The original guide to writing for games returns! Every chapter has been revised and expanded, and there are new chapters covering storytelling for MMOs, urban narrative, interactive script formats, and the different kinds of relationship players can have with a game's story. Available from Bloomsbury now as a paperback, hardback, or ebook!
Is Mario's secret power to lower dissonance...? You ask interesting questions about how and why Mario is able to star in so many different kinds of games - from the bizarre pseudo-medical puzzle game Dr. Mario to the arcane sewing simulator I Am A Teacher: Super Mario Sweater, there does seem to be almost no concept that cannot be made to work with Mario as its centrepiece. By contrast, you point out there is no Doom Space Marine Tennis... and that does gesture at a limiting factor in Mario's promiscuity: there will never be a Super Mario Massacre game in which a gun-toting Mario and Luigi murderize hordes of enemies in a splatterfest of gore - and as your chosen juxtaposition highlights, there is a sense in which what is going on with Mario is that Nintendo have claimed everything outside of what the traditional gamer's vision of 'what videogames are' by having Mario come and plant his red flag. There are subtle points here worth exploring.
Many thanks for your engagement with the Game Dissonance serial in your blog-letter Layered Dissonance in Video Games. Our continued correspondence is a recurring blessing, especially since I can become quite discouraged when no-one is engaging with me on the topics that have drawn me in, and I have always been either in tension with or in exile from (take your pick) the mainstream academic communities - although I am increasingly convinced that standard academic discourse is not founded upon engagement, per se, and is rather a way for us insular nerds to satisfy their own desire to feel clever while being removed from any conversation that might have any impact upon how things are.
Before unlocking the mystery of Mario's secret power, I must push back against your use of 'theme' to mean 'setting'. This is certainly not your fault or responsibility! Boardgame geeks (primarily in the US by my reckoning) set up this use of 'theme' in games that has both stuck and spread - despite mildly disastrous consequences in terms of keeping games of all kind outside of the 'serious art' clubhouse. The problem is that 'serious art' considers theme to be an essential quality of narrative artworks - it is what a story is about. Thus while War and Peace has as its setting the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon, its themes are about spirituality and suffering. 'No theme, no entry' is the door policy on the 'serious art' clubhouse. So identifying 'theme' with setting not concepts helps keep games (of all kinds) excluded from consideration for serious art. Which is doubly unfortunate, since there is an enormous volume of great artworks that are not serious (Duchamp's Fountain, for instance), which makes me wonder what's really going on inside that clubhouse...
You imply in your letter (and state explicitly in a short exchange we had by email) that you think videogames are better able to transition between settings than other media. I am not at all convinced of this. I suspect what makes this seem like a credible claim is tied up with why we ended up with 'theme' meaning 'setting' in the first place - namely, the association of 'game' with the patterns in the systems of play. Thus we can call Destiny and Phantasy Star Online 'the same game' despite being set in very different worlds, and switching a fantasy setting for science fiction does not break the sense of sameness between Terraria and Starbound.
But the same is eminently possible with other artworks, especially narrative artworks. Shakespeare's plays are routinely (and often quite excellently) transplanted from one setting to another without changing the plot, characters, or dialogue - consider, as only one example, the transplanting of Richard III from the 15th century to an alternative history 1930s fascist Britain in the 1995 film of the same name, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellan. Indeed, the Royal Shakespeare Company has thrived in recent decades upon finding ingenious settings to transplant these plays into. In my mind, this is a sign of greater transplantability of content in literature than in games, which are actually severely constrained by their systems. As I have said before, whatever setting you attach to Chess, the game will remain a representation of conflict. If there is a sense in which games are more transposable, however, it is because those systems are always dealing with pawns and not personalities; it is thus easier to house a game system in a new setting than to find a new way of mounting Richard III, because there are fewer interdependencies in game systems than in narrative systems.
Which brings us to Mario's superpower, namely to star in all manner of games provided none of them are serious. I cannot help but point out that this is also a power possessed by all cartoon characters - how many different settings has Bugs Bunny participated in...? Indeed, Mario is to Nintendo what Mickey Mouse used to be to Disney, before they discovered princesses were even more marketable than that ugly freak of a rodent. Thus I would suggest the power to reduce dissonance that you attribute (half-jokingly) to Mario, might perhaps be better understood as a power possessed by the cartoon setting to inherently transcend all other settings, to move between them for comedic purposes without ever breaking our engagement. It is something we have seen reach a kind of zenith with The Simpsons, Shrek, and other cartoons that smash together material from everywhere into a single semi-coherent world. Here, as elsewhere, our expectations - the habits we have picked up by participating in prior narrative practices - are precisely the limiting factor as to what we can get away with, and in cartoons it seems that what we can get away with is basically everything!
Many thanks for engaging with the Game Dissonance serial, and I look forward to exchanging further ideas with you in the near future.
Until next time,
Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!
International Hobo is proud to announce the imminent publication of its long-awaited second edition of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, the original 'how to' guide for game writers. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:
As the videogame industry has grown up, the need for better stories and characters has dramatically increased, yet traditional screenwriting techniques alone cannot equip writers for the unique challenges of writing stories where the actions and decisions of a diverse range of players are at the centre of every narrative experience. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was the first book to demystify the emerging field of game writing by identifying and explaining the skills required for creating videogame narrative.
