Out of Tune
Ludo-narrative dissonance seems like a pompous term but actually defines a simple concept that appears when gameplay (“ludo” from ludis, “game”) and narration (“narrative”) diverge or oppose: the story created by players’ actions contradicts the story tailored by the narration.
For this article, the definition of “gameplay” in larps includes the system of rules, techniques and meta technical setup which allows players to express themselves in the larp-specific fictional universe, thus to build and expand their story through common tools. The term “narrative” refers to the context in which the game takes place (historical period, genre), displayed themes, game masters’ intentions (what experience they want the player to have), tone, etc. In larps, the narrative is set up primarily through character sheets, player tips and guidelines (describing the universe, social conventions, background), scripted events, etc. The marriage of gameplay and narrative creates the story.
Prelude in Video Games
Clint Hocking,1 the creative director at LucasArts and Ubisoft, first used the term “ludo-narrative dissonance” in 2007 when discussing an issue related to the video game Bioshock (2K Games, 2007). The term became an instant success and a practical tool of analysis for video games.
To summarize Hocking’s original argument, there is a conflict between the ludic contract and the narrative contract in Bioshock. The game enhances the theme of personal interest vs. generosity through the gameplay, but denies the player that freedom of choice through its narration, creating a breach in the player’s adhesion to the overall game history.
Other examples of such dissonance are abundant in video games. For instance, in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, a “hero next door” young man or woman is presented in the intro cinematics as immature and fragile and then transformed in the early stages of the game into a killing machine, almost without transition. Another typical example appears in Batman Arkham City, when Batman is poisoned and encouraged to rush to find the antidote; actually, the player has all the time in the world to fulfill as many side quests as he wants. As soon as he explores the city, the game mechanics actually encourage him to do so in order to increase his skills, negating the feeling of emergency put in place by the narration.
The ludo-narrative dissonance goes beyond a simple bug, continuity error or occasional incoherence. When it emerges, it’s the whole system that is at fault, where the story promised to the player is contradicted by the story that he lives, which is precisely what we wish to avoid in larp.
Counterpoint in Larp
Like for video games, I believe ludo-narrative dissonance is not only a useful analytical tool, but also a key challenge for larp storytelling. Whether a larp is gamist, simulationist or narrativist (or any other category if one does not adhere to these) does not say anything about its quality. However, if the rules are not consistent with the announced intention, then the organiser is exposed to the likely disappointment of the players. Imagine a larp centred around introspection or character relationships, but whose preparation material instead focuses on encyclopedic rules that detail every aspect of the external world; or a larp promising to explore the daily life of 16th century Venetian merchants, without designing an in-game economy or rules of exchange.
Although other classifications are possible, I’d like to distinguish the most frequently encountered dissonances into two categories: passive and active.
Passive dissonances are related to unnecessary rules. Sometimes these are rooted in the desire to present a comprehensive overview of the world or the designer’s work, which leads to an encyclopedic system. Other times, they are a result of the designers’ anxiety to cover all possible avenues of play and not limit players’ freedom or immersion. It is even specified sometimes that some rules are detailed “just in case,” even if it is not advisable to use them.
Players’ observations tend to show2 that the more our memory is cluttered by the need to take charge or remember the rules of a game, the less space it can devote to emotional impact and empathy. Consequently, a game that would favour an abundant, complex or counterintuitive system of rules diminishes the quality of players’ immersion. This argument alone should lead designers to promptly and ruthlessly suppress any rule not actively reinforcing the game themes (safety rules not included, obviously).
