The gun goes off.
My captor’s head snaps backward with a spray of digital blood. Lara scrambles to her feet, desperately distancing herself from the man now coughing and sputtering on the ground. The game closes up on the man’s face— his wound is terrible; his death, imminent. As he breathes his last, Lara collapses to her knees, clearly horrified by what has just happened. She was forced to take her first human life, and everything in this cutscene tells me I am meant to empathize. Violence is appalling, Tomb Raider seems to imply in this moment. Look at how awful humans can be to one another.
The scene ends, and I am once again in control of Lara. Not thirty seconds later, we find ourselves pinned behind some crates, hiding from two more guards. But instead of allowing me to create a distraction, or sneak away into the jungle, the game automatically takes Lara out of cover and forces me to shoot these men.
“XP + 15 HEADSHOT!” the game proclaims on the left side of the screen, a note of triumph embedded in the exclamation point.
Such was my most recent encounter with what some claim to be the most challenging hurdle for game design: ludonarrative dissonance. Though this term may seem obscure and imposing, it is actually describing something that almost every gamer has experienced at some point— the sense that the story a game is trying to tell you is at odds with the way that game plays.
In the example above, Tomb Raider’s ‘narrative aspect’ is telling me that shooting people in the face is monstrous and repugnant, a life-altering experience in every sense of the word. However, its gameplay is saying the opposite. By actively rewarding me with more experience for headshots, Tomb Raider’s ‘ludic aspect’ is telling me that shooting people in the face is empowering, something to pursue and revel in. The two aspects are fundamentally opposed, and thus, ludonarrative dissonance is born. (In fact, this tension between Tomb Raider’s gameplay and story is so palpable that the developers felt compelled to address it themselves)
The problem is hardly limited to issues of violence. One might use the term to describe virtually anything in a game that doesn’t quite fit within a game’s universe. In Bioshock Infinite I am introduced to the mesmerizing world of Columbia, a floating city rich with history, politics, and religion, and yet I can somehow open up a garbage can and instantaneously inhale two hotdogs and a pineapple to recover from bullet wounds. In Ninja Gaiden Black I play as an absurdly powerful ninja capable of slaying the devil himself, but I am somehow thwarted by a chain-link fence. Even in Super Mario 64 — a game in which one ought to expect absurdity — I raised an eyebrow when I discovered that Mario can quite easily breathe underwater if only one of his feet is above the surface. In each of these scenarios, that which the player assumes to be true about the game world (that people can’t teleport food into their stomach, that katanas should cut through small wires, and that feet are not lungs, respectively) is violated somehow by the gameplay.
Regardless of how it may manifest itself, ludonarrative dissonance causes the player to immediately lose immersion in the game. When we see something that doesn’t jive with the way we think the game world should work, we start to ask questions. “Why can’t that guard see me when I’m right here in front of him?” “How did she survive that fall out the third story window?” “How can Nathan Drake be so happy-go-lucky while killing literally hundreds of people?” Ludonarrative dissonance causes us to become aware that something is amiss. It evaporates our suspension of disbelief. It draws our attention to the fact that something is out of sync where there should be harmony.
It’s a lot like evil.
While working on this piece, I received an email from my church’s prayer list. It was an update on a member who had been in the hospital for nearly six months. “Jeremy” was walking alongside a quiet street, chatting with his wife, when suddenly he stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk. This caused him to trip headfirst into an oncoming taxi, one of the only vehicles on the road. Though the email had good news— no permanent brain damage— this freak accident was an encounter with evil that will forever follow this young couple.
Evil can take many forms. It can be silly, such as dislocating your knee while carrying too many books on the bus (something that I can tell you from personal experience is the least glamorous way to end up on crutches for two months). It can be mundane, as with old age; I think of my grandmother as she slowly loses her faculties in a hospital. It can be insidious, such as the way our cheap clothing is dependent on exploitative garment factories. Or, it can be as horrific and as mind-numbing as the Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed over 230,000 people in a matter of minutes. But in every case (at least, if you are like me), evil intuitively feels wrong. It is something to be avoided, lamented, and even disdained.
I have neither the space nor the desire to enter a discussion about the so-called “problem of evil”, which has plagued philosophical circles since the time of Epicurus. What I find interesting, however, is that traditionally Christians have understood evil in the same way that gamers understand ludonarrative dissonance.
Evil is like dissonant gameplay; it clashes with the intended narrative of the cosmos. The ‘true story’ of the world is the one we encounter at the very beginning of the Bible, where the universe is saturated with God’s beauty and glory. “In the beginning, God created… and it was good.” For Christians, evil is something that cuts against this original story. In the same way that the player is jostled when Booker DeWitt heals himself with a bag of popcorn, Christians traditionally believe that evil disturbs us because it grinds against the way we intuitively think things should be.
In other words, the anger, sorrow, and discomfort that we feel when we encounter evil is a direct result of cosmic ludonarrative dissonance. It can be minute or monstrous, subtle or severe, but in every case, evil is like a glaring flaw, where the ‘gameplay’ of the world fails to live up to what its original story promised us.
I felt this dissonance most intensely a few weeks ago, when my father-in-law was speaking in church about his most recent trip to Colombia. He had been visiting some farmers in Chocó, one of the most impoverished areas of the country. These men and women, convinced that the drug trade was ethically wrong, were trying to eke out a living by growing rice and cocoa beans, even though they could make over 150 times more money if they grew cocaine to be sold in the United States. For years these farmers had worked themselves to the bone because of their moral convictions, and I couldn’t help but admire them. Here were the underdogs, doing all they could to live faithfully in a country ravaged by bureaucratic corruption and para-military conflict.
My father-in-law paused for a moment, and I could tell from his face that something was wrong. “I found out this morning that the government of Colombia has indiscriminately destroyed every crop in Chocó.” He went on to explain that in order to comply with US demands to lower cocaine production, the Colombian government had decided it was easier to spray herbicide over every plot of land rather than to check if cocaine was growing there (a practice I have since learned is nothing new). As a result, these farmers and their families lost everything— and since they chose not to grow cocaine, they had no funds to fall back on. Today they will starve because they tried to do the right thing.
The injustice of this evil— the way it mocked everything I know to be good, true, and beautiful— cut into me like a knife. Judging by the silence that swept over the pews, I doubt I was the only one.
Thus I encountered ludonarrative dissonance yet again. Only this time, it wasn’t a game.