Through the insights and experiences of professional game writers, this revised edition captures a snapshot of the narrative skills employed in today's game industry and presents them as practical articles accompanied by exercises for developing the skills discussed. The book carefully explains the foundations of the craft of game writing, detailing all aspects of the process from the basics of narrative to guiding the player and the challenges of nonlinear storytelling. Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on the skills developers and publishers expect game writers to know.
This second edition brings the material up to date and adds four new chapters covering MMOs, script formats, narrative design for urban games, and new ways to think about videogame narrative as an art form. Suitable for both beginners and experienced writers, Game Writing is the essential guide to all the techniques of game writing. There's no better starting point for someone wishing to get into this exciting field, whether they are new game writers wishing to hone their skills, or screenwriters hoping to transfer their skills to the games industry.
Game Dissonance was a three part serial that re-positioned the concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' as merely a specific case of cognitive dissonance in the context of games, and explored the ways that games can trigger - and avoid - dissonance. The serial ran from September 30th to October 14th 2020. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.
The three parts are as follows:
If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!
In part two of this serial, we explored three examples of the aesthetic flaws of videogames, and showed how each could be understood as a special case of cognitive dissonance in games, and also as a clash between player practices. This week considers how we can design games to avoid such dissonance.
When we think as game designers – in terms of rules, game mechanics, or systems – game dissonance is solely a negative aspect of the development process, something to be eliminated wherever possible. This may seem depressing; after all, the most effective way to avoid causing dissonance is to never vary from what players have previously experienced. This is, in fact, the typical situation in AAA games, which seldom innovate and prefer instead to take proven player practices and iterate upon them very slightly, counting upon volume of content and degree of polish to wow their players. Commercially, it's the winning move, creatively, however, it's a fairly underwhelming strategy, and one reason that AAA studios don't put everyone else out of business is that more agile, more inventive, smaller developers can attract players via their creativity.
However, when we think as narrative designers, the ways game dissonance can manifest are so varied, and the circumstances so disconnected from anything that we could avoid by simply playing it safe, that there is more of an opportunity for creativity. Again, AAA games don't like to take risks - but in this case, it is to their cost, for the default way of telling stories in these titles is to intersperse an animated movie with the gameplay, and this is not a way to avoid game dissonance but rather a certain way of causing it in at least some proportion of players - indeed, this is what Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' expressly drew attention to.
How do you create game stories that avoid game dissonance? The key is that all of the components of the videogame must align, and the player's expectations must never be disrupted by the situations presented. Thus a player who is expecting that their character's story is going to be developed in cut scenes beyond their control is less concerned by this limitation. An ironic consequence of this is that the more that the developer throws players a bone in terms of creating an illusion of agency (for example, by offering a choice), the more constrained certain players will feel when the developer once again takes full control of the narrative and gives the player no role except that as observer.
Key to avoiding game dissonance in narrative design, therefore, is managing expectations. For instance, if you let the player choose conversation topics, you need to ensure that choosing topics remains an option throughout. If your story requires the player to have a specific conversation at a certain time, you must at the very least ensure that it is the player's choice of topic that kicks it off. This is much easier to do in a game that is, at its heart, investigative, than in a straightforward quest adventure, although even this can be made to work with care. If the player never chooses topics, on the other hand, there is no problem that the dialogue triggered is set in advance: the player will quickly learn to expect this.
I suggested back in the first part of this serial that a common cause of game dissonance (and one integral in Hocking's complaints) is when the story techniques of the screenwriter are injected into videogames. Part of this problem is the screenwriter's fallacy: the mistaken idea that what makes videogames a powerful narrative medium is that the player can make choices in the story. But from a screenwriter's perspective, those choices are only pre-prescribed options in an already planned-out plot. The screenwriter can never give the player agency using their methods, although they can (and do) bring NPCs to life by using a toolkit that is much better suited to characters that are not under the player's control.
Rather than simply inserting choices into a screenplay-style plot, narrative designers can offer players far greater agency by respecting the player's freedom within the game world. Where they go – and when! – is often more than enough to create opportunities for storytelling, and although developers are cautious about timed elements in game stories (with good reason!) even this can be used when it is done with care. For instance, if the player is told by an NPC that someone is being stalked by the secret police on the other side of town, we can easily tell (as developers) whether they went straight there to rescue them or nipped off to the shop first to buy some more ammunition (or engaged in some other activity that was clearly not appropriate). Having two variant encounters (one if the player goes directly and one if they were dilly-dallying), you can surprise players with a greater sense of presence in the game world than they expect! You can even cover the two cases cheaply with two variant lines ("What took you so long?!"). If you choreograph encounters in a way that the player realises they are being hoodwinked, that will cause game dissonance, but if you honour their agency by reflecting their choices, they will be drawn deeper into the experience.
