Electron Dance
5Feb/13Off

Fish Out of Water

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—

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—spent the last couple of years submerged in indie fare, this flip to AAA comes as a bit of a—

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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.

dishonored-hound-pits

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.

Groundhog day

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.

dishonored-fd

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.

dishonored-tower

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?

Next: Thief vs Dishonored

 

dishonored-pendleton

Notes

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.

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Posted by HM

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Comments (17) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I’ve been a little harsh on the Heart on purpose – it didn’t annoy me anywhere as much as my words above suggest – but I do think it’s a backward step in game narrative. Trick rather than lighting the way forward.

  2. God the intro to this piece is beautiful.

    Also this: “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.” YES! No wonder Dan Pinchbeck designed Dear Esther after playing all those shooters.

    Dishonored is one of the only triple-A games I’ve played all the way through recently, mostly because I was home for the holidays and it was there. Don’t remember one tenth of what happened in the game. Never read any of the lore. Never used the heart for narrative exposition because I thought it was silly. Tanked through it. Killed everyone. Probably, almost certainly, played this game wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself. Too much fluff, and as you eloquently put it here, too much goddamn direction.

    Why are intros in big budget games so bad? Talk about a waste of a couple of hours. You argue here that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, and I spose that must be true. Resident Evil 6 on console is a co-op game that doesn’t make co-op available until you’ve played through the first level. Just doesn’t make any sense at all. Whose job is it to think about this shit?!

    The way this piece was moving, I didn’t expect you to sing this game’s praises towards the end. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  3. Definitely looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the rest of the game. I haven’t got to Dishonored yet (damn that game for coming out at the same time as XCOM) but Thief is one of my favorites.

    You’re right on about graffiti and audio logs (or Heart logs, or whatever they go by here) – I think they can be used well, though, but usually aren’t. The written messages in a game that does use it well like Left 4 Dead are interesting because you can imagine the people who wrote it. Holed up in safe rooms for days on end, using the wall like a post-internet bulletin board system trading jokes and insults and conspiracy theories – it never breaks character.

    The difference between Clara Fernandez-Vara’s “indexical storytelling” and the designer lazily sending you what amount to in-game tweets seems to be a pretty fine line. It’s all different degrees of skill and subtlety.

  4. The introductory passage is splendid. I really wish I had thought of that. ;)

    I’ve not played Dishonored – so many other games! – but I have seen AJ play through the early segments and have seen elements of what you describe.

    Two years ago, AR was going to host a series of posts on the idea of “emergent narrative”, which included – yes! – graffiti as storytelling as exhibited in Left4dead. It never happened and it is amusing to see that the technique is now branded as a lazy device. I’m not sure I agree but it can be heavy-handed and clumsy. I’m not sure how to feel about Spec Ops: The Line in this respect; it’s tonally a great fit but I’ve not convinced myself that it is an effective contribution towards the setting and its populace. But then- okay, too much tangent.

  5. I don’t play a ton of AAA (but more than you so there) so it’s interesting to read someone’s take on it that doesn’t play much AAA.

    Your comments on turning off the indicators got me thinking about Deus Ex–I’ve been replaying it (first time in over 10 years!) and I’m amazed at how much more… interesting… the world feels when you’re not yelled at by the game all the time.

    Also how terrible it is to not have a crouch that toggles.

    I still think the Hong Kong maps are terrible.

  6. @Alex

    Long time no see, glad to hear from you again. Thanks for enjoying this. I’ll spend the next two pieces singing some of the game’s praises and the last part is likely to circle back to shed light on A Slave Obeys from last year and also your lack of engagement. No promises, though, the ideas are still influx, possibly another dump on Dishonored.

    I know some people hate lore – if they wanted to read a book, they’d read a book – and also cut scenes. Badger Commander/AJ makes a point of skipping them in every game he can.

    I think the weirdest thing about these handholding openings is how distancing they become. Once the developers get out the way – thinking you’ve learnt everything – games normally settled into a well-oiled machine mode.

    @Switchbreak

    I tried to limit spoilers on this piece although that probably won’t be so easy on later pieces (parts three and four, it is out of the question).

    Indexical storytelling, as Fernández Vara warns, should be far less about “extradiegetic” messaging from developer to player and more about narrative-based gameplay. I don’t mind the little posters that get stuck all round the city (which are environmental storytelling not indexical) but I don’t even think the graffiti here counts as indexical; they aren’t really informing gameplay.

