Guest Post: Ludonarrative Dissonance and the New Hogwarts Mystery Game

Special Guest Post from Elspeth Gordon-Smith in the UK on Ludonarrative Dissonance and the new Harry Potter ‘Hogwarts Mystery Game’! Enjoy —

We’ve all played Monopoly right? The gameplay – buy properties from rent collected from the other players, build on the properties, collect more and more rent until the other players are impoverished and cast out to where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – is fully immersive. How many times have you stared into the faces of the most cherished, most beloved people in your life, and gloried in their demise and failure as you snatch the last penny from their feckless grasp?

Monopoly’s gameplay works with an unspoken narrative of rampant, unchecked capitalism and, by winning, you become the cruellest, most vicious capitalist of them all. Monopoly cannot be won by playing it safe with the train stations and waterworks; only by covetously collecting the big prizes can you beat the other players. Your win probably came with you gloatingly counting your millions and toting up your hundreds of houses whilst the other players quietly grimace in barely contained jealousy. At their expense, you are richer and, according to the game, better than those miserable peasants surrounding you.

Fun for all the family!

Monopoly works because it pits you against your friends and family within the gameplay. Monopoly is one of many examples of a game giving you a full ludonarrative experience. But what is ludonarrative?

Put simply, ludo = game, narrative = story. Ludonarrative is the two acting together to build a cohesive game experience. It’s an interesting idea which asks the player to question whether their gameplay experience is working with the story they’re being told, and good video games can take you on an epic journey through the eyes of another person through their ludonarrative.

Take Papers Please, a brilliant indy game available on Steam and the Apple store. Your character is a nameless border security guard for a fictional Eastern Bloc country, circa 1980. Your job is to check people’s papers before they enter the country. The more people you correctly process, the more money you have for rent, food, heating and medicine. At first, the game is intriguing and the difficulty progression keeps your interest, but something strange begins to happen. You make a few mistakes and you don’t have enough money for heating. Your son becomes ill because he has a cold so you can’t afford rent. In a panic, you process more people, take more bribes and become involved in the spy network because you desperately need the cash. You fear the inspector because of the pain he can potentially cause your family. Processing papers (by this point a nuanced, skilled experience) becomes all-consuming; death or imprisonment are just two ways you can ingloriously fail.

The final levels of the game are knife-edge tense, everything you’ve built hanging in the balance. You literally hold your breath as you make the final few choices that decide whether you win or lose. The game rewards skill, planning, sacrifice and making difficult moral choices.

That’s ludonarrative!

It’s an intensely impressive and immersive game, more so that it was designed by one man, Lucas Pope. So what happens when the ludonarrative isn’t quite so cohesive?

Ludonarrative dissonance is when the gameplay and the story are at odds with each other, grinding each other’s gears until one crumbles under the weight of the other.

Here’s an example. Have you ever play a game that shows you an intense cut scene? The kind that’s beautifully lit, acted and paced? The sort where the Big Important Plot Points of the game are thrashed out and they give you the character’s motivation? Then, when you actually play the game, it tonally has rock-all to do with the cut scene?

Assassin’s Creed 2, the third best Assassin’s Creed game behind Black Flag and Origins (please feel free to argue this in the comments, just be aware that you’re objectively wrong) is guilty of this. Judging by the cutscenes, death is a sombre, solemn experience. After defeating a very bad, no-good boss level character, your character, Ezio Auditore, stands over the downed opponent in a Purgatory-esque blank arena. He respectful lays out the characters differences and soberly tells them to ‘rest in peace’. The narrative of the story is saying that, despite the name of the game literally being synonymous with murder, death is a last resort and a tragic one at that. There is no glory in killing, no ultimate satisfying victory dance. Ezio is kind, empathetic and deferential.

Then the cut scene ends, and you have to slice your way through hundreds, if not thousands, of nameless armed guards to get to safety. You win awards for killing – the cooler, more technical the kill, the rarer the reward, so you’d better brush up on your hidden blade skills! Ezio in the narrative is a wronged warrior, someone who only kills when it is absolutely necessary. Ezio in the gameplay could well be called ‘The Butcher of Italy.’

