The Myth of Video Game Immersion and the Virtues of Ludonarrative Dissonance

Apparently one of the great virtues of video games is immersion. Googling immersion and video games brings up countless forums and reviews talking about how great games are immersive and what the most immersive games are. Various websites have explained what immersion is and how it works. Everybody seems to think that what they want is a video game that makes them forget that they are playing a video game.

Video games are new. Video game criticism is newer still. So it can be forgiven for its mistakes.However, before we can forgive it, we must fix it.

Video game fans, critics and audiences alike, seem to think that “complete immersion” is some sort of Holy Grail. The concept and the legendary cup of Christ have a lot in common. It is unlikely that we will ever see either it, you could easily spend your whole life trying to find it and if it was found it probably would not do anything particularly amazing.

Actual complete and perfect immersion in a video game would not be some powerful empathic experience allowing us to walk a few miles in another person’s soul. It would be some bizarre hallucination that we would forget as soon as it ends. If the immersion was really and absolutely “complete” then there would not be enough of us there to remember it.

I suppose it is childish to interpret the idea so literally. Nobody expects a video game (or at least one that we would see in our lifetime) to be on par with Descartes’ Demon or Star Trek’s holodeck. My point is that without the player’s own personal memory and experiences the video game may as well not be played at all.

It’s been remarked before (on this very blog even) that art needs an audience to exist. Paint on a fresco may as well be moss on a rock if there is no one to see and appreciate it. Reader response criticism is centred around this idea that “the meaning of the text is created through the process of reading” (Bennett/Royle, 12).

What I am suggesting is slightly different. I propose that the division between player and avatar, or audience and protagonist, is where the message of a game lies. This message might not be the literal message, such as Spec Ops: The Line telling us that violence is bad (a short and dismissive summary but accurate enough for our purposes). The message in this instance, and for the rest of this essay, would be closer to Marshall McLuhan’s definition of the message. The message is the effect that comes from what happens. The message is what changes after the game has been played. The message is how the player thinks and feels after they play.

Immersion is essentially when people forget the gap between player and avatar. Reality is the game. Sometimes this is fine. The message of a game may simply permeate us while we flow through the conjoined consciousness of player and protagonist. There are other times though where the message is found by examining this gap. There are times when we need to break immersion.

Smacking things with a stick is a lot of fun. Clint Hocking gave game criticism a brand new stick for smacking things when he coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” on his blog Click Nothing. The term is intended as a challenge to a game’s merits. Declaring that a game suffers from ludonarrative dissonance means saying that a game has a fundamental fault. This goes beyond opinion. Game critics say “ludonarrative dissonance” the same way chefs say “poisonous”. Ludonarrative dissonance seems to be like video game arsenic.

This is a mistake. Ludonarrative Dissonance is not inherently bad. It can be a fault and it can be one of the things that makes a game great. What ludonarrative dissonance does is that it breaks immersion. Hocking himself said that it “all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either [the story structure or the game structure]” when he first used the term. However breaking immersion can be a powerful tool for video games to use; as I will describe below.

Hocking used ludonarrative dissonance in the title of a blog post critiquing the original Bioshock. Although Affectionate for the game itself, Hocking thought that the game suffered from a critical fault. In his own words

“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”.

Hocking felt that the game mechanics encouraged him to be selfish. There is a precious resource in the game, called ADAM that can be “harvested” from small children and this leaves them catatonic. However Hocking felt the story had a conflicting message of benevolence and selflessness as a virtue.

There are problems with Hocking’s argument (harvesting the children does get you more ADAM but saving them gives the player as much ADAM as they need as well as a variety of other useful items) but the original argument is not important here. What is important is that ludonarrative dissonance soon became a common phrase used to critique video games.

The term quickly grew popular among both press and audiences. It has even had an impact on academic studies (if my own lectures are anything to go by). It is not uncommon for phrases and jargon to be used incorrectly (I even wrote an entire blog post about one example) and ludonarrative dissonance has not been the exception to this (as Jim Sterling shows here).