Not forgetting a more insidious effect: some players, intuitively familiar with the famous trope of Chekhov’s gun,3 may be tempted to think that if the rule exists, it is to serve a purpose. It would be a shame to unintentionally encourage players to use a rule that doesn’t serve the intention of your game, or worse, which lessens the impact of the game’s story. Even though combat, sex or healing rules cover basic subjects (from a simulationist point of view), this is not a reason why they should appear by default in a game system. Every rule should meet a need. One way to avoid passive dissonance and strictly focus on relevant rules may be to suggest to players other means of resolving situations that might occur, more in line with the game themes. Organisers should also clearly communicate what will not take place during the game because it is not part of the scope. For instance, in Prima la Musica or L’Agonie du Poète (The Poet’s Agony, 2016), there are no rules to simulate sex. In operas or 17th theatre plays, protagonists do not sleep with each other, so the same rule applies to these larps set up in the same context, period. However, the theme of being in love is central, thus other means consistent with the setting are suggested to express it like sighs, looks, and gentle touching of hands.
Active dissonances are caused by rules conflicting with the intentions of the game. The experience they offer to the player is different from what the larp promises. As a consequence, the story experienced by the player is different or even in contradiction with the narration of the game. This situation can take many forms, among which:
- A discrepancy between the intention of the game, and the type of rules set up by the game design: games anticipated as fun and light but burdened with heavy or complex rulebooks, or games without rules or with minimal rules, where players’ objectives require simulationist mechanisms. This last case can make players and designers think that rules are necessary in a larp, when the actual problem is that it’s not possible to achieve the game objectives with the tools provided.
- Poorly chosen rules, inconsistent with the narration, and ultimately harmful to the game. Ars Amandi for instance, is a sex simulation rule requiring touching one’s partner’s arm that allows a wide variation of interpretations. Nevertheless, it should not be systematically used as a default sex simulation rule: in games where sexual intercourse is not an important stake, other rules that don’t involve physical contact may be as relevant, and less intrusive for the player.
Rules are marvellous tools to support, structure, and build a story. Just as it would be unthinkable to reuse character sheets from one game to another (except in the case of a very innovative concept), it would seem at best neglectful, at worst counterproductive, not to design specifically tailored rules for each larp in order to define the game’s own identity. The assumed ambition by most larps—to propose original, varied, strong, and inspiring experiences—requires designers to pay attention to the consistency of all tools used to reach the Holy Grail of ludo-narrative harmony.
From Dissonance to Harmony
Following the above thoughts, a term has naturally emerged to greet the effort of preventing—and indeed actively counteracting—the dissonance: ludo-narrative harmony.
Passive and Active Harmony
In the same way that passive and active dissonances can be categorised, it seems relevant to distinguish passive and active harmony:
- Passive harmony: when the rules are consistent with the premise of the game, without necessarily supporting the theme. Consider for instance a post-apocalyptic game where everyone is accustomed to the rigours of survival since childhood, but that promises players the opportunity to explore interpersonal relationships, the importance of family ties, and the experience of group life. To fully focus rules on combat or survival would be consistent with the setting, but would be inadequate to convey the theme. Dissonance is then avoided but harmony is not fully achieved.
- Active harmony: when the rules, whether chosen among existing ones or created, are always selected specifically to support the whole story by incorporating themes into players’ actions. By this means, the focus of the rules and their tone and treatment are in line with the fictional framework. Again using the post-apocalyptic game example, it may translate to rules setting up group rituals for instance.
In an effort towards active harmony, many games have brilliantly set up such rules, through the choice of their subject matter (which rules to focus upon, such as sex-play or inter-generational dynamics) or the choice of their treatment (the mechanics by which this focus is handled). Let’s take a look at some examples:
The first path to ludo-narrative harmony is to choose rules that address a specific topic, to frame the specific larp narration setting and themes. It ranges from designing rules about quodpot for a Harry Potter university larp (Salem-Never forget, 2012), where the championship is not only competitive but part of the narrative; or duelling rules in a western larp to create smooth scenes (Hell on Wheels, Appl and Dulka et al.,. 2015); to more unexpected ones, like rules that allow players to forget or blur serious events as a means of reinforcing the desired dreamlike atmosphere in an oneiric larp (La Sirena Varada, 2015); or a rule that channels madness through a necklace that enhances charisma and lowers a character’s inhibitions, imbuing the game with psychological horror (Pan, 2014).
