Harmony Between Story and Gameplay
Ludonarrative dissonance is a lens through which to talk about video games that is thrown around a lot these days in the general discourse surrounding the medium. Since Level Story is a magazine all about story in video games, the subject was bound to be brought up at some point.
The term “ludonarrative dissonance” was coined by Clint Hocking in his blog post titled, “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Hocking writes, “To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.” 2 Defined in basic terms, ludonarrative dissonance is when the themes and morals of a story clash with the themes and morals of gameplay. Since Hocking’s post, a number of video game analyses have been framed via ludonarrative dissonance. Jeffrey Matulet of Eurogamer used the term when referencing the Uncharted series, saying, “Uncharted has often been mocked for being about a supposedly likeable rogue who just so happens to recklessly slaughter hundreds of people.” 3 The criticism is valid.
There are some takes that say it is an unfair way to critique games. YouTuber Chris Franklin, also known as Errant Signal, says, “story and play both exist in service to the overall work, not as two forces in conflict with one another. So, why do we frame them that way? It would be like going to the movies and afterwards talking with friends about how the film worked as a story and then talking about how the film worked as an example of cinematography, but never at the same time. You’d never do that, and definitely not in a way that would posit a film as ‘cinemanarratively dissonant.’” 4
While Franklin comes from a valid place, I have to push back and say I disagree with his assessments. Several times have I separated the different building blocks of a story and the medium it inhabits. Yes, we can talk about something as a whole work, but there is also room for looking at a medium within its parts, which is what Hocking was doing in his blog post. Hocking even states in the blog, “This is not going to be a review of Bioshock…This is going to be a critique of Bioshock – a limited one perhaps, because I don’t have the time to really give the game the 50,000 plus word critical examination I think it deserves, but it will be a critique nonetheless.” He even goes on to apologize to the people who made Bioshock, saying he actually loves the game. Talking about a video game through the critical lens of ludonarrative dissonance is limiting and specific, and that is okay.
Franklin mentions talking about a movie being “cinemanarratively dissonant,” and while I realize the mouthful exists to poke fun and make a point, I actually think there is room to talk about movies in this way. Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an entire series of videos dedicated to the conflict between the cinematography and story in the Transformers movies called “The Whole Plate.” This type of discourse exists. And even if I didn’t feel this way, I also think that how we talk about movies and how we talk about video games is vastly different because they are vastly different mediums. Sometimes what we discuss in games is not relevant to film, and vice versa. Although I think the ludonarrative conversation can be somewhat unfair to games (i.e. games are hard to make, art is hard to make), I think having these discussions and making these critiques is worthwhile and important.
With all of that laid out on the table, I want to talk about why Celeste is a perfect example of a game whose parts work in unity to make a whole, and therefore show how ludonarrative dissonance can be done right.
Celeste’s story is very straightforward, packing a lot in a small package. Madeline needs to love and accept her entire self to be able to climb Celeste Mountain. The narrative begins with Madeline running from her anxiety, and later being confronted by it. Her anxiety is manifested in another part of her fans like to call Badeline. For the purposes of this essay, we will be referring to her as such.
At first, Badeline appears to be the antagonist who Madeline must overcome and defeat. As the story unfolds, Madeline realizes that this part of her is just afraid. After an epic confrontation, the two come together again and use their combined efforts to reach the summit. The only way Madeline could confront a literal mountain was to confront the figurative mountain, the internal conflict represented externally by her trials with Badeline.
Celeste Mountain is the center of this story. Mountains are often used in stories as obstacles to overcome. Climbing a mountain represents growth and improvement. Celeste takes this symbolism one step further by making it literal. Just as Madeline is accomplishing this climb and overcoming the external obstacles to complete it, she is also overcoming her own internal mountain.
This also plays into the theme of anxiety and mental health. Rather than play into the dangerous notion that these things can be defeated, the game requires Madeline to accept this part of herself rather than run from it. Madeline came to the mountain as an answer to her problems when she was actually running from them. By climbing her internal mountain, she is given the tools to climb the actual mountain.
Celeste’s gameplay works in tandem with its story, evoking the same themes and ideas that are at play in the narrative. Celeste is all about overcoming a difficult task. Those who have played the game can attest to its difficulty. The gameplay pulls no punches in making the climb just as difficult for the player as it is for Madeline.
At the start of the game, the player is given three modes of traversal – jumping, dashing, and climbing. Each chapter introduces a new mechanic, be it bubbles that temporarily transport Madeline in the direction of the joystick or furry tendrils that turn into menacing dust bunnies when Madeline lands on them. Throughout all of this, Madeline’s moveset remains the same. The simple story has simple gameplay mechanics, and both amount to something much more complex when in practice.
