Awhile back Clint Hocking wrote a pretty kickass piece critiquing Bioshock’s Ludonarrative Dissonance. For a long time I wasn’t sure what the hell he was getting at with the word “Ludonarrative,” and after I just recently did an interview for a gaming journalism student, I learned that he had combined the terms “Ludology” and “Narrative.” No, really, I R SMRT.
After reading up on Ludology, I was hoping to coin a new term for what a typical video-game is, and unfortunately for me, I think Clint wins it with Ludonarrative. Why come up with a new term? Well, because the idea of people arguing the importance of either Ludology or Narrative in a video-game being more important than the other is frustrating. The point is, videogames (in fact, nearly ever game) is a combination in some way of both. So what’s the point in arguing that one is more important than the other?
Certainly, both fields of study are important. I went on for a week about the Narrative I had seen in Portal, so I obviously feel a good narrative is impactful. But there’s also a phrase thrown around in game design which I’ve been known to use myself from time to time: Gameplay is King. (This would be the Ludology reference for you folks in the back row there). If I ever had a situation where I was allowed to break fiction for the sake of gameplay, I’d briefly side with the Ludics and make the choice to go with a greater gameplay mechanic if I could.
But it cheeses me that there are people out there who might find one more impactfull or important than the other. The point is, we need both.
The games with even the wildest and heaviest narration, Final Fantasy, certainly have their roots in gameplay. Watching a huge summon spell just isn’t nearly as amazing if you didn’t earn the right to pull it off in the first place, seeing a cinema of your character kicking ass just isn’t as impactful if you didn’t kick and scrape your way to that point, and it’s hard to argue against the idea that levelling up a character is fun.
But even if we look at games from a strictly Ludic perspective, we can find that they also contain Narratives, as well. Even in the king of boardgames, Chess, the pieces are not only named after medieval themed characters, but the pieces which are more powerful are named after more powerful figures (save the King). Would the game be nearly as interesting (or have survived history at all) if “Bishop takes Knight” was “Gamepiece G takes Gamepiece L”? The fact of the matter is that even Chess has a fiction. Players pretend (even passively) to be two armies with politically divergent interests battling it out to see who wins in a contest of might makes right.
The ludology argument with chess would be: Chess would be just as much fun if the pieces weren’t medieval characters, and I have to call them out on that. First off, if the game were nothing more than shapes, or letters, or numbers, nobody would play it, because the game is hella boring enough as it is. Yes, it’s intellectually immersive, if that’s your bag, but without the idea that your Queen is about to mow down a Rook, well, I have to say the game isn’t nearly as compelling. Players, whether they know it or not, are identifying with their King pieces. If you lose your King, you’ve lost yourself. The emotional weight of losing just isn’t there if your square gets cornered, or if your Z is put into check.
This is why I get frustrated when I hear mainstream media claiming that video-games are an “interactive movie” or when I see game designers shuffling off the importance of narrative. The point is, any good game has both. Especially any good video-game worth playing. Ludonarrative is what makes games unique. They have both a gameplay element and a story element, to one degree or another. To ignore one is to ignore the total potential of your game.
And too many game developers fall into the trap of favoring one over the other. While I don’t think I’ve done an exceptionally good job at convincing anyone, it’s my hope that studios will begin development practices which tie both into the dev process from day one. Bioshock did it, Assassin’s Creed did a halfway decent job of it, and it seems GTA IV did it. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s many more studios out there capable of hitting on this process.