I am not proposing that we have all misunderstood the term (at least a few people seem to get it). I propose that we have all misidentified it as a problem. As I have said, ludonarrative dissonance breaks immersion and, as I have also said, breaking immersion is sometimes part of a games message.

Let us re-examine Hocking’s critique of Bioshock. Essentially he feels that the ludonarrative dissonance leaves the game’s exploration of Ayn Rand’s philosophies confused and muddled. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps the game fails to concretely and completely dissect and assess egoism (or objectivism as it is commonly, and incorrectly, called). Perhaps this is all true but it is definitely irrelevant.

Hocking’s confusion led him to examine the games contents in greater detail than he would have done had the story and game mechanics been clear. The blog post itself is evidence of this. Hundreds of words, and Hocking himself admits that thousands more are needed, dedicated to examining and better understanding the game. If the game had not suffered from this dissonance at all he may not have written any blog post. How many people have now read this post and considered the arguments and merits of Ayn Rand? The confusion and conflict made by this dissonance probably led to a better understanding of egoism than many clear and concise books on the subject.

The message of Bioshock is clear. It made people think.

There are other examples of ludonarrative dissonance making games more powerful.

People have commented that Final Fantasy VII (or simply FF7) suffers from it. The game’s mechanics have you playing as a powerful soldier with incredible strength and powerful magic that can heal devastating injuries. However, halfway through the story the character Aeris is impaled by a sword and killed. The hero’s strength and curing magics are suddenly irrelevant to the plot.

This character’s death is one of the most famous in video games. It has been called the greatest moment in video games and the scene of her death has been examined in detail.  Countless rumours quickly emerged about ways to save her. Cheat codes that could be used to save her life. The dissonance was so strong that players became desperate to find a way to overpower the story structure with the game structure.

However it was this feeling of powerlessness that made the death of Aeris so potent. Breaking the immersion and forcing the players out of the game forced them to examine their own relationship to Aeris. It was no longer just about her relationship with the characters in the game. Players were told by the game that they were powerless. That they were not the all-powerful magic soldier that they thought they were.

Later in the game the protagonist learns that his past is not what he thought it was. The character was never a soldier and had imagined the whole thing. The character also admits to feeling helpless and powerless after the death of Aeris. The ludonarrative dissonance here is able to pull the player further into the game. The player can now relate to the protagonist in whole new way. The dissonance felt by the player is a crucial element of the game’s plot.

There are still times when this dissonance in games is unwelcome. The Uncharted series in particular has faced this criticism many times. However one games weakness can be another games strength. Games are like any text. They are complicated, they are diverse and they only have rules so that those rules can be broken. Its childish to think that we can pick one thing that games can never do and I don’t think anyone would accuse video games of being childish.


Bennett, Andrew. Royle, Nicholas. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Britain. Biddles Ltd, Guildford and King’s Lynn. 1995.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Electronic Sources

Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock” Click Nothing. Published 07 – 09 – 07. Blog. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Madigan, James. “Analysis: The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games”. Gamasutra .Published 25 – 08 – 10. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Mahar, Ian. “The Two Ways you Become Immersed in Video Games”. Kotaku. Published 10 – 8 – 12. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Sawrey, Matt. “Ludonarrative Dissonance: we still need to learn from Hocking”. Thunderbolt Games. Published 26 – 04 – 13. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Schreier,Jason. “The Real Reason Aeris’s Death Made You Cry”. Kotaku. Published 27 – 04 – 12. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Stuart, Keith. “What do we mean when we call a game ‘immersive’?”. The Guardian. Published 11 – 08 – 10. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

Yusaf, Omar. “Poor design choices lead to ludonarrative dissonance”. Venturebeat. Published 25 – 01 – 12. Article. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14

“Aeris Gainsborough – Martyr of Final Fantasy VII” The Final Fantasy VII Citadel. Forum. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

“Aeris Revival” Final Fantasy Wiki. Forum. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

“Aeris Rumours” Tripod. Forum. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

“Ludonarrative dissonance in games.” IGN. Forum. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

“Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!”. Experience Points. Published 10 – 07 – 09. Blog. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.


