Electron Dance
5Mar/13Off

La Peste

This is the third article in the Dishonored quadrilogy. The previous entries were Fish Out of Water and Across the Rooftops.

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“To some the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment. And while a good many people adapted themselves to confinement and carried on their humdrum lives as before, there were others who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.”

--The Plague, Albert Camus

This post is either full of spoilers or full of spiders. In either case, proceed with caution.   

Dishonored evokes London during the Industrial Revolution. It takes place entirely in Dunwall, the capital of Gristol, one of four islands that make up the “Empire of the Isles”. The player dons the shoes of Corvo Attano, the Empress’ personal bodyguard who dies in his arms just a few tutorial screens into the game. In a game imitating Great Britain, it is jarring to hear so many American voices. I can only imagine a sequel in which faraway colonies declare their independence and spontaneously develop British accents.

So the Empress is killed, her daughter Emily abducted and Attano is framed for her assassination. Hold on, I don’t think there’s a single reference to Emily’s father in any written note or overheard conversation until the very end of the game. A mundane explanation is that the Empress was a widow but I didn’t see any mentions of that either, so does that mean the Empress got away with giving birth to a bastard?

After Attano breaks out of jail with help from a secret admirer, Dishonored wastes no time in moving plot forward. The founders of the secret admirer club are revealed as soon as Attano is free – an admiral and an aristocrat – and the first mission they send the player on is to kill one of the two bounders who set Attano up. This was refreshing. No intermission quests like "find the backdoor key to the place with the map that leads to the secret entrance to the bad guy's hideout". And even then you discover the princess is in another castle. Not Dishonored – go kill bad guy!

But this first mission... holy shit. Although broken into several different zones, which I assume is down to accommodating console limitations, the environment is a beautiful sprawl full of nonlinear, optional goodness. This isn't your ordinary white loaf but fucking wholemeal with seeds. Going into Dr. Galvani's house and the Dunwall Whiskey Distillery can be skipped and the player has no need to drop in on Granny Rags either. You don't need to save Grif from the Bottle Street Gang. You don't need to go through the kennels to enter the Office of the High Overseer. I spent around five hours on this mission. Five wholemeal hours.

Still, the little victories of exploration were completely wiped out by discovering how generous Arkane had been with the solutions. For example, where is the code for the Overseer bunkhouse safe in the backyard? Well, it’s hidden under a bed. And written down in the kitchen. And if you save two people from murder, they will tell you the code as well. I really want to see more Richard Hofmeier in mainstream: perhaps there are things in the game that few will find, moments that are precious that make your play unique and special. Instead of worrying about crafted content going to waste, we should worry about how cheap that crafting feels when the game draws so much attention to it. Still, there are a few nice moments in Dishonored like the mysterious location of the workshop chest key which is buried in the environment.

And then Attano embarks on the second mission which is another no-nonsense progression of plot: let's go save Emily. However all that excitement of learning the mechanics and exploration loses its lustre because The Golden Cat is a retread of the first mission. It's the same level as before with has been expanded in places and cut back in others. I slowly lost the will the play because, mechanically, there wasn't that much new to do and I worried whether Dishonored had come to an untimely end.

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Let me take you aside for a moment. I want to say something about immersion pratfalls. For the love of God, game designers, please do not set a level in a brothel. No one ever has any sex in these virtual brothels. I know. I have explored The Golden Cat. No one was having sex. Some people stood around, but a lot of people were just sleepy. Sure I heard someone having sex but that's just an ambient soundtrack on a loop. Why bother setting it in the "edgy" location of a brothel when you won't follow through in a mainstream game? It's like those silly nightclub maps in FPS games which are nothing like nightclubs because there's only about six people in them. I've been to a nightclub, you know, and it's usually heaving with sweaty bodies. Not only that, but it’s always a struggle moving around a nightclub which is the opposite of the freedom that FPS designers want to offer players.

Okay, back to the Cat.

After Attano rescues Emily, the breakneck pace of the main narrative collapses. Suddenly the player is after a man who painted someone who is funding the regent. Samuel took me to the foot of Kaldwin's Bridge and I looked up at its dark, hulking silhouette. After I stopped playing that evening, I didn't return to the game for two weeks.

That was a shame because once I started tackling Kaldwin's Bridge, I found myself once again consumed by Dishonored. The bridge was full of open areas which made stealth more tricky and the bridge itself went on... and on... and on. While the level design was far more linear than the sprawl of the Distillery District, I found the challenge of the new environment energising.

Once I'd abducted the target, Anton Sokolov, a polymath who shared the morals of Josef Mengele, the follow-up "interrogation" was a bit pants as it employed typical mainstream high-level abstractions to deal with something ostensibly complex and nuanced. Here's how it went: I refuse to talk to you! Oh, what's that? A bottle of King Street Brandy? You guys are okay. Let me tell you what I know: that Lady Boyle has a nice arse.

