Electron Dance
16Oct/12Off

A Slave Obeys

Dishonored - Morning from The Pub

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.

Blink, blink.

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...

Further Reading

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)

Dishonored - Pestilence sign

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

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  1. One of the things I really loved about Bioshock 2, which existed in the original Bioshock but wasn’t so well crystallised, was the sandbox combat. Like Dishonored, it gave you an enormous arsenal and because there was no lethal or non-lethal dynamic (it was all lethal!) I could just get stuck in and use different plasmid and weapon combos (using both hands), ammo types and environmental hazards and opportunities (like security cameras, bots, water pools, Big Daddies, oil slicks etc.) to dispatch my enemies. It’s still the most fun I’ve had with combat in first person.

    Playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution I don’t get that same feeling, everything feels a lot more static (because it is) but you can see how the designers have carved various routes through areas to accommodate different types of play; the heavy lifter, the high climber, the wall breaker, the hacker, the trigger-happy, the shadow. It’s not a sandbox but there is plenty of choice. In DX:HR however, I don’t feel like I’m being especially creative with those choices, it’s more like I’m going through one of the motions the designer expected, so while I do get a choice it’s not one that I’ve ‘authored’, so to speak. In Bioshock 2, and I suspect Dishonored, you’re given a bunch of tools and abilities and systems to be creative with in an environment — and against enemies — that are conducive to those tools and abilities and systems. I remember discovering that I could use telekinesis to pull a splicer on to my drill, and covering a fuel drum in proximity mines or trap rivets to make a very, very dangerous projectile. I remember hypnotising a Big Daddy to help defeat a Big Sister or merely fighting close enough to one so that it would get caught in crossfire and turn hostile against her.

    As a lover of Bioshock 2 and a lover of Thief, I’m very curious to see how I’ll play Dishonored… lethal or non-lethal, that is the question.

  2. I forgot to say that, for me, the lethal and non-lethal thing is actually more debilitating than anything else, especially if a game demonises you for killing, possibly even giving you a ‘bad ending’. In Thief, I was a thief, I stole stuff, I avoided conflict at all costs, so it was an easy decision. But in other games like Deus Ex and possibly the Hitman games, where that distinction isn’t so clear, it’s much more difficult to decide whether to leave a trail of blood or dark corners full of unconscious guards.

    Oh, and the reason I didn’t like Joe Dangerous was because mashing the buttons got me a higher score than trying to do incredible stunts. Not sure that’s relevant but your sentence on RTS performance reminded me of it.

  3. Gregg, your love for Bioshock 2 is almost enough to convince me to go back to Rapture. I still feel like Bioshock was meal enough for me, but perhaps this is just a psychological barrier I have to push through, huh? =) Obviously I intend to hit up DX:HR at some point…

    In Thief, the non-lethal path was baked in. If you wanted to complete the top difficulty – with all the additional objectives and fun there – it was game over if you killed a single person. It’s still early days for me in Dishonored but I suspect there’s not much difference between violent and pacifist impact, so it’s down to self-discipline. I’ve done Thief so I have that discipline.

    I think most players will just gung-ho it through but the stealth here is so satisfying. Interestingly, most of the RPS team played in a “reload until I make it through without killing anyone” except for Adam: he opted for non-lethal but only ever reloaded when he died. That’s another interesting way to play where you accept the consequences of screw-ups.

    My RTS performance remarks were meant to reflect the problems of too much choice: I felt inadequate because I didn’t think I’d made an optimal choice. This is why Darwinia took my RTS virginity, because it was simple enough to understand very quickly.

  4. Perhaps part of this comes down to the overloading of the term ‘narrative’? Choice is good, but it may not be conducive to conveying a message, a meaning or a sequence of events. I think better AI can help bolster this, by building narratives around the player’s actions, and directly riffing off the things they do rather than trying to fit them into strict streams of ‘Route A’ and ‘Route B’.

    Perhaps it’s truer to say that “Because you can do everything exactly the way you want to, and the game does not take this into account, you aren’t really creating your own narrative, but playing someone else’s.”? I might be trying too hard to make sense of Benarroch’s point here, but my feeling is that perhaps he was talking about the pointlessness of choice if it is not adequately used by the game to affect meaningful change in the world/plot/system?