However, this preceding example is still, at heart, a choice that we have planned and anticipated. To get to a more fulfilling place in terms of player agency we need to have game systems that can, in themselves, allow players to express their agency. A screenwriter approaching a scene of peril might foreshadow a plot device that saves the protagonist from danger. When this same trick put into a game, the player is told to fetch the plot device, and then that saves them - which works, but is flat and dull as a player experience, being effectively a fetch quest. A narrative designer would do far better to design an encounter that the player can prepare for within the game systems. Knowing that a Fire Elemental is attacking the wizard's tower gives the player a chance to equip items granting fire resistance; giving the player spells or magic items that detect fire in the tower, in order to tip them off, heightens the sense of agency even further.
Remember that dissonance will manifest whenever any part of the game fails to align with the player's experience and expectations; this means the game systems themselves need to avoid clashing with each other, and also with the story materials. For instance, if you have a fantasy game in which an ancient sword of great power is a key plot device in the story, players will experience dissonance (or at least grumpiness) when acquiring the sword does not give them a new weapon! Avoid this, where necessary, either by making the plot device something the player can carry but not use (e.g. an orb only a sorcerer can use, but the player character is a warrior), or by adding a limitation to the weapon such that despite its power, the player can use it only sparingly (for instance, because it drains their life force while they are wielding it).
Elegant narrative design, therefore, is not about writing a screenplay-style plot and trying to shuffle it in between playable sequences, but about having a set of game systems that you can use to advance and mediate the player's narrative experience. This is why International Hobo has, for some twenty years now, urged developers to perform narrative design in pre-development, when everything is up for grabs, rather than hiring a writer later in the process to merely write dialogue. You are asking for game dissonance among your players when your story is the last thing you try and put in place. It ought to be the among the first things you put into place - and it ought to be constructed from the elements of the game design or not at all, if your goal is to minimise dissonance among your players.
Clever narrative design can also help in small but subtle ways to head off game dissonance between conflicting game systems. Games that let the player recruit an NPC retinue in a camp or base constantly face the risk of rupture when those characters can do nothing to help the player in the challenges they are encountering. That conceptual gap is not Hocking's 'ludonarrative dissonance', it is rather (quite ridiculously) 'ludoludic dissonance', which is why 'game dissonance' may be a better term all around. When two game systems work well conceptually in the game design but risk contradictions in the logic of the game world, always try to ensure there are reasons for things to be this way. When your military base is preparing to defend against an attack, its soldiers have a reason not to come with you on a mission. If the base is a mobile military hospital, you have even stronger reasons why you are not building a private army. These kind of decisions are simply not part of a screenwriter's toolkit (at least until they become an authentic game writer, which is always a possibility!), but they are central to the narrative designer's craft.
What these examples have hopefully made clear is that when we are conducting narrative design, avoiding game dissonance is also creating an elegant narrative design, which is to say, creating stories from the raw materials of the game systems themselves, giving player a sense of agency within those systems, and creating the fictional glue that holds together the logic of the game world. It is agency, not mere choice, that games bring to the artistic table, and whenever choice is substituted for agency we are not going as far as we could. Those planned choices can be valuable to a game story, indeed, they can be essential to avoiding dissonance and giving the player a sense of an active role in the game world. But they cannot substitute for honouring the player's freedom within that world. The screenwriter's fallacy flows from taking too great a control over the player's story, such that we know all the ways it can possibly turn out. There's a place for that, but it's not the best we can do, and it comes with high costs - it destroys the inevitability that makes conventional drama (especially tragedy) so emotionally intense, and it undermines the player's role in the process, thus betraying both the screenwriter's craft and the game designer's.
Finally, it is worth considering the question that Hocking brought to the table in analysing Bioshock: how do we make themes work in videogames? Here, the screenwriter's toolkit has more to offer, but is still slightly inadequate to the task. The way we make themes work in literature, theatre, and film is to have a topic manifest within and through the structure of the story, or via symbolic plot devices - the solid-gold Maltese Falcon is the perfect symbol for the greed its story revolves around. To evoke theme elegantly, the participant in the story ought not to see it coming a mile away, or if they do, they should feel the weight of tragedy (Whitehead's "remorseless working of things") precisely in its inevitability. Yet players, unlike readers and viewers, are resistant to inevitability; it is a cause of game dissonance that they can do nothing, unless enormous care is taken to create the inevitability (something few if any games have managed).
Therefore, rather than relying solely on conventional narrative techniques for expressing themes we ought to try and bridge between the game systems and the story systems, making both link up via theme. If your game involves murderising an ethnic minority like goblins to gain XP, you have an opportunity for themes that reflect upon this violence, or that paint the player's greed for personal advancement as the cause of suffering in the game world. If your game entails managing a farm, the logistics of that process give you opportunities to explore themes directly connected to what the player is doing - and perhaps reflect real tragedies in fictional form. Indian farmers committed suicide after scurrilous multinational corporations sold them 'super seeds' that functioned as a form of extortion since the crop yielded no further seeds, requiring it to be bought again every year at crippling expense. There are themes here ideal for inclusion in a game, although probably not in a commercial product.