You have to wonder whether the writers are fucking with you sometimes. There are numerous missteps in the narrative like this which conspire to break immersion.

For example, Dishonored likes to paint the Empress as a saintly figure who cared deeply for her people. Except that she still presided over a vicious, brutal state. The puritanical yet corrupt religious order that abducts children into its ranks did not emerge overnight in the few days following the Empress’ death. For a game than desires to project a grey ethical space, where doing bad things to bad people is the order of the day simply through the kind of "necessity" that would keep Jack Bauer busy for months, I am surprised at the black and white depiction of the game's opening event: a nice woman was killed by some bad men.

The lack of ethical concern amongst Attano's benefactors is, of course, a signal of what is coming. The conspirators asked Attano to use any means to remove a bunch of people who thought the ends justify the means. Same shit, different colour. Of course bad things were going to happen when you'd done your job.

I never felt interested in any of the power players, particularly The Outsider who pops up to tell you... nothing. All-knowing. All-powerful. All-black-eyes. HELLO CORVO. ISN'T LIFE INTERESTING CORVO. I LIKE HOT CHOCOLATE DRINKS CORVO. TONIGHT YOU WILL DO SOMETHING OR SOMETHING ELSE CORVO, WHICH IS FASCINATING, CORVO. SOKOLOV ISN'T INTERESTING ENOUGH TO GET MY ATTENTION WHICH IS A LITTLE TOO IRONIC… DON'T YOU THINK CORVO. You could drop his cut scenes from the game and I swear no one would notice.

When the conspiracy betrays you, there's no shock value– okay, let’s grind the plot forward – but the celebratory scene after you have neutralized the regent is sublime. The scene bristles with strange menace and there's this splendid line from Havelock about how Emily only listens to Corvo and Callista. It's the only moment where Havelock's deadpan speech was chilling and convinced me that Callista was going to be killed as well. (She wasn’t.)

But how does Attano escape death? It has nothing to do with his super skills. No, it's all down to humble Samuel the boatman who ensures that Attano did not receive a lethal dose of poison. Deliberate or not – this is where the heart of Dishonored is, with the little people.

The Regent, Havelock, Pendleton, Attano, Emily, The Outsider, Granny Rags and Slackjaw – they're all celebrities, individuals who think the world revolves around them, and are very dull people to talk to. The ordinary people of Dunwall, on the other hand, the ones who toil away beneath the iron grip of a vicious corrupt regime are the heroes of Dishonored.

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It's why the off-camera execution of Wallace and Lydia, the hired help who provided comforts for the conspirators, has impact. Not only was I upset to hear they had died but the moment in which I discovered their bodies was moving. I didn’t need the Heart to tell me how to feel. Dishonored will tell you, if you listen, that Wallace was excited about the special event of the evening – which turned out to be his murder. Dishonored will tell you, if you listen, that Lydia held her head high in her final moments.

If they are the heroes, then what constitutes the villain? You might argue the unstable nature of the political system is the real villain, which Attano happily contributes to… but no.

Attano wanders into the game with a note that says, “Sorry, luv, can't do nuffink about no plague.” By the end of the game, nothing has changed. Attano isn’t even fighting the real menace, the one that threatens to utterly destroy Dunwall, the plague. It is the most fascinating story of Dishonored. I was genuinely concerned for the city itself, because things didn't seem to be getting any better.

I was reminded me of Albert Camus' The Plague (La Peste) a novel set in the Algerian town of Oran during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Oran is quarantined and the story relates the struggle of the town's inhabitants in coming to terms with the lack of agency over their own lives. There is nothing anyone can really do except wait for the plague to run its course.

The plague is a hot topic for most characters and during the section post-betrayal the stakes are raised even higher.

The Flooded District is my personal Dishonored highpoint and far more powerful if you play naked, without objective markers, because the level is drained of signposting with bewildering repercussions. I didn't know where to go and was forced to explore out of need, not just curiosity. In fact, I missed the whole Greaves Distillery area and never recovered my weapons which meant I wasn't able to fire another bolt for the remainder of the game. Consequences! This was when I really couldn’t tear myself away and go to bed.

Daud – the Empress' killer – had turned part of the Flooded District into his base and because his gang of magic assassins teleport when you least expect it, getting through is quite difficult and frustrating for some. In fact, in a moment of desperation, I attacked Daud when I failed to take him down stealthily, angry at failing yet again. I was going to kill the bastard, just the once, for the cathartic adrenaline.

After a fight which saw me blasted off a ledge and plunge a few floors, Daud asked for mercy. He said he'd give up the assassin business because he wasn't interested in it anymore. To be honest, I thought Daud's conversion over the death of "a nice lady" was like Sokolov's conversion over "a nice drink" but I was impressed the game had given me another unexpected nonlethal option. I took it and moved on.

