Electron Dance
1Feb/1728

Discussion: Dishonorable Discharge

Dishonored keyhole

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the slightly late January edition of the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. Linking to Robert Yang is never a bad choice. I don’t know if his proposals are likely to be successful at the stated goals, but I’d love to see what might come out as by-product so I hope he gets some traction behind them – I don’t see a downside to trying anyway.

    Hope your January was sufficiently refreshing!

  2. Thanks kfix. I’m still in TV mode so working on the newsletter was kind of tough. I think I spent half an hour figuring out an appropriate title…!

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by Yang’s arguments because even if “we get there first” would it really make any difference?

  3. So uh, “If anyone is responsible for killing your baby, it’s the author of the scenario. They are punishing you in their clockwork world for your transgression”, weirdly, got to the heart of why I wasn’t a fan of Life is Strange. Anyway, I digress.

    Wow, I’d forgotten about Lee Hurst, and double wow at that tweet.

    Your thoughts on Dishonored’s feedback (or pandering!) loop made me think of STALKER’s nihilism. Sure, its ‘false’ endings represented the player’s actions in some way and there were ‘good’ endings, but their requirements were fuzzy and the outcomes unexpected, intriguing and something you couldn’t discretely aim for. You just had to sort of throw yourself into the belly of the Zone and see how it digested you. Mind you, in STALKER there was no such thing as non-lethal.

    I seem to recall the Bottle Street Gang’s bootleg elixir being the only thing keeping the plague at bay in the Distillery District so if you destroy/poison it (like I did — I can’t remember my reasons why but looking back it wasn’t a good idea) then that affects the whole area. As for the rest of the game, no idea! Perhaps Corvo’s bloodied blade was infected.

    Is a failure simulator the opposite to walking simulator? :-)

    Also: Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion = nope.

  4. I do like that games are starting to offer more options than the just ‘kill everyone’ way to solve problems, but I agree with you on how Dishonored handles it. I never particularly cared about whether I killed the target or not, it was just for the ‘perfect score’. And the world getting better or worse based on just Corvo’s actions doesn’t really make sense in regards to the plague either, which always did strike me as weird–why does this one guy matter so much?

    Games try to bring up black-and-white morality (or grey, if they try to be a little more nuanced) but I feel like most of them are not really that stimulating. They don’t make you question yourself, I really liked your point on not thinking about the consequences outside of the game.

    I guess it feels good to players in the moment, to feel like they’ve reached some sort of moral high ground, but it just feels empty to me.

  5. Hi Gregg,

    You couldn’t move on Twitter without bumping into a response to Hurst yet I never thought until I got round to writing the newsletter that I’d actually be able to turn it into something useful.

    STALKER is a weird one when it comes to endings. I never followed up how you get all those different endings with the monolith but, of course, none of those are the real ending! Not totally sure what I think about endings without the feedback to explain them, although I loved STAKLER, I mean, we’re in Stop Crying About Choice territory there. I mean, I looked up every ending on YouTube…

    I do remember what you mean about the Distillery and, if I recall, I did come up with “An Explanation” that relates the spread of the plague with your nightly activities. Basically, the more scared you make the authorities, the more guards end up protecting them instead of sorting out the pestilience on the streets. But the game doesn’t really make this argument itself.

    I tried but couldn’t make any decent joke about failure/walking simulator comparisons, sorry Gregg.

    Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion is an odd game. It’s half-parody but also half-serious about making you scared. Jumpscares are not the biggest aspect of the game…

    Gwen, hello!

    I suppose I could’ve boiled down my post into something much quicker. All of us discussing down here in the comments here… none of us are killers and likely shocked at the prospect of having to kill someone or even being violent enough to knock someone out. The idea that a game like Dishonored is an “evolution” of better moral options in games just doesn’t stack up when that choice is whether to kill someone or knock them out. None of us want these options in our real lives!

    There’s nothing wrong in having games offer these kind of brutal choices and they make for interesting fantasies. I’d say the choices in Dishonored make it a more intriguing game compared to something like Splinter Cell… but not a sign of improvement in how games handle violence. It’s like saying The Matrix is a sign that we’re going to get more philosophy in movies; I don’t think so, audiences came for the awesome fight sequences.

  6. I thought the chaos in Dishonored increased because you were producing corpses that fed plague-carrying rats that, being well-fed, multiplied into more plague-carrying rats, resulting in more plague and thus more chaos. Of course, I have no idea if rats really eat corpses or if that encourages them to multiply, but the explanation made sense at the time. (BTW, thanks for linking to my blog!)

