Ludonarrative dissonance — when an open world disconnects you from the game's story

This post was inspired by a discussion sparked by @Viper’s post in the “What are you playing now?” topic, who reported that he did not enjoy Watch_Dogs 2 at all.

I remember back when BioShock Infinite was released, there was this huge controversy over critics highlighting the ludonarrative dissonance of the game.

According to the arbiter of all truth and human knowledge:

Ludonarrative dissonance is the conflict between a video game’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay.

As best I could piece together, the argument over BioShock Infinite’s ludonarrative dissonance was sparked by a blog post written by Leigh Alexander, which was picked up by Kotaku.

Funny enough, the actual term “ludonarrative dissonance” was apparently coined in a critique of the original BioShock, written by Clint Hocking in 2007. He was creative director on Far Cry 2, and is the creative director on Watch Dogs: Legion. (Aside: he also spent some time at LucasArts, Valve, and Amazon Game Studios.)

In which games have you found the disconnect between the story and gameplay jarring?

Or perhaps there are story elements in the game which just don’t make sense in the context of the game?


It is pretty much my problem with all open-world games before Witcher 3. I feel disconnected from the story. So it might just be me. I thought Watch Dogs 1 was better (from what I vaguely can remember).


My biggest problem with Watch Dogs 2 is that your character in the cutscenes appear to be this guy against violence and pro choice. But then he kills people in game like there is no tomorrow. It just felt like 2 completely different characters, one I watched and one I played.


It was a similar situation for me in Watch Dogs 1.

While there wasn’t a such huge disconnect between player action and the actual character, I found myself constantly asking: “Why do you have people helping you of their own free will when you treat them like garbage?”

The character in Watch Dogs 1 is a total selfish tool and yet he somehow inspires this tremendous loyalty. It just makes no sense.

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just so I understand what it means…would Lara Croft in first Tomb Raider reboot be an example? First guy you kill (despite him trying I think to rape you or something) she like cries over and gets super serious about…next scene I shoot 20 henchmen with arrows to the back of the throat without so much as a blink.

Or like Max Payne 3 where I go through ARMIES of guys that are in barricaded rooms waiting for me…oh cutscene…i walk in and immediately get captured by 1 dude with a pistol. Like CMON! He’s clearly shown he can handle that shit easy…

Are those accurate examples of Ludonarrative dissonance? Its not “open world” games tho…


Yeah, those are excellent examples. It doesn’t have to be an open world. I’ll rename the topic when I come up with a better title :stuck_out_tongue:.

I’d argue that if the Tomb Raider reboot is not an open world game, it is extremely close to being one.

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I think Witcher 3 was one of the first games for me where the open world game was done right without compromising on the story. I think it did help that the Witcher is basically a monster hunter so going from place to place and taking contracts fits neatly in the story.
In a lot of these open world games (especially Elder Scrolls and Fallout), I later tend to forget what the main story is about as I’m too wrapped up in the world.

Interestingly, since Bioshock was mentioned, Bioshock 1 was also a game I couldn’t get into. Played maybe an hour or two before dropping it. Bioshock 3 felt less open-world and that game was actually ok for me (played it years ago though, so memory is a bit fuzzy).


Let’s be fair, for most games unless your character is a homicidal maniac there will be some ludonarrative dissonance going on :smile:


It doesn’t even have to be ultra-violence in a place where it doesn’t really belong.

Like old school RPGs where you go into everyone’s house and steal their stuff and no-one ever stops you, and it doesn’t affect your reputation in any way. Everyone still thinks you’re a great big hero.

RPGs with side quests also easily fall into the trap of giving you some cosmically significant main mission, and then somehow you’re expected to still care about an NPC whose cat got stuck up a tree?

My recent play-through of Batman: Arkham Knight did this. Why would I care about anything other the main mission, given the urgency of it?

Agreed. It did commit some of the sins I mentioned above, but for the most part it works well.

I remember Fallout 3 being pretty good at how it handled narrative in an open world context as well. But that was a long time ago, so maybe I’m remembering with rose-tinted glasses.

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I get disconnected from the story in every elder scrolls game. I have not completed a single Elder Scrolls game yet played most of them to death.

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My approach has always been to do all the side / guild quests and then tackle the main story. Even in Skyrim I only unlocked shouts after I’ve gone through most of the game! I didn’t really end up using shouts at all.


I think ludonarrative dissonance occurs in many games. How much it bothers me is the question. In the Tomb Raider example, would I want a realistic Lara Croft for the entirety of the game? A Lara who would agonise over every combat encounter and try and engage in dialogue with every enemy? Obviously not, haha.

In other games, I try and play in a way which minimizes the dissonance (for me). This could mean not killing anyone, for example.