    I’ve not played Dishonored yet. Increasingly anxious to do so, especially after blog posts like this.

  5. Hi Mike! (Say hi to Angelina for me.) Having read the article a few times, I’m pretty sure this is his point:

    It’s easy to finish the game without making use of many of the tools. The game doesn’t encourage it, it doesn’t corner you in situations where you have to try something else (in either a scripted or emergent way). As a result, this “default” play style is the only real play style, because no one will do anything different.

    Early in, I suspect there are some balancing issues, in that it might be too easy with a pistol and crossbow on the normal setting. All those additional trinkets seem superfluous.

    Now I’m sure the developers expected players to *want* to use all those shiny tools and skills, like Minecraft expects its players to go forth and, er, create. This goes back to players, rather than design: are players’ expectations in an AAA shooter-RPG hybrid different than a blocky indie title?

    But Benarroch is convinced this is a design problem not a player problem. To do this, he contorts it into the developers “imposing choice” on the player which is just the wrong way to interpret a game that treasures player freedom.

    However, the fact that he tries to lay out as a problem of choice is incredibly revealing, suggesting players are looking to developers for more direction than I would have expected.

    Perhaps I should’ve just written: Dishonored = Marmite?

  6. Angelina says hi! Well, the fans whirred up a bit faster, I’m interpreting that as a greeting.

    That’s interesting (I’ve been trying to avoid all discussion of Dishonored so I didn’t see the subtleties elsewhere in the article). I have heard this point of only a subset of abilities being initially relevant on some playthroughs.

    I think some people do feel this way about choice in games. I have a friend who cannot play open world games, he just can’t connect to this idea of generating goals himself. I guess this is what’s going on here – some people want to be nudged towards certain ideas by the game, while other people prefer to set their own challenges/playstyles. Perhaps the problem is that there’s no happy medium yet in many games: that it seems to be either games that dictate solutions to puzzles along certain lines, or games that encourage you to set your own guidelines for solving a puzzle (I guess I’m thinking about Hitman here, or similar).

    Maybe what we need is something that straddles these two lines, where the game tries to understand what kind of a person you are, and then redesigns its challenges so that it doesn’t direct you to certain solutions, but poses problems that it knows will present interesting decisions for the kind of playstyle you have. Often, I feel I get the closest to this when I take on a persona to play a game (say, playing Fallout: New Vegas as a law-abiding vigilante).

    There was a great poster at AIIDE last week about profiling a player’s personality through Fallout 3 (they did some earlier work on similar stuff in Neverwinter Nights). Paper here: http://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/AIIDE/AIIDE12/paper/view/5462. Perhaps in the future, games can learn how we think, and find ways to get us to gently think outside those boundaries, through the presentation of the right sorts of puzzles?

    In other words, maybe we need a bit of direction, as well as the freedom to break out of the direction when we want to.

    Interesting topic!

  7. @HM: Yeah Expert difficulty was where it was at: get in, don’t kill anyone, steal more, do ‘x’, do ‘y’ and do ‘z’ while you’re in there, now get out. More games need to employ that sort of difficulty system. The only game that comes to mind that does is Crysis.

    I think Adam’s playstyle is definitely the way to go just because the game gives you plenty of scope to escape whatever situation you get yourself into, I suspect the game’s much more eventful and memorable that way, if a little uncomfortable to perfectionists! What I also meant to add is that in DX:HR lethal combat is so tantalising (the weapons are very nice) that just playing with tranquilliser darts, stun zaps and concussion grenades feels a bit… I dunno, not underwhelming… I can’t find the word. Conservative? Sometimes I just want some DAKKA DAKKA pie, despite the many, many hours I spent in Thief as a non-lethal cat.

    @Mike: “I think better AI can help bolster this, by building narratives around the player’s actions, and directly riffing off the things they do rather than trying to fit them into strict streams of ‘Route A’ and ‘Route B’.”

