A (Very Long) Note on Ludonarrative Dissonance Part 2: Stories As Vehicles of Truth

Part 1 Here. Please read it or this will not make much sense!

Rather, imagination awakens the mind to some delightful wonders. I like crazy video games; like the natural world, they offer new wonders and new beginnings every day. To force myself into a preconceived mold only means I am limiting what we can find in video games as they develop. Imagination does not work well on constraints; creativity never became a bedfellow of proper literary structures. The old academic standards shouldn’t become our standard, simply by virtue of them being the standard we impose on ourselves. In other words, it feels like scientific determinism made its way into our art by forcing its rule onto it: it turns a live creature into a dead thing. We have a tendency to “extract” messages from our media, only to find some insufficiency. Why do the same to video games, one of the most holistic mediums ever to arise?

That’s quite a shame, as the Bible itself contains so many examples of people telling stories within stories – a meta-story, if I were the pretentious sort. Nathan the prophet tells David a story in 2 Samuel 12:1-4; most of Ezekiel’s prophecies consist of a giant allegory, as does the latter half of Daniel. The story of Jotham in Judges 9:7-15 uses a fiction to make a point about real life. I think we can say, without much debate, that most fictions exist for the purpose of teaching, but not in the sense of a straightforward, literal message (as in our culture’s common claims). Rather, they exist to express something in a format not purely reductive, as the form and the content meld together. They become “teaching moments”, but not in that necessarily intellectual sense we all come to expect from our media…for some reason.


Here is Ezekiel’s visions in the beginning of said book in picture form. No comment.


James 3 tells us of the dangers of such teaching, even in fictional ways:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

As well, not everyone should write fiction, or make video games. But some of us should to reveal truths that could not come in any other form. Note the Bible as an excellent example here; it contains all sorts of genres, styles, histories, and whatever else. The truth comes to us in a unique format, not simply as a straightforward list of rules or a theology (demeaning the name of this very important blog), but as a giant story. We are insignificant parts of that story, perhaps, but it makes discovering the Message all the greater, for we can see our roles in the divine comedy. If it came in another form, who knows what we might think?

And that is why we cannot let video games go down such a route. They’ve been stifled for too long, as they ‘grow up” to meet the demands of a generation weaned on literary criticism from a postmodernist vein. That is the unfortunate situation, but I refuse to succumb, and I refuse to accept assertions of what constitutes something “meaningful” or “good” from the outset. Anything can fit, as long as one has eyes to see and ears to hear, a mind not bound by prejudice, and clear common sense. Wittgenstein says as much:

The only way for us to guard our assertions against distortion – or avoid vacuity in our assertions, is to have a clear view in our reflections of what the ideal is, namely an object of comparison – a yardstick, as it were – instead of making a prejudice of it to which everything has to conform. For this is what produces the dogmatism into which philosophy so easily degenerates.

I argue so vehemently for this because, in its own way, the Word of God exists in this same sphere. We try our best to reduce this grand collection of sixty-six (or more, give or take some deuterocanonical books) into a simple work of literature. The real idea, you say, comes from my personal experience and the Holy Spirit guiding me. But what we think a divine helper can just as easily be the deceit of our own hearts. Jeremiah 17 tells us the folly of such thinking:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.

7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

9 The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

We cannot understand the workings of our own hearts. But what we can do, and should do, is set an external standard to ourselves. That standard, the Bible (canon does mean standard, on that note), comes with its own set of challenges, but “difficult” isn’t antithetical to “true”. It requires a different mindset and frame of mind, one extracted from one’s cultural context into the spiritual realm.

Kierkegaard writes: If Christianity were so easy and cozy, why should God in his Scriptures have set Heaven and Earth in motion and threatened eternal punishment? Question: But in that case why is this Scripture so unclear? If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? – But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to ‘tell a riddle’? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies – but might we not say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing? So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due. I.e. what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, – because these might distract attention from what matters.) The Spirit puts what is essential, essential for your life, into these words. The point is precisely that you are only supposed to see clearly what appears clearly even in this representation. (I am not sure how far all this is exactly in the spirit of Kierkegaard.)

Kierkegaard Puppet

It’s not in the spirit of Kierkegaard, really, but that’s incidental to the point. Puppets!

There, then, is the key: what is important is revealed through what seems obscure, bizarre, absurd, and unclear. Again, you find yourself reckoning with Enlightenment reason or postmodernist subjectivity on this point. The observer or the inerrant power of logic become God rather than…well, God, and then you find yourself down a deep, dark rabbit hole. Do not be so ignorant to think that modern Biblical interpretation, historical Biblical criticism, and the way the modern Church developed has not been influenced by such modes of thought. When the Age, and not Truth, becomes the standard, it is incredibly easy to fall away into heresies of the worst kind.

In fact, our lives and the Bible show us the worst form of ludonarrative dissonance you could possible create. We are told to do good, yet continually do evil. We, supposedly, will become transformed and changed into the form and ideal of God’s own Son, yet we constantly fail to do so. The Bible, as both a document of history, a personal experience, and a record of theological import, also displays self-awareness of this point in Romans 7:

4 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

That about sums up how we all think. And yet, we find that this very conflict, this paradox, lies at the heart of the Christian faith, and the very structure of reality. Strange, isn’t it? We would rather a literature that orders things in a row, much like human thinking, than art centered on a God-based vision of reality. It doesn’t surprise me that the rebellious heart of man would seek such order from the outset in all the things of the world first, and God second (if at all!). So do I find this ludonarrative distinction a farce of the modern mind. It is the delightful paradox of existence that makes good artistic expression sing like the calls of the birds every morning, and explode in color like the leaves in a New England fall (thanks to first hand experience, this metaphor means more to me than it does to you). Whatever ludonarrative that does exist already lives inside of you; it is our constant quest to avoid confrontation with that fact of the spiritual life that leads us to the dead ends. J.R.R. Tolkien sums up our modern situation rather nicely:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific veracity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.