But I haven’t even got to the best bit of the Flooded District.

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After Daud’s base, the next section is all about the plague as the authorities are using the Flooded District to contain plague victims. Every few minutes, a train scoots in, dumps a ton of bodies then gets the Hell out of there. Some of the people trapped in the district want to escape back to regular Dunwall life and ask you to help them. Note this is a completely optional sidequest that has no apparent consequences on the remainder of the game. It's the only moment the game puts the weight of the plague onto the player’s shoulders and it's a doozy.

Do you allow these plague carriers to return to the general population? Or do you leave them here – to get mown down by tallboys that, you learn, have orders to kill everyone in the apartment block they are holed up in? With a plague spiralling out of control, containment seems the only option. But when the contained get unruly, what should be done?

AND EVERY NIGHT, TENS OF THOUSANDS CRY OUT FOR SOMEONE TO PROTECT THEM, PROTECT THEIR CHILDREN, PROTECT ALL THEIR FUTURES. CAN SOMEONE ANSWER THIS CALL? WHAT DO YOU DO CORVO?

YOU SAVE THE GIRL. HOW FASCINATING, CORVO.

Next: Violent verbs, cosmetic ethics and the Lady Boyle Massacre.

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  1. “For the love of God, game designers, please do not set a level in a brothel. No one ever has any sex in these virtual brothels. I know.”

    Max Payne 3 has quite a bit of fucking in a favela brothel. It’s crass and tawdry, but that’s Max Payne 3 from Rockstar for you.

    I passed on Dishonoured due to X-COM and, later, other distractions, but this series – and this post in particular – is making me want to play it. The stories of the little people. The stories that aren’t told. It sounds a lot more narratively interesting than I had expected.

  2. P.S. the funniest videogame nightclubs will always be the Deus Ex / Invisible War nightclubs. PARTEH TIEMS

  3. God, Shaun, there you go, highlighting how few mainstream games I play these days! I just knew some game would’ve had a proper brothel. I thought it might be something like Kane & Lynch or Saints Row 3. I guessed wrong.

    I’m on the fence when it comes to the narrative of Dishonored. The reason I played was for the mechanics and the atmosphere of crawling across the rooftops. However, the actual story feels just doesn’t grab you. I cut out a paragraph on the voice acting – I think the vocal direction here was “tone down the histrionics” but it made everyone sound flat and dead, all the time. All these wonderful actors! Susan Sarandon, John Slattery, Brad Dourif… all squandered. Also: maybe authoritarian states in games have had their day, a cheap way of “justifying” death on every street corner.

    But the story about the Dunwall plague creeps up on you. I’m not finished playing as a violent guy yet, but the plague story seems to be far worse if you go to the combat route.

    The Deus Ex nightclubs are always my go-to examples when moaning about nightclubs in games!

  4. Hey, I know who to come to if I need to find out about proper brothels in indie games.

    My comment was probably misleading: I got the structural and tonal gripes you have with the overarching narrative and plot. What I like is that the worldbuilding and characterisation isn’t solely devoted to that, so you have these little moments that you can intrude on or learn about to enrich your experience (and you don’t get XP for it).

    And, well, perhaps the plague is being left in place for the sequel. Chekov’s pestilence?

  5. I find the “Parts of the game you won’t find” section here a little ironic, since right before you talk about Emily’s father, who is mentioned in some notes in the game. And, I mean, I kind of disagree with the point in general, since there are some problems with a lot of solutions and others with only a few obscure ones.

    Having read all three posts today, I find I appreciate this one the most. Especially since the Golden Cat level was the only moment of a truly sublime game that made me not attack it with intensity. I had more trouble with the others–I’m not sure Dishonored was ever trying to being Thief–but the Golden Cat and Heart criticisms rung the truest with me. It’s good to hear people smarter than I disliking the Heart, which is so adored. It felt like a really cheap mechanical solution to something that should happen organically.

    Also, another nominee for worst video game nightclub: the one from SMT: Nocturne, which has a couple wisps, a lecherous cat lady, and a DJ in a massive room. Designed by someone who’s most likely never been outside.

  6. @ShaunCG

    There is a throwaway note at the end of the game referring to the plague – and it is throwaway – which makes me think the plague will not continue to be a major player in a possible sequel.

    @Tom

    I knew I was treading a fine line with the “things you won’t find” versus things the game doesn’t make a big song and dance about. Pow! In my face!

    Maybe someone can fill me in; it is implied who Emily’s father really is, but what was the official story? Was the empress a widow? I really don’t recall catching anything like that and I read as much lore as I could get my tattooed hands on. There was a reference to the late Emperor but I believe that was Jessamine’s father. I have done some searching online, but hadn’t come up with anything concrete so I’d felt on safe ground making my “bastard” declaration.