The danger in relying on the existing narrative toolkits when creating videogames is both that the player will fall prey of game dissonance, and also that we will fail to explore the more unique possibilities in the media of games. Hocking was right - we still don't have exemplars for our medium as a storytelling form, even though we have had them for a long time as 'merely' a game. Tetris is one such exemplar. I hope it's clear why we might think we could do better if our goal is to push our creativity further, and take games into novel and unexpected places. But standing between where we are and where both Hocking and I hope we might be able to reach is game dissonance. Understanding what causes it, and appreciating how to avoid it, is thus the epicentre of the struggle to take games further as an artform, a battle which places narrative designers squarely into the front line.
Interested in game writing and narrative design? The second edition of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is coming soon!
In part one of this serial, the concept of cognitive dissonance was introduced, along with Clint Hocking's ludonarrative dissonance, concluding that it was only a special case of a more general phenomena: game dissonance. This week considers how game dissonance functions.
When we talk about videogames, we tend to focus upon the aspects of the experience that we are enjoying. As a result, when our enjoyment is disrupted, we usually conceptualise this as a flaw in the game, although there are times when we will admit that a game is simply "not for us" and step aside. This creates a selection bias whereby we are misled not only about "what games are" (we will tend to think that what they 'are' is what we happen to like), but also about how our experiences in games are functioning in terms of our cognitive faculties. As a result, enormous volumes of text has been written about the qualities of great games and how to make good games, yet almost nothing has been written about the aesthetic flaws of videogames.
In February 2015, I published an article that addressed this deficit. It came at an interesting point in my life as a blogger, as encapsulated in the three comments it received. One was from Spry Fox's Dan Cook, who up until that point had been a regular correspondent with me on game topics - and indeed discussions with him over the wrapping paper fallacy had led directly to my writing the piece in question. Another was from game design legend Raph Koster, another of my long-standing game blog correspondents, and someone who I had perpetually only just missed encountering in person during my many years at GDC. The third was from a new face, Chris Billows, who would go on to be the most important of my blog correspondents over the next five years, both encouraging me to keep writing, and sharpening through opposition my understanding of a great many concepts that would become key to my thinking.
I eventually buffed up The Aesthetic Flaws of Games into a paper for the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), entitled No-one Plays Alone, and presented it in Dundee in 2016. It went on to be republished (in a slightly altered form) in the organisation's transactions, about which I was rather pleased - although as usual for my dabbling in academic circles, it had zero impact upon the research community, which remained steadfastly committed to their prior discourses (as inevitably they must!). This paper was the first time I had cohesively elaborated my understanding of player practices, which is to say, the habits we pick up when we are playing games that go on to assert constraints upon us when we make games. To understand games in terms of player practices is to appreciate that anyone who thinks their game concept was entirely their own invention is fooling themselves; we don't invent new games from whole cloth, we iterate on the player practices we already learned and crossbreed them with new influences, often from other kinds of media.
What do I mean by a player practice? A clear example can be found via recurring control schemes. Dungeon Master (1986) provided the prototype for the FPS by being a novel new form of computer RPG played in real time, and allowing the player to move square-by-square through a dungeon using cursor keys. The same control scheme was inherited by early id shooters like Catacomb 3-D (1991) and Wolfenstein 3D (1992), but as id moved away from Dungeon Master's square tile grid into free movement with Quake (1996), they added 'mouselook' as an option. This was to set the agenda for every FPS afterwards, and by Valve's Half-Life (1998) cursor keys were no longer the standard, but rather ASWD and 'mouselook'. Nowadays, any PC player who plays an FPS inherits this player practice, even though they have no conception that it descends from an older practice. A similar (yet more extensive) example is the conservation of game inventory elements.
Because player practices are the habits of players, they are more than capable of triggering cognitive dissonance when they come into conflict with other mental states. In the 2015 article, for instance, I gave the example of Metroid Prime (2002). This completely tore up the rule book when it comes to the player practices of FPS games, which for consoles had been set with GoldenEye 007 (1997) in response to Quake. The console adaptation of 'mouselook' was twin stick controls - but this practice had never taken off in Japan, quite possibly because of the smaller community of PC players in that country. Nintendo handed development of Metroid Prime to a US developer, we can deduce, to attempt to come up with a new version of the FPS controls, one that Japanese players could operate. While they broadly succeeded on this account, they also created a serious issue with many US players.
I have called this problem perplexity, meaning not mere confusion (which is a positive part of the play experience of, for instance, adventure games) but rather cognitive dissonance caused by the player having learned one player practice and then encountering a game that it is impossible to play by that existing practice. Thus, some players of Metroid Prime (especially in the US) complained in vociferous terms about how dreadful the control scheme was. But the scheme itself is fine, taken in isolation; indeed, it works rather well on its own terms, providing all the expressiveness of a twin stick control but never requiring simultaneous operation of both analogue sticks.
The problem was not that the control scheme was flawed, as such, it is that it was different to what players had already acquired as a practice, and this disparity caused game dissonance. It should be clear that in this case there was literally no aspect of that dissonance that can be attributed to a disconnect between story and game. Rather, two different player practices - the one already learned, and the one Retro Studios invented - could not be reconciled in a proportion of the players of the game. This is what I'd consider to be the textbook example of the how clashes between player practices cause game dissonance, and in cases of perplexity that dissonance is resolved either by 'converting' to the new practice in its context (that is, loving Metroid Prime) or by 'rejecting' it (and therefore heaping scorn upon the control scheme).
