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Story Design - Story Telling pt.8

Ludonarrative Unified Theory

I've already explained this idea in this series so I'll be as brief as possible. Some games have stories. And most games that tell stories also tell their stories in part through gameplay. When analyzing a game's story we have to consider the story content and the execution factoring in variable, emergent gameplay. For this reason, it seems inaccurate to think of story (narrative) and gameplay (ludo) elements as being completely independent. 


On top of this concept when you understand that we use stories to build models to predict and interact with our real world, it should be easy to see how the process of relating something to a known model is the crux of our ability to interact in increasingly complex scenarios. Of course, this process is no different for video games. Even for what many would consider as non-story games, we use stories/models to understand gameplay interactions. In Pong, we don't see the gameplay as a series of white objects that are constantly being redrawn at different positions. We see a ball like object bouncing back and forth between two paddle like objects.

Remember form-fits-function? This design tenet is built around the fact that humans tend to recognize what something is or how it works (functions) based on how it looks and the stories/models we can ascribe to it. When you see a spike in Super Mario Brothers (or most other games), before you have any experience with how it actually functions, you should be able to guess that it'll hurt Mario if you touch it. While this may seem like a no-brainer, our natural ability to do this is quite profound. Yet, people still don't understand how closely related story and gameplay are. The bottom line: story and gameplay can exist without each other; but in a video game they work best when they are practically one in the same. And we understand each best when we understand their overlap.  


Sympathetic Resonance

Feelings. Some love to explain everything according to how they feel. While feelings are sufficient for generating opinions, they are practically useless when it comes to communicating through clear language, objective facts, and numerical figures. Why? Because feelings are the combination of any number of sensory impressions. This makes feelings highly abstract. Dealing with such abstractions is hard enough. Whenever you want to express what you feel to an outside party you can't just hand over your feelings or share your experiences directly. You have to convert them into something more concrete like actions or language and hope your audience gets how you feel.

With that said, for practical communication we should be used to taking our feelings (generated from experience) and converting it into the concrete. Otherwise, something odd is bound to happen; the feelings may start bleeding into each other. Taking your work problems/anger home or visa versa, taking your anger out on an innocent party, or buying candy because a commercial made you laugh are examples of how feelings from completely different areas can affect each other. For a classic example, M&M candy sales jumped because they were shown during a particularly emotional scene in the movie E.T. However, blended feelings are very troublesome for a more complicated reason. 

In the professional/academic world of any artistic medium, creators have access to detailed, technical knowledge of their craft. Professional and teachers alike recognize the power that a clear language has on their ability to communicate. (If you're looking for the language necessary to understand game design, I offer my glossary). Without it all categories and distinctions become squished together. Without it it can be impossible for two people to communicate on the same level because everything they say has slightly different definitions. Without it we tend to challenge/convert our own feelings less. While a clear language makes a clear mind and clear arguments, feelings have the opposite trend. 

Sympathetic resonance is a human phenomenon where the abstraction of feelings moves past impressions based on the source material/original experience(s). In other words, it's when when people make feelings based on their feelings. So, when some people search their feelings to see if something "feels right" they instead react to the feeling of feeling right, which has little to do with the original issue. This process only gets worse with time. It's an endless cycle that can explain why certain fans and fanatics are so difficult to reason with. If their sympathetic resonance is too strong, reason isn't even part of the equation. I believe Sonic fans and other hardcore franchise fans have fallen from this phenomenon. This is not to say that they're inferior, stupid, or even more passionate about the topic. It's just, when they talk about the subject they feel strongly about, they try to communicate something highly abstract through very objective means. 

This is why I don't use my feelings for arguments. I use them to point me in the right directions. And I maintain their usefulness by challenging them constantly to ensure they're in reaction to my actual experiences. I recommend you do the same. It keeps things from getting over hyped, from past experiences from being soaked in nostalgia, and keeps you honest about who you are based on your experiences not abstractions of experiences.  


Ludonarrative Dissonance

A few years ago everyone's hot topic was ludonarrative dissonance. And by everyone, I mean the few people writing about video game stories within a relatively small sphere of bloggers. Still, the term picked up steam. And it wasn't long before everyone began pointing out what they thought were cases of ludonarrative dissonance in arguments for why video game stories are not very good. 

Truly understanding ludonarrative dissonance requires a clear understanding of story design, which we've covered in part one. It also helps to have a clear grasp of emergent gameplay, co-authorship, and other unique qualities of video game characterization. Without these things, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between actual dissonant cases and small, negligible incoherent details.


In efforts to clear the issue up, the following are not necessarily cases of ludonarrative dissonance.

  • Dying, failure, and game over screens. Saving. Loading. 
  • Video game hardware limitations like slow down or frame skips. 
  • Some art limitations like repeated models for enemies, repeated texturing, and lighting effects. 
  • Most emergent player actions from killing to stalling to dancing. 


Co-authorship, the idea that the player is also a actor/contributor/creator of the emergent narrative through characterization, nullifies many potential ludonarrative cases. Basically, by playing a game you and the character you control co-act. Sometimes strange results are produced. However, depending on the confines of the game system, you'll have a hard time making a case for emergent gameplay and pinning it on a dissonant quality of the game's character. 

Also, video games are a massive collection of abstractions. Creating and sustaining the fiction of a game is more about consistent and coherent details rather than realism. Understanding the craft and abstractions of a story should come first. Following this idea, it doesn't make sense to cry dissonance in a play when a character takes an aside to speak his mind to the audience. It doesn't make sense to fault a TV show for framing the bodies of two conversing characters in the view by standing them a bit closer together then they were in the previous shot. All mediums have limitations to work around and techniques to convey ideas. So, if the point is to convey story content, then small technical inconsistencies are almost always beside the point of a story analysis. 


In the 9th and final part of this series I'll recap what we've learned and examine a few examples of how other game writers have talked about video game stories.  


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