This is the first part of the Dishonored quadrilogy.
And lo, it came to pass that shortly after its release, I played Arkane Studios' Dishonored. For someone who has—
—spent the last couple of years submerged in indie fare, this flip to AAA comes as a bit of a—
FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Will you shut your goddamn tutorial cakehole?!?
The ludoepileptic seizure
“Where has the Lord Protector gone?”
“He is playing games with the girl.”
“What madness is this? Does he not consider the plague, perhaps, a more pressing matter?”
-- A conversation not heard in Dishonored
I expect some corner cutting in the world of indie. I expect some risks to be taken, maybe I even demand it. I’ve lived amongst the wares of indie for years now and have become used to games asking a little more from me, putting aside the more casual fare for the moment.
The mainstream is all about the super-polish. Games polished to the point where you can barely see the mechanics any more. For all the misguided fear that art games are going to take over the world, some shooters are more like Dear Esther than Dear Esther is. Cut scenes bridge the player between events, complex actions are reduced to a single click and there is no such thing as "player error", only bad design.
Dishonored starts off with a gentle boat ride and it seems Half-Life's tram sequence still lingers in mainstream memory. Soon after you’re accosted by young Emily who is the most powerful character in the game: she steals your agency and throws you into a cut scene. She asks if I wanted to play a tutorial – I mean a game of hide and seek – when you’re supposed to reporting the grave news that you have found no antidote to the gruesome Dunwall plague to her mum.
After this unwanted diversion, we dive into something I can only describe as a ludoepileptic seizure. I'm suckered into another cut scene by the Empress herself and then the game rapidly switches between cut scene, tutorial wall of text and fight to the death with bewildering speed. Look this way! Do that! Now look at that! No, not that!
Incredibly, the opening of Dishonored made me feel unwelcome and is, without doubt, the worst section of the entire game. I've missed you, Mr. Mainstream.
I survived the cut scenes and make it to the first proper mission where the game offers up my first task – to get through a hall with three guards who back each other up. Sometimes there's a fourth who watches from a balcony.
The problem is the hide and seek tutorial was years ago in game time and I couldn't recall if there were any special techniques I should be aware of. Having now finished Dishonored, I can slip through this section in no time at all, but the first time had me stuck for twenty minutes. Admittedly, I had pushed the difficulty up a notch because I’m a Thief veteran, but I was shocked at how frustrating this was. Three guards for my very first stealth trial? I pondered if the level design was intended to force me into killing people.
If I had surrendered to killing these guards, it is possible I would have given up on the game. If all you have is a knife, then everything you see is a throat to slit.
All those friendly tutorial walls of text were hopeless. If the game had really wanted to help me, it would have reduced the difficulty of this first encounter – or given me strict instructions where and when to go for the non-lethal route.
Augment this shit
Be careful what you wish for, especially when broadcasting your words in a public medium. I remember when I played GTA III's augmented reality, I was astonished at how player-friendly the game was, its violent underworld turned into a child's toy with bouncy arrows to guide you and glowy discs for mission checkpoints. Hey, I liked it. Except a decade later, it is now standard practice for Mr. Mainstream.
It seems the lowest common denominator design keeps getting lower. Some people cannot find objectives, so Dishonored dangles arrows in front of the player, just in case. I had to turn those off immediately because if there's one thing that can kill the delicate, curious wanderings of an explorer-player, it is a bunch of arrows telling me where to go. Off, please. Off.
The game had the last laugh, of course, because I am fairly sure that Dishonored was not extensively tested with the HUD objective markers disabled. Like that “put this unconscious body in a safe place” on-the-fly objective, which is virtually impossible to figure out minus markers. Or that crucial “disable the searchlights on Kaldwin's Bridge” task – good luck in working out what that means without the HUD inscribing arrows into your eyes.
But you know, the indie player in me does not care. Those are incidents I am willing to put up with. I've put up with worse – and you know how much I love wandering aimlessly, right?
Watch out, though, just when you think you've ducked the objective markers the NEW MISSION CLUE ADDED will be flopping all over your HUD. Every time a “clue” is added to your journal you get a nice little reminder. Sometimes you didn’t even realise you had discovered something – thereby making sure you are fully aware an Important Fact was imparted.
I got MISSION CLUED when I brushed a blackboard in Dr. Galvani’s house. I'd have rather not known because this is basically slating the rest of the game's content, branding it as mere padding. Oh it's just lore. Click on a book and click straight out – I'm sure if there's something of importance I'll be mission clued. Who needs to read anything?
Shout not tell
On the subject of reading, that old stalwart of environment narrative is in evidence. Graffiti. Why people started scrawling “blood from the eyes” everywhere I don't know, although someone is bound to point out this goes back to 1349 when the Black Death gripped Europe. (Graffiti in games, obviously, is so old it started a century earlier than that even.)
Designers, please stop doing this. It shows the hand of the developer in the game in a bad way, almost as badly as a noisy HUD full of bleeping indicators and notes. Or the Heart, for that matter.
I didn't figure out exactly why the Heart bothered me until Rock Paper Shotgun told me why it was so cool. Paul Walker interviewed the game's creative directors, Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio about the Heart:
“Indeed, without the Heart, you would be left with little more than a series of signifiers — this area is dilapidated so these people are poor, this person is well dressed so they are rich, and so on. The Heart adds a touch of nuance by providing an emotional and personal context to these signifiers with the little secrets it draws out from Dishonored’s characters. It does so with degree of subtlety which would be lost were it necessary for NPCs to blurt out their most personal thoughts to someone they barely know.”
See, it's the augmented reality problem again, a bouncy arrow over character histories. The world itself cannot tell you individual stories, so the developers dump a game magick on you that can expose notes like the now-dreaded omniscient voice in writing. Unlike cut scenes, the gimmick cannot be reused without showing itself up as the weak storyteller it is.
Some have a theory about who The Heart is and their theory is wrong: the Heart is the developer whispering information to you on demand. It’s a hypertext device, a giant mouse pointer that answers the prompt CLICK PERSON TO LEARN MORE.
Any day now we’re going to come full circle and declare choose-your-own-adventure is cutting edge game design. Wait--
A fish out of water
This is all academic, though, because I absolutely adored Dishonored and poured tens of hours into the game. If you are a Thief fan then you need to play this game. I will explain my love for Dishonored in the weeks to come.
But what I found interesting is that my time in indie made this mainstream “polish” feel like grit. Even going back to Dead Space, augmented reality did not bug me as much although I was starting to wonder whether I should need so much direction in a game that was ostensibly a linear experience.
Testers reveal design problems all the time, where players get lost and need to be prodded in the right direction. Look at my own problems with the three guards at the start of the first mission. Dishonored is certainly not the only game to overdo the player props – take a gander at Far Cry 3 for a worse example – but I am anxious about what this means.
Even in a world where Dark Souls is successful and Cart Life can find an audience, player time is precious. Mainstream games command a high price – could they ever take risks with letting players waste time, get lost... and possibly giving up?
Robert Yang has thrown up some notes along the same lines. He went into great detail about how Dishonored fails with the hide-and-seek tutorial game: “I also thought I was being funny and creative, as a player, by being a petty jerk to this little girl, leaving her to search fruitlessly for me while I went home to snack on some pizza rolls. But what happens when you run away from the girl?”
He also commented that the Heart was “way too transparent” as a narrative device.