Monday, December 17, 2012

Dishonored: Spoiled by Choice

Dishonored is probably my favorite non-sequel video game of 2012, although this is coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't have the time to plumb the depths for indie games anymore. Though this shortcoming is largely a product of my own lack of diligence, there's also a noticeable lack of original, quality AAA titles on the market these days. What else came close? Sleeping Dogs was solid, but ultimately it carried the sensation of being less than the sum of its borrowed parts: vehicle mechanics and general approach from Grand Theft Auto, distilled Arkham Asylum/City combat, crushingly cut-and-paste sidequests from basically every third person action-adventure game released in the last couple of years. Also, Jesus, Wei Shen was lame as hell. Forcing your voice half an octave deeper than normal and shouting "motherfucker" a lot does not an interesting character make.

But then I look at Dishonored, which doesn't have a main character at all. It has silent killer Corvo Attano, disgraced Lord Protector to the recently assassinated Empress. Corvo has no dialogue, and while this approach has served many video game protagonists well over the years, it's starting to feel more and more out of place as immersive world-building becomes a developmental priority.

The problem presents itself at the very beginning of the game. Corvo, despite his sole duty being to protect the Empress, watches haplessly as a cadre of sneaky assassins murders her effortlessly and then teleports away. Does he explain what happened to the guards as they rush to the scene of the crime? Does he make any sort of attempt to acquit himself, knowing the precarious situation he's just been placed in? No, of course not, he just stands around like a dumbass and allows them to haul him to prison. You could argue that it wouldn't have done any good, since the corrupt government coalescing around the late Empress was looking for an easy scapegoat, but the complete lack of effort confidently positions a non-personality at the center of a game that's bursting with it. A town perched on the brink of overwhelming industrial power, while simultaneously suffused with magic, religious panic, and a rapidly encroaching plague, provides a hell of a thematic backdrop for some first-person stealth antics. In terms of execution, though, Dishonored makes some unwise design and writing choices that cause it to drop the ball.

This article isn't a question of whether or not Corvo should talk in the game; although my preference is obvious, the issue has already been extensively charted, and my concern is with how this creative choice is indicative of some widespread contextual problems with Dishonored. Constructing the world around a blank protagonist allows the game a certain degree of expressive freedom, as it allows Corvo to assimilate into whatever archetypes the skill and morality systems necessitate for him. Whether you play as a bloodthirsty cop-killer who spares his foes no quarter, or a morally righteous pacifist lurking in the shadows, or some sort of impulsive spellslinger, the game's refusal to truly personify Corvo accommodates all of these choices. You can play however you want and, in theory, it doesn't break immersion, but from both a ludic and narrative perspective neither fully works. A Corvo with no qualms about killing has a ton of really fun gadgets at his disposal: pistols, exploding arrows, proximity mines, machines rewired to fry their friends, a high-altitude drop assassination technique, and so on. A Corvo keeping his body count low has sleep darts, a late-game sound damper for his boots, and some lame zoom function. The stealthy approach is designed to be the challenging one, sure, but the lack of developmental emphasis on pure stealth precludes the player from a full variety of gameplay choices. Dishonored provides the player a world with many, many avenues for exploration and planning, but if you show any degree of concern about adhering to the game's chaos-based morality system, then quite a few of the doors are closed with little to compensate for it. 

Bethesda seems to be operating under the notion that compensation, here, is awarded by the player's personal triumph of getting the Low Chaos ending and keeping Dunwall from becoming more fucked up than it actually is. Dishonored's morality system, to address the second issue, suffers from the exact same problems that every other video game with a morality system does: all roads lead to the same destination. I have yet to play a video game that has developed a satisfying way of empirically measuring the player's choices as "bad or good," "lawful or chaotic," "paragon or renegade." Whether the consequences of these choices are measured through gameplay, plot, or both, there is a collective reluctance to really differentiate either path, for fear that one might provide a more enjoyable experience than the other. Understandable issues of balance are thus parsed into attempting to achieve sameness, which is quite disappointing. Knights of the Old Republic comes close gameplay-wise, but the very last place I'd ever look for a compelling treatment of morality is a Star Wars title.  

Having played through the game stealthily, though allowing myself an occasional taste of swordplay and carnage, Dishonored misses the mark on this balance without providing substantial narrative justification for it. If you're meticulous enough to let a majority of the Dunwall citizenry live, then you'll get a few changed lines of dialogue, an otherwise-inaccessible reward or two, things like that. The missions remain the same, right up to the final one, which culminates in one minute's worth of fluffy epilogue babble. The qualities that are supposed to make choices like this matter, like interesting characters or tough ideological quandaries, are noticeably absent. You can kill Lady Boyle or help her flee her mansion but who the hell is Lady Boyle anyway? Dunwall's revolutionaries are a pretty dull lot, every single one of them ill-equipped to serve as mouthpieces for this richly envisioned city. This is also a consequence of the quick pace of the game; Dishonored never allows itself the time to develop any of these stock characters past their respective uses as plot-pushers, quest hubs, or merchants. You learn much more about the environment from books, flyers and even graffiti than you do from any person that you can actually "interact" with, and that makes your role in the proceedings seem all the more shallow. The human element of the game is sorely lacking, which is a crippling oversight for a game that tries to tell a very human tale. Though Dishonored remains fun, in spite of these problems, it speaks to a greater storytelling deficiency in modern gaming that developers have yet to adequately address. How do you reconcile different styles of narratively-charged play with a game that can only sustain a preprogrammed number of paths? A binary morality system, I'm starting to realize, is not the way. 


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