    This is right at the centre of the topic for me (at least with regards to games that deal heavily with narrative); how much a game reacts to our actions and choices. In DX:HR, after I finished the first proper mission, I remember talking to the SWAT team members outside who had just done a sweep of the entire site following my clearing of it, and them saying how they expected it to be a blood bath, or they expected more resistance, but of course, everyone was unconscious. Even a few people back at HQ commented on my handling of the situation, as well as the odd newspaper I found lying around. Even yesterday evening I noticed an enemy guard say ‘Hm? I saw that door open but nobody walked through…’ then he promptly investigated. It was a very little thing, just like everybody screaming ‘PUT THE GUN AWAY!’ every time I try talking to them without holstering my firearm, but it all adds up in making the game seem more receptive to you and your actions.

    Aha! Here’s the interesting article I was thinking of by Randy Smith: http://www.edge-online.com/features/making-games-pay-attention/

  8. @Mike: First of all, that personality profiling thing is stunning. I don’t know whether to be impressed “wow people do play as themselves in games” or frightened “wow people can be analysed through gameplay”.

    Back to the topic at hand… I’m sure the amount of direction required varies between individuals and those of us who’ve had lethal dose of amateur and bleeding edge independent titles require less. When I write about Dishonored for real, I’m going to make a big thing about how much the game mollycoddles the player, often spoiling environmental narrative and sandbox exploration by waving a wad of text in your face. I’ve switched off as much as I can.

    @Gregg: Crysis? Really? It’s on my “one day” list so I’ll guess I’ll find out. Adam’s playstyle is pretty much my default approach these days except… well Dishonored has brought out the Thief in me. I can’t finish a level with dead people! That’s failure! (Except, well, I have killed two people indirectly. Don’t look at me like that!)

    I don’t know how Dishonored really responds to your actions yet. I suspect – from other reviews – that I’m not going to be overwhelmed.

  9. Perhaps the lack of explicit, constant response from the game on your actions is what makes it feel impersonal. Deus Ex did respond often (though mostly in the beginning) and garnered a lot of respect, while a random JRPG that expands in terms of options for weird-yet-viable playstyles over time will not receive the same plaudits (except, maybe, on speeddemosarchive.com).

    You can beat one of Final Fantasy VII’s super-bosses with your entire party turned into frogs, whereas you can’t ever turn Paul Denton into ludicrous gibs, yet even I remember Deus Ex as having more choice. I’m guessing that’s down to how much the game remarked on what was happening outside the talky bits.

  10. After completing Deus Ex, the most significant revelation for me was learning Paul Denton could be saved. At first, I thought this was an internet urban myth. But others were emphatic: lookee here I hav screenshot of Paul in HK.

    I went back and played through the apartment battle again and again, eventually reaching a “win” condition where Paul runs off. At the time, I was impressed with the game’s hidden depths, but looking back I think it was badly telegraphed. I had become convinced that Paul Denton’s apartment siege was just a Kobayashi Maru scenario that you could play through if you wanted.

    My memories of Deus Ex aren’t about the game commenting on whether I killed or not; they are more about the dialogue and story (I keep on bringing up Morpheus whenever I get the chance). I expected to work for UNATCO from beginning to end; the twist when you have to switch sides felt unique and fresh. Now it is more tired. It is almost expected in some games.

    Is the Deus Ex comparison overused?

  11. It most likely is, since it’s the most outstanding in many cases (though, due to its age, I really wonder if it’s the most actually-played one). I’m somewhat surprised neither of us got around to OMG WOMEN’S RESTROOM in the space of two comments.

    But then, what’s another game that contains outstanding responses to choice on the micro-level? Mass Effect has them, but it’s game-to-game and therefore not so micro after all.

  12. I don’t think it’s overused, no. Deus Ex, and Human Revolution, are both games which allow players to play, to a certain extent, how they like, while also giving them some sort of choice on how the story pans out. Moment-to-moment decisions can matter as much as the more conspicuous ‘big’ decisions. I’ve played plenty of games that don’t allow you to do either of those things. Of course, I haven’t played many modern RPGs like Mass Effect or Skyrim to know how they work, but I think based on their enormity they won’t offer the same sort of feedback and finesse as something smaller and more focused.

    Something I just remembered in Human Revolution, apparently if you faff around for too long near the beginning — after being told (with some urgency) to make your way to the next mission — bad things can happen. That sets a fantastic precedent: don’t do what you do in other games and ignore the situation at hand, the shit will hit the fan if you don’t act. There’s now a liberating sense of urgency to certain missions (in that I can ignore my compulsion to explore every nook and cranny and just get on with it). What if the game’s watching me?