  7. I’ve been playing and pondering Dishonored 2 lately. From one side I can understand the view of these games as power trip simulators but it’s also possible to see them as restraint simulators. D2 does this better than D1 but from the first moment of the game you are motivated to extract bloody revenge. Killing is almost always easier then subduing and the bad guys are truly baddy bad bad. As a player you have all the reason and all this power at your disposal to kill them but _should_ you though? It’s just so easy to kill them and be done with it but I think the lesson is that violence just leads to more violence. In D1 this is shown hamfistedly (with the rat plague increasing. I gotta agree: what a stretch.It really felt like there was a missing link) but D2 does this more subtly and more credibly. Mostly by making the consequences more traceable and small scale. People you don’t kill can eventually become friends. Doing good deeds can inspire other NPC’s te become less cynical (the reporter). Robbing shops causes them to increase their prices in later levels. There’s still a few moments where the game overdoes it (the final level has bad weather if you killed a lot of people) but overall many things I disliked about D1 have been improved. Especially the cause and effect bit.

  8. Joel

    “I’m not sure I’m convinced by Yang’s arguments because even if “we get there first” would it really make any difference?”

    Do Hollywood or US TV production business react better than games businesses to abuse and threats against their staff and associates? Is that kind of behaviour less generally socially acceptable among participants in those industries compared to the games industry? I’d be inclined to say yes, although still a long way from ideal.

    I think that’s the end goal of what Robert is advocating, and I guess I agree it’s likely to make a difference to some extent. To what extent, and how likely that progress would be made, is another question entirely and I wouldn’t expect significant success. But I cannot fault him for trying even if it’s a bit futile.

  9. “I guess I agree it’s likely to make a difference” should really have been “I guess I agree it’s likely *it would* make a difference *if there were sufficient people with different cultural values participating in the VR industry as per what Yang is advocating*” or something.

    That “if” is doing a lot of work though.

  10. Chris

    Howdy! That’s an interesting idea but patently ridiculous because, really, could one man kill enough people to spread the plag— what am I talking about!? It’s a first-person killer game. Of course one man can kill enough!!!

    Thomas N

    Hello! I don’t want to diminish what Dishonored or its sequel are doing with the story. It is NICE to have cleaning games that don’t fall back on that action hero myth of “kill ’em all dead, problem’s put to bed”. And I like all the attention to detail that you’ve picked out.

    Although I always get nervous with “don’t kill” being gamified into player benefit because that’s not really why we don’t kill people. I’d liked the game to become absolute rock hard after just a few murders. But I would say that, wouldn’t I, being a stealth player and that’s a dangerous sort of design that can leave players adrift and alienate the fanbase… Dishonored chose to embrace the violent and not cling to the Thief route.

    What I’m arguing against is suggesting that if we follow the “end result” of such evolution in design, that we’ll end up at a better sort of game. I think that’s palpable nonsense because that would involve cutting out the violence completely which is not an iteration of this design, but a complete replacement. That’s not evolution.

    kfix

    I guess I’m just a bit jaded about it all. For example, I just tend to retreat from areas that I find too acidic or hostile: I found online multiplayer toxic and once talking to other players over a mic was introduced there was no way I wanted to go near it anymore. (I guess I should just go have fun in The Endless Forest or Journey.) I should be more enthusiastic, really, as I’m someone who would stand to benefit from constructing a different culture.

  11. “That’s an interesting idea but patently ridiculous because, really, could one man kill enough people to spread the plag— what am I talking about!? It’s a first-person killer game. Of course one man can kill enough!!!”

    I think I’d killed enough by the end of my first mission. I’d killed almost enough by the time I got out of the sewers, and that was still the tutorial.

  12. Chris. “Mass murderer by end of tutorial” is totally an achievement.

  13. D1’s chaos system is ridiculous, but I do like 2 things about it:

    1) It links your actions with the welfare of the city, which implies that you have a civic responsibility to act in a certain way to better the lives of the citizens
    2) The link between killing loads of guards and the spread of the plague is nebulous, but that’s only the half of it. IIRC there’s a scene in the final level where one of the bad guys is either completely fine, or dying from a bullet wound, depending on high/low chaos. Rather than see this as a weak link, though, I interpreted this as a kind of expression of the butterfly effect: Corvo killing X people Y levels ago can, through some unforeseeable chain of events, lead to a bullet ending up in somebody’s else’s body days later. I actually quite liked this since it implied a strange kind of ethics: “The world is complex and unpredictable, so all we can do is act as morally as possible and hope for the best.”

    Those 2 points are really undermined by bigger problems, though:
    1) Low chaos is less than 20% kills. So killing 19% of guards is fine? That still sounds pretty murdery, and a really blunt metric.
    2) Some non-lethal solutions are as bad as the lethal ones. Also, in a world as corrupt as Dishonored’s, I’m not sure assassination would necessarily lead to instability? Basically I’m not sure the “lethal bad, non-lethal good” ethical standard actually maps onto ethical realities AT ALL.
    3) As you pointed out, this is all bolted on to a “what do YOU choose?” type playstyle choice, which kind of invalidates everything interesting about it. The only things I find interesting about this moral system are the things that separate it from Corvo, and place the ethical focus on the city or populace. Linking it to playstyle sounds cool, but really it just makes the moral system a pandering give-them-what-they want feature.

