Coherence and Dissonance

It’s about time I addressed this as an essay.

When I mean to refer to a game’s internal consistency, logic—or lack thereof—I say “(in)coherence.” When I mean to refer to the unification of a game’s moving parts—or lack thereof—I say “(in)coherence.”

Dissonance is a textual and tonal device. It’s also a sensibility, a kind of distinct affective response. It is not, in and of itself, a pejorative.

I don’t mean to resuscitate that old debate around Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”, so please don’t mistake this piece as trying to countenance that. It’s more that I reject the terms of that debate altogether.

I’ve referred to this distinction less aggressively in some older pieces of mine, and I’ve broached it more directly on Twitter. Recently, though, during the last episode of this site’s podcast, I declared a preferred term for discussing the internal cohesion of works of art and whether or not those works are confused in their messaging, and the tools they are using to communicate those messages. For this, I put forward “coherence.”

That’s simple enough, at least in theory. “Coherence” is at least a term with very little cultural baggage and a relatively clear and versatile definition. That is to say, it describes a thing which is consistent and conceptually worked-out. But how can we practically apply this in a way which is not based on some relatively arbitrary prescription of what a game is or how its parts must properly interact in order to be considered successful? How do we know the difference between “coherence” and “dissonance”, and when does it even matter?

The point of this is not to further mystify, to obfuscate, or to put forward some new standard ideal definition of “game.” The point of this is to be useful.

In fairness to Hocking, I think he was actually really close to something when he coined the term. Our inability to simply identify a lack of artistic unification which most effectively translates the goals of a piece is not something I can blame on him. Our general failure to engage with the works and languages of other art forms outside of our little sphere is, I think, a major roadblock in our own process of developing and clarifying our understanding of the form. The other major roadblock is, of course, the language of marketing, industry and adjacent institutions having controlled that narrative for so long. It’s chiefly for these reasons that we can intuit a phenomenon, but find ourselves unable to simply name it without intense insecurity and ultimately futile confusion.

Now, I don’t think we ought to outright abandon “dissonance” as a term. It has its value as a descriptor of a certain kind of sensibility achieved through various techniques. Where devices like “assonance” and “consonance” refer to the repetition of vowels and consonants respectively, “dissonance” can refer to a clashing of elements, and can be represented tonally, narratively, aurally, visually or ludically. (Here, “consonance” can also be used to refer to “harmoniousness” and therefore, the opposite of “dissonance”).  

Dissonance is not, as I have pled the case before, unusual in different art forms, or even particularly controversial. There is no real expectation for all the pieces of a work to move completely in sync, particularly in narrative media, and if there were a great deal of artwork would lose the degree of conflict that makes it provocative and affecting. Dissonance, as far as the bulk of creative work is concerned, is not inherently a dirty word.

Of course, just like a work of art can be exceedingly boring if it’s, for instance, too virtuosic or sanitized, a work of art can be a complete mess if the cacophony appears to not serve any purpose. “Weird for the sake of weird”, for instance, can become its own kind of self-indulgence.

But I think we also have to draw a distinction: a piece can be “dissonant” while being coherent, while another can be “consonant” while also being completely incoherent. It’s also crucial to reiterate that while “dissonance” and “incoherence” aren’t the same thing, one can definitely lead to the other, and this usually depends on the reasoning—or lack thereof—for the presence of that dissonance. Poorly-applied film edits, instruments which are badly out of tune, or experimental grammar in a poem which renders it illegible, are all ways where “dissonance” can fall flat. However, a piece of aleatory music can create incredibly dissonant sounds, clashing non-harmonies, a mess of competing rhythms, and so on. But if the conditions of the piece are set to create exactly that kind of experience with purpose, then the dissonance can’t really be said to be an unconscious accident or inherent flaw. (Although dissonance can be both deliberate and badly done!) This is just as true for punk rock, tone poetry, the painting of Francis Bacon, the music of Death Grips, and so on.

I suppose I might as well address that elephant, though. Does ludonarrative dissonance exist? Strictly speaking, I think it does, but I also don’t think that automatically points to a conceptual flaw, nor am I particularly interested in arguing about whether or not games are worse off for it. In that sense, while the term may point to a real phenomenon, I’m not sure it’s really that useful for describing it. Robert Yang might disagree with me: in his piece, Ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t exist, he writes,

“But I feel like that theory doesn’t explain what actually happens out in the field: if Bioshock Infinite was forged entirely, purposefully, from solid ingots of 100% pure ludonarrative dissonance, why didn’t this annoy the shit out of everyone? Isn’t ludonarrative dissonance supposed to be jarring and horrible? Why was the unusually unified critical response to Binfinite something like, “wow this game is colossally stupid,” but the mainstream response was, ‘this is amazing’?”