    The truth is I think AAA developers are scared to go down the indexical route because it relies on players interpreting story to decide how to play. Look at the The Last Symphony which was GAMBIT’s demonstration of indexical storytelling; it requires far more of the player to figure out what do. Once the developer starts putting in handholds to cover for that, the handholds become the mechanic and the indexical is recast as merely environmental.

    @ShaunCG

    Graffiti can be used wisely – I think L4D probably did this okay – but it’s like one of those go-to tools when writers need to find a way to impart information. It can come off a little too much like expositional dialogue although it’s much worse when it’s used as an alternative to augmented reality or buzzy HUD which ruins immersion: “press X to open doors” written on the wall… by who???

    I’ve been complaining about graffiti as far back as December 2010: “I often wonder, though, if graffiti is the new exposition. I recall “Remember Citadel” scrawled in blood on the walls of System Shock 2…”

    @Eric

    It’s interesting how last week’s piece has unexpectedly dovetailed into this week’s. Also, I can’t see how your appreciation of the maps would improve over time!

    I’m not the only person who has discussed disabling the indicators (RPS brought it up at one point) but I think they are one of the two primary causes of players blowing through the entire campaign in under ten hours.

  7. @HM I didn’t disable the indicators in my playthrough of Dishonored, but I’m weird–I sort of use them as a benchmark. “Okay, the goal is over there, let me go this other way and poke around.”

  8. A great start to the quadrilogy!

    I think graffiti is such an irritant because it’s usually so badly used. Who would write “blood from the eyes” on a wall? How is that useful, or pithy, or anything? This is also why L4D’s graffiti worked. “No help here, moving on to 34th Precinct” is actually the sort of thing you might find on a wall. And Dishonored certainly falls victim to the other common and easily solved problem associated with graffiti-like mechanisms… copy/paste. I don’t need five copies of “blood from the eyes” in every mission, that’s for sure.

    Same goes for the Heart, which I found to be a rather chilling and clever idea, hearing the secret thoughts of random people, until I started hearing them again. Exactly how many people in Dunwall will kill twice more before taking their own lives, unless of course they die tonight?

    Maybe this is why I often felt guilty playing Dishonored, as I mentioned in some other comment – felt like I was missing things. It pummels you. “Choose!” it says. “Choose! You can CHOOSE!!!” so I choose and it keeps telling me that, like I haven’t chosen enough. Still, great game.

  9. I understand you enjoyed Dishonored quite a bit, as I did. And since I also wrote an article that was considered mildly critical of the game, I won’t say too much about your distaste for the Heart and the guided nature of the environment.

    I will just drop this on you: compared to a lot of the other mainstream titles — even so called “open world” ones — Dishonored does some of the least hand-holding/guiding I’ve seen in a while. I mean, I’m sure you know this and maybe just expected more from Dishonored. But I bought Dishonored on a whim (Steam sale) and didn’t expect as much freedom as I got.

    I’m also one of the people who believes the Heart “tricks” less curious players into exploration. I wanted to get through Dishonored quickly on my first play through and go through and find everything on a second play through, but once I whipped out the Heart and I was drawn to those easy-to-see icons for Runes and Bone Charms. But the environment seldom lets you move in a straight line, unimpeded. I had to take the scenic route in most cases, got thrown off course, or just got distracted and curious along the way. This I did MORE exploring because of the icons than I would have without them.

  10. @Jordan: agreed, I felt many mechanisms in Dishonored encouraged exploration beyond what players might have otherwise done. At first I thought the icons for runes and bone charms were too much, damaging immersion, but ultimately I saw them as you did: subtle pushes to explore.

    It would be fun to take a random sampling of ten current games – some mainstream/AAA and some indie – and sort of tote up how much handholding each does. How many tutorial messages, how deep into the game they continue (Final Fantasy XIII was still introducing and tutorializing new play mechanics at 60 hours), how stupid they act like the players are, etc. On the whole I don’t think players mind hand-holding, they mind when it’s unsubtle or badly done.

  11. For an indie data point, NightSky by Nifflas has tutorial text in the next-to-last main world (not counting the bonus world or credits). But it’s not obtrusive or hand-holding; it’s just a line at the bottom of the screen pointing out that one of the controls works in a nonstandard way on that level, but not telling you how it works; it’s easy enough to figure that out. And NightSky on normal difficulty isn’t supposed to be hard, so that helps.