Once the designers have chosen the subjects of the rules, it’s time to design them in a relevant way that reflects the narration specific to the larp. Sex simulation rules are a good illustration for that kind of choice. The needs unique to each of the following games has led designers to address this topic, but each set of rules has been executed differently, echoing the identity of the larp:
- In Les Liaisons Dangereuses [Dangerous Liaisons] (2014), where love is seen as a tool of power and competition, a tarot deck is provided in each room to calculate the sexual performance of each character and determine the winner, with consequences ranging from change in reputation to pillow talk; and even the ultimate disgrace for both characters, the birth of true love.
- In Les Canotiers de Santeuil [The Santeuil Boating Party] (2014), where love is a floating dream in a light and leisurely atmosphere, there is no crude simulation, no undressing, and (almost) no contact, but a system of ribbons to lovingly tie each other’s wrists before counting clouds together to climb to seventh heaven.
- In Les Fleurs de Mai [Flowers of May] (Algayres, 2014), where love is designed as a tool of power and enslavement in a brothel, each player is required to use a range of various and subtle interpretations of Ars Amandi.
- In Just a Little Lovin’ (Edland and Grasmo, 2013) where homosexual advances are at the heart of unbridled evenings, bowls of feathers are available in some scenes: to give a pink feather to someone is a smooth way to suggest directing the scene towards sex. If the player ignores the feather, the scene then moves elsewhere. If black feathers had not also been used to invite to black box scenes, this meta technique could even have been integrated as an intradiegetic mechanic to further strengthen harmony—the feather would then have been considered a usual code of these kind of evenings and well-known by the characters.
The same attention to consistency can also be advantageously applied to explain the game intentions or overall design. In Vivre Vite [Live Fast] (Allermoz, 2014), a game about young punks in the 80’s, rules are offered to simulate headbutts or ass grabs, in order to enhance a violent, vulgar and sexist atmosphere. Aside from these rules, though, the playing intentions are all consistent with the subject, either in the writing (some paragraph titles for instance: “I’ll punch you,” “I’ll stab you,” “I’m on drugs” “I’ll f… you”) or the numerous incentives to break generic larping codes, including those regarding conflicts (“let’s prioritise shouting over discrete quarrels”) or physical fighting (“in that culture, opponents may finish off a fight either with a few insults or by grabbing a beer together, depending on the case”).
In the same vein, the rules for Dirty Little Secrets (Algayres, 2013) provide several dramatic elements based on tropes from the soap opera genre—dramatic monologues, slamming doors, looks toward the camera— creating an innovative experience where ludo and narrative merge seamlessly.
Pre-game workshops could also be regarded as tools of ludo-narrative dissonance or harmony, as well as other kinds of rules; for example, the many and varied workshops for Mad about the Boy (Raaum, Edland and Lindahl, 2010) – especially the one collectively building the world through examining how the disappearance of all men would impact each character’s daily life. Similarly, the meta technique of using safewords may enable greater harmony, even if it does not create it. In our violent post-apocalyptic world example, safewords would allow to safely and fully experience the rigour or cruelty, designed as pillars of a society fighting to survive.
Another interesting reflection: once aware of the ludo-narrative harmony mechanism, one could imagine playing with it, in order to create what I’d call constructive dissonances: dissonances that at first don’t appear to be part of the story, but in the end benefit the game, as described in the first musical definition of dissonance:
Despite the fact that words like ‘unpleasant’ and ‘grating’ are often used to explain the sound of dissonance, all music with a harmonic or tonal basis—even music perceived as generally harmonious—incorporates some degree of dissonance. The buildup and release of tension (dissonance and resolution), which can occur on every level from the subtle to the crass, is partially responsible for what listeners perceive as beauty, emotion, and expressiveness in music.Consonance and dissonance, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonance_and_dissonance
Game designers can use players’ unconscious desire for resolution as a (comprehensive and benevolent) manipulation tool, to push them towards playing in a certain way, creating a home for some unexpressed expectations that will be resolved in-game, or to induce the tone of game without announcing it.
