Generating Tension in Papers, Please: A Case for Ludonarrative Dissonance 7


Bioshock seems to suf­fer from a pow­er­ful dis­so­nance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.”

-          Clint Hocking, 2007

Papers, Please

Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please was released in 2013 to wide acclaim. Set in the fic­ti­tious east­ern European nation of Arstotzka dur­ing the 1980s, Pope describes the game as fol­lows:

You play a bor­der inspec­tor at a con­tentious check-point. People are com­ing into your booth, and they want to get from one side to the other. You’ve got to check their doc­u­ments and make sure everything’s in order before you let them through. It’s hard to describe the game and make it sound fun.”

The point of the game­play, at least osten­si­bly, is to process as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble with­in a lim­it­ed amount of time. Each day you are given a set of rules to follow—for instance, claimants from cer­tain coun­tries must have a work visa to enter—and you must either allow or deny entry based on the paper­work they present to you. If you cor­rect­ly process an appli­cant, you are award­ed with a small amount of money. If you incor­rect­ly process too many appli­cants, you are penal­ized money. This mat­ters because at the end of every day you must spend your lim­it­ed resources on food, shel­ter, and med­i­cine for sick rel­a­tives. In essence then, you must accu­rate­ly process as many claimants as you can, or else you are not able to ade­quate­ly pro­vide for your fam­i­ly.

This is tense enough, but the game gets real­ly inter­est­ing when you take into account some of the nar­ra­tive ele­ments that serve to human­ize the claimants.

1

There’s one moment in par­tic­u­lar from the game that I think about from time to time. A young woman is flee­ing her abu­sive pimp, anx­ious to cross the bor­der to safe­ty. She’s des­per­ate to get away, and I want to help. All I have to do is approve her appli­ca­tion request and she can leave a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion behind. One small act on my part and I can help out a fel­low human being. But I don’t. She doesn’t have the prop­er doc­u­men­ta­tion and so I reject her appli­ca­tion claim. Despondent, she walks away, doomed to fur­ther hor­rors.

Likewise, at anoth­er time an elder­ly man wants to enter the coun­try so that he can visit his dying wife. Once again, he doesn’t have the prop­er paper­work, and so from a ludic per­spec­tive it is bet­ter to deny him access; if I show mercy and let him in, then I will be penal­ized and poten­tial­ly lose money for the day.

Why did I reject their claims? Why not do the right thing and just let them in? Because accord­ing to the rules of Papers, Please,if I incor­rect­ly process their claims I’ll poten­tial­ly lose money for the day. This means I’ll have less money to buy food or med­i­cine for my fam­i­ly, and if I keep incor­rect­ly pro­cess­ing claims, it will even­tu­al­ly result in the game end­ing.

There’s a ten­sion here between two dif­fer­ent parts of the game. The gameplay’s empha­sis on effi­cien­cy clash­es with the desire to help a per­son in need (the nar­ra­tive con­text). Ultimately, I must decide between help­ing out a sym­pa­thet­ic indi­vid­ual, or accu­rate­ly pro­cess­ing paper­work and earn­ing more money.

Papers, Please is filled with these dif­fi­cult deci­sions, and it’s pre­cise­ly these dif­fi­cult deci­sions that make the game so com­pelling to me. This ten­sion between want­i­ng to do the right thing and want­i­ng to do the ben­e­fi­cial thing is at the heart of the game. But to talk about this ten­sion, I have to use what’s become a dirty term in game stud­ies: ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Broadly speak­ing, ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance is when the game­play and story seem at odds with one anoth­er. For instance, being told that your next mis­sion is urgent (nar­ra­tive) only to spend the next sev­er­al days min­ing plan­ets with­out penal­ty (game rules) doesn’t seem right. The story and the game­play seem to con­tra­dict each other.

I know many peo­ple are tired and/or sus­pi­cious of the term (you can get a good sense of the dis­cus­sion here). For some, its insis­tence on a divide between a game’s play (ludus) and its story (in cutscenes, etc.) cre­ates a false bina­ry, need­less­ly plac­ing these com­po­nents into oppo­si­tion with each other. For oth­ers, it is a pre­ten­tious term, hark­ing back to the stuffi­est of stuffy aca­d­e­m­ic lan­guages, Latin. For oth­ers still, ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance prob­a­bly doesn’t exist, and if it does, nobody cares about it any­way. It is admit­ted­ly a much mocked and maligned term. After all, it’s been seven years now (!) since Clint Hocking first coined it in his dis­cus­sion of BioShock, and it has since spawned many, many arti­cles. I def­i­nite­ly under­stand the fatigue.