Sterling, Jim. “Jimquisition: Lugoscababib Discobiscuits”. The Escabist. Published 16 – 10 -13. Video. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.

“Top 100 Video Game Moments” IGN. Website. Date Accessed 10 – 01 – 14.



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Studying the Influence of Films on the Style of Roger Ebert

The role of the critic has always existed in a limbo. They are simultaneously the audience for one text and the creator of their own. They produce and consume in equal measure. Here we will try and explore these two roles and attempt to estimate to influence of one role over the other.

So we will examine the work of Roger Ebert. Ebert is both an example of the critic as a creator and advocate for the argument that the critic is fundamentally an audience member.

Ebert has a vast portfolio of work and any original creative work of his has been smothered by the success of his movie reviews. Most of Ebert’s reviews were written for a newspaper. The intention was that people would quickly read them to decide whether or not they would go to the cinema. They were made to be quick and easily consumed.

These reviews proved so popular that they were collected in books and eventually, decades after many were written, published online. Clearly there was a considerable interest in reading his reviews for their entertainment value.

However this takes us away from the critic as an audience member. In an interview with George Hickenlooper, published in Hichenlooper’s collection of interviews Reel Conversations Candid Interviews with Films Foremost Directors and Critics Ebert himself said that

“The notion that the critic is supposed to be able to direct or produce or act or write is completely apart from the function of a critic, which is to be an ideal member of the audience.” (Hickenlooper, 365 – 366).

Clearly Ebert, and popular film criticism as a whole, is a prime example of the consuming and producing critic but we still need to better understand this discourse. We can study the effect of being a member of the audience affected him by studying the style of his reviews and how they were changed by the films he watched.

We will now use computational stylistics to test out a hypothesis. The hypothesis is that the film being reviewed would have a noticeable impact on the style of the writer and that factors such as director, genre and star rating of the film would all contribute to this influence on style.

If we can gather evidence to support this hypothesis then we will have hard data to back up the claim that the critic as a consumer and the critic as a producer are both integrally linked to one another.

I also thought that testing this hypothesis would open up further avenues of study. As I have discussed in an earlier blog post, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the Medium is the message”. Basically that a text could be studied by the effect it had on the audience. So applying computational stylistics to film criticism may allow us to explore films themselves. The more we understand the effect on the audience than the more we understand the films.

Therefore the tests I ran could determine whether or not a larger more extensive study of the subject would be worth doing.

The first test was to see if individual film critics had their own unique style. It was possible that the common function of the writing, as a consumer guide, would create a homogenous writing style and overwhelm any individual writing style. I took four different professional movie critics, Ann Hornaday, Christy Lemire, Michael Phillips and Roger Ebert, these critics were chosen simply for their substantial and accessible portfolio, and I took four reviews from each and made a simple cluster analysis.

Cluster Analysis of Critics

Cluster Analysis of Critics

Hornaday and Lemire seem to be quite similar but the results clearly show that both Ebert and Philips have distinctive writing styles. This corroborates with Ebert’s reviews being written for their entertainment purposes and not just as a guide for consumers. This result was predictable but essential for a thorough and satisfying study.

The next goal was to test the extent that the film being reviewed would influence the writers. I chose four films that all four critics reviewed, Argo, Skyfall, Tower Heist and the Hunger Games, and compared the reviews that they had written about these films. We have already established that the writers have their own style. If the reviews for the same films shared more similarities in style than the reviews of different films than this would clearly indicate influence from those films on the critic’s style.

Cluster Analysis

Cluster Analysis

The results first appear to be quite significant. You can see here that the movies have all been grouped together by style. However this would suggest that the movie being reviewed is more influential on the style of the review than the reviewer themselves and this is clearly preposterous.