    Edit: what Beam said.

  13. I like the balance of choice in Dishonored. I’m not far into it (second mission), but as I understand it’s not a lengthy title. To be it does feel guided as far as objectives, more open in terms of execution. I think there’s probably a handful of ways to play any given section/encounter, but really only two or three tops if you want to play a vertically exploring, non-lethal (but aggressively choke happy) infiltrator like I do.

    I’m sure if you wanted to play archer sniper, pistol punisher, melee expert, and stealthy sometimes noncombatant prowler in one play through it would feel like there were tons of of options, but I really want to play one play through one specific way. I do feel like there’s room to roam in the environment, and find a way that feels fair, and satisfying through the levels.

    I’m starting to be disappointed though with the nonlethal options for neutralizing targets. I’ve only finished the mission with the Peddleton twins (second major mission), but after completing it, I’m starting to question whether I should be caring so much about nonlethality. The two nonlethal options I’ve seen have been pretty intense, but the second one was blatantly cruel and unusual. I understand the idea was to make the nonlethal options still feel like crushing punishment for bad people, and make the player feel powerful and slightly darker, but the idea I wanted to have *as* Corvo doesn’t match with that kind of cruelty. It’s made me wonder if there’s anything really benevolent about the nonlethal options for neutralizing targets and does it lure us into a false sense of righteousness. Maybe it’s meant to make us feel uneasy, and like there are no better options. I would have liked to see multiple nonlethal options; maybe there will be.

    But still, back to my original point, I feel like there’s a decent balance between freedom and design, even narratively. As much as I’d like to have all kinds of options for how to end missions, it’s clear that being guided down one of these two paths I’m experiencing something emotionally I wouldn’t have gotten just by being able to whatever I wanted.

  14. That’s an interesting point Jordan. As a more predominantly non-lethal player in DX:HR some of the takedowns are a little too violent for my tastes — Thief has obviously turned me into a softie. There’s a ‘sleeper hold’ which is my favourite as the victim just quietly goes down and slumps to the floor but some of the others involve breaking arms and punching faces with all my augmented might. Yes, they look pretty badass but they’re not especially practical or fitting, I mean, one time my ‘silent’ takedown flipped a guy into the air and his legs, mid-flight, broke a series of nearby laser trips. His body landed a metre or so away from where I took him down and in plain sight of a security camera triggering the alarm system. Nice one Jensen, that was real clean. I’ll take the sleeper hold next time. I wonder if it’s context sensitive?

    I think for how simple it would be to do, giving a clear option on how you neutralise a key target in Dishonored would probably be best. They gave you that much choice beforehand after all. It could be like when you harvest a Little Sister — be nice or be nasty. The problem is when ‘nice’ isn’t necessarily nice…

  15. I’ll be honest I’m not bothered so much about chunky consequences in Dishonored because I am seeing the world through Garrett’s eyes. There are very few narrative consequences to your conduct in Thief; that wasn’t what Thief was about.

    Having said that, I was uncomfortable with one of the Dishonored sidequests. I went all the way through it, to discover more about Dunwall, but I walked rather than complete the mission at the end. I also was able to guess (a later playthrough will confirm) one negative consequence of carrying out the sidequest. Okay, so I wasn’t looking for consequences but there is something here.

    Dishonored offers a fascinating environment which is surprisingly similar in template to Thief, but I’m not feeling the story so much. It’s not bad, just not grabbing me – although I am concerned about the eventual fate of Dunwall itself which feels precarious. I’ve let go of the main plot already and happy to concentrate on the mechanical side of the game and the smaller stories.

    Sometimes, though, I wish I could stop exploring. Exploring makes you want to Tetris all the enemies out of a level, pile them up in a corner sleeping, so I can get on with the “real job” of finding things. However, I keep spotting alternate, smarter ways of making it through areas AFTER I’ve done this, which makes me feel like I’m approaching some of this with a rigid mindset. I want to feel cool and not staid and boring. It’s all there. I just need to use it.