What makes Celeste even more unique is how it presents its level of difficulty. Rather than putting up the walls to only include players who want a challenge or enjoy very hard games, they include Assist Mode. When selecting this option, the game reads, “Assist Mode allows you to modify the game’s rules to fit your specific needs. This includes options such as slowing the game speed, granting yourself invincibility or infinite stamina, and skipping chapters entirely. Celeste is intended to be a challenging and rewarding experience. If the default game proves inaccessible to you, we hope that you can still find that experience with Assist Mode.” This is another example of a gameplay mechanic working in service to the themes of a story. Just as Madeline is able to climb the mountain at her own pace, on her own terms, the player is also afforded the same option.
Beyond the basic gameplay elements, Celeste also finds useful ways to express ideas beyond story moments. For example, when Madeline and Theo are riding the ski lift and it comes to a halt, Madeline begins to have a panic attack. Theo helps her get through the panic attack with a breathing exercise involving a feather. He tells her to imagine a feather floating in front of her and that her slow and steady breathing is what keeps it afloat. The player has to keep the feather floating along with Madeline, rhythmically moving the joystick up and down to mirror her breathing.
After this concept is introduced, it is later used as a means of traversal. Madeline can use these gold feathers to fly for a brief period of time. The feather, a symbol of balance and calm, is now a means for Madeline to more easily reach different locations that bring her closer to her goal. This exercise of anxiety management aids Madeline in climbing the mountain as well as the player.
Another great example comes at the end of Chapter 6 and flows into Chapter 7. Madeline and Badeline resolve their conflict, accepting one another and deciding to work together to reach the summit. Their coming together is visualized in Madeline’s red hair changing to pink. What is important is that she now has another dash. Whereas Madeline previously only had one dash that would revive once she landed on the ground, she now has two. Only when Madeline stopped running from her problems and addressed them head on in Chapter 6’s confrontation was she able to find the tools to overcome the mountain. The game’s forward themes about taking care of yourself and the importance of mental health are followed through by making Madeline stronger for her choice not to defeat Badeline, but embrace her.
WHAT MAKES CELESTE SPECIAL
I keep returning to Chris Franklin’s assertion at the beginning of this essay, that “story and play both exist in service to the overall work, not as two forces in conflict with one another. So…why do we frame them that way?” What is the value of having the ludonarrative dissonance discussion? Why does any of this matter?
Going back to the Uncharted example brought to light by Jeffrey Matulet, this is a clear example of opposing themes within a game. The story says one thing, but the gameplay says another. Yes, they exist in service to the overall work but this overall work is therefore conflicted in nature. It doesn’t make it bad, but rather is another way of framing the discussion.
If narrative and gameplay can be opposing as exemplified in the Uncharted games, then Celeste is an example of these two components working in harmony with one another. This conversation is not about putting story and gameplay in a boxing ring to duel it out, but rather a way to recognize how games can bring the two elements together and how to do so successfully. The ways in which gameplay and story interact within a video game can lead to a better and more nuanced understanding of games as a whole. The conversation doesn’t seek to cheapen games but provide richer discussions.
Ludonarrative dissonance is a window into a larger discussion about narrative in games. It serves to understand the form more deeply. I can still love Uncharted even though the gameplay and narrative aren’t always on the same page. Narrative is still relatively new to video games and so how we talk about that is going to change and grow. Having the ludonarrative dissonance conversation should not hinder the medium but exist as simply a lens in which to view it.
Games are hard to make. Celeste is the rare example of several ingredients coming together to work in complete harmony. Everything exists to tell a complete story. It is rare that a game can match the gameplay to the narrative quite so well. We have the same conversations about literature, when a boring passage is purposefully emoting the boredom in which a character feels. I believe Celeste’s achievement should be celebrated. Because there are so many moving parts when creating a game, it is beautiful to see it all come together and on the same page, to work in service of a core theme. And in a game that is all about Madeline and Badeline working together in service of a common goal, it only makes sense that this story can come together with other elements of a video game in service of a common narrative goal.
- Matt Makes Games, Extremely OK Games, Ltd. Celeste. Matt Makes Games. Switch/PS4/Xbox One/Windows/Mac/Linux/Google Stadia. 2018.
- Hocking, Clint. 2007. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Click Nothing. October 7, 2007. https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html.
- Matulef, Jeffrey. 2016. “Uncharted 4’s Really Meta Hidden Trophies Revealed.” Eurogamer.net. Eurogamer.net. May 11, 2016. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-05-11-uncharted-4-has-a-couple-of-really-meta-hidden-trophies.
- “Errant Signal – The Debate That Never Took Place.” YouTube video, 8:29. “Errant Signal,” April 06, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z74nUBkMdSg.