    I haven’t done as much reading up on other opinions of Dishonored, so I’m not sure how many others agree with some of the points I’ve laid out here. Jordan Rivas tracked along some similar lines with his Dishonored piece, although he focuses more on the monarchy aspect. It is strange even though I loved the game I cannot write a piece without including some harsh criticisms!

    The fourth part will go off in another direction yet again. I always hope that the final essay in a collection is the best one =)

    We should make a list of crazy nightclub levels.

  7. I found this part interesting: “I really want to see more Richard Hofmeier in mainstream: perhaps there are things in the game that few will find, moments that are precious that make your play unique and special. Instead of worrying about crafted content going to waste, we should worry about how cheap that crafting feels when the game draws so much attention to it.”

    I worry that these meaty AAA games that we love so much are too expensive to make to allow for “content” (god do I despise that term) to go unseen, as wonderful as it might be.

    Aside: I also despise the term “wholemeal”. The entire time I lived in England, I never got used to. It just made me think of bugs. Disgusting term.

  8. Oh, and for nightclub levels, my favorite has to be the one in the Paris level of Deus Ex, which is almost completely empty AND plays the early-3D trick of having mirrors everywhere to make the level feel bigger. But the best part is that the club’s owner is wandering around, and if you talk to him, he gives a reason for why it’s empty–everyone shows up later. So perfect.

  9. There’s an audiolog from Havelock (I think it appears in the break during the party, or perhaps when you come back after the flooded district) where he speculates about Corvo being the father. Which opens its own narrative can of worms, but is backed up pretty well by the Empress’ audio log found in her secret room in the palace level. It’s not an airtight confirmation, and I feel like they don’t mention it much because they wrote themselves into a corner, but it’s what they were going for until someone probably sat down and said, “Whoa, guys, this doesn’t make *any* plausible sense.”

    I’m really surprised no one’s ever made a list of crazy nightclub levels.

  10. @Eric

    I’m not really thinking of “wholemeal secret levels for three people in the world” but consider the safe example. Was it really wholemeal necessary to plant the code in three different ways? That safe wasn’t critical to finishing the level; they make the smallest victories even wholemeal smaller. The workshop chest key, in the same area (the backyard), is notoriously difficult to find and it is the only way to open the wholemeal workshop chest.

    I hate the cop-out that “there’s a government crackdown, so not many people are coming on to the streets” or whatever.

    @Tom

    Ah, now I don’t feel so sheepish. That Havelock journal is the one I’m referring to in the essay (“I don’t think there’s a single reference to Emily’s father in any written note or overheard conversation until the very end of the game”) so my problem is why isn’t everyone talking about Emily being a bastard? There’s no obvious official father story as far as I can tell. Was the empress a widow? I don’t think it’s mentioned anywhere.

    I found the secret room, of course, the Heart led me right to it. So much for secret…

  11. Ironically, Kane and Lynch has a rather well-done night-club, complete with firefight and screaming civilians.

    None shall surpass the Big Bug Fun Club in its ill-rendered nightclub glory!

  12. Listing crazy nightclub levels is 2013’s answer to OMM’s 2001 how long it takes the first crate to appear.

  13. mwm: I’ve not played Kane & Lynch but I half-expected someone to mention it had a brothel level. Nightclub will do, though.

    ShuanCG: I am the new Old Man Murray? I should put that on the promotional materials.

  14. The Flooded District is my personal Dishonored highpoint and far more powerful if you play naked

    TOO MUCH INFORMATION

  15. @matt: That out of quote context is actually true as well.

  16. There are several more hints in the game confirming Havelock’s speculation. Emily even draws a picture of Corvo and writes “Daddy” across it (and the picture is intriguingly different depending on the chaos level). Of course that raises the question of why she refers to him as “Daddy” in the picture, but addresses him as “Corvo”.

    I do take exception to your comment on the lack of quietly hidden, precious moments. There are many of them—and some you only see, or they play out differently according to the chaos level, or the way you tackle the problems. Dishonored is very rich in these. But there are some “puzzles” like that safe that are too heavily signposted.

    Regarding the “good” empress—I recall a few other hints that she cannot be such a morally upright character, albeit subtle ones. You see the game through Corvo’s eyes; I wonder if you are also meant to be viewing people with his prejudices too?

    Finally, the plague. I honestly felt that the plague had little tangible presence in the game. It seemed to be mostly something people talked about, but that had no effect except the ever-present corpse-pile and sealed-door props. You never saw anyone getting sealed in—well, there was that shopkeeper perhaps, but that bit was written like he was being robbed, not sealed alive in his house to die. There was no moment like that bit in Half-Life 2’s Anti-Citizen One chapter, where you revisit the same are you started in a week later, only some of the doors you used before are sealed, and other parts are rubble. The people you mention in the flooded district are the only real representatives of the people affected by the plague—and for certain reasons I did not encounter them at all in my first or second play through. Whether the plague remains in a hypothetical sequel depends on which of the three endings they decide is canonical.

