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

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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

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.


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.


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.

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.