Furthermore, ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance is gen­er­al­ly seen as a weak­ness or flaw in the game’s sys­tem, since it implies a lack of cohe­sion or whole­ness; it is thought to take play­ers “out of” the game. It is with­out ques­tion that in some—perhaps most—cases, dis­so­nance can detract from a player’s engage­ment with, or enjoy­ment of, a game. It can take the play­er out of a game, or spoil the coher­ence of the fan­ta­sy.

However, this need not always be the case. Games can and should take advan­tage of their mul­ti­fac­eted­ness, as doing so can cre­ate gen­er­a­tive, serendip­i­tous sys­tems. This can cre­ate inter­est­ing forms of ten­sion, a key com­po­nent to any play expe­ri­ence.

Thus I want to argue here that the term ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance is both a valu­able tool for ana­lyz­ing games, and more to the point, that the con­cept itself reveals a fun­da­men­tal aspect of all videogames. This isn’t to sug­gest that all games are dis­so­nant, but rather, that all games are made up of many dif­fer­ent things at once, each of which pro­found­ly influ­ences the oth­ers.

What sort of things am I talk­ing about? We can pick any we like, real­ly. It depends on the game, but to name a few we can say a game has some code, hard­ware, a series of rules, some audio and/or visu­al out­put, an inter­face, a pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem, some­times a story, some­times vic­to­ry con­di­tions, and so on.

Which ele­ments you choose to ana­lyze and how is essen­tial­ly arbi­trary, as no one ele­ment is inher­ent­ly pri­ma­ry over the oth­ers. For exam­ple, there’s no rea­son why a game’s rules are nec­es­sar­i­ly more impor­tant than the art direc­tion or sound design. The point is that each of these ele­ments influ­ences the oth­ers and that none of them exist in iso­la­tion.

This idea is far from new. Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) dis­cuss­es var­i­ous strategies—visual, pro­ce­dur­al, textual—for  con­struct­ing nar­ra­tive. This implies that there are dif­fer­ent parts to a videogame, each replete with its own strengths and weak­ness­es. Even amidst the stake-claiming of the ludology/narratology debate, most par­tic­i­pants agreed that a game was never only its rules or only its nar­ra­tive, but instead acknowl­edged that these com­po­nents exist­ed in a rela­tion­ship with each other. Furthermore, T.L. Taylor and Daniel Joseph have both writ­ten about games as assem­blages, amal­gams of com­plex, inter-related parts, though their focus is pri­mar­i­ly on social and eco­nom­ic pres­sures not con­fined to the game itself.

But per­haps the most focused work on a con­fig­u­ra­tive model of the videogame is Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (2006). Here Bogost puts forth an approach—unit operations—that ana­lyzes how a text’s com­po­nent parts, or “units,” exist in rad­i­cal­ly dynam­ic rela­tion­ships with each other. For Bogost, unit oper­a­tions pri­or­i­tize rela­tion­ships and con­text over holis­tic or total­i­tar­i­an approach­es. As he puts it, “Unit oper­a­tions are char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly suc­cinct, dis­crete, ref­er­en­tial, and dynam­ic…. In gen­er­al, unit oper­a­tions priv­i­lege func­tion over con­text, instances over longevity”[i]. Unit oper­a­tions oper­ate accord­ing to the Spinozean con­cept “of innu­mer­ably re-creatable rela­tions between objects”[ii].

This approach rec­og­nizes that a videogame—and any­thing really—is an aggre­gate, a con­fig­u­ra­tion of many com­po­nent parts. The key point is that although these parts each exist as their own dis­crete enti­ties, they also can’t help but exist in a dynam­ic, mutu­al­ly con­sti­tu­tive rela­tion­ship with one anoth­er. Each unit unique­ly influ­ences the other units in the con­fig­u­ra­tion.

Change one part—say, a cutscene or musi­cal score—and you’ve also changed how we under­stand the other parts—for instance the game­play or visu­al con­tent. In Bogost’s words,  unit oper­a­tions thus “strive to artic­u­late both the mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion and the spe­cif­ic func­tion­al rela­tion­ship between them”[iii].

