Books and movies can make you suspend your disbelief as long as the narrative is consistent. You’ll believe in witches and magic for an hour or two, as long as those witches don’t break their own rules. Video games, however, have to deal with another set of rules before the player can suspend their disbelief and become fully immersed in the world: gameplay.
A game’s story might be airtight, and the gameplay might be top-notch. But if either element contradicts each other, it will break player immersion. That’s what we call Ludonarrative Dissonance, or LND. A classic example of LND is Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII. Why can’t we just revive her like in every other battle?
When you’re told to hurry to the next objective but the game lets you goof off without consequence, that’s LND. When you can run around the room and fire your gun as your friend tells you about their dead kid, that’s LND.
Since I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem: Fates lately, I want to talk about how the developers deal with LND in three different gameplay mechanics. They handle two of these mechanics just fine, they have to go so far out of their way to justify the third that it creates a ton of other problems in the process.
1. Chatty Cathy
Fire Emblem does a great job of building character development into gameplay. When you use characters together in battle, you can learn about their personalities and histories through unlockable interactions. Fire Emblem calls these interactions “Support” conversations because you unlock them when two characters support each other in battle.
The only weird thing about Fire Emblem’s support system was that your units would start chatting in the middle of battle. I’ve never been on a battlefield myself, but I don’t think I’d have time to exchange recipes with a friend when a dude with an axe is about to murder me.
Besides just not making sense, having characters talk to each other on a battlefield severely limits the types of interactions you can have. What if you want to have two characters watch a sunset? Or share a meal? Or spend a day out on the town?
The latest Fire Emblem games have a simple solution for this particular source of LND: they move the Support conversations outside of battle. Instead of gossiping on in the heat of combat, characters converse in their downtime. So now your favorite characters can shoot the breeze casually—without the danger of getting killed between thoughts.
This is an ideal example of solving LND. The game gets to keep its cool feature while also having it make sense in-world. It’s not always that easy to deal with LND, however. In the next example, the game’s LND solution is to remove a feature.
2. Downed, but not out
I’ve always loved the challenge of permadeath in the Fire Emblem series. In a strategy game where a single misplaced ally can turn the tide of a battle, the threat of permanent death serves to make you feel more attached to each character. You cherish these characters as digital friends, and become more aware of the risks involved every time you make a move.
The only problem with permanent death in older Fire Emblem games was that “dead” units continued to have an active role in the story—sometimes they’d even take part in cutscene combat. This made permadeath come off as an arbitrary penalty imposed by the game instead of a natural product of a game of war. It was more “you played the game wrong, so you can’t use this character anymore” instead of “your actions caused this character’s death”.
If a character is truly gone, they shouldn’t be able to contribute to the game’s story. And if they aren’t gone for good, why even pretend? It’s a prime example of LND, but what else could the developers have done? It would have been prohibitively expensive to make a branching narrative where every possible death profoundly affects the story.
Instead of wasting all that money, the developers decided not to resolve that particular instance of LND—and that was fine for a few games. But developers are more clever now.
FE: Fates resolves this source of LND by removing permadeath entirely. It’s a simple, but effective technique. They even made sure to let veteran players know “dying” in combat means something different now.
Early on in the game, you are asked to kill two prisoners. So you engage them in combat and strike them down—and if you’ve played previous Fire Emblem games, you might think you’ve already committed murder. But after the battle you see that the enemies are only hurt and unable to fight, not dead. If you want to kill them, you have to finish the job in a cutscene. Similarly, in the next level one of your allies is “slain” but immediately gets up to run for cover.
In this way, Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright makes it clear from the beginning that falling in combat does not spell death for a character, thus preserving harmony between gameplay and story.
*Note that if you’re a masochist who loves a good challenge, you can still play the game in “classic” mode, but let’s be honest: you were just going to immediately turn off your 3DS and start the battle over if anyone died anyway.
3. Building Bases
The latest Fire Emblem games have jumped on the base-building bandwagon that’s popular these days. Your character now has a private castle they can upgrade and expand at will. But the very idea of having a base in Fire Emblem introduces LND.
Fire Emblem is all about moving from place to place, slowly recruiting troops and raging war across the continent. There’s no time to have a permanent base. You are always on the go. You are always at war.
Yet somehow the FE developers did manage to reconcile gameplay and narrative to make way for their base-building mechanic. But the solution is so contrived it hardly matters.
Here is the 100% truthful I-couldn’t-make-this-up-if-I-tried explanation for how the player gets a permanent base:
As a child, you save a bird from dying. Only it wasn’t a bird, it was actually a dragon! To repay your kindness, the dragon transforms into a human and becomes your maid. One day, years later, you fall into a bottomless pit. Mrs. Maid-Dragon saves you by teleporting you to secret dragon dimension, where all the other dragons are conveniently dead so you can have free reign of the place.
Your dragon friend doesn’t have enough power to change back into a human, and she can’t go back to your world. But she can teleport you and all 30 of your friends (and their horses!) between dimensions whenever you want!
Yes, technically this solves the inherent problem of a permanent base in a game of nomads. But if you have to invent a story that elaborate just for one gameplay element, you might as well just handwave the whole thing. It’d be less embarrassing that way.
That brings me to my last point. Sometimes it’s okay to forego fixing ludonarrative dissonance—especially if you’ve exhausted all your options and the story or gameplay element is too good not to include. Plus, if your game doesn’t focus on narrative, you might not need to care about ludonarrative dissonance at all. Just concentrate on making a satisfying gameplay experience.
But if a good narrative is important to your game, I strongly encourage you to stamp out major sources of LND whenever you spot them. It will only improve your game (if you do it right!), and I strongly believe that ridding games of LND is the next step to advancing our artform. But that’s a story for another day!