Such use may be dangerous, exposing the organiser to the risk of poor communication and the player to disappointment, but tempting to lovers of non-transparent games.
Why not imagine, for instance, apparently ill-designed rules (rules too simulationist or insu cient, detailed topics unfit with the announced themes) ultimately justified by the unexpected change of direction along the way, with the introduction of new issues that finally justify the original rules (it was all a dream, your character wakes up in another world/lives in a different one than they thought they were living in, etc). Or also, the use of certain preparatory workshops in order to create an artificial intimacy on a meta-level, which can resurface during some unexpected internal changes to the game and impact characters’ actions; for instance, characters supposed to hate each other who are teamed up during the Ars Amandi workshop, seemingly as a joke, but discover ingame that they are attracted to each other. In this case, the dissonance allows designers to avoid foreshadowing in character sheets, suppressing the consequent risks of players understanding, and enhancing the emotional impact of unexpected events and psychological turnarounds.
The Breakthrough, a Perfect Tune?
To go further, I would like to introduce a notion sometimes called “breakthrough” in the field of video games. I do not, however, use it in the overall sense of “breakthrough that marks the era or the history of the game,” but in a more restricted sense, a technical or design innovation at the heart of the game, defining its specific identity and allowing for—in the most successful cases—a new way to play. This concept provides an interesting construction and analysis framework to apply to larps.
Crystallisation of Storytelling
It is possible to create a breakthrough that does not lead to ludo-narrative harmony— for example, in the case of a gameplay innovation that isn’t related to the game’s theme. But when given its full potential, the breakthrough is the innovation that amplifies and gives an unexpected echo to the narration. It is the one rule that will often be the most memorable and regularly cited when trying to describe t he game—and therefore a good way to help define and differentiate one larp from another.
For example, the massive medieval fantasy larp Légendes d’Hyborée [Legends of Hyboria—Opus 1] (2015) offers an innovative system of instances, derived from video games. Instances scattered throughout the site were accessible to players during some quests, with the objective of recreating the kind of epic pulp scenes that groups of adventurers had been told about in their character sheets. For instance, the dungeon of thieves, a succession of rooms filled with physical and mental puzzles to decipher in order to access the following room was an exciting adventure in which each player could refine and a rm their role within the group.
The breakthrough is a particularly valuable way to direct the player’s attention to the theme at the heart of the game. In all larps—even the most detailed and carefully designed—immersion is an illusion. Only the agreement of the players, who willingly suspend disbelief during the duration of the game, allows what is commonly—albeit imperfectly—called “immersion.” To do so, the players tweak their sensory perception. They mentally erase what doesn’t align with the proposed narration (other players’ appearances, boffer weapons or other anachronisms), and instead focus on elements in tune with the story that they want to experience, which ideally matches the narration offered to them. More than aesthetics or the story of a game, what best enhances this objective are the rules which provide the framework for action and drive the story forward. The breakthrough is a meaningful way to help them focus their attention towards what enriches their game experience, and away from what contradicts it.
Tant d’Espace [So much space] (Duvned, 2014) is a game for two players based on the themes of melancholy, nostalgia, and a known non-dramatic ending. Participants can play in a real bar, which reinforces on multiple levels the intention of the game. First of all, thanks to the familiarity of the setting, it utilises known references such as the selection of drinks and the presence of other customers as a way of strengthening the bleed-in inspired by the game design. Playing in a real, open world also encourages the interruption of reality through its unpredictability (rose vendors interrupting, the dynamics of background music, server downtime, closing time that forces the game to end). These hazards do not break immersion, but rather reinforce it, immediately merging with the story and offering a different experience for each session. In this sense, one could even qualify it as a systemic feature.
The larp Comme le Houx [Like the holly-tree] (Henry,2015) explores quite another path, as the game consists entirely of a phone call between two friends. This idea is born out of the desire to remove the bodily dimension from a larping experience, in order to facilitate “immersion” and identification with the character rather than the player, as well as to encourage listening, confession and dialogue, which are the essence of the intended experience.