  14. The part of Dishonored that finally got me was at the end, when I discovered what a lousy role model I’d been for my daughter, turning her into a nasty and unforgiving Empress. Oddly, she seems to have gotten over this by D2, where she’s a beloved ruler, despite the fact that Corvo has been training her all her life to be a lethal stealth killer. I guess D2 assumes you somehow got through D1 without causing too much chaos.

    Possibly the only time I ever got through a D1 mission without massive carnage was the one where I got the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera ending instead, with the stalker carrying my assigned victim off into the music of the night, so maybe it was just as well.

  15. To add to that last message, the other moment near the end of Dishonored that felt real — and startling — was when Samuel, my trusty oarsman, fired off the warning shot to let the enemy know I was coming. Say what you will about the logic of the “chaos” level in the game, the reaction of actual (albeit computerized) human beings to the carnage I had produced seemed like a logical outcome of my failure to find a non-lethal route through my missions and one that hit me in the stomach like a gut punch. For me, that was when Dishonored, up to then a really good stealth and violence game, went from being good to being great. Having my missions made more difficult by killing too many people is one thing; having somebody I liked tell me to my face that he found me disgusting was another. Yeah, it was a programmed reaction, based on some algorithm that determined when my violence went past the tipping point between acceptable losses and mass murder, but it was a damned effective one.

    Then again, maybe I care too much about how cartoon characters feel about me. ;)

  16. I’ve been meaning to come back to these comments all week but I’ve been busy prepping for the RPS article.

    And today I spent most of my time responding to the RPS article :0

    So, tomorrow, perhaps.

  17. FINALLY

    Anon

    As a player, I do enjoy the strong feedback loop between what I do and what happens. But the “civic responsibility” could just be collapsed to “let’s not kill people” :) As for the 20% kill marker, I’d say if you’re going to program this kind a simple interpretation of how the world works, a line has to be drawn somewhere. The more complex and nuanced the feedback, the more likely players will find it baffling and need to consult a wiki for advice. That CAN work; you only have to look at the enormous wiki efforts for a game like Dark Souls to see. But does it work here? Answers must be submitted in less than 500 words. :)

    And I’ve always been uncomfortable that Corvo cannot really do any right. Even his stealthy actions are violent (knocking people out) and his alternatives to killing certain bosses are putting them through relentless horror. Low chaos isn’t clean in any sense.

    Personally, I think I would like a more butterfly effect story like you touch on, where there isn’t such a easily traceable link between your behaviour and the city.

    Like you say, feedback often feels like pandering to player agency, which ultimately transforms the fiery chaos of real life into a clockwork system on a computer.

    Chris

    As I’d written up on my Dishonored Quadrilogy, I ran with low chaos first – because I’m a stealth enthusiast – and went with a deliberately high chaos run afterwards. I was impressed with the many subtle variations that have no pertinent gameplay impact. By fighting evil with evil, basically means Emily will be no different to who took her place.

    I think we’re all comfortable with a collapse of multiple narratives to a one in the sequel, a la Deus Ex/Deus Ex 2, and it would have to make things a bit more blank slate for the player to draw a new moral narrative upon. Again, not played Dishonored 2, but I can imagine :)

    We’re now sailing close to the problem of knowing that multiple handwritten futures exist vs. a sense of player agency. People can fall in love with their original playthrough, but often the effects are diminished when they look back in hindsight. If you can preserve that feeling of being invested, pickle it in a jar maybe, then I am envious!

  18. Believe me, I’ve been working on that suspension of disbelief for decades. Oddly, I have trouble feeling it in fiction any more, which is why I have trouble finishing the novels that I start reading, but with Dishonored it snuck up on me and maybe because of its very unexpectedness it hit me particularly hard. I started it as a game and realized, belatedly, that I’d become emotionally invested, pickled in a jar though my investment may have been. That sort of emotional investment in games is rare, something I wrote about in my year-end blog, and something I don’t often feel in games, other than the gut-level emotion of a thrill ride.

    To be honest, I didn’t even cry when Floyd the Robot died, because it was such an obvious set-up. (The little bastard refused to enter any other rooms except the one where he was going to die. Why? Because he wasn’t going to die in any of them!) Also, because a major game magazine gave it away on its cover.

    I’m impressed that you could make it through with low chaos. I’m such a lousy stealth player that I can barely make it through a room without killing 70 percent of the occupants. In games, I mean! In real life, I rarely kill more than 20 percent and am often content with spilling beer down their collars.