  17. Hi again Andy.

    On the Corvo/Daddy thing, my problem is not about a lack of clues regarding the identity of Emily’s father. I just can’t swallow how an *empress* in olden times can give birth to a bastard (a) the identity of the father being discussed and (b) said empress being labelled immoral. There are some weak signs of (b) but, really, no one wrote or talked about (a)? It’s the believability of this scenario I find suspect. This can be explained if you argue that Corvo just wasn’t interested in such topics in the lore but I think that kind of framing could be used to explain away deficiencies in practically any videogame narrative, so I’m wary of going down that route unless it is more obvious.

    On hidden, precious moments – that’s a fair point. I have been overly harsh here. However, I was thinking more about solutions to optional goals (like opening said safe) in the game being signposted multiple times. Then again, I’m a thorough explorer, and it is possible that I’m not recalling the one-time-only solutions because I see everything.

    But you’re right, Dishonored is a rich game, I could spend articles upon articles on the subtle points Arkane coded into it. Replays reveal an enormous amount of subtle differences. I’ve just gone through the pivotal scene at the Hound Pits Pub before the Flooded District again, this time in high chaos, and the tone is completely different. Emily says something pretty shocking, but she says it so matter-of-fact it’s kind of: WHAT did she just say?

    On the plague, I think we’ll chalk this one up to different interpretations. It was the background of the plague and the stories through the lore that got me worked up throughout the game. There were signs of the plague everywhere and off the top of my head there’s the scene in the barracks and also in the guard’s quarters attached to the Boyle mansion, someone has been sick (black) on the floor – someone there is infected.

    I’m not a great fan of the usage of “weepers” as mere zombies and I think there’s also a trigger with the abandoned apartment block I don’t fully understand, where the block can be taken down by tallboys before you get a chance to explore (my wife found the place already gutted when she went there; that was in low chaos).

    A case of YMMV I guess.

  18. I’m speculating here, but if the emperorship in Gristol is passed down to the firstborn whether male or female (CKII players will know the word for this, I guess?), then would Emily’s father’s identity matter at all? Because she’s indisputably Jessamine’s daughter. Anyway, that’s apology, not critique. You’re right: with what the game tells you, the situation is a bit odd.

    Regarding the tenement and the tallboys: if you turn on the searchlights, then the tallboys will go attack the tenements—I guess that’s what happened when your wife played? In my case though, it was different because I had high chaos, and the encounter you described in the post is the low chaos situation.

  19. I was uncertain regarding the tenement block situation simply because Mrs. HM was playing through low chaos and swears she didn’t switch on the spotlights. But maybe she did? I will never know for sure.

    Anyway, I’m due to tackle The Flooded District with high chaos this weekend…

  20. Oh God. I wished I’d finished the high chaos run before writing this, because I might have adjusted some of my wording =)

  21. I just beat the game, high chaos. I’m doing a Think and a vague attempt at a low chaos run, but a few thoughts.

    A lot of my problems with the game was that it feels like an adaptation of a novel series, in a way. Part of it is because it feels somewhere in between New Crobuzon, Urth, Neveryon, etc etc–but the major players are more mentioned than they are seen. The major villains have five minutes of screentime. Assassinating them is extremely anticlimactic, and I’m not sure if it’s intended to be. It feels like Granny Rags and Slackjaw and the Empress and Havelock and all of them are major characters in the world mythology, and that when we see them we’re supposed to be amazed at their incarnations. There’s an extremely rich mythology here, and yet I didn’t feel that it was depicted wholly enough. It felt like I was given six pieces and told to envision the 1,000 piece puzzle. I’d be really interested in the same game except much better done, but I’m going to attempt another playthrough. Who knows if I’ll continue.

    A point about the Empress, Corvo, and Emily’s parentage, a couple of things about the High Chaos playthrough seem to reinforce that.

    In high chaos, Emily begins to become bloodthirsty–during the party she’s drawing evil looking pictures and muttering that when she becomes Empress she can have people killed. In the ending, after she ascertains that all of the conspirators are dead, she shrugs and basically says, okay, well I was gonna do that when I became Empress anyway so thanks, one less thing for me to do. A high chaos ending results from the player performing violent actions–killing anyone who stands in his way. Having Emily’s characterization directly result from Corvo’s actions not only makes her a mirror of him–he is characterized indirectly by her behavior–it makes her at least a symbolic daughter of him. Their relationship is of the transference of values from parent to child.

