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Promises, Promises: On Arkane Studios’ Dishonored

A look at the uncertain fate of single-player narrative video games.


Video games are an important medium of human expression, but sometimes it’s nice to remember that they also allow you to stab a Bismarck-helmeted dude in the neck and teleport to a distant windowsill.

I fired up Arkane Studios’ Dishonored — one of the stabbiest, most teleporty games in recent memory — with an excitement I don’t recall feeling for a game since Grand Theft Auto IV. Everything I’d read about Dishonored in the months leading up to its release seemed to fly gleefully in the face of various game-industry trends, one of which is a supposedly diminished focus on single-player narrative games. Budgets and expectations being what they are (the thought goes), single-player narratives are increasingly beyond the capacity of anyone but established AAA studios able to afford the occasional catastrophic failure. How accurate this will be two years from now largely depends on how prophetically self-fulfilling industry decision-makers feel like being.

Still, though. Remember back in the day, when you were in your early twenties or getting over your divorce or right after you got fired or when your wife or husband was out of town, and you went out and bought that big, meaty single-player narrative game and spent the entire weekend in a state of dopaminic enchantment while you and the game figured out what made each other tick? Well, those days, and those games, do seem to be coming to a kind of modulated end. When Rockstar, arguably the most consistently great developer on the planet, can’t sell more than 2.1 million copies of Max Payne 3, and when a critical darling like Spec Ops: The Line manages to move fewer than 600,000 copies, you don’t need the Home Psychic Network to figure out where the business of games is probably headed. Yes, Max Payne 3 and Spec Ops: The Line both have multiplayer suites; the former’s is actually excellent. But no one would deny that the point of these games is the single-player experience they offer. And that seems to be what’s actually changing: the assumed point of game development.

If all this is true, the sort of game that has ruled the video-game roost for much of the last decade is effectively a dinosaur in a state of pre-starvation. Don’t take my word for it. I know a number of talented young game developers — very few of them talk about making big-budget single-player narrative games anymore, and a couple of them have walked away from remunerative jobs in which they made these types of games. If single-player games continue to thrive, it will most likely be in some smaller, more boutique form. That the three games I’ve most enjoyed this year (Journey, Papo & Yo, and Mark of the Ninja) are all downloadable games created by tiny studios suggests that this process is already well under way.1

1. Of course, there’s the counterexample of something like Skyrim, one of the most capaciously single-player games ever made. The problem is that there’s exactly one studio able to afford the creation of something like Skyrim: Bethesda Softworks — the publisher, not coincidentally, of Dishonored.

Dishonored feels simultaneously like a revival and an elegy. It’s one of the few big-budget games to appear this year that’s not a sequel and has no multiplayer component, and it devotes itself to presenting a gorgeous, interesting world that it obviously wants its players to spend a lot of time carefully exploring. While Dishonored is theoretically a story game — it contains dozens of characters and tons of dialogue — its core design philosophy is not very story-centric. Moreover, it often feels distant from the reigning orthodoxies of blockbuster game design. It’s a daring and brave game in that sense, and while playing Dishonored I thought, several times, that if it, too, turns out to be a commercial failure, then God help us all.

Dishonored boasts a creative pedigree few games could hope to match. Its art director, Viktor Antonov, was chiefly responsible for the look and feel of Half-Life 2‘s City 17, the spare and devious elegance of which remains a model of production design. One of Dishonored‘s writers is Austin Grossman, the author of the terrific literary superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Finally, one of Dishonored‘s principal designers is Harvey Smith, who, with Warren Spector, designed Deus Ex, which is frequently regarded as a touchstone of emergent game design, wherein player choice and decision can radically affect how gameplay systems interact, sometimes in ways that go beyond what the designer intended. With so many talented people onboard, there was no way that Dishonored was going to be anything less than a fine game. And it is a fine game. It’s also — for me, at least — a strangely disappointing game.