The second of the three aesthetic flaws of games I previously identified is inelegance, which occurs when game systems become so bloated or disconnected that players become aware of something troublesome in the design. Here, the problem is not so much a disconnect between the previously learned player practices and those of the game being played, so much as it is a disconnect between one set of player practices the game is teaching and another. The mechanical systems of the game simply do not fit together, and the player becomes acutely aware of it. Once again, this is an example of game dissonance; two (or more) cognitive models are failing to align with one another. It's unusual, though, as those models are of the same game (at least in the sense we usually talk of a single 'game').
It is interesting to look at examples of older games that switch their control schemes around. In the 1980s, this was very common: Horace Goes Skiing (1982), Aztec Challenge (1983), Beach Head (1983), and Raid Over Moscow (1984) are all examples of games consisting at heart of at least two and as many as half a dozen entirely different sequential game sections, each requiring players to learn different practices. Players in the 1980s accepted this willingly, in part because it was the usual practice in the 1980s to play lots of different games in the space of an hour. Whether in the arcade, or working through an audio tape of pirated games, players routinely played videogames as a buffet at this point in time.
Today, however, we view this kind of wanton collision of disparate play activities as decidedly inelegant, and typically criticise them unless they have some clever conceit to bind it all together, such as the Warioware series' (2003 onwards) microgame concept, where a single command ('Enter!', 'Rub!' or 'Don't Move!') introduces a fragmentary game snapshot. Our player practices have shifted: we now rarely play multiple games within the space of an hour, and are far more likely to immerse ourselves in a single more substantial game for hours at a time. Thus while Paradroid (1985) was considered one of the greatest games ever in the 80s, the use of a frequently recurring mini-game within a game today is largely frowned upon, except in open world games whose gigantic sprawling worlds never manage to have enough to do without either a built-in level editor ('virtual Lego') as in Minecraft (2009) or a pile of content that compensates for this excess of space. Such examples avoid accusations of inelegance at the moment because there is an awareness of a core game world with consistent (elegant) practices, with mini-games and the like being merely 'extra content'. I leave open the possibility that in forty years time this approach will seem as inelegant to players as the 80s games mentioned above tend to seem now.
Finally, the aesthetic flaw of rupture occurs when the imaginary world a game builds in the player's head is catastrophically disrupted by an intrusion of something that cannot be reconciled with it. The player is broken out of the experience, and becomes aware of the elements of their play instead of being immersed in the world evoked by those elements. Once again, this is clearly game dissonance, but here the incident tends to be more acute, as our experience of immersion is interrupted ('immersion' being nothing more than a term for our intense mental engagement inflated in importance by our love of videogames). As with all forms of cognitive dissonance there is a clash between mental states, but here it is because the game is making its representations play by different rules. For example, the world implied by the game mechanics and the world implied by the story might pull in different directions - this is the case of dissonance that Hocking was drawing attention to under the name 'ludonarrative dissonance' (see last week). But rupture also happens when a player's engagement is focused upon the game systems and they are forced to confront the story systems instead - those who are not fans of cut-scene heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII (1997) and its successors are acutely aware of this problem!
We generally fail to recognise that our engagement with most game systems is in itself a story-generating activity. All game systems are representative i.e. they ask that we imagine some specific arrangement. It is precisely because games are inherently representative that we make the mistake of thinking there is an unavoidable clash between stories and games - but what we mean by 'story' here is 'a story in the style of a movie or TV show' i.e. a screenplay. The problem is not and never has been an insuperable gap between games and stories, it is that the stories created by screenplays diverge dramatically from the stories that game systems produce on their own. Sometimes this tension is felt as rupture (the imagined experience collapses), sometimes as inelegance (Hocking's complaint about Bioshock is more of this kind), but in all cases it is game dissonance.
The aesthetic flaws of videogames as videogames are therefore examples of Festinger's psychological model of cognitive dissonance manifesting within our play experiences. These can be further understood as clashes in our habits, our player practices - either between those practices we have learned from earlier games, or within the practices a single game is expecting us to learn and execute. In this way, game dissonance is a more precise concept than cognitive dissonance: it zeroes in on the ways our learned habits condition our experience of the imagined worlds of videogames. Recognising this allows us to think about how we can avoid game dissonance through clever narrative design.
Next week: Elegant Narrative Design
What is game dissonance and how do you prevent it? This question is not one that game designers tend to ask, and yet almost every effective practice we have for creating games depends upon our intuitive grasp of the ways that game dissonance disrupts the player experience. In this short series of articles, I will explore the nature of game dissonance, the origins of the concept, and how to design systems and write game stories that avoid falling prey to this quintessential human quality when it manifests in our play.
The origin of the concept of dissonance in this sense, as a cognitive flaw, is in the work of the psychologist Leon Festinger. His work grew out of earlier models for human behavioural change by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s and 40s, who suggested that human behaviour was not a purely internal matter, but the result of a collision between our internal states and the social forces (or fields) we are situated in. In 1954, Festinger wrote about "social comparison forces", suggesting that when people are uncertain of their views, they seek to compare those views to those of the people around them. In other words, it was not purely a matter of good arguments that swayed people, but also that we have an innate drive to accord with the social context around us - usually, to align with it.