In this arti­cle I’m look­ing at two units, the game­play and the nar­ra­tive. This type of analy­sis looks at how the game­play and story inter­act with one anoth­er, whether they’re in agree­ment or dis­so­nant. However, it’s just one pos­si­ble con­fig­u­ra­tion among many. I could look at audio-visual dis­so­nance, ludo-visual, audio-narrative, etc.. There are dozens of pos­si­ble con­fig­u­ra­tions, and each poten­tial­ly tells us some­thing use­ful about how we under­stand a given text. And it’s cer­tain­ly not con­fined to videogames alone.

In film we see audio-visual dis­so­nance all the time. You might recall the very graph­ic tor­ture scene in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs.

Here a man is bru­tal­ly tor­tured while Stealers Wheel’s some­what silly song, “Stuck in the Middle With You,” plays in the back­ground. One of the rea­sons the scene is espe­cial­ly creepy, I think, is due to the ten­sion cre­at­ed by the dis­con­nect (jux­ta­po­si­tion) between the visu­al and audi­to­ry con­tent. On screen we’re see­ing some­thing awful, but the accom­pa­ny­ing sound­track is fair­ly light­heart­ed. These two units (the visu­al and audi­to­ry) don’t quite add up. But this isn’t a bad thing. Here the dis­so­nance between units actu­al­ly gen­er­ates some­thing, i.e. an increased sense of unease which rein­forces the idea that the tor­tur­er is a remorse­less sadist.

Ludonarrative dis­so­nance in videogames can also be a good thing. It doesn’t have to be a weak­ness, nor does it neces­si­tate a bina­ry oppo­si­tion between game and story. It sim­ply acknowl­edges that the story and game are two distinct—though permeable—units.

In BioWare series like Mass Effect, for instance, I’d often find myself fac­ing dilem­mas when choos­ing party mem­bers. I might like the nar­ra­tive or dia­logue options of one char­ac­ter, but know that anoth­er char­ac­ter will pro­vide a ludic advan­tage dur­ing the mis­sion due to a spe­cial power.

2

For exam­ple, at one point Shepherd and the team must con­front Liara’s moth­er, Matriarch Benezia, about some sus­pi­cious con­duct. From a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive, it would be inter­est­ing to bring Liara and see how the two inter­act. They’ve had a strained rela­tion­ship and I’m curi­ous to see how it plays out. However, from a pure­ly ludic per­spec­tive I know I’m prob­a­bly bet­ter off bring­ing Wrex, since he pro­vides some much need­ed fire­pow­er. There’s a ten­sion here sur­round­ing whom I choose to bring, and this ten­sion results from ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance. Here the nar­ra­tive and ludic “units” are pulling me in dif­fer­ent direc­tions.

(De)Humanization

Back to Papers, Please, in my view the pri­ma­ry ten­sion between the nar­ra­tive and ludic units revolves around the theme of dehu­man­iza­tion. I have to essen­tial­ly choose between quan­tifi­ably pos­i­tive out­comes (more money) which require me to ignore claimants’ sto­ries, and a less straight-forward moral vic­to­ry which requires me to ignore the poten­tial money I’ll earn. Either way, I must do one at the expense of the other.

In other words, the gameplay’s empha­sis on effi­cien­cy and increas­ing cap­i­tal is dis­so­nant with the nar­ra­tive, which human­izes these claimants and evokes a sense of com­pas­sion. I want to do right by these peo­ple, but my bank account pulls me in anoth­er direc­tion. This ten­sion is one of the rea­sons why Papers, Please is such an inter­est­ing and com­pelling game.

Many of us rec­og­nize this ten­sion in our own lives, though usu­al­ly with far lower stakes. Whether it’s been with a gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy or cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive, most of us have prob­a­bly been treat­ed in a way that makes us feel as though we’re just anoth­er file, anoth­er task to get through instead of a com­plex and unique human being.

Bureaucratic process­es are inher­ent­ly dehu­man­iz­ing and through play­ing the game I sort of see why: there are just so many peo­ple to process and you have to be done your shift by 5. However, the nar­ra­tive strate­gies in Papers, Please indi­vid­u­al­ize claimants and ask the play­er to treat them as peo­ple, not as num­bers.

If we look out­ward from the game, Papers, Please pro­vides a com­men­tary on the nature of bureau­cra­cy as a whole, and not just in an author­i­tar­i­an state. The state, the insur­ance com­pa­ny, the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­ny, etc., must con­stant­ly choose between treat­ing its citizens/customers as human beings or as num­bers. This dis­con­nect between feel­ing like a num­ber or a human being is beau­ti­ful­ly expressed, I think, in Papers, Please.

