “ludonarrative dissonance.”

Between its primarily negative connotation and its academic sound, it’s a term that comes with some pushback. The second Urban Dictionary definition listed for it is: “An unnecessarily fancy sounding term mostly used by pseudo-intellectuals to whine about violence in Bioshock: Infinite.” 

While the person stating this makes no valid argument, the fact still remains that some people have some powerfully angry feelings about both the term and the idea.

But, having terms like these are important to the development of critical theory and the advancement and discussion of any art form. That said, I think some changes can be made to the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to help it reach that crucial point. 

A Brief History of the Term “Ludonarrative Dissonance”

It’s fairly easy to trace the history of this phrase. It originated in a 2007 blog post by Clint Hocking, the former creative director of LucasArts and Ubisoft, intended as a critique of the original Bioshock. 

Before we continue, I want you to remember that word: “Critique.” The idea of criticism will be crucial to what we’re discussing, here. 

Clint argued, not so simply, that the narrative message of Bioshock contradicts what the game forces you to do in its gameplay. I won’t get into a full explanation of why, as you can simply read the article above. But, he described this contraction as “ludonarrative dissonance” and the term stuck. 

From there, it quickly entered the industry lexicon. It appeared in Tom Bissell’s 2010 book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,referencing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The term found constant use surrounding the hit game series Uncharted, described by Eurogamer’s Jeffrey Matulef as “being about a supposedly likable rogue who just so happens to recklessly slaughter hundreds of people.” 

2016 saw the solidification of the term in the world of game development. In May of that year, Uncharted 4 released, with a trophy awarded for killing 1,000 enemies entitled “Ludonarrative Dissonance.” Then, a researcher at the University of Tokyo by the name of Frederic Seraphine wrote a literature review on the topic, bringing it into the academic world.

The Importance of Criticism

As mentioned, the very term “ludonarrative dissonance” can inspire some extremely vitriolic responses. Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that the gaming community’s seedier elements have a bad habit of being loud and cruel enough to give the rest of us a bad name, it’s important to figure out how to bring it into the common parlance.

At which point, you may be staring at your screen and asking: “Yeah, but… why?”

And that brings us to the topic of artistic criticism. If you are an artist of any kind, you’re likely well aware that one of the greatest things you can do to improve your work is to get a second set of well-honed eyes on it, and develop your ability to critique your own work. This allows you to see the problems that need to be fixed on your second draft or your next performance, and can teach you lessons that will apply to many of your works from now, on. 

But, many “problems” with an artistic work, especially at higher levels, become hard to explain. It’s a feeling; a sense that something’s off, and it can be hard to understand what, exactly, the problem is, let alone put it into words. And if you can’t figure out the problem, it’s hard to fix.

Artistic criticism as a field, and critical terms specifically, solve that issue. They give us a new way of understanding what we’re looking at and a new vocabulary to match. These new ideas and new words serve to put a name to that “problem” on the tip of our tongue, allowing us to understand what the issue was, communicate it to others, make note of it, ourselves, and work to repair it. 

Every major art has developed a field of criticism complete with its own critical vocabulary as part of its growth and evolution. Even when a field has been “rethought” outside of the dominant academic paradigm, a critical vocabulary still emerges. Talk to a classical musician, a jazz musician, and a rocker all back to back. You’ll find that they each have different terms for the same idea.

Gaming has lacked this (and desperately needed it) for some time. As a matter of fact, Hocking noted that in his own article:

“With the ‘language of games’ being as limited as it is, understanding what I am ‘reading’ is hard, and trying to articulate it back to people in a useful way is a full order of magnitude harder… Roughly speaking, we could say game criticism is for game developers and professionals who want to think about the nature of games and what they mean.”

Ludonarrative Dissonance vs Distance

Ludonarrative dissonance, however, has a problem: it is a very specific and strictly negative term for a very specific quality in a video game. This isn’t inherently bad. Rather, the problem is that we lack a term to describe the spectrum upon which ludonarrative dissonance sits as an undesirable extreme.

In other words: the problem is that, if “ludonarrative dissonance” is meant to describe too much distance between the gameplay and the narrative, we need a more neutral term to talk about the distance between gameplay and story in general.

As such, I would like to suggest a new term: “ludonarrative distance.”

As opposed to “ludonarrative dissonance,” this term is a neutral one that describes the spectrum of possible separations between a game’s gameplay and its story. Stripping it of its negative connotation, aside from making it a more palatable term, also helps to highlight the fact that high ludonarrative distance could be a powerful emotive, narrative, or gameplay tool. Likewise, the existence of this spectrum allows us to talk about where games fall upon it, rather than simply lashing out when the distance gets too far.

Let’s give an example by taking two games based on the same idea: Resident Evil and Dead Rising. In both games, you’re trying to survive a zombie apocalypse in a localized area. In the former, gameplay is hard. You die easy, items are far and few between, and every enemy is dangerous and forces you to figure out if you’re going to spend your precious ammo. Given that the story is a horror tale, this anxiety-producing gameplay results in low ludonarrative distance and one of the original stars of the horror genre. Dead Rising, on the other hand, makes items plentiful. Many of them are even silly. The zombies can be killed by the hundreds, and it’s the other people who are far more dangerous. This relatively high ludonarrative distance results in a discrepancy that was hilarious to watch, and that made the game what it was. 

Having a term like ludonarrative distance, rather than dissonance, allows us to compare these games as existing along a spectrum, rather than one having a flaw the other lacks… especially given that the “dissonance” of Dead Rising is a huge part of its charm.

“Ludonarrative distance” is only one term. The fact is that gaming is in need of its own lexicon of criticism to continue growing. And, for myself, as someone who adores games as a storytelling medium, I hope ludonarrative distance can find a place right next to its more honed sibling in that dictionary.


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

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