He became interested in the edge cases: what happens when people's internal states are radically out of step with the social context around them? Extending a research programme initiated by Lewin, Festinger began to stage-manage encounters in a series of experiments that contemporary research ethics would probably have excluded from consideration. In 1954, he began observing a doomsday cult that was convinced the world was going to be destroyed in a catastrophic flood. This flood did not happen. Afterwards, those who were on the fringes of the cult readily abandoned its tenets and recognised they had been rather foolish, while those who were deeply embedded reasoned that the world had been saved as a result of their faith. These observations were to deepen Festinger's concept of social comparison.
Festinger began to theorise that humans were driven to attempt to maintain some kind of consistency between their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours, and that his concept of social comparison was only a special case of a more general phenomena. A series of further experiments shored up this understanding, and led to the publication in 1957 of A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This theory would become one of psychology's few great success stories, with applications in every aspect of human experience. The core idea is that inconsistencies between internal mental states (beliefs, theories, memories), emotional responses, and behaviour creates an uncomfortable tension (cognitive dissonance) that sets off a drive to reduce the discrepancy. Sometimes this involves changing the internal states either as they relate to the individual (switching beliefs, 'editing' memories) or the social group (identifying a certain set of 'others' as different in some key way). The theory has been applied to almost every conceivable aspect of human affairs - I myself applied it to politics and morality in Chaos Ethics with the concept of 'moral horror'.
Game dissonance is nothing more nor less than cognitive dissonance in the context of the player experiences of games. Festinger's big idea would be first applied to videogames, albeit almost accidentally, in 2007, when Clint Hocking (at the time, a level designer and scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal) wrote a notorious critique entitled Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Despite being its most obvious legacy, the coining of the term 'ludonarrative dissonance' is arguably the least interesting aspect of this frankly insightful analysis of Bioshock's narrative, which was also one of the first to lament the absence of anyone we could convincingly call a game critic (a problem that has only marginally improved in the intervening decade or so). Hocking argues in the piece that Bioshock's narrative design is flawed because it offers two different player contracts: one, as a game, and another as a story. He alleges that this sets up "a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story". Was he right?
Yes and no.
Firstly, Hocking made the claim that the player contract with Bioshock as a game is "seek power and you will progress", and that this is an appropriate arrangement for a game about Ayn Rand's rational self-interest i.e. that the player contract aligns with the theme of the game. He also notes that this is "a pretty standard value in single player games where all the other characters... tend to be in direct conflict with the player". According to his reading, the player contract aligns with the theme because (he contends) "I actually feel the themes of the game being expressed through mechanics". He argues this because he harvested the Little Sisters, and interpreted this as "the game literally made me feel a cold detachment from the fate of the Little Sisters." This reading is problematic, though, given the huge number of players who did not harvest the Little Sisters, and had no desire to do so i.e. the opposite experience to Hocking's. Rather than the game mechanics being about Ayn Rand's philosophy, as Hocking claims, it might be fairer to say that Hocking's play experience aligned with Rand's philosophy. This is a subtle yet important point.
The alleged 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' comes about because Hocking claims that the story does not align with Rand's work in the same way, being framed on the narrative contract "help Atlas and you will progress." Hocking's threefold complaint is that helping someone is not in line with Randian rational self-interest; Atlas is opposed to Ryan, but Ryan aligns with Rand and hence "I am philosophically aligned with Ryan by my acceptance of the mechanics"; and finally, there is no choice in how the player positions themselves with respect to the contract, since "even if I am opposed to the principle of helping someone else... I must do as Atlas says because the game does not offer me the freedom to choose sides in the conflict between Ryan and Atlas."
I didn't comment on this back in 2007, although I did read it at the time, because I had neither played nor studied Bioshock at the time, and so it seemed wrong to wade in. However, I think it now safe to make the following remarks. Firstly, that the assumption that the player contract is aligned with Rand's philosophy is mistaken, and is more a fact about Hocking (and others who played like him) than it is of the game as such. Secondly, that the player having no choice but to align with Atlas is crucial to the story since it is part of that story that Jack (the player character) has no choice but to do as Atlas commands. This is, in fact, a major plot device and reveal within the story. Finally, since Jack is not the player and since the story depends upon Jack's backstory (not the player's free will - indeed, the player expressly has no free will as Jack) that Hocking's suggestion that the player needed a choice of whom to align with is ultimately mistaken.
Now none of this means that Hocking was wrong to claim there was cognitive dissonance brought about by Bioshock's story. It's clear that Hocking did experience dissonance, and the same might be true of anyone else who was intelligent and educated enough to mount such a sophisticated reading of the game. But that dissonance was caused less by the game as such, and more by Hocking's reading of how the game should have mounted its themes. The most remarkable thing about Bioshock, though (and Hocking was keen to make a similar point himself), is that it is capable of sustaining this kind of critical engagement with theme. It is a sad fact of videogames both then and now that very few manage to get a theme into their story at all, and fewer still manage to get it into the game mechanics, or join the two together. In this respect, the biggest flaw in Bioshock that Hocking reveals is that we weren't doing very well at bringing theme into games - and in that regard, it is worth pointing out that we still aren't. That Hocking's piece is remembered for coining 'ludonarrative dissonance' and forgotten for an insightful critique of narrative design that is still just as relevant today is both slightly tragic, and also entirely unsurprising.