3

So not only does the game use ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance as a method for cre­at­ing chal­leng­ing in-game deci­sions, it also uses this ten­sion to implic­it­ly artic­u­late the ten­sion faced by real bureau­cra­cies: Human or num­ber? How shall I treat them today? Whether we want to engage in a close read­ing of the game or use it to describe a real-life process, ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance helps us in both cases.

Conclusion

This is just one crit­i­cal approach among many. I’m not try­ing to exclude any oth­ers. There are even other ways to dis­cuss dis­so­nance in Papers, Please. For exam­ple, ten­sion is cre­at­ed through a sort of intra-narrative dis­so­nance, where two parts of the nar­ra­tive pull at one anoth­er. Do I help these refugees or my fam­i­ly? The money I’ll lose from ille­gal­ly help­ing a claimant might mean that I can’t buy med­i­cine for my sick grand­par­ent. In this case the ten­sion aris­es with­in the nar­ra­tive unit, out of a con­flict between altru­ism or empa­thy for strangers and famil­ial loy­al­ty.

Videogames are a com­plex medi­um, how­ev­er, and so any crit­i­cal approach­es or emphases are bound to be arbi­trary. Still, a unit oper­a­tions approach to crit­i­cism, which looks at how dif­fer­ent parts work togeth­er, leaves “oppor­tu­ni­ties open rather than clos­ing them down”[iv].

It should also be said that it’s prob­a­bly not pos­si­ble to speak of a game as dis­so­nant on the whole. Rather, it is only indi­vid­ual parts with­in the game that can be con­sid­ered dis­so­nant, and then only accord­ing to a par­tic­u­lar nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. As Zoya Street has noted, the con­cept of dis­so­nance is by no means objec­tive.

In the first place, what’s dis­so­nant to some may not be dis­so­nant to oth­ers. Harmonic dis­so­nance in music, for instance, is high­ly depen­dent upon the sounds and songs you’ve encoun­tered through­out your life. The notes, chords and arrange­ments used in many south Asian musi­cal tra­di­tions are often dif­fer­ent from those we’re used to hear­ing in North America. Our envi­ron­ment is thus a cru­cial com­po­nent for devel­op­ing notions of what con­sti­tutes dis­so­nance in music. This same prin­ci­ple is true for videogames. What’s dis­so­nant for me may not be dis­so­nant for you.

From my expe­ri­ence the pri­ma­ry ten­sion in Papers, Please is, “do I want to save this per­son or do I want more money, i.e. points?” Your expe­ri­ence may have been dif­fer­ent. You may not care about the indi­vid­ual sto­ries and just want to see all of the end­ings. Or maybe you didn’t find the pleas very com­pelling. And that’s all fine. I’m not sug­gest­ing that my read­ing is objec­tive­ly cor­rect or any­thing. Instead, I sim­ply want to advo­cate for the use­ful­ness of an often maligned term. If noth­ing else, the con­cept of ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance illus­trates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mul­ti­fac­eted­ness, the very benign fact that videogames are not holis­tic things. And for me this is an impor­tant first step in any crit­i­cal enter­prise.

[i] Ian Bogost. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism,(2006), p. 4.

[ii] Ibid, p.9.

[iii] Ibid, p. 14.

[iv] Ibid, p. 7.


Jason Hawreliak

About Jason Hawreliak

Jason Hawreliak is an Assistant Professor at Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities. He’s interested in how games create meaning and help us negotiate our sense of the world. Oh, and death in videogames. He is essays editor at First Person Scholar.

  • thestage

    In the first place, what’s dis­so­nant to some may not be dis­so­nant to oth­ers.”

    That quite depends on the for­mal con­tent of the term. Some peo­ple can and do use it to refer to spe­cif­ic musi­cal qual­i­ties that are either present or not present in a work. Some peo­ple lever­age it as a con­cept against west­ern musi­cal tra­di­tion to gen­er­al­ly describe a piece of music as “pleas­ant” or “unpleas­ant” to the ear. While this is clear­ly a qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria, it is not a trait that is ascribed a wide­ly held pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive value. To say some­thing is unpleas­ant to the ear is not to say it is a poor piece of music. It is not even to say that I do not value lis­ten­ing to it. Papers, Please is not meant to be pleas­ant to the gam­ing ear, but that says noth­ing what­so­ev­er about its value or qual­i­ty. This is not a very con­tro­ver­sial stance.