I’m annoyed with myself that it took me so long to come up with a satisfying answer to those questions (at least for me). Nonetheless, I generally agree with Yang that “dissonance” is not the problem with BioShock Infinite or any game like it, but I also feel that whether or not people notice something in a piece of media is a terrible litmus for whether or not it exists. It is very possible for a certain tension to exist between, say, the diegetic narrative (as told via a narrator) and the ludic enactments of a game, or between the sound and visuals, or between the order of events and the duration of story time, and so on. This tension can create a sensibility which is dissonant, uncanny, giving us a sense that something is “off”, and that feeling may be directed toward some realization about the thing which we are consuming.

In the context of games, “dissonance” evoked via a tension between various formal modes and devices can and has been used to provoke reactions and point to specific statements. Deadly Premonition (2010), for all its shortcomings, masterfully achieves tonal dissonance through visuals and sound, often evoking equal parts bemusement and dread. Or, take GZ Storm’s Vidiot Game (2012), which subverts expectations by, on the one hand, tasking the player with petty goals in the form of minigames, while on the other, removing the likelihood of any eventual victory. The player becomes caught in a nihilistic loop where success doesn’t really add up, and this is eventually represented visually by the gradual glitching of the game’s visuals. There is a slow, absurdist breakdown of meaning in a ludic context taking place which acts as a metacommentary for the labour put into “winning” games, and which is represented through an intense dissonance we experience aesthetically, through sound and visuals, as well as ludically, as our actions fail to meet up with our expectations. The game’s statement is fairly simple, and occupies that moment when indie games were only just working through metatext as a mode of expression (The Stanley Parable came out in 2011), but it’s also a clear example of dissonance as a sensibility at work.

I repeat, however, that the caveat is that achieving a dissonant sensibility can be executed poorly—can be garbled or ineffective—and like any other garbled or ineffective style of communication can either reveal conceptual flaws or gum up the ideas by failing to fittingly engage them. So it’s also worth pointing out that Yang uses another word to describe things in games which just do not make sense in context (mainly on a conceptual level). Twice in his piece, “incoherence” comes up, and “coherence” comes up once. And Yang’s right, in a sense! The problems described in things like Fallout 3 and BioShock Infinite have nothing at all to do with a dissonance that needs resolving or at least affective comprehension. That being said, doors which must be opened in a particular way, which constitute Yang’s Fallout 3 example, may be unrealistic but are not necessarily incoherent if they follow a particular logic which is internally consistent in the fiction. But where he does take on some fundamental problems with BioShock Infinite’s execution, here he truly describes an example of pure, unadulterated incoherence:

”All attempts to read Bioshock Infinite, in any consistent way, end with, ‘because video games.’ [sic] Where some games might worry a lot about the coherence of an NPC invincible in combat, suddenly dying in a scripted event—or maybe why a family would lock so many interior doors in their own house, and then leave town—this game said, ‘Fuck it.’”

The issue is not so much that these problems clash particularly noticeably in the moment of play in such a way that jars and therefore leaves an impression on the player. It’s that, under scrutiny, they don’t make any sense to what the game and its various elements are trying to accomplish. Like an unaddressed plot hole in an otherwise tidy-feeling television series, these things can go unremarked but as soon as they are reflected upon, we realize how quickly the game and its attendant statements dissolve into a pile of gibberish.

But, again, I can’t base my observations here on whether or not an audience actually notices problems or takes them for granted. I’d even argue that the apathy Yang describes toward general incoherence in games is an ultimately ideological attitude, built on the very assumption, “because videogames.” Recipients of media tend to not notice lots of things, which is in large part why the discipline of criticism exists. We may find ourselves bedazzled by a polished product which appears to make sense unto itself—which is consonant enough that the parts move together—only to realize after the fact that they never really fit right at all.

I admit this piece isn’t really a full treatise on the subject so much as, I hope, a preliminary disambiguation of two terms I see confounded all the time. It’s not that I wish to control critical language, and I don’t deign to think I really can. But I do think that if we can more accurately define our terms, then we stand a better chance at interpreting and articulating the experiences we have with games. We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to take control of the language we use to describe the media we consume. To do otherwise results not just in incoherent games, but in incoherent ideas about them—and who benefits from that?