Over the last year I’ve been immersed in the development side of the video-game equation. The first game with which I’ve had a start-to-finish relationship, Gears of War: Judgment, will be released this March. What I’ve learned over the last year is this: To work on a video game is to confront a series of problems with few proven or satisfactory answers. Even when the game you’re working on is a shooter that involves large men (and women!) shooting monsters that come out of the ground — which our game does — you’re nevertheless in constant conversation with matters of staging, functionality, and user feedback. If you’re a writer, you’re probably also pondering daily how exactly one goes about getting writerly stuff into a medium and a genre that can sometimes feel hostile to writerly stuff. Now that I’ve come to better know how incredibly weird and difficult it is to make a video game, my criticism of games has become sterner in some ways and more lenient in others. A question I ask myself almost every day, one that I didn’t ask much before: What exactly are video games for, and just what is it that they’re supposed to do?

All of my favorite game designers have one belief in common, and it’s a belief I’ve come to share. This belief holds that the person playing your video game has to matter — and by “matter” I mean something more than merely being the person pulling the trigger, swinging the sword, or slingshotting the incensed avian. If a game developer isn’t constantly thinking about, anticipating, and working with the uniquely destabilizing presence of the player, he or she isn’t properly doing the job. While all art is, in some way, interactive, video games by their nature elevate the player to a position of tacit co-authorship.

Remarkably, a number of popular games don’t bother to do much thinking at all about what a player might be for. Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the best-selling games of all time, contains a remarkable sequence in which the player can move forward for 15 minutes, doing precisely nothing, while shit keeps blowing up all around him. Whatever video games are for, it can’t be for this, even if these digital Pirates of the Caribbean log-flume rides appear to be what most gamers want.

There are numerous ways to make the player feel like he or she matters. One of the most old-fashioned is the Choose Your Own Adventure route taken by games like Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire and Telltale’s spellbinding Walking Dead games. But surely the most interesting way to make the player feel like he or she matters is via emergent gameplay, wherein a designer gives the player a bunch of powers or gadgets, an area to explore, a goal to meet, and no one “correct” way through. This is the primary design philosophy behind games like Deus Ex, Skyrim, Far Cry 2, BioShock, Just Cause 2, and Dishonored, and when it works, it really works, because everyone who plays the game feels like his experience is distinctive. In my estimation, this is easily the most satisfying type of experience a video game can give you.

Dishonored is a first-person semi-open-world assassination game about a guy named, for some reason, Corvo Attano. He looks a little bit like mecha-Skeletor and has an array of astounding time-space-bending powers handed over to him in a dream by a magical fellow whose appearance is justified as poorly as these things are ever justified. The story of Dishonored has been crafted with care and seriousness, but despite sharp dialogue and an unusually strong voice-over cast it never rises above the fact that its “story” is a bunch of digital marionettes standing around inertly talking at you between missions. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the heroic attempt it makes to rise above the inherent limitations of this type of game story. I wish Dishonored had been more mindful of the example set by the Hitman series, excellent assassination games all. These games give the player an iconic title character, a bunch of scumbags to whack in whatever manner you choose, and some loose, high-level narrative machinations to which you can pay as much or as little attention as you please. Dishonored, I think, would have been a far more interesting game had its story backed away from piling dramatic motivation on Corvo Attano and instead made him the thing that (with the player’s help) goes nastily bump in the night.

Where Dishonored shines is in its level design, its gameplay systems, and its world.2 You know a game is some kind of artistic triumph when you can detect many flavorful aesthetic borrowings and yet still recognize its freshness and vitality. There are the stilt-walking bad guys of Half-Life, the high-tech antiquation of BioShock, some mechanics reminiscent of Thief and Deus Ex … and yet everything in Dishonored feels theoretically solid, thought-through, unfeigned, and original. Dishonored takes place in a bubonic alternate-universe England in which whale oil was never displaced by the rise of petroleum. This world has a light smattering of the occult, the maritime, the powdered wig, and the Derringer, and despite some rough graphical edges,3 the art direction as a whole is as conceptually bewitching as any game out there.