    Ludonarrative dis­so­nance, as Hocking invoked it specif­i­cal­ly as a crit­i­cism of Bioshock, does in fact ascribe neg­a­tive value. Bioshock belit­tles the play­er for mak­ing a choice he was never allowed to not make, and then pass­es its judg­ment against the play­er off as pro­found. It is a work built around a gim­mick that couch­es that gim­mick in smarmy nihilism as a guard against crit­i­cism. In say­ing this, I am say­ing that Bioshock is bad. Hocking says that the game is non­sen­si­cal because it does not under­stand that the crit­i­cism that it lev­els at the play­er is premised on its own design, rather than any choice the play­er did or did not make. From the very begin­ning, when my avatar stuffs an unmarked syringe into his arm and injects him­self, quite apart from my will, with a vague­ly threatening-looking liq­uid, I am forced to sus­pend my dis­be­lief or else put down the con­troller. I am told, imme­di­ate­ly, that A MAN CHOOSES and A SLAVE OBEYS, but Bioshock is not inter­est­ed in afford­ing me any way to explore those dic­tums. They sim­ply exist so that I can be rebuffed later on for hav­ing cho­sen to obey the rules of the game in order to play it.

    There is no such prob­lem in Papers, Please. The game is premised entire­ly upon an under­stand­ing that the play­er will have to choose between pro­gress­ing effec­tive­ly in the game and approach­ing the choic­es pre­sent­ed as one might approach them in real life, were actu­al human beings involved. I can crit­i­cize the game for being lazy by rely­ing on the player’s pre-installed sym­pa­thies to cre­ate dif­fi­cult choic­es rather than work­ing in any mean­ing­ful way to cre­ate them on its own. I can say that the over­ar­ch­ing exer­cise is empty in that it never devel­ops any of its ideas (social sys­tems are struc­tured in such a way that they self prop­a­gate regard­less of the will or beliefs of their indi­vid­ual mem­bers; the banal­i­ty of evil, etc.) beyond the ini­tial premise. I can also praise the game for find­ing a way to effec­tive­ly illus­trate its sub­ject mat­ter through organ­ic, inven­tive play mechan­ics that offer a com­pelling per­spec­tive of a social prob­lem, or for show­ing us how “game­play sys­tems” are in fact real-world con­structs that struc­ture our social behav­ior, and not just play states.

    I can do any of these things, and more besides. What I can­not do is equate the premise of Papers, Please with the premise of Bioshock, because one wields its struc­ture toward spe­cif­ic aims, in order to say spe­cif­ic things and pro­duce spe­cif­ic respons­es in its play­ers, while the other ignores its under­ly­ing struc­ture entire­ly and then places the blame for that struc­ture on an out­side party. If we want to specif­i­cal­ly return to the idea of dis­so­nance, one could say that the “ten­sion” you describe in Papers, Please is the result of a cohe­sive (read: “con­so­nant”) design, while the dis­so­nance present in Bioshock is the result of a flawed, ill-considered, or non­sen­si­cal design premise. Which is to say you are not talk­ing about the same thing Clint was talk­ing about. And beyond that, the idea of crit­i­cal­ly incon­gru­ent aspects of a work is not at all unique to video games, and fur­ther­more the impe­tus to draw bina­ries between “game” and “story” in gen­er­al is evi­dence of the crit­i­cal imma­tu­ri­ty of the medi­um and of the way we often approach it.

    • Thanks for read­ing! I cer­tain­ly get how Hocking meant it, but I am quite inten­tion­al­ly try­ing to expand that sense of the term. I think it often is a weak­ness or flaw, but my point is that it doesn’t have to be. 

      And to be clear, I’m not try­ing to use dis­so­nance as a means for either prais­ing or crit­i­ciz­ing a game, as Hocking does. That’s ulti­mate­ly up to the indi­vid­ual. To be hon­est I’m not a review­er so I don’t real­ly care about that side of it. I’m mere­ly stat­ing that hav­ing a nar­ra­tive com­po­nent pull me in one direc­tion while hav­ing a game­play com­po­nent draw me in anoth­er makes for a com­pelling form of ten­sion. It’s sub­jec­tive in the sense that I per­son­al­ly found the claimants’ sto­ries (nar­ra­tive) to be sym­pa­thet­ic, but oth­ers might not feel that way. 

