Alan Wake Writer Blames Ludonarrative Dissonance on Game Expectations

Ah, ludonarrative dissonance: we’re all familiar with it. It’s the disconnect between the narrative and ‘play’ aspects of a game. Think, for example, how Nathan Drake is characterized as a likeable good guy and yet we spend all game killing dozens upon dozens of people: the narrative would suggest Nathan is not capable of that.

Anyway, in an interview with Game Sugar, Remedy studios writer Mikko Rautalahti has the following to say about storytelling in video games:

“I think it can be difficult to tell stories in video games. There are all these conventions – you are expected to have a certain amount of combat, a certain minimum number of gameplay hours, etc. These conventions aren’t really engineered with storytelling in mind. So a lot of the time, you end up kind of glossing over some of the details in your head – I mean, if you’re playing the lone hero, in terms of the story, does that guy really rack up a four-digit body count? Does he really get repeatedly shot with high-caliber weapons and mysteriously heal himself? And if you really get stuck at a difficult part, does that really mean that the hero also spent an hour just running around in frustration and then quit. Probably not, you know?”

Perhaps it is time that game developers start breaking convention for the sake of the medium, then, no? We know we can achieve technical/mechanical decency, now it’s time to take that one step further and achieve ludonarrative harmony. And it’s time we stop being appeasers about this all, too, stop giving game developers reasons to skimp out on the narrative. They have no reason to take narrative a step further if we’re happy with experiencing the same shoddy conventions over and over again.


  1. Hey, you stole the Drake example before I even got to use it!

    Alan Wake, btw, does achieve ludonarrative harmony simply because, in one of his many ego trips, he wrote himself as the mo-fo that kills one Taken after the other. I like how the same goes for the other characters who eventually meet their demise by the Dark Presence, which was bounded by Alan’s pen: Dr. Hartman, Mott, Rose, Stucky and even Rusty. With the exception of Rusty, all these character did something that is worthy of a grudge from Alan.

    Alan blames Alice’s issues on Hartman luring her to caudron lake, Mott was particulaly rude to him on the ferry at the beginning, Rose was an obnoxious fan and Stucky never appeared to offer his cabin.

    I just don’t know where to fit Rusty. He may be only a hapless victim or how he talked about the Anderson Brothers might have irritated Alan.

    • Stole? This is an old, pretty well talked about example.

      Also I doubt it’s ludonarrative harmony: if he wrote himself in, I doubt he wrote descriptions of killing fuckin dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people consumed by the darkness. He probably only wrote about a handful. But we need the dozens because that is the convention.

      Rusty was definitely just a hapless victim/ 😛

      • Still, I was going to use it for my upcoming review… the one you’ve just read and that relies on that concept to explain the ugly side of the game. That’s theft, I say! THEFT! 😛

        As any novel, he probably would only fully describe the first encounters and then limited the later battles with a side note like “after dealing with the Taken, Alan arrived at Lover’s Peak”, to which most people would fill the gap with the earlier descriptions. However, we still need dozens to make sure people understand the Dark Presence is everywhere at night – so Alan’s novel doesn’t lose its pacing. IMO, it’s more than well justified.

      • There are more taken than there could possibly be townspeople, because life goes on as usual without most people noticing despite you taking out so many people. No, I don’t think it is justified. It just doesn’t add up.

        The taken “being everywhere” is not equivalent to getting a sense of being in danger (or fear/scary, etcetc), which is the ultimate point, no? You don’t have to barrage the player with a billion enemies to get that across. If anything that lessens the message, because this normal guy can take on the world, what danger is there, really?

  2. Of course not! I’ve said it again and again in my review: the point of Alan Wake is not fear. Geez, I wasted paragraphs to explain that in my review… It’s not the battle that matters, but its anticipation.

    Also, the supernatural and repetitive nature of the Taken tells me some of them could be townspeople, but not all of them. Some might just be non-entities. It’s not a coincidence that the only Taken who are not generic are the ones known by Alan.

  3. Mikko Rautalahti

    I know I’m coming kind of late into this conversation, but I just ran into this post (Googling my own name? I’m not above that, apparently, even if I was trying to find something else…), and I would just like to be a spoilsport and point out that there are actually plenty of really, really good reasons to not break conventions, and that has a lot to do with modern games typically having eight-digit budgets. Once somebody puts up that kind of money, the pressure to produce a game that doesn’t completely tank is pretty high, and once you get all experimental, the risk goes up… a lot.

    I realize that this means very little to the consumer or the critic, and it shouldn’t really affect the way they approach a game. But on a purely practical level, for those of us who work on these projects, it obviously has a massive impact, and without going into the gritty details here, the practical implications of, say, having a game that doesn’t offer enough gameplay hours (which are almost without exception achieved by repeating the basic gameplay loop) are not something anybody really wants to face. That’s not to say that there’s no room for improvement, obviously, and I’m absolutely not saying that nobody should ever break convention… but it is something that’s very easy to say and very hard to actually implement, and it’s not a situation we find ourselves in because there’s no drive to deviate from convention. Some developers are in a better position to do that than others.

    I also think that another thing that undoubtedly has an impact on this is that there’s quite a bit of what might be called “engineer mentality” among game developers — there are a lot of people who would never consider themselves artists, and who have no interest in anything other than the technical challenges and the purity of game design — things like atmosphere, story or flow often come as afterthoughts that are handled by somebody else. (Their presence is by no means universal, I should stress; there’re vast numbers of extremely smart and broad-minded people working in games, and I think they get great results, but there’re also these other people, and their influence is not particularly conducive to innovative or groundbreaking work.)

    Anyway! Just wanted to comment on this a little. It’s always fantastic to see that people have enjoyed the game.

    • We have shed some blood over here because of Alan Wake arguments, really. In fact, it was the only game we felt we should write 2 (3, if you count the DLCs) reviews. Hell, even the name of our site was inspired from that game!

      But speaking about the DLCs, I have a burning question: were they designed to be 2 separate expansions from the very beginning or was it originally a single DLC that eventually got divided into two?

      • Mikko Rautalahti

        I guess I can see how you might think that it was one episode that was split into two episodes, but that really wasn’t the case. They were always designed as two separate expansions, but of course they do form a short story arc of their own — they certainly weren’t intended to be standalone episodes.

  4. tj_steve

    i honestly don’t see why people are thinking about Ludonarrative dissonance when playing or reviewing a game. It’s a GAME! there’s limits to a game’s storytelling and i think Ludonarrative Dissonance is going to ruin alot of gamer’s experiences with video games if they take Ludonarrative Dissonance seriously. Im suffering from cognitive dissonance just by reading about this silly ludo-watever thing, people…just enjoy the goddamn game! and bioshock was brilliant. i dont care about whether it was logical with the gameplay (imo, it was very logical).