Errant Signal had a great video on this a few years back, where he breaks it further into “narratology” and “ludology”:

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This is a great point, especially when read with the Errant Signal video you linked to.

I thought it goes without saying—but based on Signal’s video it might not—calling out specific instances of a disconnect between the story and the gameplay doesn’t necessarily mean the whole game is ludonarratively dissonant.

It’s sort of like pointing out plot holes or inconsistencies in characters in a movie or TV show. Just because I might poke holes in the way Back to the Future does time travel, doesn’t make it any less one of my favourite franchises of all time.

So, yes, in the Tomb Raider example there is an instance where the developers tried to humanise Lara, push her to the point where she has to kill in self defence and come to grips with what has happened. Unfortunately it falls flat because of how the game is paced, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the game’s story is necessarily bad.

This is one of the strengths of gaming as a medium, and, I’d argue, one of the greatest story design challenges.

What an excellent video. I’m sure I watched it back in the day, but if I did I’ve completely forgotten about it. I do have several bones to pick with Signal, but I think that just goes to show how good a video it is.

Firstly, I think he mischaracterises how the term “ludonarrative dissonance” is used. That said, I didn’t do a survey of all uses of the term between 2007 and 2015, but I don’t think he did either.

“Ludonarrative dissonance” could have been fine short-hand jargon for critics to use when describing an incident where the story the developers are trying to tell doesn’t match the gameplay.

For example: the seven dwarves quest at the end of the second act of The Witcher 3. Why doesn’t he just ask after Ciri to begin with before agreeing to their quest? It’s such a small thing, and obviously it’s in service of The Witcher’s theme of subverting well known fables and stretching out the content (CDProjekt said in interviews that they were always mortally afraid of making the game too short).

RPGs are full of moments like that. “Why can’t I say this rather than that?”

Anyway… I find it sad that ludonarrative dissonance became such a loaded term when it could have been a useful one.

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I think it should be pointed out that ludonarrative dissonance from things like Tomb Raider and Max Payne mentioned above, doesn’t really equate to the same kind of disconnect that I often experience from open world games.

For instance, Lara going on a killing spree out of character isn’t going to make me lose complete track of the story, become disinterested and quit the game before completion.


One thing that needs to be added to the discussion of ludonarrative dissonance is the balancing of game mechanics with story telling. In open world games this is really difficult, as you are giving the player a literal open world to explore and mechanics and systems for them to use in variety of ways. These gameplay mechanics are all designed to be fun, engaging and keep the player enjoying the game. When the story now comes in a artificially limits the player to non- or limited violence, or tries to set a tone of personal development for the main character without adapting the gameplay mechanics in a similar fashion, it is then you get the biggest dissonance, in my opinion.

Take the example of Watch Dogs 2. The main character constantly struggles with the fact of not being too violent, not killing or harming innocent people, yet gameplay wise you can jump into a car and mow down hundreds of civilians in a car. The gameplay mechanics does not match the story telling at the time. This causes the player to get disengaged with the story more than I image the developers would want.

Now take a look at Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There is some argument to be made of some ludonarrative dissonance, but I think it is by far the game that suffers the least from this phenomenon. Link awakens without memory, tasked to saved a princess and realm that he has no connection to, understand or remember. As you explore the world, go on adventures, and do more side quests, you become more prepared for the final fight. You become the Link of old, the warrior to the princess, the wielder of the Master Sword. Your progress through the open world is inherently the story of how Link becomes the warrior capable of defeating Calamity Ganon. While there is urgency in getting this done to save Zelda, she has been fighting and keeping Ganon at bay for 100 years, so additional few days is not going to make such a difference. While the urgency is there, it feels like it fits within the world.

I also want to add the malaria mechanic from Far Cry 2 as a great example of how to overcome ludonarrative dissonance. It was a pain in the butt mechanic, plus the fact that you constantly has to have medicine in your possession, and the effects that could hit at any point, was something that was rather jarring. But it fit the narrative so extremely well. You are in Africa, hot zone for malaria. You are vulnerable, overwhelmed, and outnumbered in a land you don’t belong. Your progress through the land, doing more missions for both sides of the war, all brings you closer to your target, The Jackal.

My point is that game mechanics needs to be designed to fit within the narrative arc of the game. When a game can get that right, it suffers less from ludonarrative dissonance.

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Recently starting Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur Morgan kinda seems like he acts his part in game based on his backstory (so far).


it is difficult to do a full discussion on Arthur and ludonarrative dissonance and not go into spoilers. All I’ll say is that Rockstar has never really been great at getting the balance right, and most, if not all, their games suffers from it. But RDR2 is their best attempt yet, which is the most I’ll say without getting into spoilers.

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…hence the “so far” comment. I’m only about 10% of the story, or 21% of the total game done so far according to in-game progress stats. So still a way to go.