This ludonarrative dissonance creates an experience of (as Nick Ballantyne put it in an article for GameCloud in 2015) ‘emersion’, where you are yanked out of the play experience and made to view the game with a distant eye. This can be a powerful tool to make you assess the actions of the character and, used with nuance, make you see the game in an entirely new light.

Spec Ops: The Line, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, does this nearly perfectly. Set in post-natural disaster Dubai, Spec Ops begins like any other first-person version shooter; you kill people, you progress. But then something devastating happens. You shoot the wrong people. In fact, you shoot a lot of the wrong people. In fact in fact, you shoot huge swathes of the wrong people. You feel awful and it’s like the gameplay has cheated you into becoming a reckless monster.

As the game progresses, you continue to shoot people, but almost helplessly. You find phrases like ‘it was him or me!’ and ‘I was only following orders!’ drift to the cerebral parts of your brain until you find that you truly loathe your character. Because the game used ludonarrative dissonance to make you disassociate with the player character, you can begin to cast a critical eye over the actual ‘art’ of war. You second guess the narrative and gameplay until you end in a truly breathtaking feat of gameplay and story.

With all of this in mind, does the all-singing, all-dancing brand-new-to-a-smart-phone-near-you Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery crack the key to ludonarrative glory?

In a word, no.

In four words, it absolutely does not.

In slightly more words, it can’t because of it’s very nature. Let’s dig in.

You play a new student at Hogwarts, pre-Harry Potter Era. You’re a bit of a known quantity however, because your elder brother was expelled and then disappeared, much to everyone else’s chagrin. Despite this, your powers of tapping a screen translate to epic magical power and you’re quite happily enjoying your first day. Everyone loves you! Even Snape! All is well until you are locked in a cupboard with a Devil’s Snare by the School Bully! The Snare is wrapped around your character’s neck! You have to tap to freedom! Tap with all your might!

And then you run out of power and you have to wait for half an hour. Or buy more power with actual money.

So, if you have any sort of personal budget plan in place, you wait on a cliff-hanger.

As a mobile game with in app purchases, the game literally halts the narrative and the play in order to incentivise players to cough up cash to continue. The fact that your first waiting period happens when you’re in the middle of fighting the Devil’s Snare is no accident; by cutting away here, the game is enticing you to pay up and get your self-designed, self-named character out of a sticky situation. The narrative and gameplay are both held ransom by the type of game it is.

If Harry Potter fans could be trusted to pay upfront for a new game (which as merchandise sales show, they absolutely can be), it could have been a different story. But alas and alack, the tale of ludonarrative and Harry Potter stops dead with a depleted power bar and a cheery notification to spend well over the odds to carry on.

Immersion and emersion. Experience and a distance. Ludonarrative is a major key to understand why games can create such a visceral visual experience. But if you can’t play the game and let the narrative flow, you can’t actually enjoy any of the benefits of a good ludonarrative.

Which is a shame really. There was almost a breakthrough with Snape there.

Elspeth is a primary school teacher from the north of England. She’s been a guest on Mugglenet Academia and Reading, Writing, Rowling. When she’s not teaching, using her MA Hons in Film Studies to analyse blockbusters, or playing far too much Assassins Creed, she’s posting pictures of her cat on her Instagram.


  1. So… maybe this game isn’t the end of Potter fandom as we know it, but really another fan servicing exercise joined with a profit taking or fandom exploitation…

    Sad but also a great relief to this reader.

    Another thumbs down verdict for the new game at The Verge: Harry Potter looks to mobile gaming’s past, while Fortnite looks to the future

  2. Elspeth!!! So good to hear from you, and once again, you are right on point. I played with the game at first, but then lost interest for various reasons and because I had to work on client files – which is kind of important for my job. This was an excellent piece and your analysis was great. I’m relieved and feel like I’m not missing something important by not re-engaging – I’ll just use my time reading the books again or traveling to Scotland for Harry Potter Conferences (hint – hint – John). Keep up the good work and Hi! to Mum.

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