Meta-Ludonarrative Dissonance

That’s one hell of a title isn’t it? Let me explain. So Clint Hawking Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2) coined the term Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s quite a mothfull but it refers to a simple phenomenon – when the way a character is represented in the story of a game differs from the way the character behaves during gameplay. The classic example is Uncharted. Drake is a wise-cracking, slightly clumsy, funny adventurer during the cutscenes. During game-play, he becomes a mass-murderer and a super-soldier, mawing down entire armies of enemies. The fact that he kills so many people is rarely mentioned in the cutscenes.

I was playing Portal 2 recently and stumbled across a related phenomenon. I suggest calling it Meta-Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s when the way players feel about the game’s content differs significantly from what the character the player is controlling is supposed to feel. To be fair, by definition this is a wide-spread phenomenon. Players often control characters, who find themselves in life-threatening situations. Yet the players themselves are having the time of their life.

Yet, there is often some common thread that players and player characters are sharing. Players might not be fighting for their life, yet their determination to eliminate an enemy can be at least somewhat congruent with the way a player character feels. I might not feel threatened by the terrorists but at least I’m motivated to fight them as much as the marine I’m controlling. However, I noticed that in a game like Portal 2, my own investment in the game started to diverge significantly from what Chell, the game’s main character, was supposed to feel.

Chell Sad

Whee, “The Cake is a Lie”! LOLOLOLOLOL… oh… um… I mean… um… Yeah, we better get out here… and stuff.

In Portal 2, Chell is held captive in a huge facility controlled by the sinister AI GLADOS. GLADOS tortures Chell by putting her through a seemingly endless series of deadly tests. Especially in Portal 2, there are many dialogue sequences where it is implied that Chell finds the tests unpleasant and that she begrudges doing them. In fact, the main motivation of the character in both games is simply to escape the facility. Interestingly, this the exact opposite of what the player wants. As a a player, the tests are interesting, engaging and fun. So every time one of the characters tells me to “hold on for just a little little longer” I felt awkward. If I’m enjoying this and Chell clearly doesn’t, what am I doing here? For Chell, I must seem like some perverse psychopath – just as wicked as the AI that torments her. From this perspective, Chell becomes a tragic victim of this sick obsession that the player and their abductors are sharing. If we could only let her go, the player could stay with GLADOS and simply continue testing forever.

As fellow Indie game designer Jeroen D Stout pointed out, this exactly what happens in the co-op part of the game. There, the players are controlling robots, which were clearly created with the purpose of going through the tests. The robots seem to feel much more comfortable with this role. The dissonance is resolved.

As mentioned, some degree of Meta-Ludionarrative Dissonance is present in every game. But at least one feature of Portal 2 makes it stand out even more: the (semi-)silent protagonist. In theory, a silent protagonist should theoretically resolve the dissonance. Whatever a player thinks about the game, the silent protagonist can be assumed to think the same. It’s supposed to be a Tabula Rasa waiting to be filled with the player’s expectations. But that’s not really how it works in Portal 2. In Portal 2, Chell is a semi-silent protagonist. She may not speak but other characters around her are exceptionally vocal. Her personality is being reflected in the way they address her. Between the lines, it’s implied that Chell is determined to do whatever she can to escape the Appareture Science laboratories. It is, in fact, the entire goal of the game. We are never given the choice of staying and testing some more.

Having a vocal protagonist wouldn’t eliminate that problem. However, it could have helped establish Chell’s motivation more clearly and allow players to empathize with her. It could have also exposed the dissonance to the writers and made them modify the dialog or even the entire plot accordingly.

Meta-Ludionarrative Dissonance doesn’t specifically break the game. I was still enjoying Portal 2. But as we explore more ways of telling interactive stories and stray from the beaten path of “shoot the bad guy”, concepts like Meta-Ludionarrative Dissonance may become an increasingly important factor. Perhaps we can even learn how to use it as a tool to convey meaning.

I was wondering, did you ever encounter Meta-Ludionarrative Dissonance in a game yourself?

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

13 responses to “Meta-Ludonarrative Dissonance”

  1. Matt

    Hmm… I couldn’t think of anything that fits as well as Portal, but would Shadow of the Colossus count? Both the player and the character might have the same goals, killing the colossi/resurrecting the girl, but their attitudes are exactly opposite. As the player you’re having fun (as you should be). You just killed a monster hundreds of times your size! Aren’t you awesome! Where’s the next one? You can’t wait to see what comes next and don’t want it to end.

    The character on the other hand knows right off the bat, before you even start playing, that he shouldn’t be doing this. He’s clearly not a brute that enjoys killing, and judging by the scenes after each colossus (with the black tentacle things) this is a horrible experience for him. He wants this to be over as soon as possible. As a silent character you could also judge his mood as a reflection of the atmosphere, which is very quite and somber.

    I suppose you could also include games where you don’t play them as “intended”. Like, say, running through Metal Gear with a rocket launcher blowing everyone up. Although that’s a choice left to the player, not the required option, so maybe that doesn’t count.

  2. Brendan Keogh

    I think it is a matter of sympathy as opposed to empathy. We tend to assume that ’sympathy’ is what the player/character relationship should aim for (that is, the character should be feeling the same thing as the player) when really what we should be aiming for is empathy, of relating from a distance.