Creating Languages Beyond Words
Many larps already include breakthroughs, although they have not necessarily been identified as such. The following examples provide players new ways to express their characters, through songs, dance and music:
- L’Eté 36 [Summer 36] (Artaud and Frénot, 2012): In order to recreate the “bucolic, romantic and festive” atmosphere, designers invite players to sing as a way of expressing their state of mind at key moments of their choice. To achieve this, a song book with customised songs of the relevant period is provided in addition to each character sheet. They become a powerful means to channel emotions, relevant both as a way of expressing the concerns and hopes of the era, and for reinforcing, through communal choirs, the characters’ sense of belonging to a group. The songs can also reveal dilemmas and intimate revelations, either through force or subtlety. This tool could be transposed and fully exploited in a musical larp, for example, where ludo and narrative would then be perfectly tuned. In any case, singing is a specific gameplay technique to personify characters.
- Les Noces de Cendre [The Wedding of Ashes] (Gresset and Abbey, 2012): In this game, players are invited to express their characters’ moods through tango. The rules emphasise the diverse palette of emotions that can be communicated, as well as the universality of the language (everyone can dance and convey an intention while dancing: love, friendship, passion, hate, …) thus providing an additional tool shared by all players.
- Prima la Musica (2016): This game, typical of the French romanesque genre, revolves around the world of opera and offers the players a game mechanism called the Theatre of Emotions: a clearly defined theatrical space in which the player can play a scene, sing, mime, or dance with the accompaniment of famous arias in the background, selected from a catalog available before the game so the players can familiarise themselves with the music. It punctuates players’ stories by enhancing key scenes that they choose, at their discretion, to disclose to the other players (open curtain) or play in private (closed curtain). It is a clever mechanism to enhance the atmosphere and intimately connect the opera to the game, allowing the players to interpret scenes worthy of a real opera.
Make no mistake: I am not claiming that every game should have a breakthrough or should create an innovative rule. Innovation only makes sense if it adds to the game narration. That’s why it can be an interesting question to ask when creating a game, and the answer will depend on the nature of the larp.
The Sound of Music
It seems obvious that when creating rules, one should keep in mind their relevance to the game. Yet the persistence of ludo-narrative dissonance in larp suggests that it may be not that simple, as it requires from larp designers both a clear vision of what they want the players to experience, and what the rules and mechanics will engender.
Still, larps have by nature many advantages, especially compared to video games, and these advantages should be utilised as much as possible:
First, the team composition and the workflow pipeline: in a larp team, designers often conceive all aspects of the game, including the rules and story. Even when that is not the case, the team is small enough for everyone to work tightly together. In video games, this kind of collaboration is an exception. Worse over, video game designers are not necessarily trained to take the story into consideration while developing the game design. Fortunately, narrative designers and producers, who translate the story into gameplay, are more and more frequently part of the development teams. But the fact that writers are not always included in the video game development team from the start of the project increases the chances that narration and gameplay are treated as parallel strands rather than as two sides of the same coin. On the contrary, larp designers usually keep a clear overview of the experience they want the players to live, and can more easily harmonise their design and story, since they control everything.
Also, contrary to video games, last-minute gameplay changes in larp do not usually have cost implications, which makes it easier to align ludic and narrative elements and to address any divergences, right up to the very end.
Finally, and most importantly, larps are ahead of video games when it comes to avoiding ludo-narrative dissonance, because larps are by essence a collaborative form of storytelling. One of the most exciting and di cult challenges that video games are trying to overcome today is at the heart of most larps: providing players with tools that allow them to take an active role in the creation of the story and to build and tell powerful, non generic-stories within the framework of the game.
In conclusion, here are some questions that can help game designers interrogate the ludo-narrative harmonics of their game design:
- What experience do I want the player to have? Which eras, themes or questions will they explore? Therefore, what kind of actions would logically happen during the game?
- As a consequence, which topics require rules in order to frame, guide and strengthen this exploration? For instance, if the game is categorised as gamist, it should include rules for defining the winner of various kinds of conflicts; if simulationist, it should introduce rules reflecting the atmosphere and detailing societal injunctions and codes; if it’s a campaign, it needs to provide rules for the play happening between events.
