Way back in 2007, Clint Hocking proposed the term ludonarrative dissonance to describe the disparities that often occur between the "story" elements of a video game and the rules that govern its gameplay. The example he used to put this idea forward was Bioshock, but it has since been applied to many games to understand where they fell short.
Though it maintains its importance in the world of video game theory, there is a growing backlash to the idea, with commentators' concerns ranging from "useful, but pretentious" to "useless, and pretentious." Somewhere in the middle stands Brendan Keogh, who--in his "In Defence of the Cut-Scene"--distills the sentiments of those who are afraid the idea may distract gamers from enjoying otherwise great games due to dissonance created entirely by the player.
So far, most of what I have seen concentrates on using the idea of ludonarrative dissonance to highlight negative aspects of video games, and it's certainly a valuable tool to that end. The discussions have been fairly superficial--of the "Is it good or bad?" variety--and in my opinion fail to grapple with the real issues at the heart of the matter; to name a few: why is there ludonarrative dissonance in most games? what role has ludonarrative dissonance played in attracting or repulsing would-be fans of the art form? and, perhaps most importantly, how should we best use our understanding of ludonarrative dissonance to make better games?
At this juncture, I want to lay out a sort of tentative outline of future posts I'll be writing about ludonarrative dissonance and dissonance in art, generally. None of these are written yet, and I might not write about everything I'm going to list below, but I figure it would be a good starting point to what I see as a sprawling study of what will likely become a very broad subject, even though now it only seems like a niche in a clique. I encourage folks to write comments about their take on ludonarrative dissonance in general, as well as my prospectus here, and I would also like to invite anyone who has more than 300 words on the topic to email me so I can post it up as a separate post for readability's sake. Of course if you have written something germane on this topic elsewhere, be sure to post linkies for our perusal.
The first piece I plan on writing is the importance of viewing dissonance as something that is neither bad nor good, but something that can be used effectively or created through carelessness. In fact, great art thrives on creating dissonance, so Hocking has given us a head-start in identifying what areas of modern games are most vulnerable to exploit toward expressive ends. Note that I will not be making the argument found here, which I find to be unintelligible. Ludonarrative dissonance is never something to be merely tolerated--it should challenge, offend, make light of, and change lives.
But I also want to break down ludonarrative dissonance into particular sub-classes of dissonance to add even more vocabulary to our fledgling art.
The first I propose is paranarrative ludodissonance, which is in substance very similar to Hocking's definition of ludonarrative dissonance, but is narrow where Hocking's is broad (you're welcome, Clint). Specifically, I want to use this to refer to any dissonance that arises between the ostensible narrative of a game and the rules of the game itself. Like all that follow, I just want to mention this and plan on unpacking it later.
The second form of ludonarrative dissonance I propose is panoplistic ludodissonance, where I'm referring to the general setting and game art elements versus the rules of the game. As you may be suspecting, there will be a fair amount of overlap between a lot of these, and certainly games that have one form will likely have a lot of the others, but I do believe these things are separate concepts and can help us understand how to use dissonance more effectively. An example of panoplistic ludodissonance would be the ability to jump or otherwise cause a disruption in what should be a dramatic point in the story, played out in-game. Notice that neither of these things is wrong on their own--only when they are combined is dissonance created.
I've already come up with two sub-categories for my next dissonance, cognitive ludodissonance, which are: intracognitive ludodissonance and metacognitive dissonance. In general, cognitive ludodissonance is referring to dissonance that arise between the rules of the game and logical expectations, with intracognitive dissonance arising out of faulty logic contained within the rules and metacognitive dissonance created by applying logic outside the game.
My penultimate (for now) suggestion for a new ludonarrative dissonance category is formal ludodissonance, where genre expectations are upset; and lastly, ethical/moral ludodissonance, where the game rules are at odds with an ethical or moral system.