However, I can go further in usurping Hocking's discussion. In suggesting that an aspect of what went wrong in Bioshock was that the player lacked a choice, Hocking reveals a likely cause of his dissonance: the assumption that player choice is an essential missing link in bridging the gap between a game story and the game systems. This, I would suggest, is what might be called the scriptwriter's fallacy - that the power of a videogame story lies in the choices that are not available to a screenwriter in other media. I would counter this claim the same way I did in my blog-letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke, Beyond Choice in Game Narrative: that screenwriters perpetually overestimate the importance of choices, and as a consequence all too frequently offer meaningless choices that the writer has effectively pre-empted, instead of engaging with the turbulent depth of game's capacity for narrative where the player can take the story where the developer cannot hope to anticipate. Contra the scriptwriter's fallacy, it is precisely the narrative power of plays, books, and films that the participant cannot change how the story ends. Whenever games stories are created solely with the toolkit of the screenwriter, the result is not greater artistic possibility, but far less.
In this serial, I hope to clarify Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' by replacing it with a more general concept - that of game dissonance. I view this substitution as essential, because in so much as 'ludonarrative dissonance' is a valid conceptual apparatus, it is only so because of the screenwriter's fallacy. In short, there is not and cannot be a fundamental and inescapable disconnect between games and stories of the kind 'ludonarrative dissonance' is usually evoked to explain, firstly because stories are themselves a kind of game (a point I made at length in Imaginary Games and will not be recapping here), and secondly because game dissonance occurs in so many other contexts that the few times it occurs between the narrative systems and the other elements of a game design cannot be taken as anything more than a special case of a much more general conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic flaws of games.
Those that contend that games and stories are radically different entities and that therefore ludonarrative dissonance is the inevitable consequence of trying to tell conventional stories in videogames have too narrow a view of games. Very few experienced Games Masters would suggest that there was an insuperable gap between the game mechanics and the narrative of a tabletop role-playing game, and when there is it is because the rules break with the world of the game, not because the story intrudes upon the game systems. This is an essential clue that the only reason 'ludonarrative dissonance' feels like an appealing concept is because of resistance to the colonisation of games by screenwriters. This resistance is well-intentioned. But it should not be couched in terms of opposition to game stories.
The problem is not, and never has been, that stories and games are different things - they're not. As Ian Bogost already made clear back in 2009, they are both structured systems, one (in his terms) of rules and the other of narration. The problem was never between stories and games, but almost always between the stories that game developers can make, and the stories that screenwriters can make. If a game has strong narrative design, there will be no dissonance, 'ludonarrative' or otherwise. Besides, as this serial aims to make clear, the problem of game dissonance has nothing to do with stories at all - but it has everything to do with player practices.
Next week: The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames
You never quite know what's going to pick up momentum on social media - ihobo founder Chris Bateman's tweet about the advice he gives to people wanting to improve their game writing and narrative design skills was just an offhand remark, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people working in the games industry!
You came up with a fantastic story, but when you came to put it into the game you discovered the players hated it. Why? The answer could be that while conventional narrative techniques can be applied to videogames, what works in linear media seldom holds together when you put a player into the key role. When you work on game stories, you don't just need a writer – you also need a narrative designer. The title 'narrative designer' was created by International Hobo Ltd in 2001 to describe the unique challenges of combining game design and writing in the context of game stories. Since then, the term has spread out into the games industry – but there is still little understanding among writers from other media as to what narrative design is or why games cannot deliver great stories without it. This crash course in narrative design from the people who coined the term will open your eyes as to how great game stories are not just written, they are also designed.
Tickets are available from Eventbrite.
This Saturday (10th November) at 12:15 pm GMT, ihobo’s founder Chris Bateman is giving a talk at AdventureX entitled The Secret of Game Narrative. The event is being streamed live on Twitch. We hope you’ll join us for this special talk about the unique ways that videogames create and subvert traditional narratives.
12:15 pm GMT, Saturday 10th November 2018.
An open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke as part of the Republic of Bloggers.
Dear Caroline and John,
Thank you for your presentation yesterday at Develop: Brighton, “Relatable Characters, Depth, and Agency: How to Make Players Care About Your Story”, which left me feeling rather animated – albeit largely because of the depths of my dissent with the perspective on game storytelling that had just been presented!
However, I should like to open by expressing my deep agreement on two key points. Firstly, that theme is poorly understood and executed in game narrative; I cannot adequately express how great it is to hear other game writers make this crucial point. Secondly, that the majority of game writing falls short in terms of characterisation: far too many people working on game stories think story is synonymous with plot and therefore fail to adequately provide interesting characters. The model of wants and needs provided in your talk will certainly be helpful for anyone getting to grips with the tools of character arc construction.
Outside of these points, however, I must express my intense disagreement with the fundamentals of the way the two of you are presenting the task of the game writer. I should like to take this opportunity to make clear why I disagree, but also to recognise that on many of the points I am going to raise, you might well agree with me – it may simply be that the structure of your talk obfuscates some of the subtleties I want to draw out in this blog-letter. For this, I can only apologise in advance, and hope that the discussion itself will prove its own reward.
There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.
A fundamental proposition of your talk was that “for maximum impact, players should be able to influence the protagonist’s arc.” You talk about the importance of agency – and it is correct that agency is a powerful player motive, as I made clear in my Develop: Brighton talk the previous day “What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity.” But I fear the grail of narrative agency that most screenwriters coming to games seek is a rather narrow way of understanding game stories; it risks confusing the possibilities inherent in a particular kind of game for the potential of games as a medium. It elevates choice-making above the other experiences of games. Good game writers must understand the motives and experiences that are entailed in videogame play in order to not fall prey of the temptation to throw away most of the game design toolkit in order to align with the screenwriter’s toolkit.
You mentioned Sid Meier’s famous (mis)quote “a game is a series of interesting choices”… for your purposes, what he actually said would have been even more applicable: “a good game is a series of interesting choices” (i.e. he did not intend to define game, but rather make a claim about what was aesthetically valuable in games). Sid’s maxim is deeply misleading, however: it suggests that Guitar Hero is not a good game, since it requires no choice-making whatsoever. More worryingly from my perspective, it plays into the disgruntled chorus that complained of Dear Esther that it was “not a game”, instead of recognising the genius entailed in the thin play of Dear Esther, which did more to advance the possibilities of game narrative than any AAA released in the same year. Not that AAA games cannot do the same: The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild has one of the most innovative narrative structures I have yet encountered, and I have written at great length about how the central character in its story is Princess Zelda and not Link, per se, and how the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.
For me and my company, narrative design is the key skill that game writers must master if they are going to get to grips with our medium. We were the first consultancy to put game design and narrative talent under the same room (back in 1999), and the first to use the job title ‘Narrative Designer’ (back in 2002) – the term later spread out into the industry via the IGDA’s Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I founded and lead for five years. Narrative design, as myself and my colleague Richard Boon understand the term, is about understanding the inherent story potential in game structure and crafting a story that aligns with that potential.
I first presented on the topic back in 2001, presenting four examples of different structures for games – two of which (tree and ‘Christmas tree’) you included in your talk. (Another point of intense agreement with the two of you here: branching tree structure is suicide for videogame projects; the combinatorial explosion of content spells doom for both production and QA.) Your ‘Christmas tree’ structure is what I’ve called the parallel path approach… I think I misunderstood in your presentation that you meant those parallel paths to be solely reflected in dialogue, and not in content (hence my question at the end). For this I apologise… we are perhaps more in alignment on this matter than I gave credit at the time.
A fundamental tenet of the way Richard and I came to understand narrative design is that different games require different story techniques. If I look at the three games my company worked upon that are being released this year, for instance; Shadows: Awakening is a series of vignettes connected by the theme of whether the past irrevocably conditions who we become; Tropico 6 is commedia dell'arte set against the backdrop of a strategy game; The Persistence is a two-hander theatrical play set within a VR experience of numbingly recurrent death. Not one of these games could have succeeded by implementing your choice-driven three act structure technique – although that too, of course, is a solid model for a particular kind of game story, and your advice to structure three key choices against the same character question is insightful.
Near the end of your talk, you suggest that “writers have to abandon their god-like control over the protagonists destiny and story.” This is a true statement of the challenge of game writing…. but crafting a character space conditioned by choices is not to abandon that god-like control at all, but to become the god of a tiny multiverse instead of one corner of a universe. If you truly want to engage player agency, you have to find ways to allow players to exert their agency freely, without the writers sculpting those possibilities in advance – and that can also involve a kind of letting go, but need not involve yielding character stories to players. Indeed, it can provide new ways of bringing out the potential for character arcs precisely by placing them in a different relationship to player agency.
From the very beginning of my career as a narrative designer and writer, I was using choices to deepen the player experience, and I do not want to suggest that the choice is not a valuable technique in game writing. (All three of our games releasing this year make use of choices in various roles.) What I do want to suggest is that marrying choices to the protagonist’s arc is not the only way to draw upon agency in stories, nor to get players to care about stories. My first game as lead writer and designer was the award-winning Discworld Noir, for which I had the honour of working with Terry Pratchett (not then knighted!) as script editor, and from who I learned immeasurably. The site of agency in this game was not within the character arcs, but with the investigation – the player has tremendous freedom to advance the story through their choices of where and how to pursue their leads. Indeed, many players found ways to advance the story threads that I didn’t know were possible: I had successfully given up my ‘god-like control’ to the player by pursuing a game structure that might well have been slightly insane, for all that it did in fact work. But then, as Terry understood, “There’s a streak of madness in everyone who spends quality time with gods…”
Wishing you all the best in your future writing projects,
My thanks to everyone who attended my talk at Develop, and to every presenter who endured my questions after theirs!