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“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.