Studying the frequency tables showed that words such as Argo, hunger and games were occurring with great frequency and that this influenced the style greatly. The word cloud found at this link provides greater insight into the possible problems.

The most often reoccurring words include Affleck, Argo, Bond, games, heist, hunger, Katniss, Skyfall and tower as well as many other film titles and the names of main characters, cast and crew. The problem here is that each film review contains a summary of the plot. The reviews themselves are also quite short. The average word count for these sixteen reviews is 729.5 words per review. The reviews all have two to four paragraphs, which can account for almost half the total word count, dedicated to summarising the plot.

These results might not be outright dismissed. There are still enough function words irrelevant to the plot that can be used for stylistics. However it does mean that the results are compromised and that without significant cleaning being done to the texts we cannot determine how much of the style is based on common content rather than common style.

From this point on all of the reviews studied were written by Roger Ebert. By focusing on a single writer we will not encounter the difficulties of the last test. We can also use a single critic to better isolate films that have a single factor in common. The rests of the tests were designed to study the effects of director, film genre and star rating on the style of the review.

To study the influence of directors on the style six directors were chosen. These directors, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Takeshi Kitano, were selected for several reasons. They are all well known for a distinct directorial style, they are all well respected and, as a group, they represent a diverse range of backgrounds with regards to nationality, ethnicity and gender.  Therefore it is the directors themselves that are the most significant difference between these films.

Cluster Analysis of Directors

Cluster Analysis of Directors

You can see here that the style of the review was not largely affected by the director. This outcome is of particular with regards to Ebert because he was a well-known proponent of the auteur theory. If directors did not influence his style than it is likely they would not impact any critic’s style.

However the films that are being paired often have vastly different plots such as Inglorious Basterds and Strange Days, or Do the Right Thing and Psycho. This does indicate that there is an influence on the writing when repeating names and film titles are not corrupting the results.

After this we would study the impact of genre on the reviews. The next test split sixteen films into four different genre groups; with these genres being romance, action, horror and family.

Cluster Analysis of Genre

The results showed that most of the film reviews were not grouped together according to genre. In fact only two film reviews were paired together that shared a genre.

In fact more of the film reviews paired together are for films that could not be more different. The Raid: Redemption is a brutal Indonesion martial arts film while One Day is a saccharine British romance. There are similar disparities between Sinister and Ponyo as well as the Back Up Plan and I know what you Did Last Summer.

However these sixteen films can also be split into four other groups according the number of stars they received from Roger Ebert. One film from each genre got one star; another from the genre got two stars and so on.

Cluster Analysis of Star Rating

Cluster Analysis of Star Rating

When the films are split like this the results show that there is some influence from the film on the review.

There are two conclusions that can be taken from the results of this test.

The first is that the mood of the writer is a major influence on their style. Film reviews are written in a brief time period shortly after the film itself is watched. If the film put Ebert in a good mood, which would certainly happen if he enjoyed it, than this could influence his writing style in a very particular way.

The second is that Ebert may also have changed his style on purpose because he felt better films deserved better reviews. A great film, such as one that got four stars, would deserve an intelligent thoughtful review. However a bad film, such as one with only one star, wouldn’t need this treatment and could be filled with jokes about the film’s poor quality. This conclusion is supported by the cluster analysis as it shows that it is the one and four star reviews that have the most distinct styles.

Looking at the study as a whole we can come to the following conclusions.

Film reviews do not readily lend themselves to computational stylistics. The effect of pollution of plot summaries can be seen above. Applying stylistics to a film review can only be done if the text is carefully cleaned beforehand or if the test only uses a single reviewer. This makes the work slow, tedious and limiting.

There is evidence for the hypothesis although it is not significant. The only contributing factor that could be isolated is the influence of the film’s ratings.

There is certainly a case for the critic as an overlap of dichotomies. This paradox offers the potential for a greater understanding of literature but it seems this fusion will remain something of a mystery for the time being.



McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Hickenlooper, George. Reel Conversations: Candid Interviews with Films Foremost Directors and Critics. USA: Carol Publishing, 1991.

Reviews taken from

Cluster Analysis created using R and R Studio.

Word Cloud created using Wordle.

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My Friends Watched Citizen Kane and Then Fell Asleep

The title of this post is true. They are both intelligent and engaging people with an interest and aptitude for academics. They watched the film separately. Neither of them were particularly tired when they started. The film is consistently called the greatest film ever made.

They fell asleep because they were bored.

Anyway lets talk about Marshall McLuhan. You may have heard the phrase “the medium is the message”. Its a pretty well known phrase. The first time I heard the phrase I did not understand it. If you have heard it before I imagine you did not understand it. I also suspect that whomever you heard say it also did not understand it. McLuhan was a very difficult man to understand.

Lets all watch this video now. It’ll be fun

I have a lot in common with that guy standing behind Woody Allen. Lots of people do.

Last year I started to write an essay criticizing this idea that the medium is the message. I came very close to writing 2500 words of utter garbage. Instead I read this fantastic essay by Mark Federman and then wrote 2500 words of stuff that made sense. I am going to summarize the stuff I need from Mr. Federman, but I still recommend you read his essay. It is a great essay.

When we say medium we generally mean the form of the text (book, movie, poem etc.). The McLuhan medium is something slightly different and this is why people often misunderstand the quote. McLuhan considered media to be any extension of people. Wheels are an extension of legs, radio an extension of voice and so on.

So why is the medium the message?

Well the message is also not the typical definition of message. The McLuhan message is the change that something brings to people or society. What something is does not matter. What matters is what it does. The wheel did not invent movement. It just made movement easier. The change was that this allowed people to move heavier objects greater distances and build bigger things.

Why is this important?

Good question.

Now back to Citizen Kane.

Roger Ebert was a very clever man. He has seen more movies than most cinemas. He wrote more reviews than most film review websites. He could break down Citizen Kane into individual frames and explain to you in incredible detail why exactly this movie was great.

It took him decades to do all that work.

Seeing the effect a film has on someone takes a moment.

Citizen Kane is not the same movie that it was when Ebert first saw it. A lot has changed since then. Ebert told us what the movie meant when he saw it but he could not tell you what it meant when my friends saw it. He was too busy looking at the content.

Citizen Kane might be the greatest movie ever made but it put my friends to sleep. This is the the change in the medium. That makes it boring. That is the message.

Works cited

Federman, M. (2004, July 23). What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message?

Annie Hall (1977) directed by Woody Allen

Citizen Kane (1941) directed by Orson Welles

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Hickenlooper, George. Reel Conversations: Candid Interviews with Films Foremost Directors and Critics. USA: Carol Publishing, 1991.

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The Moon Landing Did Happen But It Didn’t Matter

On the 16th of July, 1969 two people went for a walk and people cared.

So the moon landing happened. Sounds crazy I know but just go with it. Lots of people will tell you that it was quite a big deal, possibly even a giant leap. All of those people are wrong.

These people have flown to the moon. Just accept that.

Here are some arguments for why it did matter. These are all wrong.

1. It was difficult to do.

2. It represented a major advance in technology.

3. It was a massive cultural event.

4. America showed superiority over the Soviet Union by winning the space race.

Can we just dismiss 1? If you do something because its difficult it just means that you could not find something better to do. Which makes doing it pointless. If you cannot find something better to do than something that is pointless than you must be pretty stupid.

2, 3 and 4 are the tricky ones because 2,3 and 4 do all matter. However they are not important because of the moon landing. They are important because of the audience.

There were not just two people on the moon that day. In The Global Village Transformations in World Life And Media in the 21st Century Marshall McLuhan wrote that the audience watching the moon landing were in two places that day. They were on the moon and in their home watching it on television.

The moon did not matter. Their home did not matter. What mattered was the space between the two. The space connecting the two.