    If the Empress is incompetent, then her trust in Corvo might be misplaced and his characterization may be directly opposite her–an Empress with a High Chaos ruling style can have a Corvo who favors nonviolence, just as a benevolent Empress can be fooled by a particularly psychotic Corvo. But let’s assume that she has a head on her shoulders and that Corvo’s style is going to be HER style. If my version of Corvo is slaughtering every guard I see–and the game’s point of absolute power corrupting absolutely makes sense when you consider Little Corvo’s omnipresence, I kept forgetting I had bullets and crossbows and often magic but I always remembered I could slash people to death–then this retroactively suggests that the the Empress herself favored the Dark Side. And so whether Emily is looking up to her actual father or simply her mother’s most trusted platonic ally, she’s still learning her mother’s legacy from him. Again, symbolic father.

    Right before Pendleton dies, he screams out, “Everyone knew you were screwing the Empress,”–and the context of the scene and the little that Pendleton has been characterized give me the sense that Corvo and the Empress being an item was an open secret around Court–and was true. What we know about the trust that the Empress places in him, it does *fit*.

    Now I don’t necessarily buy that women occupy the exact place in society there than they would have in an equivalent era in English history–I’m basing this on little more than the fact that nearly all the women wear pants, even at a fancy costume ball. But either way, even if it WAS a massive scandal that the Empress took her bodyguard as her lover (or, possibly, her lover as her bodyguard), openly raised her out-of-wedlock daughter, gave Corvo high-profile missions…if this Empress truly doesn’t mind having people killed who are in her way, who’s going to *say* anything about it?

    The motives for the main villains–first the Lord Regent, next Havelock–are murky. It depends on the source of the Rat Plague. A note at one point suggests that the rats carrying the plague were imported from another country. The plague’s existence has pushed Dunwall into horrible unrest. If it’s accidental–a rat stows away–then the plague is a simple force of nature, and the Lord Regent’s actions may even have some honor to them–he disagrees with the Empress’s methods of controlling the people in a time of disaster and genuinely believes that an authoritarian state will help the city survive. But if he’s brought the plague upon Dunwall in order to create a smokescreen or a pretext for unrest, then his actions are simply lust for power. Although the game suggests that it’s not a zero-sum proposition. There can be elements of both greed and justice in their actions. Burrows could be a deeply, deeply corrupt and power-hungry man who does want his people to survive. Havelock could find Burrows’s actions and policies to be tyrannical and abusive while thinking he could do a much better job at protecting Dunwall. Fact is, all of the characters seem to balance the noble and the selfish.

    It would be interesting if Burrows brought in the plague as a smokescreen; it would be even more interesting if Havelock brought it in, attempting to use it to seize power, but Burrows, acting for either selfish or Dunwallian reasons, acted first; either way seems a little too much for the plague as it is, which, unable to serve any actual purpose beyond some gameplay quirks, acts as a ponderous Symbol of Corruption. “You cannot kill the rat plague”, the game graffittis all the damn time–and you can’t stop from being corrupt. Being anywhere in the antechamber of power leads to violence–and, frankly, the way I played the game supported that. I tried REALLY hard to be stealthy, honest I did, but then one guy would attack me and Little Corvo would be right there and I’d just stab him and, okay, I killed one guard, now there’s a dozen after me and I’m just gonna get out my gun because what the fuck, it’s just a videogame and I’ll look up the good ending on youtube.

    I guess what’s unfortunate is that the plague is just a word. If you’ve played Pathologic, now that’s a fucking PLAGUE. There are areas in that game that are so diseased that the monitor begins to stink. It’s a game that festers. Nothing in Dunwall festers. Why is it that there aren’t any areas in the sewers of a dying, plague-ridden city that I’m too uncomfortable to go through?

  22. Here’s the weird thing about Dishonored, which I discovered to my chagrin writing this article. When you speak about the game from the perspective of a single playthrough, it means you don’t understand Dishonored. My pivotal moment in the Flooded District above, as Andy pointed out, is completely missing from High Chaos and makes absolutely no sense to someone who has only played that version.

    Sewers after The Flooded District? Full of talkative plague survivors in Low Chaos but in High Chaos, it’s all weepers. There’s a substantially different feel to the game after the Dunwall Tower mission and the difference in ending is the least interesting thing about the two versions of the game. Here’s another thing- the non-lethal solution to taking out the Regent reveals that he was responsible for introducing the plague to eliminate the poor.

    As for the people being quiet about the Empress’ affairs, well, I find it odd amongst all the high-profile targets’ lives you rifled through there wasn’t a single mention in any note, any overheard conversation of impropriety. And that’s after she had died.

    As you say, there’s a rich mythology here but there’s a problem with implementation. It feels more distancing that it should.

    (I’d thought about connections to Pathologic, too, but I’ve not yet played the game. It’s on the roster though. Even installed it recently.)