    Jordan, I’m not sure what you’re referring to in terms of “pretty intense” nonlethal options but I guess I’ll find out. Nearly ten hours in, and I’ve still not completed the first proper mission.

    You love the sleeper hold, Gregg? Welcome to Dishonored!

  16. Great article as usual.

    I’m playing through Dishonored very slowly – just finished the first assassination mission, actually. And I too appreciate the range of choice, which grants a variety of paths (and often some complex, forward-thinking decisionmaking, such as how to handle the poisoned wine) and allows for a multitude of approaches.

    Since I want to give this post a little more discussion on Tap-Repeatedly I’ll cut this short, but I do find your revelations about the psychology of choice fascinating. They certainly explain some of my own emotional reactions when I play.

    Dishonored is a fantastic game. Sure, there can be some complaints about it, but I can’t get behind Benarroch’s; it’s fundamentally flawed. Frankly, “choice” and “narrative” are two separate things in a game, and they can be completely exclusive. There’s no law that says different choices MUST lead to different stories. In fact, I consider it a sign of masterful game design that you’re able to exercise so many choices and still get the story that Arkane wanted to tell. Consider how often a choice breaks a story in a game. Is Benarroch saying that’s better?

  17. Yeah there’s definitely that element of “gotta ‘jack ‘em all” just so you can explore freely. I even did that in Penumbra: Overture. Now Black Plague took than choice away entirely meaning that I could explore freely in the sense that I didn’t have to worry about getting rid of enemies. It’s a bit like my lethal or non-lethal comment above, the choice can be somewhat debilitating because you second-guess yourself “I should play non-lethal, those guards are just doing their job… but the lethal combat looks so much fun!”. In Bioshock 2 I was free to just shoot stuff and mess around with all my abilities.

    I’ve no idea what I’ll be like in Dishonored but I foresee myself playing as non-lethally as possible, as usual, and only resorting to other abilities and approaches if my hand is forced. I think that’s what Benarroch is getting at, that we’ll slip into our comfy playstyle, grab a hot mug of cocoa and stay there if given half a chance. While we’re not exactly taking the path of least resistance (as I suspect a lot of the sub-ten hour players are) we are playing in a personally familiar or rational way that perhaps doesn’t make the most of what the game offers because we’re given the choice to play that way. I don’t like to say people are playing it ‘wrong’, particularly in a game that embraces freedom, but I think that freedom can make us lazy — why go to all those lengths if merely doing this or that will do? Look at Immortal Defense, I was easily the most creative with different towers on the levels where I was given fewer to work with. I was forced to be inventive. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

    Then there’s the issue of playing so creatively that it’s kind of weird and out of context ‘For example, in “Dishonored,” the pieces are there for me to summon a posse of rats, stick a proximity mine to one of the rats’ backs, assume control of that rat and force him to suicide-bomb a nearby guard. I could do that, but why the hell would I? It’s interesting, sure, but there are no circumstances within the game that make it a good idea. I’d be making that decision as a greasy little sadist sitting in front of a computer, not as a disgraced assassin making his way through Dunwall.’ Which is a fair comment.

    I think there are a few sentences in Benarroch’s article that don’t sit well with what he’s ultimately getting at, like the one you quoted, but I can see where he’s coming from. The take away sentence for me is: “‘”Dishonored” made the mistake of giving the player a boatload of options, but no compelling reasons to select one over another.’

    Anyway, I haven’t played Dishonored.

  18. @GreggB — I love the sleeper hold. I’m not entirely passive; while I enjoy avoiding encounters entirely sometimes, I also love neatly neutralizing a whole room without hardly a sound, and not a drop of blood. That makes me feel immensely more powerful (and, oddly, more just), than galavanting around dismembering people. Besides, having to go back, find, and hide “severed body part” is a pain.

    @HM — The first one, not so bad. The second one, you don’t find out what it is until after you’ve done it, and even thought you don’t witness it at all, I felt unsatisfied and a little duped. But then again, the story line and characters had made it clear I wasn’t going to be privy to the “solution” and that was part of the deal. I’m not really complaining; the story and choice both served to garner a reaction from me, and that it was unexpected, although not necessarily what I wanted, is actually a good thing.