      To address your last point, I don’t think incon­gruity is unique to videogames at all. I did explic­it­ly dis­cuss that by using the Reservoir Dogs exam­ple. I also have to say I com­plete­ly dis­agree that we shouldn’t break up a game, or any text, into com­po­nent parts. Doing so doesn’t neces­si­tate a bina­ry or mutu­al­ly exclu­sive rela­tion­ship. The value of Bogost’s Unit Operations is pre­cise­ly this, at least in the way I’m using it — we can acknowl­edge that a cutscene is some­thing dis­tinct from shoot­ing ene­mies, or what­ev­er, while also acknowl­edg­ing that each rad­i­cal­ly influ­ences the other. 

      If we kept all the mechan­ics of an FPS the same but switched, for exam­ple, a pro-American nar­ra­tive of the war on ter­ror with a pro-“insurgency” nar­ra­tive in Afghanistan, then how we under­stand the shoot­ing will change. It’s like musi­cians in a band — swap out a gui­tar for an organ and you get a dif­fer­ent feel on the whole. The drum­mer and bassist are still there, they’re still their own thing, but how they sound in rela­tion to each other is now dif­fer­ent. There’s no neces­si­ty for any sort of bina­ry there. Now if you’re talk­ing about some aspects of the ludology/narrative debate, then yes, that was reduc­tive and evi­dence of an imma­ture field. But that was 1015 years ago. Hopefully it’s clear that I’m try­ing to do some­thing very dif­fer­ent here.

      • Justin Freeman

        I remain uncon­vinced that the term ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance has any use out­side of the spe­cif­ic crit­i­cism I men­toned, in which a game-as-work under­mines itself by com­part­men­tal­iz­ing its dis­parate parts. Uncharted’s is a rel­a­tive­ly innocu­ous incom­pe­tence, in that it sim­ply does not care that affa­ble every­man Nathan and mass mur­der Nathan are incom­pat­i­ble. They exist sep­a­rate­ly from one anoth­er, but their refusal to cross paths does no real vio­lence to what is essen­tial­ly a bit of knock-off Indiana Jones pulp. Bioshock’s incom­pe­tence is sys­temic and com­pro­mis­ing, but what­ev­er, who cares, that’s not what we’re talk­ing about.

        But if you “don’t think incon­gruity is unique to video games at all,” which I’m sure you’ll agree with me is an obvi­ous state­ment, then I find it unlike­ly we can gain much from intro­duc­ing a unique bit of jar­gon premised on spe­cif­ic instances of said incon­gruity to stand in for the entire con­cept. Describing a sys­tem­at­ic ten­sion in Papers, Please seems to me to be rather enough, espe­cial­ly since the idea of ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance is already rather prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly reduc­tive in that it spec­i­fies that these ten­sions, incom­pat­i­bil­i­ties, or inco­heren­cies are exclu­sive­ly premised on a schism between “play” and “nar­ra­tive,” that, as you your­self said, is crit­i­cal­ly a decade out of date. To offer a short bit of analy­sis: are the ten­sions you describe in Papers, Please exclu­sive­ly the result of game on one side, and nar­ra­tive on the other? The ludic sys­tem of “incon­sis­ten­cies in the pro­cess­ing of appli­ca­tions = a decrease in per­son­al income, or else an inde­ter­mi­nate advance­ment toward a fail state” is nar­ra­tive­ly premised, in that the use of money is whol­ly arbi­trary with­out the nar­ra­tive back­ing of the avatar’s fam­i­ly. Similarly, the idea of the per­son­al nar­ra­tives of the appli­cants affect­ing you, as the play­er, is lever­aged as a ludic sys­tem. The devel­op­ers must weigh what num­ber of nar­ra­tives might plau­si­bly influ­ence the play­er, work that into the income/fail state pro­gres­sion, and prop­er­ly game you to force the choic­es to have a ludic mean­ing. The nar­ra­tive itself is a game­play sys­tem, which is a truth that extends far beyond the realm of video games, and is in many ways the entire point of Papers, Please as a work. There are a lot of other holes to punch into this idea of the schism between “ludo” and “nar­ra­tive” hold­ing any weight, but that’s more or less besides the point, as I’m sure you agree with me on that con­clu­sion.