  19. Interesting that you find it difficult to maintain in fiction. In average fiction I do tend to feel that problem, seeing where the writer has badly covered their tracks, and the construction is all too obvious. I didn’t cry for Floyd but I did find it unexpected.

    I’m a Thief veteran over here, and if you want to see everything Thief has to offer you have to play without killing anyone. My wife is the same. No high chaos for her. But Dishonored did not quite replicate the highs of the original Thief & Thief II for her either.

  20. I loved Thief when it came out and made an honest effort to kill no one, in part because doing so always resulted in a rain of guards pummeling me to death, but I never finished it. To this day, I mean to go back and finish Thief and I’ve made several recent starts, but too many newer games beckon.

    I love novels where I get so caught up in the story that I believe the characters are real, but this is rare, becoming rarer all the time. I completely lost the ability to suspend disbelief when I began writing fiction in my 20s; the mechanics were way too obvious. But the suspension of disbelief gradually came back. Then again, my taste in authors also improved. Lately, though, I can’t find anything much that appeals to me, except for Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance trilogy, a gripping and oddly moving science fiction series disguised as noir suspense thrillers.

    I do tend to regard games as a form of fiction and wish that more offered characters that I both believe in and care about. For me, Dishonored worked on that level (and Thief might have too, had I finished it). So did Firewatch, though it bordered on walking simulator, but a walking simulator elevated by good voice acting and evocative graphics. But Firewatch had themes that reached me on a personal level.

  21. Chris,

    I’m not sure I can give you advice in Thief. I guess you just gotta have that gene. Such beautiful moments in those games, the sense of absolute fear in The Haunted Cathedral and the density of the level design in Life of the Party. Although Thief has a terrible anti-climactic level, Thief 2’s involving and tricky finale makes up for it.

    And there’s something else I need to tell you. You might see “Steerpike” in the comments here from time to time. That’s Matt Sakey, Marcus Sakey’s better looking brother. I’m not joking. He is better looking.

  22. Now that has to be one of the most neuron-melting coincidences I’ve experienced in recent memory. I mention Marcus Sakey’s trilogy and it turns out I’ve been reading his brother’s messages on the same site? (And, yes,I recognize the name Steerpike.) I can only thank the epistemologically unnecessary powers of the universe that I said something GOOD about his brother’s books — unless there’s some sort of weird sibling rivalry going on here and I should have said something bad. (And the Brilliance books really are wonderful. If Steerpike is a writer and has accomplished anything half as good, I hope he tells me what it is.)

    At the time I first played it in 1999(?), I was stunned by the levels in Thief, some of the best I’d seen up to that point, right down to tiny little details like the patterns on the carpet. (I swear, that game had the most beautiful carpets I’ve ever seen in a computer game. Inevitably, I’d get impatient and make a move before a guard was entirely out of hearing range — and never finished the game. But I was riveted while I was playing. And I remember the Haunted Cathedral level, though hadn’t until you mentioned it.

    I really need to tear myself away from the latest Hitman and go finish Thief, given that it was the progenitor of the entire genre…

  23. My favourite things that Steerpike has written are Alone for All Seasons on STALKER and his self-deprecating
    Dark Souls Diaries.

  24. Fixed those links (they had curly quotes around them).

  25. “And there’s something else I need to tell you. You might see “Steerpike” in the comments here from time to time. That’s Matt Sakey, Marcus Sakey’s better looking brother. I’m not joking. He is better looking.”

    Ah! I’m so glad you raised this because I totally forgot to mention it, Joel.

    Chris, I did wonder whether you somehow knew Steerpike was Marcus’ brother when you commented on the Brilliance trilogy! Coincimental.

  26. I should read his Dark Souls diaries. I doubt I’ll ever get round to playing it again.

    Here‘s one of my favourites of Steerpike’s. It’s short and silly but perfectly illustrates how naturally funny he is.

  27. The title is genius, Gregg.

  28. For the record, I would not stab a puppy, no matter how cool it might be, but my mention of Marcus Sakey was purely coincidental. His Brilliance Trilogy was literally (literarily?) the only thing I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading in the last year that was longer than a blog post. The other books I read out of my sheer persnickety refusal to finish a novel after I’ve started it (The Girl on the Train was meh, though Stephen King’s Revival had some good moments), but Sakey’s one hell of a writer. I’ll have to read Steerpike’s articles in more detail, on the assumption that his brother’s talent runs in the family. Steerpike, if you’re reading this, go write a novel of your own (assuming you haven’t already). I suspect I’ll like it.

    And if the Dark Souls Diaries can convince me that the punishing difficulty curve of those games is worth the effort of pushing on, I’ll give them another try. (Now, if Brandon Sanderson has a sibling on this site, could they convince me to finish reading The Mistborn Trilogy?)


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