    @Steerpike — Not necessarily different choices = different story, because functionally that doesn’t happen in Dishonored (that I’m aware of, thus far). Functionally, targets are taken out of the picture and two missions in the plot seems to be progressing in a way that doesn’t depend on *how* they were removed.

    I would suggest, however, that different choices should equal different feelings, or emotion from the player, in relation to both gameplay and narrative. How you choose to navigate rules, environment, and enemies should give you a sense of identity as a player, and even if the overall plot differences are minute, I’d like to feel some connection to the cursory choices I make, even if that’s primarily role-play happening in my head, as long as its loosely supported by the game.

  19. Hmm, I finished dishonored and found that it really didn’t feel like there was much choice in the end. I guess there are mechanical choices (which powers you use where). But I always had that feeling there was a designer looking over my shoulder and tutting when I wasn’t “making progress”.

    There were some pretty lame setups of enemies etc too. I suspect that blink has a lot to do with it, because once you can blink and jump you are a totally different beast (moving around is a hell of a lot easier and opens up the maps a lot).

    I was expecting to go into it and stealth a lot, in the end I did a lot of blink and ranged kills with the skill that vaporises you’re kills so that it tidied the level up a bit after me. Not so much stealthy as more of a enemy hoover.

    I think maybe part of the problem is that you aren’t expected to fully master any skill before you unlock a new one. So you can constantly have some half-learned skills being performed with less than fulfilling results. It doesn’t feel like a game that will get much replay value because there are limited goals and the payoffs are typical console ones (i.e. cutscenes, reveals etc). Which is a shame, because the skills are quite nice to use once mastered.

    Ultimately it really doesn’t feel like an open world or sandbox game to me, mostly because it has very strict rewards for completing very specific goals. Which I think is at odds with the sandbox idea of “make up your own goals/rewards”. Its still just a bunch of quests, even if you can do them in different orders. Skills are used but ultimately to the same goal (to progress the designers view of “story”). So you really aren’t able to break away from that narrative unless you completely ignore the story quests, which means you can’t progress the levels.

    I guess if you thought that thief and deus ex were sandbox, then you could say the same for this. But I don’t think it stands up to much scrutiny in that regard.

  20. @Steerpike – Thanks! I didn’t intend to go so deep into the gameplay myself, particularly down here in the comments as I would like to save them for another time too! I haven’t got to the poisoned wine yet…

    @Gregg – I did admit there was an interesting point made in the quoted article, one which has occurred to me before. Here’s a parallel observation. I’ve never been convinced that mixing Thief-strength stealth into combat works. Stealth is not an easy game to play, requiring patience and yields a typically intolerant design (get discovered -> quickload). The shooting part is a design crutch to enable players to survive stealth fails and appeal to players who don’t get stealth. In fact, some games appropriate stealth as a way to make killing easier or more stylish (see Mark of the Ninja).

    Dishonored wants to be a bit more Deus Ex, enabling players to be stylish killers if they so choose – just take a look at the PR. The game just lets you fall back into the ol’ killing habit if you’re having trouble with stealth; I don’t know of the full range of repercussions but the fact that the game has been done in ten hours suggests to me that most are not playing as ascetic non-lethal stealthmonks.

    Killing is rarely punished when the option to kill is available. The reason people don’t kill in real life is not because of a dark ending but because the infrastructure of society turns against you. I want a stealth game to reflect this; I find talk of “ethical choices” in games kind of this calibre ridiculous because killing carries barely any consequences (hey Bioshock!). This shouldn’t be about a player deciding whether to use the left mouse button or right mouse button – but a choice with critical, mechanical consequences.

    STEALTH RANT OVER

    I will say I’m finding some of the stealth tricky – I’m playing on Hard – looking at the situation and wondering how the hell I’m going to get through it. It’s pushing me to be a little more innovative. I actually left half a level full of conscious people! Oh, by the way, I don’t think that thing with the rat is going to work.

    @Jordan – I would like to feel some connection too. One thing that threw me already in Dishonored was someone calling me an assassin. I haven’t killed anybody yet so wasn’t sure whether to parse that as a mistake in dialogue or intentionally designed to make me feel uncomfortable about who people thought I would become. Which it did, of course.

