Ludonarrative dissonance and the reason we argue so strongly about media
Do you all remember “The Last of Us: Part 2”? Or rather, do you all remember the massive controversy surrounding the game after its release? Why was that? What happened to people? Why do they care so much about this video game? Why did I get into so many hours long discussions with people about this video game?
It’s because we have nothing else to do. But also, it’s because we all love stories and we love the characters from the first game, Joel and Ellie. But the real reason is because of ludonarrative dissonance, which I was first introduced to via a NakeyJakey video about “The Last of Us: Part 2”. In that video, he breaks down how the disconnect between the gameplay and the story created a really dissatisfactory experience. Essentially, the story was really adamant about exploring the cycles of revenge and violence, but the gameplay involves short bursts of violently murdering humans and dogs followed by an hour of aimlessly wandering levels looking for supplies to violently murder more humans and dogs. This is especially difficult for players to swallow because Joel, the main character everyone grew really attached to in the first game, is murdered by a character named Abby. On top of that, you then have to play as Abby for 10 hours after you’ve played 10 hours as Ellie, the other beloved main character from the first game, violently murdering all of Abby’s friends. It’s a really interesting idea, but it is not meant for a 30 hour story where the audience is playing as the characters. If anything, it just leaves you going “why am I even bothering to continue this?”
This got me thinking about dissonance in our media overall. Ludonarrative dissonance is very specific to video games but the general concept about the disconnect between audience experience and the presented narrative’s intention is really important and drives these heated debates. With video games, the disconnect is very apparent between the player experience and the overall narrative because it is so directly interactive. This is harder to see with written and visual media where the interactive element is more limited.
With books, we have to read and process the words being written and figure out why it is being written. We imagine visuals in our head for the descriptions on the page, and the written perspective helps gain a deep intimate understanding of a character or events presented on the page. You are the reader turning the page, and you can choose to stop whenever you want or pace the story yourself. All of this is going to connect with people differently based on different experiences, but many can connect on a shared experience. Good literature is very good at communicating its points and can create a cohesive, positive shared experience despite the differences. This level of investment and engagement is really beneficial for authors and for artistic expression. But it’s the same reason we get mad at TERF supreme J.K. Rowling when the 8th “Harry Potter” play (not a book, a play) is super crap compared to the original series.
This gets more complicated when we get into stories that portray very controversial characters actions or opt for more nuance in its themes. Have you ever had the feeling while reading a book where you just think to yourself “why am I even bothering to go to the next page?” This is the book equivalent of the feeling video game players have due to the ludonarrative dissonance problem. A major criticism of the media we dislike is feeling like it is a chore to sit through. It makes sense. With a book, you physically embody the perspectives on the page as you hold it, which is how you embody the characters. As the story progresses, you need reasons to continue following along, and if those reasons don’t make sense, the writing won’t matter. Beautiful prose means nothing if the vernacular contained within it amounts to no benefit gained in your experience.
This gets even more complicated when you consider visual media. We experience our senses all the time so the trouble with visual media is keeping your attention and giving you a reason to continue experiencing a sensory distraction. So now, the visual story needs to have some verisimilitude, or the appearance of feeling true or real, for the audience to buy into the world and characters. If you don’t buy into it, then the feeling is “why am I sitting through this?” I have sat through enough bad movies to the point of becoming numb to it, but most people aren’t like that.
Now obviously, it’s never as cut and dry as that. I don’t think “The Last of Us: Part 2” has a bad story, but it didn’t work for a video game. The disconnect with our experience must also contend with the fact that different consumers of different kinds of media have different sets of shared experiences that get progressively more niche the further those sets of media are broken down. Additionally, we can never forget to consider the impact of politics on our media. “The Last of Us: Part 2” also had a lot of very obviously invalid criticisms that weren’t criticisms so much as they were sexism and transphobia, and it is certainly not the only piece of media or art that doesn’t face an issue on this front. Media creators have to consider this even more now that film studios and corporations are attempting to also consider the relationship between form, narrative, profit, and interaction with politics and culture. We just have to be cognizant that we impact the art just as much as the art impacts us.