  23. I feel like this is one of those games that’s a LOT more interesting to talk about than it is to play. You’ve got a four-part series on it and the recurring theme I’m seeing is that while you liked a lot of it–there’s a lot in the game to like–the flaws are a lot more illustrative of a lot of flaws with gaming in general. I think Dishonored might end up being a Canonical Text, not so much for anything it does particularly well or interesting but as an example of the good and the bad of Gaming In 2012 incarnated in one.

    That the Regent disposed the plague to Kill the Poor–rather than simply to cause a distraction in order to take power, mistakenly figuring that the plague would be easier to cure than it ends up being and deciding that a few casualties from the lower classes would be acceptable–that seems to take him from plain old villainy to cartoonish super villainy, and I find it makes me like the game slightly less. But it’s interesting to know that there’s different story bits coming in off the different branches.

    But that brings up the point–from what I’ve been reading from both you and other writing on the game, I almost feel like my lack of understanding of the game is my fault–that if I’d been using the Heart more, if I’d been reading the notes more carefully, I’d have a deeper understanding. Which is totally fair–but at the same time, while I enjoyed Dishonored, I’m not sure if I enjoyed it enough to play through it again to get that deeper understanding. At this point, I experienced a certain amount of Reward–whether intellectual or entertainment–from the game. The Reward greatly outweighted the amount of Work that was spent on the game; a second playthrough would make the Work outweigh the Reward, and since I’ve got other things to do (that damn Hofmeier article, stop writing good articles and making good comments that make me want to make other comments back because it’s seriously impacting my productivity!), I’m not sure if a replay of Dishonored is worth my time, especially since I got it from Gamefly. This conversation is about to bring up some horrible issues about Why We Play Games and How Much Game Should You Play Before You Can Talk About It, so if that’s the case, I’m so so sorry.

    Either way, I’ve picked up System Shock 2 to make a proper go of it. I think we talked about how I felt very stupid playing stealth games because I’m bad at them–Dishonored’s handholding felt like training wheels for more sophisticated, more open games, and I’m finding SS2 a LOT more accessible and enjoyable now. Dishonored was less a game than a tutorial. A friend of mine, her family just got a PS3 and she was talking about how she’s interested in Assassin’s Creed–she’s a big history geek–and she’s also into fantasy and Victorian literature, so I actually suggested she give Dishonored a try.

    So maybe that’s the role of AAA games these days, and by extension the relationship of Critics Like Us to them. I’ve been thinking about completely changing my audience–I’m beginning to want to talk to nongamers because I don’t believe that people have really figured out how to. It’s either the Seth Scheisel school where you talk about concerns relevant to the audience at the expense of completely missing what’s *actually* important to the community you’re reporting about (this is a man who called Beatles Rock Band the “most important game of all time” and somehow missed the homophobic slurs that Blizzard tacitly supported shouted out on stage at Blizzcon 11 (http://www.secondquest.vg/2011/10/27/emo-cocksuckers-and-night-elf-faggots/)), or Tom Bissell’s, gaming is so weary and beneath me but it’s something that I’m addicted to, and you’re right in thinking that it’s not a good thing, oh the malaise. And you know my thoughts on The Gaming Community and its tastes in writing. I want to start writing for nongamers and say, okay, look, there’s a lot of shit in gaming, but here’s the good stuff. I meet a ton of people who played videogames as kids and loved them but got away from them and were never lured back, and their tastes in movies and literature and TV shows mark them as people who WOULD like videogames as we know them. We–Eric and I mostly–talk about how to find people more receptive to our stuff, and we’re usually thinking about people who are gamers who want a better class of games and games writing and they’re not able to find them–but it’s the other way around isn’t it! We need to be looking at lit geeks and film snobs and people who think videogames are kinda shitty and we need to find videogames that they’ll look at and say, okay, maybe that would be fun, all right, I’ll try it out. Dishonored might just be one of those games that’s not for the hardcore, but is accessible and fun, it’s very on the nose in some ways but rewards deeper exploration, and then when you’re done with it, someone can say, okay, you liked that, here’s another game that’s kind of like that but a little harder.

    Pathologic is…it’s a Necessary Text, and it does some things amazingly well–as I said, it’s a game that looks festering–but it’s plagued by so many problems that I’ve always found it to be one of those games that you just sit with for a day or two and never get through again. I’d love to see a version of it done with a proper budget and a more experienced team–hell, at this point the team has a couple more odd games under its belt and I think it should be given another chance. (Kickstarter?)

