The BioShock Problem: When Gameplay And Narrative Clash

The BioShock Problem: When Gameplay And Narrative Clash
Image: Bioshock

It may not seem like it, but gaming is still in its infancy. Yes, we’re beaming games from $10,000 rigs through the cloud to our phones, and swinging around swords in room-scale wireless virtual reality. That’s some Ready Player One shit, for sure. But while the technology is progressing rapidly, the discourse surrounding it all is doing the best it can to keep up.

In 2007, game designer Clint Hocking was taking part in this discourse after having played Irrational’s BioShock, which released earlier that same year. Though he enjoyed the game, he struggled a great deal with the fact that the directives and incentives within BioShock’s narrative and gameplay weren’t aligned. This is what he referred to as “ludonarrative dissonance,” and it bothered Clint so much that he almost put the controller down and walked away.

Over the years the gaming community mulled this over: What other games are ludonarratively dissonant? Is this dissonance inherent in the medium of games? And, what I would consider the most important question of them all: Is the presence of ludonarrative dissonance really such a bad thing?

I’ve found that ludonarrative dissonance is difficult to describe on paper. While it may be easy to understand what the term means, it can be a challenge to identify how to incorporate it into your game design with a positive result. That is until I came across Frédéric Seraphine’s 2016 paper “Ludonarrative Dissonance: Is Storytelling About Reaching Harmony?”

Frédéric is a PhD candidate at The University of Tokyo, and has expertly deconstructed the term. According to him, ludonarrative dissonance is a powerful tool in a game designer’s arsenal, and if it makes sense for the experience they want the player to have, its presence can really transform how we engage with the games that we consume.

Take a peek at the video below for a deeper dive into this phenomenon, and Frédéric’s musings on his research. In addition, the next time you’re playing a narrative-driven game, try to keep an eye out for any dissonance, and take a moment to reflect on what effect that had on you as a player. Did it bother you, or somehow enhance your experience?


  • I was so excited for Bioshock Infinite’s release and had been following its development for years.
    Then when it came out, I felt so let down. It is a fantastic story and setting with tedious, repetitive and dated gameplay. The AI was completely stupid resulting in every enemy encounter playing out the same way every time.

    I have attempted to finish it twice and each time I stop about 25% in then read the story on Wikipedia.

    Apart from the sky rails, the gameplay hadn’t progressed from shooters 5+ years older. Such a waste of a great story.

    • Kinda how I feel about Cris Tales. The story looks decent, but the gameplay is such a mess that I gave up and Youtubed it.

    • For me it was the opposite directly. Semi-decent gameplay with a terrible narrative. Releasing at the same time as TLoU did it no favours.

    • i finished it, but the thing that killed my enjoyment of the game was just the sheer amount of padding. the typical bioshock mid gameplay twist came far too late and then coupled with extremely bullet spongy enemy designs, it just felt like it dragged on and on

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