McLuhan wrote that “it was our individual recognition of that event which gave it meaning”. If there was no one watching than it would not represent an advance in technology (2), it would not be a cultural event (3) and it wouldn’t make them look better than the USSR (4).

So now back to literature.

Books without readers are just piles of paper and ink. Books without readers have no effect on the universe. Books without readers have no themes or subtext or style.

Books without readers are just two people going for a walk.

Photos courtesy of

Works cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Powers, Bruce. The Global Village Transformations in World Life And Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print

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11/04/2013 · 17:04

The Death of the Flagglefluff

The flagglefluff is a small, round mammal shaped exactly like a cube. It lays eggs before it is born and hatches from those eggs. It has blue fur that appears to be coloured pink. It must eat its own weight in unicorns everyday. It doesn’t weigh anything. Today flagglefluffs can be seen alive in virtually every environment on earth although they have been extinct since the start of time.

A possible sighting of a flagglefluff?

I have forgotten what point I was making.

Literature does not exist.

We just imagined it. We were not even tricked into it. We accepted that it was real because doing that was convenient. Similar to daylight saving hours. Or a flagglefluff. Except that flagglefluffs definitely exist (that is a lie, they absolutely do not).

Let me describe something that happened once (and also happened a countless number of times). Somebody had an idea. The picked up a pen. They used this pen to place ink on some paper. They told themselves that they were writing their idea down.

This was a lie. Ideas cannot be written down. They do not exist.

Then another person came along. They saw the ink on the paper. They told themselves that they were reading something.

This was true. They were reading something. However they were not reading an idea. Ideas cannot be read (probably because they do not exist). After reading this something they had an idea. This second idea was completely independent of the first idea.

The first idea and the second idea could have a lot in common (maybe the writer was really good at putting ink on paper). The first idea and the second idea might be so super similar. They still were not the same idea.

Another possible sighting of a flagglefluff.

I remembered the point I was trying to make.

Something that is written would not exist without the writer (also 1+1=2 and the sun sets in the west). But if there is only a writer than there are just words on a page. Do you know what happens to these words when they are read by someone?

Nothing. They are still just words on a page.

But now the reader has an idea in their head. It is not the first idea. It is a new idea. This new idea does not need the writer because it has a reader.

So is there subtext?

Ask the reader.

Is there a plot?

Ask the reader.

Is there meaning?


Ask the reader.

Literature does not live in the sky because it does not exist. It does not suddenly appear whenever a person reads a book because it does not exist. Literature is just a word we made up for all those ideas that appear when people read stuff.

They seem surprised! Is this a possible sighting of a possible sighting of a flagglefluff?

Look to your left. Did you see a flagglefluff? No. No you did not. No matter how many times you look to the left you will never see a flagglefluff. They are not real and they do not exist. But a flagglefluff still is. Maybe its an idea. Maybe its just nonsense. Maybe its what ever you can imagine. Maybe it doesn’t even matter (it definitely matters).

It doesn’t exist, but it definitely is.

Images courtesy of

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Definition of Text

Someone recently asked me for a definition of texts and so I thought of one.

“Communication independent of conversation”.

I thought it was pretty clever. It has everything you need to seem clever. There’s a good words to syllable ratio, its alliterative and I thought it said what I wanted it to say.

I wanted “text” to be an all-encompassing word. A study of how texts influence the colloquial language could include both Shakespeare and blogs. I’m sure a comparison could be made to the popularity of American hip-hop in Ireland to the popularity of Japanese comic books in France. We already have a word for books (i.e. books) but we could use a word with some range.

Although I did want some limits. Studying letters, emails and people just sitting about and chatting seems better suited for sociology. This is why I said “independent of conversation”.

The problem here is that a reaction to a text is just as important as the text itself. This is obvious in the case of video games and other interactive media but a poem doesn’t mean anything until a person reads it and thinks about it.

So I settled on changing it to “communication independent of conversation but not interaction”.  I like it but I did need 200 words to explain those 7 words so maybe there’s more work to be done.

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