- Conversely, what kinds of rules do not fit into this framework? Does each rule support the narration? If not, is it useless and therefore dispensable?
- Once the rules have been defined: what kind of execution best reflects the themes of the game? Do relevant rules already exist to support the intended theme? If the answer is no, they need to be created.
- What is the focus of the game, the essence of the experience? Which specific game mechanics should I create to enhance it? What about preparatory workshops or rules dealing with unexpected topics or treatment? A specific structure (linear, ellipse, cutting into action with gradation of intensity)? A specific medium? etc.
- Would constructive dissonance be a meaningful way to create a specific feeling or tool for my larp?
These are only some leads to help explore new paths towards a meaningful and consistent larping experience, without any claim to absolute truth or completeness. Employing these concepts of ludo-narrative harmony and breakthrough may help drive the expressive power of the game, and ultimately, improve the players’ experience.
- 2K Games. Bioshock, Novato, USA: Take-Two Interactive. 2007
- Algayres, Muriel. Les Fleurs de Mai [Flowers of May] France: Association Rôle. 2014
- Algayres, Muriel. Dirty Little Secrets. France: Association Rôle. 2013
- Allermoz, Isabelle and Olivier Allermoz. Vivre Vite [Live Fast]. France: Association Clepsydre. 2014
- Appl, Filip, Tomáš Dulka and Jan Zeman et al.,. Hell on Wheels. Humpolec, Czech Republic: Potkani and LARPard. 2013, 2014 & 2016 http://howlarp.cz/about
- Artaud, Olivier, Marie-Claire and Olivier Frénot. L’Eté 36 [Summer 36]. Castle Cernay, France: Association Rôle. 2012
- Barnabé, Frédéric. L’Agonie du Poète [The Poet’s Agony] France: Association Rôle. 2011 http://agoniedupoete.fr/
- Crystal Dynamics. Tomb Raider, Redwood City, USA: Square Enix. 2013
- Canotiers de Santeuil, Les [The Santeuil Boating Party] France: Les Francs Papillons, Beaulieu and Association Les Amis de Miss Rachel. 2014.
- Duvned, Sébastien. Tant d’Espace [So much space]. France: Association eXperience. 2014 http://www.murder-party.org/tant-despace/
- Edland, Tor Kjetil and Hanne Grasmo. Just a Little Lovin’. Denmark: Rollespilsfabrikken. 2013 http://just-a-little-lovin.blogspot.fr/
- Gresset, Veronique, Raphaelle Gresset and Vauluisant Abbey. Les Noces de Cendre [The Wedding of Ashes]. France: Association Rôle. 2012 http://agoniedupoete.fr/NocesDeCendre/
- Henry, Hélène. Comme le Houx [Like the holly-tree] France: Association eXperience. 2015 http://www.murder-party.org/comme-le-houx/
- Légendes d’Hyborée [Legends of Hyboria]. Château de Guise, France: Association Eve Oniris. 2015 http://www.eveoniris.com/
- Liaisons Dangereuses, Les [Dangerous Liaisons]. Castle Carsix, France: Association Les Masques de Dana’t for organization, Don Quixote for creation. 2014
- Prima la Musica ou L’Opéra Terrible [Prima la Musica or the Opera Terrible]. Castle Montbraye, France: Primoot Team and Association Urbicande Libérée. 2016
- Raaum, Margrethe, Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl. Mad About the Boy, Norway: 2010
- Rocksteady Studios Batman: Arkham City, London, United Kingdom: Warner Bros. 2011
- Salem—Never Forget. France: the Very Disturbed Team and Association Le Chaudron penché: 2012
- Sirena Varada, La. Granada, Spain: Somnia. 2015 http://somnia-larp.wix.com/lasirenavarada
- Udby, Linda and Bjarke Pedersen. Pan. Organised by Nina Teerilahti et al. Finland: 2014
This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.
Cover photo: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet.