As a fan of lore, backstory, and the general storytelling of video games, you can imagine how much I scratch my head at these two games. While I understand the reason for it, both of these games exhibit extreme cases of ludonarrative dissonance. Rather than specifically state my opinion, I’d like to go over the pros and cons of this divide and further explain the intricacies of this system, maybe even determine why more and more games are moving toward such a style of story telling.
What is Ludonarrative Dissonance?
Ludonarrative Dissonance is a phrase coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, a creative director at Ubisoft. He used the phrase to specifically describe the disconnect between Bioshock’s storytelling and the gameplay elements related to the game. It drives a wedge between what we’re told (The hero is a heroic, kind, selfless soul) and what we’re actually doing in the game. (Ransacking every house we find.)
Games are unique to this problem because we can’t see a dissonance of this scale when it comes to movies, writing or television. Yes, we can have awkward moments but that is the sign of a poorly-written story where we question the writer breaking character. Comparatively, games have the dual-function of serving both a story element and a gameplay element; Even the most story-driven game has to have some gameplay and even the most nothing story in a video game has to have some overarching goal.
As an example of this, my character in World of Warcraft (at least in roleplay) is a weak human noble with very little battle-based skills. Yet I’m a max level hunter who regularly goes out and murders whatever the baddie-of-the-week is. It’s a clear disconnect between who my character is and the gameplay related to my character, although that’s entirely of my own choice.
Ludonarrative Dissonance in League and Overwatch
Perhaps more than almost any other game, both of these games have become extremely disconnected to the story of their respective worlds. League famously had a massive retcon due to the “Institute of War”, a powerful association of mages, causing a lack of conflict resolution or even conflict. To Riot, it was a confusing plot contrivance where characters could not change and all the champions of League had to be on a power-level below these summoners.
In Overwatch, there’s no connection at all. While characters interact, it’s clear from both a story and gameplay perspective that nothing is canonical. Characters die, respawn and fling each other all over the map in the pursuit of..well, either pushing a cart to the end of the map or capturing a control point. Any story elements told are given through cinematics, comics or other forms of media that are passingly related to the game in a stretched scenario. Perhaps the only connection is the small bits of dialogue characters say but, even then, it’s a dream scenario.
The Case for Ludonarrative Dissonance
When you consider these multiplayer-only or multiplayer-focused games, there is a core and damning narrative term that permeates everything: Static. Characters are often static. Characters cannot die and more often than not, story hooks can’t be directly resolved because everything resets at the end of the match. So what if Soldier 76 kills Reaper and captures Hanamura’s point? Is this really where the story is meant to end?
When you look at League, there was a major event early on that was touted as a story change in the game: The Ionia-Noxus match. In this game, players picked predominantly Ionian and Noxian champions who fought to determine the fate of the island nation. After a match done with some roleplay, Ionia was the victor. And….there are Ionian boots in the store now. What? There was no major change in character story arc, no alteration of their voice lines, no nothing. The Ionian champions succeeded in their goal but they still had to fight for…reasons. The conflict was “resolved” yet the only change was the addition of shoes to the shop.
Situations like this outline how forcing a game to work within story contexts can lead to disconnects and frustration. You have to come up with a reason for resurrection yet bend rules so that it’s not an easy out. You have to create change just enough that more of the story is told yet there is a net-zero outcome when the characters have to act-or-play differently. This unintentionally gates the story and makes players wonder if change is even possible.
By separating gameplay and story, you don’t have to worry about these situations. Players are free to enjoy a character without worrying about the actions in the game affecting the character. Those who enjoy the story and background can also go and find it, giving a massively deep layer that isn’t available directly in the game. It also prevents those who don’t really care about story to be subjected to it. With ludonarrative dissonance, you can technically have your cake and eat it too.
The Case against Ludonarrative Dissonance
In many ways, the disconnect is often the coward’s way out. It’s the point where a designer and a writer go “We can’t work together. Let’s just do our own things separate from each other”. This disconnect creates a massive divide in the playerbase and forces players who care about the world to watch a character they love never truly evolve in the game, only in the background.
No game is ever truly separated from narrative, as much as one might like to argue. Story hooks and elements are brought into play regardless of if you place a ten-story building between the two. Camille might not interact with Caitlyn in the story but her speech lines do speak that she knows something about what Caitlyn is after. Soldier 76 and Winston might never meet in the story but they are still sharing story elements in the game itself.
Just because there is a separation between game and story doesn’t mean changes cannot happen either. Yes, it’s more work for the company, but you can arguably change voice lines and character dialogue as things change in the narrative. Even if this is a dream scenario, have characters grow and change. Forcing a disconnect between story and gameplay only happens when you make it happen.
I’m not directly advocating that you MUST have change in the game but to say that you cannot have any change at all is confusing to me. Characters can grow in a story AND in the game. Maybe you can’t change how they play but you can change how they react and how they deal with situations. Dissonance is only dissonance if you refuse to work with the game. Yes, there will be times where the character acts out of turn but a little dissonance is better than separating the game and story like the moon and the sun.
My Personal Opinion
You might have gleamed a bit of this from my word choice and the way I spoke about pros and cons, but my personal belief is that ludonarrative dissonance is fine in most cases. Not every game can have a story that completely syncs with the game you’ve made and that’s alright. No game, not even the best narrative-driven game of all time, will be entirely functional with the game you’ve made. I both understand and respect Blizzard and Riot’s decision to focus on the game itself but allow for a rich and deep story that’s told outside the confines of Summoner’s Rift or Watchpoint: Gibraltar.
My praise given, I disagree that the disconnect has to be complete. I feel like characters being given additional dialogue, new story options and more in the game should be allowed. Give us cosmetics that reflect what happened to these characters. Alter maps to show us what happened in a cinematic without designing the map around it (ala King’s Row). Give us story elements in the game that make us want to go looking at your fancy comic or your narrative hub deeper than the Mariana Trench. There can be connections without having to hamfist or slam a wall between the two.
Perhaps more and more games are moving toward this because less and less people care about the story behind these games? How many of us just rapidly slam the skip button during dialogue? How plentiful is the number of players who go on that secondary website and read all the short stories and comics? How substantial is the divide between people who enjoy the background and world behind these games versus those who just enjoy the game itself?
Ludonarrative dissonance is a tool. It is one of the many little gadgets in a writer’s toolbox that lets them alter and change the story as they wish in relation to the game. Just like any other tool, it’s strongest when it’s doing an appropriate job…but it’s not a universal tool that can fix every problem. There needs to be a fine line when to drop ludonarrative dissonance and work on ludonarrative consonance.