  21. Yeah, I’m not suggesting that there should be such binary ethical choices, I was using the Little Sister example in relation to what Jordan said, as a simple way of making it clear to the game that you want to neutralise your target in a specific way rather than it taking the usually silent non-lethal takedown move and making it ‘intense… cruel and unusual’, to quote Jordan. “Okay, lets see… silent takedown– what? Bwuh? I didn’t… that’s not what I wanted to do.”

    That’s the thing with what I was saying about context (and something Randy Smith said as well in another article I dug up while looking for the one above (here: http://www.edge-online.com/features/opinion-grand-theft-auto-ivs-lack-coherence/)), how the main character is portrayed within the narrative and what you play them like can be entirely at odds with one another. Early on in GTA IV when Niko first arrives in Liberty City, he talks about how he doesn’t want to start killing again but on the way to the next mission or story point it’s entirely possible to run over countless pedestrians, in fact, it’s probably a given considering how difficult driving is initially. Does Niko react to this? Of course not, but the cops do and they eventually switch off and go back to sleep. I see parallels there with what you’re saying about Dishonored in that killing isn’t something that the game seems to notice or react to in any sort of meaningful long term way, mechanically or narratively. With Thief, on Expert you were explicitly told to not kill people, master thieves don’t need to do that, so straight away you were like “I am a master thief, I don’t need to kill anyone.” which cleverly sidestepped the whole thing (assuming you chose that difficulty).

    Something that appeals to the completist in me in DX:HR is that, so far in the game, when I’ve finished a major mission, all the remaining conscious guards have evacuated (for story-specific reasons) meaning that I’ve been free to wander off and explore before leaving. That seems like a luxury to me!

  22. The more we talk about this, the more I’m inclined to play Dishonored as if I have to restart a mission/level from scratch if I die, just to see the myriad ways things can pan out but to really put me in a tight spot should I get rumbled… we’ll see.

  23. Actually I just learned (because the game told me) that different choices will lead to changes in the game. I made a choice in the first assassination mission and I’m pretty sure that what I’m encountering now, having returned to that area for the second, is a result of what I did. There’s certainly plenty of talk about it. I’d be curious to see the place had I not done what I did.

    Indeed, the game explicitly says: “choices you make affect the city. More deaths will lead to a greater number of rats and Weepers, different reactions from your allies, and darker outcomes.”

    What’s not entirely clear is whether certain deaths count and certain deaths don’t (late-stage plague victims are essentially dead already, but very aggressive; do they count? Plus putting them out of their misery seems merciful. Anyway)

  24. @Phil. Sorry about your comment winding up in the spam bin. I found it though! Optional sidequest completed. I think as you played your hybridised role play (stealthy killer) I think it’s tricky to go back into the game. As I’m doing nonlethal, there’s a lot of additional gameplay value if I return with murder in mind.

    I spent ages working out how I would “solve” the kennels in the first mission, which – frankly – is a tiny area. Nonlethal turns everything into a bomb with multiple wires – how to snip each wire and defuse the bomb without setting the whole thing off. I’m having enormous fun weighing up the pros and cons of using possession vs blink vs sneaking vs environmental support. Which one least likely to get me killed? I didn’t go into this seeking a branching story and I’m disappointed by that either. Everything I wanted seems to be here. We’ll see if I still feel like that once I’ve finished the game. Play time so far: 12 hours after the first real mission.

    I see your point about “well, a sandbox is about completing your own goals” and Dishonored asks you to find solutions to a set of provided goals. But I think there’s so much range in there that the possibilities are vast.

    The issue is that perhaps the game doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that range. This is essentially Bennaroch’s point as well as Kill Screen’s. Some people just don’t feel that sandbox side of its nature. Maybe I will understand this more if I play assassin.

    @Gregg B: The phrase you’re looking for is ludonarrative dissonance.

    @Steerpike: Two people died in during my High Overseer mission. I screwed up and lead the overseer who was chasing me into a fight with a Bottle Street Gang member. He killed the gang member and kept after me; then I lead him into a back alley teeming with rats. The game reported two people died in the mission; I think it was counted against me. I have a feeling it will count Weepers against you as well.

  25. The very comments written here in this thread – all of you crazy people – inspired John Brindle to write an article about Dishonored – which he doesn’t even own yet.


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