  12. @Jordan

    Just to be clear, I am not reviewing Dishonored and neither was I trying to deliberately find a flaw in a much-loved game (that will come later!). I am taking one of our better AAA outings, and showing how far even this title bends to make sure players don’t screw up. (And despite all that bending, there are still guidance missteps.) These aren’t really criticisms of Dishonored, but of what passes for polish in AAA games. There are certainly lots of indie and free titles which have annoying popups and guides as well – and I’d rather not high-five these elements of AAA efforts as examples for others to follow.

    As was confirmed in the RPS interview, part of the purpose of the Heart was to lead players around and promote exploration. It’s clever. But I am uncomfortable calling this exploration; players are being led around by just another objective arrow, albeit one which glows red in the distance. It seems like they are just relabelled optional sidequests. This is more “Into The Black” territory at this point; I think last week’s post states my position more clearly.

    To be honest, this demarcation between “exploration” and “real exploration” is an aspect of a larger issue about what constitutes play for various players. These fetch quests grab a lot of us – and I find them addicting too. But it’s more about what joy we might be missing, the feeling the world is always bigger than you, something that cannot be exhausted and whose walls run away from you. Instead, we devour it end to end and know that when we have all the runes, the place is dead and it is time to move on.

    Also: I wasn’t disappointed with the freedom I got from Dishonored and explored EVERYTHING I COULD. I’m going to get into this next week.

    @Steerpike

    I must admit I kept forgetting to use the heart on people. Mrs. HM too. To have to keep grinding away at people with the Heart, to learn more about them until it started repeating the same messages…

    I intend to put a few more AAA games through their paces this year. I’ll let you know what I find in terms of handholding =)

    @Matt

    Yeah, I think we have plenty of indie examples which don’t err on the side of caution and seem to get the balance right. Saying that, those indie games don’t often shift the number of units that Dishonored did…

  13. (Sunday Papers goblin pouring in)

    “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?”

    You are 100% right regarding the value of time – time is extremely precious and is the #1 value (over money and quality). Companies found out “quality” is too subjective and can easily be compensated with social value through marketing, while “money” is better earned over time rather than with a one-price-barrier.

    Only “gamers”, who will dedicate most (if not all) of their free time to gaming will accept to “waste” (= pay) time to get something more.

    They’ll waste time learning to install and patch games, learning the games’ rules through trial and error, immersing themself in a game’s environment.

    They’re the people who will die in a roguelike and enjoy it, learn the Dwarf Fortress characters, wander in STALKER for hours, make the long treks on the hills in ArmA II, play slow-paced tactical games where the action takes less than 10% of the time played.

    If you can’t (or do not want to) spend 30 minutes (or even an hour) before getting something to kill/destroy, the AAA games will offer you a solution: pay 10 minutes (or 10 seconds) in time, get rewarded with a kill.
    On the other hand, if you’re willing to pay 1+ hours before getting a kill (kill being a metaphor for a “clear” reward here)(or even not getting any kill at all, just the though of maybe getting a kill), the value of that kill (and the rest of the experience) will be much more satisfying.

    The main trick of the AAA industry is making people believe they can get the same reward (a kill) you get if you spend 1 hour in the game, with a single easy 1 minute payment. More “bangs” for your “time-bucks”.

    Getting your daily 2000-2500 kcal of energy, with a fourth of the time-price. Fast food, fast gaming. The corridor level design curse is the drive-through of gaming.

    The following analogy must dates back to the 80s, but still -> the gaming experience, which is mostly about entertainment and rewarding, seems to follow a pattern similar to sex (and relationships, to some extent): everyone has a different approach/experience/feeling, but the industry is selling an uniformed user-friendly experience through marketing, while the focus (and the criteria for satisfaction) is put on a “final stage” superficial result (and not the journey leading to it) and technical-physical features. ‘Bigger polygon count is better’, they say.

    Most people want to satisfy their immediate needs first and foremost (and not explore their desires, needs, themselves), nor share that experience with someone else (the other only being there to serve them, to provide that necessary element to act on).

    Oh, and the “awesome” button. Seriously. It hits the spot.

    Meanwhile, dedicated gamers spend their time trying to find the right game, or at least the game that will “fit”, that will understand their needs, but of course it (almost) never happen. There’s always a few awkward elements here and there: here in Dishonored, it’s the HUD/objective arrows for some people. There’s also the nostalgia and the “what if they made a sequel to it”. DNF being the ex who turned into a pathetic, alcoholic, unsecure empty shell you don’t recognize at all.