        But if you do agree with me, then I’d find it hard for you to also hold fast to a term premised on that schism, espe­cial­ly when the idea of the inter­wo­ven nature of the terms “game” and “nar­ra­tive” also works against the con­cept of dis­so­nance. Because the point of my orig­i­nal com­ment, and still the most salient crit­i­cism of the attempt to appro­pri­ate spe­cif­ic jar­gon as a means of express­ing gen­er­al artis­tic incon­gruity, is the fact that there is a dif­fer­ence between what I’ll call sys­tem­at­ic incon­gruities, and sys­temic incon­gruities. Papers, Please’s incon­gruities, if we real­ly want to call them that, are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly premised in order to pro­duce a coher­ent whole in which these incon­gruities serve to illus­trate the point of the inevitable pro­gres­sion and prop­a­ga­tion of social sys­tems. The incon­gruities present in Bioshock are sys­temic, in that they infect the work at its heart by virtue of the design tenets it adopts (ie, that of a lin­ear narrative-driven, pro­gres­sion ori­ent­ed game in which all choic­es made by the play­er are exclu­sive­ly ludic in nature), which are incom­pat­i­ble with its over-arching aims. Those are fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences.

        I sus­pect our dif­fer­ences here might come down to the hypo­thet­i­cal sce­nario pre­sent­ed in the last para­graph of your com­ment. You say that chang­ing the nar­ra­tive of a typ­i­cal AAA cor­ri­dor shoot­er from pro-American to pro-insurgency would change how we under­stand the shoot­ing. I would counter by say­ing that it is in fact impos­si­ble to pro­duce that game with­out dras­ti­cal­ly alter­ing the shoot­ing (and over­all struc­ture) to begin with, because that entire design is entwined with a cer­tain social per­spec­tive. It is a spe­cif­ic ludic sys­tem that has already roast­ed over the pits of the American cul­tur­al ide­ol­o­gy that has pro­duced it. We already note this as a func­tion and result of lan­guage all the time, which is why, for instance, you scare-quoted the word “insur­gency” as a way of acknowl­edg­ing the idea that the use of that word already implies a pro-American nar­ra­tive. We can extend that con­clu­sion from lan­guage to ludic states as well, I think, and in doing so note that the con­cepts of “play” and “play sys­tems” are just as broad and fun­da­men­tal as those of “lan­guage” and “lin­guis­tic sys­tems.” To use your metaphor, these are fun­da­men­tal com­po­nents of game design that approx­i­mate the com­po­si­tion of a piece of music, rather than the tim­bre pro­duced by the instru­ments that hap­pen to play it.

        • I think I’ve addressed most of those points in the com­ments on Stephen Beirne’s blog here http://​nor​mal​lyras​cal​.com/​2014​/​08​/​19​/​t​e​n​s​i​o​n​-​a​n​d​-​l​u​d​o​n​a​r​r​a​t​i​v​e​-​d​i​s​s​o​n​a​n​ce/

          But I guess I just don’t get why a term — com­prised of two already poor­ly defined terms — *has* to be kept so nar­row. I’ll try re-framing though in terms of modal­i­ty. The tex­tu­al mode (that gives us nar­ra­tive com­po­nents) pulls me in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion than the ludic mode (in this case a reward). That doesn’t seem too con­tro­ver­sial to me and kind of obvi­ous.

          All texts can be ana­lyzed mul­ti­modal­ly (Routledge has a series on mul­ti­modal­i­ty), but games have this ludic part to them as well. There’s no rea­son why you can’t look at — as I men­tioned — audio-visual dis­so­nance, or any other con­fig­u­ra­tion in a game. I just chose to con­duct a close read­ing of a scene in PP to demon­strate the value in cre­at­ing ten­sion between two arbi­trar­i­ly cho­sen parts (game­play and story). Now as for PP as a whole, yes, things are more com­pli­cat­ed than that. But again, I’m focus­ing on just one par­tic­u­lar set of scenes. 

          And I’m sorry if I mis­un­der­stand you, but to say that you can’t break a game into com­po­nent parts (i.e. ana­lyze it) is just not some­thing I agree with at a very basic level. You say that games and nar­ra­tive are “inter­wo­ven,” which is true, but you need two strands to be inter­wo­ven in the first place. Again, that’s the ben­e­fit of unit oper­a­tions, assem­blage the­o­ry, etc. — you can have parts and wholes at the same time. Even just in terms of pro­duc­tion, many games (though not PP) will have writ­ers, coders, artists, musi­cal direc­tors, etc. all work­ing on the same game. Now they all affect each other, pro­found­ly, and that’s what I’m inter­est­ed — how do these parts “bounce” off of each other (or weave togeth­er) to pro­duce mean­ing?