2. Except for all the goddamned in-game books and notes. I realize I’ve come out against lore in a big way here before, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just say this: It doesn’t make much sense to create incredibly tense and stealthy gameplay scenarios, wherein you’re doing your best as Corvo to evade a dozen guards’ vision cones while moving as silently as possible, and shatter the wonderful, inimitable tension by throwing at the player a wall of wonky text. Rest assured, I like to read; I’m what’s called a serious reader. But every readerly neuron nested within the human brain is rendered inactive when you’re skulking around a mansion in search of a nice quiet place to do some assassinating. And yes, I know you have the choice as a player to neglect the books, but finding clues turns out to be an important part of the gameplay. So how about you make sure that if there’s text, it’s in some way useful or actionable text? If it’s there only for so-called world-building purposes, to hell with it. I’ve written some of this stuff myself by now, and I’m aware that many gamers like it. All I ask is that you put world-building texts in an appropriate place and not have it intrude into the actual sneaking, evading, and killing sequences. Finding a collection of song lyrics about harpooning whales a moment after you’ve dodged three guards and stashed a body? It just doesn’t play. At all.

3. An apparent consequence of the game’s memory-hungry — and astoundingly convincing — AI scripting.

To give a sense of the gameplay freedom availed by Dishonored, allow me to describe my various paths to a successful mid-game assassination of the brothel-inhabiting Pendleton twins. I’ve sneaked in through an upstairs window, I’ve demonically possessed the bodies of the prostitutes hired to service them, I’ve summoned up a rapacious horde of black-magic rats to devour them, I’ve walked in through the front door blasting everything in sight, and I’ve sneaked around from cover object to cover object to the very door of their boudoir. Only after one mass-murdering run-through — which allowed me to explore the level in relative peace and quiet — did I get a full sense of how elaborately designed Dishonored really is.

The designers of this game spent a ridiculous amount of time building systems and levels that they had to know only a tiny portion of the audience would ever see. Most game-makers would regard such a gesture as an utter waste of time and resources. But I suspect that the men and women behind Dishonored regard such a gesture as the entire point of making a video game. They’ve even allowed the player the option of making her way through an assassination game without killing anyone at all, which apparently changes everything about Dishonored, from story to atmosphere to outcome. I am currently biting my thumb and wondering if I should go for it.

Something starts to go wrong in the last third of the game, however. The levels become less interesting, the enemies more overwhelming, and the options for sneaking less readily apparent. This is a game that allows you to master the black art of evasion with the help of some truly inventive gameplay tools. This is also a game that turns into a nonstop ninja party for much of its final two hours. When NinjaFest begins, all the delicious tension and anxiety of Dishonored recedes. I’m sure there are relatively stealthy ways through the NinjaFest, but my diligent search for those paths was infuriatingly fallow. Given the openness of the rest of the game, this felt like a broken promise.

I’ll tell you when I loved Dishonored again. The end of the game found me creeping around a corner to what I knew would be my final confrontation with the game’s villain. He was leaning over a fireplace, talking to himself. Still distant from him, and without really thinking about it, I launched across the room an incendiary crossbow arrow, whereupon the villain unceremoniously burned to death. End of game. A little later, I played through the sequence again. This time I approached the villain without firing and we had a chat in which I learned a couple interesting things about him, the woman I’d come to rescue, and her moral expectations of me. In other words, Dishonored gave me the option to sidestep an endgame boss fight, and some important narrative details, with a single, well-placed arrow.

Game design that allows the player’s decisions not only to bypass but actually foreclose important narrative or gameplay beats isn’t just a way to make the player feel like he or she matters; it’s a way to make gameplay itself feel like something deeper, stranger, and more irrevocable than play.