    The game has to be subtle, but still convey the message to not be confusing. The pace of the game has to follow your gaming pace. The game has to provide the proper amount (and type) of environment & gameplay introduction/exploration, before jumping into action.

    Dear Esther is a form of tantrism, while CoD is well, 80s californian porn.

  14. I have some slightly different takes on a few of these points (which I really didn’t disagree with all that much).

    1. I’m finding it a little tough to wedge Dishonored fully into the “AAA” box, with all its connotations. Arkane, despite now being part of the ZeniMax Family, started off as an homage company — they really liked the Looking Glass style of games, and wanted more of them, and were bloody well going to make them. Arx Fatalis never struck me as AAA. Dark Messiah of Might & Magic came closer, but even then had too much personality (IMO) to be dismissed as a smoothed-down mass-market product.

    Dishonored probably does come the closest of Arkane’s games to AAA. But although you can see all the hand-holding, to me it felt surface-only. The terrible, burning need of Marketing execs to sand down every rough edge, every microsecond’s worth of content that might puzzle or confuse some mythical mass-market target demo, never reached the guts of Dishonored. It remained weird, and so held on to a little of the spirit of Looking Glass.

    2. Graffiti: This is, I think, another Looking Glass riff. System Shock 2 did have blood-graffiti… but that is perhaps in part because the original System Shock had blood-graffiti, and right outside the starting Medical area, too. (For that matter, the original Looking Glass game, Ultima Underworld, had graffiti. Down in the bottom level, on a corner wall, was the inscription, “Thou canst not defeat the Drakhri!” And sure enough, cats similar to the Kilrathi of Origin’s Wing Commander — worked on by some Looking Glass staff — were part of the Ultima Underworld lore, and were suggested in Ultima Underworld 2 as being the extreme descendants of the Kilrathi… but I digress.)

    Features added to world-y games can’t be just a simple copy-and-paste, excused by calling it a “riff” or homage, however. It has to be done in a way that makes sense for the game you’re making. I’m not sure there was enough variation in the graffiti of Dishonored to justify it as often as it was used. But the idea’s not a complete dud.

    And speaking of variation….

    3. The Heart: I didn’t hate the Heart, or feel it was too game-y or manipulative or an analog of WoW-like hand-holding. One of the best aspects of Dishonored was the effort that went into make Dunwall and its environs feel like a world. Feeling like a world means (among other things) lore. And lore needs to be expressed somehow.

    In an Elder Scrolls game, it shows up prominently in books. Dishonored has a few of those, and some audio recordings (another nod to Looking Glass games following System Shock), but not many. Enter the Heart.

    I actually thought the Heart provided a valuable improvement on the old “let them read books” method of dumping lore. Most books are basically “flavor” exposition. Some books also give you information about developer-generated quests. But they aren’t dynamic — they don’t help you interact with the world or its meaning in real-time.

    The Heart is, and does. To be able to get world-lore about places and people while you’re right there with them is an extraordinarily powerful storytelling tool, which I would argue has been largely lost since the days of adventure games and their “examine” verb. The Heart, as a mechanic, brought back some of that ability to interact with the world in a deeper way than left-click-to-murder.

    Certainly the implementation could have been better. I too was unpleasantly surprised when I got the same audio asset triggered (and that’s exactly how I reacted the first time it happened) for a completely different NPC. You cannot do that and maintain immersion — the very people who care about the inner stories of NPCs are the ones who will instantly notice repetition! I’m not going to beat up on Arkane about it because I don’t know why it happened — time and money are always finite, for example. But from a pure game development standpoint, not having unique Heart comments for unique people and places was a serious disappointment.

    That said, the idea of dynamic lore presentation has to be considered apart from the implementation in Dishonored. And the idea seems, to me, useful in the extreme. Optional context-sensitive knowledge about the world (for cementing the feel of logical consistency) and about people (for making emotional connections for gamers who care about story)? Yes, please! I look forward to listening to Heart 2.0.

    Again, none of these comments are meant to object to the overall description of the AAA mindset as living in fear of the unscripted moment. On that point, I agree completely.

  15. @CowClicker

    Welcome, goblin. Nice long comment!

    This is the money shot for me: “The main trick of the AAA industry is making people believe they can get the same reward (a kill) you get if you spend 1 hour in the game, with a single easy 1 minute payment.”

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. And it is set against a background of rapid content churn, rapid engagement and rapid life, and cheap product. Squandering time on contemplation or slowing down is considered waste. Just because modern society has chosen this 24/7/fast lifestyle, it doesn’t mean we should go without a balanced diet involving slow, contemplative gameplay. (To shamelessly steal your fast food analogy.)

