Should Themes Develop From Gameplay? Rambling Thoughts on Ludonarrative Dissonance

Spoilers for Crypt of the NecroDancer and Papers Please


Something has bothered me about Crypt of the NecroDancer from the start. It’s a wonderful game that uses a really simple innovation, all movements have to be performed on the beat of a song, to add a sense of urgency and fluidity to an old fashioned 2D dungeon-crawler. Though the change is musical, in fitting with the title it made a game about movement. This is reinforced by an increasing number of enemies that not only move in odd patterns, but effect your movements too. Some pull you towards them or teleport you elsewhere, while others reverse your arrow buttons or create icy paths you can slide down. This all seems very good, so what’s the problem exactly? I didn’t identify what it was until I saw this Dan Olson video explaining the concept of ludonarrative dissonance.

 

Ludonarrative dissonance is a term used to denote a thematic disconnect or conflict between a game’s gameplay and story. For example, a game’s story may revolve around whether violence is ever acceptable but the gameplay involves copious headshots. The opposite of this is ludonarrative harmony, where gameplay themes carry into story and vice versa, when achieved this makes a game feel more wholistic. Dan’s response to criticisms of these concepts based on how we look at film, is to say these critical tools could also be applied to film as cinemanarrative dissonance. I think this is a valid tool to suggest but in suggesting it he seems to ignore the specific relevance of dissonance to video games. Films tend to come about because a director, who oversees and unites all aspects of a project, has a story to tell. Games still often emerge from gameplay elements alone, and arguably this is the best way to build a story.

The story of Crypt of the NecroDancer feels tired and staid, it’s the kind of story familiar to Roguelikes. This wouldn’t be a problem with your average genre revitalisation, but the gameplay is so dynamic it creates a major. The story is told largely through unskippable cutscenes, which after 10 minutes of dancing and dodging, seem to plod along. Largely they detail events remembered in the past, often giving your character a passive feel. The shopkeepers that can be rescued on some of the levels are utterly irrelevant to the plot, sacrificing a major possibility for more integrated storytelling. And the objective of trying to reclaim your heart from the NecroDancer fails to generate the same urgency as the rapidly climaxing music does, perhaps because he never shows up in the gameplay until the very end.

Towards the end of the game, story and gameplay come into direct conflict. Once you have beaten the incredibly difficult Zone 4, you are faced with one of the game’s toughest bosses. Dead Ringer is a fitting final boss in terms of difficulty, but in story terms he is not the NecroDancer but your transfigured father. You don’t know this until after the fight, which rather than acting as an effective twist removes the story stakes from the fight. Afterwards you have to have a second boss fight with the NecroDancer afterwards. Because you are now joined by your father you fight the NecroDancer in tandem, when one of you moves so does the other, and when one of you dies you both lose. The game has given you no chance to master this skill previously (this could have been changed if you had first fought alongside your father, then seen him transfigured, introducing a sense of urgency), so that you can master this new mode of gameplay the final boss fight is anticlimactically easy. In case it’s not clear I don’t think a game should follow a hard boss fight with an easy one as its finale. The generic storyline of Crypt of the NecroDancer has contorted the gameplay of the final levels beyond recognition, this could have been resolved if gameplay instead inspired story.


What would a game look like if story stemmed naturally from gameplay? Perhaps something like Papers Please. The themes of its gameplay are monotony, desperation and messy human error. YouTuber HBomberGuy (who you should all go and follow immediately) argued in his Darkest Dungeon review that Papers Please has one of the best ludonarratives ever, because in obeying the games rules you learn to compromise your own morality, and these rules can easily be disobeyed. The genius of Papers Please is that it recognises that games inherently dehumanise human characters by making them subject to gameplay mechanisms, so it applies this to a real life situation where people are dehumanised by making you a border guard enacting arbitrary immigration rules.

However, Papers Please is not perfect in terms of ludonarrative dissonance. While it makes sense that the effect you have on strangers lives would not come back to haunt you, this should not apply to your family. While not punishing you for it, the gameplay actively encourages you to let some of your family die by allowing you to save money on food this way. The point of rejecting someone at the border is that you can reject them without punishment to make money at your job, the point is you can do awful things to someone when they mean nothing to you. But your family should mean something to you in gameplay terms, or else what are you fighting for in the game? While someone doing awful things just for their job is frightening because they have a banal motive, someone doing awful things for their family is more disturbing because it represents the perversion of positive emotions. And this distinction could have been grasped with more attention to the interaction of gameplay and story themes.

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