    I feel this meta-ludonarrative dissonance certainly exists in every game and certainly is something to be understood, but I don’t think it is a bad thing to be avoided. To look at film, for example, it is quite possible to have a comedy where horrible stuff happens to the protagonist. It does not necessarily harm the text if the emotions of the player/viewer are not the same as the character.

    Portal 2, I feel, is something like this in that, yes, Chell is being held captive but the game itself is a relatively light-hearted comedy. The player is meant to enjoy the rollicking adventure and solving puzzles, but they should also want Chell to escape. They are two distinct aims of the one ludonarrative, but I do not necessarily believe it is a dissonance. Just a relationship of empathy over sympathy.

    Apologies for the incoherent thoughts. Hopefully there is some sense in them :)

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Good points!

      However, I think we should be careful with using film for comparison in this regard. I believe that movies work very differently from games. A lot of fundamental dramatical effects fail utterly in games (forshadowing, dramatic irony). See also:

      Equally, I think a lot of comedy is partly simply Schadensfreude. It is certainly is for things like “The Funniest Home Videos”. The thing with Schadensfreude is that it’s rarely funny if it happens to you. ;)

  3. sirleto

    one stupid idea: isn’t it a problem for games with life threatening situation? i mean, people like to shoot and stuff, while protagonists (seldomly) like those situations. playing a deadly perverted killer is probably the solution, while playing anybody that is trying to ecape the deadly situations, while players enjoy them is your dissonance.

    on the other side, when you play, say simcity – you really love to build the city. so if there would be a Major as a character whom you’d actually play, he’d love to build and make better – while the player does to.

    mario wants to rescue his princess, and so does the player.
    lara croft (atleast in the early few games) may be a good example without dissonance: she wants something archeological (lets say golden treasures), and all enemies she is shooting and fighting with, she’d rather avoid when possible. as is the player because the controls make the fighting quite hard.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      That’s why I mentioned that come of that dissonance is always present. But take Call of Duty for example. The soldiers in there may not enjoy being shot at. But they are there voluntarily. Their goal is to kill the terrorists. So is the player’s.

  4. Kimari

    So, let me get this straight:
    The mechanics tell one story. If guns are available and people can be killed, the story told by the player is going to likely be one of wanton murder. Especially if there’s little to no punishment for such activities.
    The cutscenes/context must logically follow the player’s possible actions, or else there’s ludonarrative dissonance (I don’t particularly like that term mind you).
    And you are proposing that the player _intent_ is yet another factor in the whole story, and if all of these three elements don’t align somewhat then there’s probably going to be a certain player disconnection. A break in immersion, if you will.

    Well … I can’t help but think that this third element added to the equation seems to be somewhat weaker than the other two. Making a few generalizations, player intent is going to fluctuate between “wanting to continue playing” and “wishing the game would end already”. The game itself doesn’t have any control over this whatsoever, so the designer is left with the only option of being an optimist and thinking that people are going to want to continue to play and prolong the experience as much as possible. After all, they should be having fun so they should want to continue to be in that state.
    As you said, that’s where the dissonance comes from in this case. The character itself isn’t enjoying herself while the player is having the time of his/her life. Could it be described in a broader sense? Mmmmhhh, let me try:

    We could say that there’s meta dissonance when the player’s goals and the goals of the character being controlled are opposed.

    Of course, if that were the definition then the name of this dissonance would have to change, but that’s a whole other discussion. Nevertheless, I like that definition because it pinpoints where the designer’s fault lies:
    The goal of the player is a factor designed into the game, if this goal is opposed to the character’s goal then the game designer is at fault here. Of course this could be used as a tool to convey meaning, as you rightly pointed out, but most of the time this dissonance is probably not going to be there on purpose.

    Karoshi is a series of games that comes to mind. The goal of those games is to commit suicide, but the character being controlled is a complete blank. We assume that he wants to commit suicide, after all that’s what the name of the games implies, but the completely blank face of the character makes things a little less clear. It’s a problem that I never stumbled upon while playing any of the games because they never take advantage of the strange position I was in.

    The Maw is another example of this: The goal of the game was to take this little beast and find a way to let it eat everything in sight, including harmless animals. I distinctly remember Yahtzee being disgusted at the goals of the game.

  5. Kimari

    Also, it’s “Clint Hocking”, not “Clint Hawking”. Yes, I just noticed :)

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Oh, you mean it’s not the physicist in the wheelchair?! Oh shi, it makes so much more sense now!

      (thanks <3 )

  6. uriele

    I think you have to consider the register of the game. I would feel some emotional dissonance, if the game were supposed to be a drama, like Mirror’s Edge; but Portal 2 is a (gonzo-dark) comedy and Chell is a wonderful Arthur Dent character: Dent (like Newton Pulsifer, Richard Mayhew and Rincewind) never weeps about the his improbable misadventures; he simply copes and accepts all the oddities, and so does Chell.

  7. Fredashay Klavierstein

    Replace “the player” with God, “Chell” with the whole human race, and “GLaDOS” with Satan, and Portal could be a metaphor for religion.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      So who would be Valve in this metaphor?

  8. Fredashay Klavierstein

    I guess Valve would be the church :-p

  9. The game triangle « Indigo Static

    [...] the gaming community such as ludonarrative dissonance (conflict between mechanics and context), meta-ludonarrative dissonance (conflict between player and context) and DIAS: Do It Again Stupid (conflict between player and [...]


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


follow Krystian on Twitter
follow Yu-Chung on Twitter
follow Daniel on Twitter