    I’m stuck between casual guy and hardcore guy right now. (This isn’t a sex sandwich metaphor.) I only have the time to engage casually but I still fall in love with deeper, time-devouring experiences like Dishonored.

    @Bart

    Hi again – these are interesting points and I don’t really feel the need to rebut them, but I’ll tack on some thoughts regardless.

    Is Dishonored AAA? There’s definitely something to be said about Arkane being indie at heart and I was a massive lover of Arx Fatalis for all its faults. You might be right in saying the AAA might be surface-only in terms of design, but I’d say the point still stands: once the project budget and retail product price goes up, no one is going to leave the enjoyment of the game up to the players.

    Graffiti: Initially I had a little comment in the article about the graffiti of System Shock 2. At the time environmental narrative was sort of fresh and I don’t think we were so critical of such elements, because they were experimental. But if I was retro reviewing, I’d charge that I couldn’t see why people who be drawing REMEMBER CITADEL on walls in blood, whether infected or dying, other than as designer communicating a future reveal to the player.

    I agree that graffiti still has world-building value, and I had no problems with all the fly posters that covered many of the levels – but I think it’s often badly used.

    The Heart: As I commented immediately after I posted the article, I didn’t hate the Heart as much as the piece suggests. In fact, it reminded me of the “scrying” ability in Clive Barker’s Undying which provided alternate “visions” of the current surroundings. Scry-able areas were also strongly signalled so it was a trick really, one which had no gameplay impact and wasn’t even about player discovery. Yet it was a cute little invention which added something to that game. Again, as you say, it’s just lore really. World-building.

    I’d put the Heart in that same box, because I don’t really see “click person to learn more” as an idea which has legs. It could certainly pop up again but I think its usefulness is finite. I have a few thoughts on how it could be improved, although I think it would be a dreadfully dull post if I actually wrote about that. I’d be happy to be proved wrong but I only see this device being applicable in a few niche games where superpowers are part of the game’s tapestry to explain it away. And it more ashamedly expositional than written lore is, which does a much better of job of fitting into the world, whatever world that is. (Audio logs have more problems in that regard.)

    Also, you made me think this: do we need dynamic world-lore in this way? Do NPCs have to offer up their lives for our entertainment? I know! It’s a weird question. But we don’t need to see inside people’s heads in real life to get a sense of our world. Sorry, that’s an unfinished thought.

  16. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    On the Heart, I guess the short reason why I find it exciting from a game design perspective is that I don’t see another tool that aids world-immersion as effectively. The Heart, as a version of the old “examine” command, does for world-immersion what simple visual observation can’t, which is to give the player insight into the internal nature of an object. That helps give the invented world a feeling of depth.

    If an NPC is carrying a pick, I can guess he’s a miner. That external element does tell me something about the gameworld. But it doesn’t tell me as much as dialog with that NPC or an examination of his nature as a person living in that world. An in-game mechanic for accessing internal knowledge of a created world has unique value for helping that world feel plausible.

    I’ll be the first to say that not every game requires depth or a mechanic for exposing it. (Though it might be a funny-once to access the inner life of a Tetris block as it falls.) But some games — games with people and stories set in interesting places — can, I believe, benefit from systems that add depth of meaning to breadth of content.

    The Heart’s just one way. Ubisoft’s upcoming Watch Dogs, for example, makes “examine” a more active gameplay feature, letting you tap into the data communications of people as you pass them on the street. The Heart 2.0 could do something similar.

    Again, not every game will need a mechanic for showing the depth of a world. But for games that are meant to feel worldy, I believe dynamic lore can be a very powerful tool.

    Thanks for letting me expound. :) The design ideas you’re exploring here are inspiring ones.

  17. @Bart

    I’m always a little reluctant to become an armchair designer – I am wary when reviewers/critics segue into “this is how the game should have worked” because you never really know until the mechanics are implemented and being tested out. I try to restrict myself to “what this did to me” but sometimes there are some exciting thought experiments to be done out in there in wild what-if territory.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong in a couple of years and find the Heart prototype turns out to be an exciting innovation. My personal feeling is that it runs counter to the show-not-tell business of things, at least the way Dishonored spins it. Eavesdropping on thoughts/conversations is a far better implementation.

    Hey, expounding is all we do around here. There are some truly vast essays in the comment archives!