Recently, game critics have been ridiculing the usefulness of a term used to describe the disconnect between the experience of playing a game and the narrative content of said game. That term is ludonarrative dissonance. Chris Franklin of Errant Signal describes the primary argument for discarding it:
“Ludonarrative dissonance [establishes] potentially something of a false dichotomy – play gains much of its meaning through the same representational metaphors (characters, actions) as cut scenes do, so why do we frame the two as opposing forces? It may be better to simply call games where there are opposing themes and ideas simply internally conflicted than to make up a word that describes a thematic disconnect between two supposedly competing sides. That concept doesn’t come with a trendy new buzzword we can spout at each other, but it’s probably closer to how games really operate. After all, it’s not like a film or novel can’t be self-conflicted without gameplay to complicate things.”
I suggest a new term and approach to examining these sorts of disconnects in game criticism: “noise.” I derive the concept and approach for “noise” from two separate sources: (1) the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio, to which Franklin’s own project “Errant Signal” alludes; and (2) the field of aesthetic theory. In my view, “noise” or “noisiness” expresses the degree to which the experience of playing a game causes the player to recognize the component parts of that experience as discrete, as opposed to as an integrated, sensuous whole (read: signal).
Here I mean sensuous in the Mendelssohnian sense, meaning that an object (1) can be perceived by the external senses and (2) that an object can be perceived all at once. The term connotes clarity in meaning and communicative capacity but not distinctiveness. Mendelssohn affirms that every object can potentially be represented to the senses as perfection if its presentation meets the standard of indistinct clarity and totality. Mendelssohn’s point about the sensuous whole is useful to game theorists in part because its aesthetic approach is so fundamental; game critics need vocabulary which accounts for the experience of play, and Mendelssohn’s insight begins with the focus on how our senses perceive the stimuli a game(work) transmits as either integral or discordant.
“Noise” adds to the vocabulary for critiquing games in a way that the term “ludonarrative dissonance” cannot, because it does not presuppose that the play and the narrative exist as discrete and potentially opposed elements of the game work in the first place. Moreover, “noise” is quite straightforward to understand, especially to the technologically-native players and readers of recent generations, for it invokes notions of imperfection, like the white noise on an empty radio channel or the snow on a television screen.
Noise is a disruptive force. Noise reminds the player of the medium through which the game is played. Noise pulls disbelief out of its suspension. Noise ends the voyeuristic pleasure of the spectator. Noise is a challenge to the fluency of experiencing the game and its own medium. Noise is sand in the gears. Noise reverses the immersion of the player and brings the medium of play to the fore. Some games might do well to capitalize on achieving noise as part of the player experience, but noise will be the enemy of many games that seek to seduce players into an environment, ruleset, and narrative world that functions seamlessly and enthralls its player by eliminating noise altogether. Noise is game dust.