    Now their followup game, The Void, is a much less discussed work and the game that Pathologic was practice for. This is a masterpiece–its art direction is pretty much the opposite of Pathologic but it gets the same effect. Pathologic is all sores and disease and it’s horrifying, but The Void is a mix of elegance and abomination–and both are equally disturbing. It has this weird beauty that somehow looks so wrong that it makes your skin crawl. It came out a year after Bioshock and Portal deconstructed videogame goals and unreliable narrators, and it was made by a bunch of suicidal Russians who were vastly smarter and much more creepily insular than anyone at 2K or Valve, so its narrative and structure are…let’s just say brutal. I have been meaning to do another play of this and write something about it, but I’d love a support group for it. I hope all of you have played it–if not, it’s on Steam and it’s $10.

  24. Also! Fair point about nothing mentioned in the notes about the Empress–you’re right, someone would have mentioned it in a diary. This is mostly my fault–I’m so sick of that method of storytelling and it’s so ubiquitous that I forget it’s there in the sense that I forget that games have menus.

  25. The Void is gorgeous, and one day I will finish it. It is… not a fun game, and so it is easy to get distracted. But oh god, I want to play it through and write about it.

  26. @Richard: I think I take issue that it’s a lot more interesting to talk about than play. I had an absolute blast with the Dishonored and if I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t be writing so many words about it. It’s so much easier to write about stuff I like than I hate. But, yeah, it is telling that I can’t put its flaws to one side. It’s strange in that hardcore players hate it (both stealth players and shooter players can find it too easy) yet its inherent complexity seems to push away newbies. And yet… yet… it was successful!

    I also didn’t like the origins of the plague. Originally I’d thought it had something to do with exploitation of the whale population (environmentalism) but it was just a tad stupid in the end. What’s fascinating, though, is how much story we can miss by playing in a certain way.

    Ah System Shock 2. The stories in those audio logs were fantastic. I don’t know if they still hold up today (I played around 2003 and I didn’t enjoy Bioshock’s equivalents) but I’d like to think they would.

    Interesting thoughts about audience although I’m so far up game designer’s creek without a paddle I doubt I could change focus this far in. I don’t know if that metaphor works but I’m keeping it.

    (Pathologic and The Void are on my radar and have been for a long time. Tom Jubert said I really should play it and, well, that was that. I will do them, they seem too important not to play. I bought them both ages ago but after playing Dishonored twice with 50+ hours on one game, I need to play some smaller stuff and catch my breath.)

  27. @HM To be fair it’s not that Dishonored was unpleasant to play–I did have a good time with it. I guess I mean more along the lines of, it was fun and I liked a LOT about it, but I find the game more interesting for its context rather than in itself. It’s the kind of game that definitely merits a four-part series about it but I feel like it has more unintentional depth than intentional.

    Keep your thing about the plague origins in mind if you go through Pathologic. You should totally get a support group or a play club for either of those games. I’ll be participating like crazy. That may or may not be an incentive.

    I’m liking System Shock 2 a lot so far. As a first-time player, I like the *content* of the audiologs better than Bioshock, but I liked Bioshock’s presentation of them better. A lot of it is an interface thing–in System Shock, the person’s photo pops up along with the text, and I usually immediately tab out of that because, you know, there’s monkeys attacking me or whatever, and so they become disembodied voices. In Bioshock, the person’s photo stays for the duration–it’s a very small touch, but it helps to incarnate the people a little better in my mind. And while there were some holes in Bioshock’s worldbuilding and plot–a usual and possibly inherent problem when there’s a fragmented narrative like this–on a sentence structure level, Bioshock is one of the best games ever written. Every sentence is deliberately and unnaturally cadenced in an extremely gorgeous way. Given the time it was made and that Bioshock’s version of Ken Levine had a few extra years of writing experience under his belt, System Shock isn’t *quite* up to that standard–although my memory of games at the time makes me think that its writing was pretty revolutionary for its era. (And there ARE some wonderful speeches. What IS a drop of rain compared to the storm?)

    Content-wise, the backstory of System Shock 2 is a little more subtle and a little more interesting. Everyone knew something really fucked up was happening in Rapture before New Year’s. Things were a lot more subtle for a while on the Von Braun. The logs talk about people acting strangely, or weird events they can’t quite place–and so the logs usually contain mounting horror at people realizing exactly what’s going on, and I find that a little more effective. I feel like the cast is smaller and more interconnected–given the size of the two environments, that’s only natural. Rapture is a lot prettier, has a lot better art direction, but it never particularly gelled as a Place for me–it was a series of gorgeous videogame levels.

    I feel like the two games each supply what the other lacks–Bioshock has more aesthetic assurance and skill, and System Shock 2’s level design is much more intricate. I’m really hoping that Bioshock Infinite is the combination of the two that we as gamers deserve. (Of course there’s always Dead Space, which comes off as a current-gen remake of System Shock 2 in a lot of ways.)

    This is why we need a forum–I have no one to talk about videogames to and I keep hijacking your comments threads :(


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