Arkane Studios' Dishonored skidded onto the scene last week, a game that echoes Looking Glass Studios' seminal Thief although sports skill upgrades a la Deus Ex. Inevitably there was both great praise ("awesome") and great disappointment ("short").
Over on Minnesota Daily, Simon Benarroch wrote how Dishonored lets us down because it doesn't encourage the player to take advantage of all the skills and items on offer. An interesting argument in itself, one I've considered before with other games; what good are all these wonderful toys if players do not use them?
But Benarroch then confuses the situation:
It wanted so badly for you to have all the options all the time that you never really had to stop and think. Because you can do everything exactly the way you want to, it becomes clear once again that you aren't really creating your own narrative, but playing someone else's.
Because you can play exactly the way you want to, you aren't creating your own narrative.
I've spent five hours on Dishonored so far and only just started the second mission of the game. I’m being Thief-style thorough and will definitely not finish in the standard ten hours, a figure derided as “too short”. So I admit I’m not approaching this topic from the perspective of experience.
Nonetheless, my reaction to Benarroch's essay was this: What?
Meanwhile in psychology
In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz published a book called "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" which argues that increasing choice makes us unhappy. First, more choice makes for burdensome decisions; I've seen many people go into a Starbucks saying they just want a coffee and have no desire to know what "skinny mocha with cream" means. Second, after making a decision, we are apt to second-guess ourselves, wondering if an alternative choice was the more optimal. Schwartz gave an entertaining TED talk on the subject in 2005.
The jury is still out evidence-wise but it is worth mentioning a research paper by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published in 2000, titled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”. Iyengar and Lepper detailed an experiment in which they measured customer response while varying choice.
The research team set up a tasting booth to advertise a new brand of jams at a grocery store. The display would alternate each hour between a limited range of 6 products and an extensive range of 24. As might be expected, more people stopped at the booth when the extensive range was on show. But the startling result was that customers were ten times more likely to buy from the limited range than the extensive range.
As consumers, do we actually want choice? Or just the comfortable illusion of choice?
Neo talks to The Architect
When we talk about choices in games, we’re usually talking about chunky discrete decisions: dialogue choices in a decision tree; whether to avoid, stun or kill an opponent; continue or rage-quit. This makes for a narrow conversation.
A choice is any opportunity for input. Even nudging an avatar one pixel to the leftis the player making a decision.
Sid Meier has said that a game is a series of interesting choices and his portfolio is stuffed full of works like Civilization whose decisions are analogue approximations, featuring a wide spectrum of action and consequence. Although experienced players of these games are familiar with context-specific strategies, it is impossible to reduce them to a simple decision tree.
RTS games also offer analogue choices such as resource allocation, site selection for infrastructure development and tactical decisions on how to repel and invade opponents. RTS developers are aware they have to tutorialize players towards understanding but I tend to find RTS games overwhelming as each new piece or upgrade or power multiplies the organisational complexity.
If I don’t keep playing on regular basis before reaching mastery, the embryonic rule-set in my head rots away and I eventually turn the game off for good. I can't digest all that choice in one go. Actually, I'm often unhappy with my RTS performance when I seem to win by accident rather than through smart tactical play.
There’s always talk about having “real choices” in games and I’ve previously mused on how decisions can be made more potent by rendering consequences permanent or obfuscating cause and effect. But more players engage Minecraft and Bioshock rather than Dwarf Fortress, Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum and Cart Life - games which are nothing but complex, nerve-wracking decisions. Bioshock even lampooned the idea of player autonomy with its Andrew Ryan showdown.
As players, do we actually want choice? Or just the comfortable illusion of choice?
A Man Chooses
But here's the curious thing. Dishonored, at its heart, is a sandbox.
Choices, seen through the prism of a sandbox game, are a form of personal expression. Games like Minecraft and GTA III eschew education and invite the player to muck around. You are a sexy artist, the developer says, show me what you can do.
Dishonored hurls an enormous set of tools at players and asks them to play the way they want. Right now I’m a stealthy pacifist, reliving my Thief days... but I also want to play it again as a brutal assassin, who cares nothing for the blood he spills. This will make for two entirely different games.
The important choices are not to be found in the plot nor in the simplistic moral consequences echoed in the rat population. The important choices are the colours I apply to the canvas. This is artistic freedom, not the burdensome purchasing decisions that beleaguer the consumer.
Such is the reaction from some quarters, I can't help but wonder whether the polished funnels of mainstream games have blunted the minds of some players. Have they spawned a generation who really believe that freedom is the enemy of choice?
That would be an awesome sound bite to end on but we're overrun with a rampaging herd of elephants in the room. Consider the epic success of Dark Souls, which tortures the player with critical decisions at every turn. Consider the open world of Skyrim in which millions of players lost months of their lives.
But I reserve the right to be concerned. I mean, even Kill Screen piled in.
A man chooses...
Electron Dance has another four independent essays that look at Dishonored:
- Fish Out of Water - On AAA handholding (noted on RPS Sunday Papers)
- Across the Rooftops - Comparing Dishonored to Thief
- La Peste - What is the story of Dishonored?
- If All You Have is a Knife - On violence (going up mid-March)