          Finally, I’m not sure if you’re famil­iar with games like Under Ash or Under Siege or any­thing, but they essen­tial­ly use typ­i­cal FPS mechan­ics while employ­ing a nar­ra­tive that’s anti­thet­i­cal to the pro-war on ter­ror stuff com­ing out of CoD or what­ev­er. The mechan­ics, the pro­ce­dures, etc. are pret­ty much iden­ti­cal, but because the char­ac­ter mod­els and over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive change, the expe­ri­ence as a whole is very dif­fer­ent. Sure the FPS has its own “ety­mol­o­gy,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used or appro­pri­at­ed in novel ways.

  • Paul

    I don’t think I agree that Papers Please is a good exam­ple of ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance, and I think the con­ver­sa­tion about has become con­fused. The orig­i­nal 2007 arti­cle by Hocking on BioShock, where the term was coined, was talk­ing about dis­so­nance between the intend­ed theme of the game as a whole, ver­sus the theme which the game­play actu­al­ly con­veys when con­sid­ered in iso­la­tion. As that arti­cle says, the author(s) of BioShock appear to have intend­ed to crit­i­cise “the Objectivist notion of indi­vid­ual inter­est above all else” — this is the theme we are sup­posed to absorb from the game. But the con­ven­tion­al FPS/RPG game­play of BioShock under­mines this and seems to sug­gest an oppo­site theme (in com­mon with almost every FPS or RPG ever made). I don’t think the authors of BioShock intend­ed for this uncon­scious gameplay-theme to be present at all. It is present because they lazi­ly reused prob­lem­at­ic FPS/RPG tropes with­out think­ing about what themes they might whis­per to the play­er, rather than com­ing up with a form of game­play that sup­port­ed their theme.

    In con­trast, in Papers Please the intend­ed theme of the game as a whole is pre­sum­ably about the pro­crustean nature of mas­sive bureau­cra­cies and the way they incen­tivise cruel behav­iour. The game­play mechan­ic of first forc­ing the play­er to sym­pa­thise with each per­son they process, then lead­ing them to make cold-blooded deci­sions that instru­men­talise that per­son in order to advan­tage them­selves — that PERFECTLY ILLUSTRATES the intend­ed theme. Far from being an exam­ple of ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance, Papers Please is a great exam­ple of ludonar­ra­tive con­so­nance. There would be dis­so­nance if the game­play failed to con­vey the idea that bureau­cra­cy incen­tivis­es cruel behav­iour.

    I think what you are talk­ing about in your Papers Please exam­ple is things like con­flict, and irony, which are here being con­scious­ly used by the game design­er to help con­vey the game’s theme. 

    IMO art always has an intend­ed theme; it is always a way for the artist to com­mu­ni­cate an idea about moral­i­ty, pol­i­tics or human expe­ri­ence. If a game (or any­thing else) is not made at least part­ly in order to impart a theme then it is not art. Ludonarrative dis­so­nance is an unin­ten­tion­al flaw where the game­play con­tra­dicts or fails to sup­port the game’s intend­ed theme, pro­vid­ed instead a counter-theme of its own. Games crit­i­cism ceas­es to be infan­tile once it engages with the intend­ed and unin­tend­ed themes of a game and the con­flicts and per­verse bonds between them.

    • Thanks for read­ing, Paul! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head over the con­fu­sion here. In a way I’m not using it as Hocking intend­ed at all. I’m zoom­ing in on one par­tic­u­lar scene in PP to demon­strate that the nar­ra­tive (the claimants’ sto­ries) and the game­play (the emh­pa­sis on effi­cien­cy, etc.) make for a com­pelling form of ten­sion. For me, good crit­i­cism will look at how a game’s com­po­nent parts work togeth­er, for good or ill. The ten­sion between nar­ra­tive and game­play has already been dis­cussed, so that’s why I use the term. 

      Now Papers, Please as a whole is much more com­pli­cat­ed, and as you go through the game there is in fact both a nar­ra­tive and ludic impe­tus to break the rules. But again, I was just using one small part of it — a close read­ing basi­cal­ly — to demon­strate the value in dis­so­nance between nar­ra­tive com­po­nents and game com­po­nents.

      The art and inten­tion­al­i­ty thing is a whole other can of worms. I’ll just say that I’m com­ing from a lit the­o­ry back­ground — Barthes’ death of the author and all that — so the artist’s inten­tion doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. In fact it’s inter­est­ing to me when a text reflects ideas/ideologies *not* intend­ed by the author. Admittedly that’s com­ing from a very spe­cif­ic back­ground so I’m not pre­pared to say one is inher­ent­ly bet­ter than the other.

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