Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Don't Forget To Be Awesome" (Dishonored)

In my ongoing quest to waste lunch breaks catching up on electronic entertainment, I spent the past few weeks playing Dishonored (content warning), Arkane Studios' hacky-slashy, dash-n-skulk first person sneaker that garnered a bucketful of awards in 2012.

The title takes place in plague-ridden Dunwall, which is sort of an alternate-history London with steampunk science, a religion informed by ancient stoicism, and a trickster god on the loose with his own inscrutable ends. That deity, dubbed The Outsider both by those who worship and those who fear him, has fastened on a new object of interest -- Corvo, a disgraced royal bodyguard. Under Corvo's watch, Dunwall's empress fell to an assassin's sword and young princess Emily vanished into thin air. The authorities say he masterminded the whole thing, but in truth he's innocent, a pawn caught in a clandestine coup attempt. At least he is until a group of rebels break him out of jail and the Outsider appears to him in a dream, imbuing him with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Now Corvo has become a force to be reckoned with, a supernatural killer set on vengeance.

Though I've played my fair share of video games, I'll be the first to admit that most titles are rubbish. Filled with clich├ęd, boring storytelling, many have turned to lowest-common-denominator material to keep audiences' interested. Not Dishonored, though. Populated by manipulative politicos, self-aggrandizing academics, almost-honorable cutthroats, and charmingly quirky laborers, the characterization ranges from comedic to tragic. The plot is filled with political machinations, riddled with double crossings, and features a twist that feels shocking when first experienced and nigh inevitable upon further rumination. What thrilled me the most, though, were the themes. Dishonored takes a dim view of elites, and the narrative is essentially a cautionary tale about the seductive draw of power and the deceitful charms of revenge.

I don't remember any of that being in the marketing materials, though. Mostly they just emphasized how the game was totally awesome.

While skulking through the sewers in an early portion of the game, Corvo overhears a guard disparaging his reputation and ethnicity, only to be quickly rebuked by his partner, who says, "Kids like you, you never saw what he was like. I saw him fight three to one in the practice yard. He's a whirlwind." Players get to hijack that wild fighting style, dropping from above to bury a sword in a target's neck, felling an assailant with a single brutal blow after blocking an attack, and employing deadly gadgetry such as shrapnel-loaded proximity mines and Molotov-tipped crossbow bolts. Non-lethal options abound, too, and the powers granted by The Outsider make that path as equally exhilarating as combat. (Indeed, I completed the game without killing a single soul.) The adrenaline really gets pumping when you sneak into a crowded courtyard, knock a guard out, and bend space and time to blink yourself out of danger's way.

You're probably wondering why I'm going on about all this.

Writer John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) has minted his own unique tagline: "Don't forget to be awesome." That's great counsel. Awesome is fun. Awesome sells. Gamers came to Dishonored wanting a parkouring warrior with a spring-loaded sword and a fistful of magic. They wanted awesome and got it. But they also received a story about how the greatest might lies in grace. So fill your tales with complex characters, lofty ideas, and lovely language. Just don't forget to leaven the lump with a hearty measure of awesome.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Inkd screenshot resouces)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Okay, I'm sold. I'll add it to the (very long, won't-get-to-all-of-it) playlist.

That said, I've been thinking a lot about Assassin's Creed 4 lately. Despite one actually somewhat moving and innovative use of the medium to tell a moving tell near the end of the game, the story is, how shall I say it, terrible. You take on the role of a bloodthirsty buccaneer who is almost as unsympathetic as he is bland, and whose stupidity is only exceeded by others' faith in his intelligence. Blackbeard makes frequent visits which *could* have impressed me with his craziness but instead the game tries unconvincingly to turn him into some form of tragic hero. I honestly kept feeling that the villains were probably the good guys in this piece; for all their mustache twirling villainy and slaveholding, surely their brand of strict totalitarian order had to be more interesting than the dreck of idiotic "freedom" (basically, the freedom to shoot unimportant people for fun and profit) our heroes embraced. And all of that is ignoring the game's utterly bonkers sense of morality. If I accidentally bump a non-cargo-carrying ship, the game scolds me and informs me that the titular pirate captain doesn't harm civilians. On the other hand, if I see a perfectly innocent merchant carrying valuable cargo, there's nothing wrong with slaughtering dozens of guards and taking their stuff. In fact, it's quite thoroughly encouraged.

That said...AC4 is truly a great video game, in a lot of ways. The ships reek with detail, and I'll never forget my first experience fighting against a Man o War, which looms over any other ship on the seas. The tropical locations are so brilliantly rendered that they single-handedly convinced my wife that, yes, our next vacation should involve beautiful beaches. The music is executed flawlessly, from thrilling orchestral compositions to a shockingly large collection of ragged-yet-beautiful sea chanties. This is not to mention the underwater shark-dodging exploration pieces, the searches for treasure chests using crudely-drawn maps, the vast collection of period-accurate board games (where your opponents offer disturbingly good opposition), and the sheer thrill of naval combat and boarding.

I want every sandbox game to have a story as good as (your description of) Dishonored. Or, for that matter, Bioshock Infinite, which asks big questions about free will, religious faith, the difficulty of redemption, and the nature of morality. But I have to admit; Bioshock Infinite bored me with its extended action sequences, and the story was barely enough to justify my playthrough. AC4, on the other hand, provided dozens of hours of beautiful sights and music, combined with quite awesome gameplay.

As a narrative bloke, this kinda disturbs me. It's almost as if good characterization and narrative is optional for even a truly well-crafted videogame.

Rhonda Parrish said...

That doesn't actually sound like the game for me (first person games make me motion sick LoL) but I fully endorse your goal of using lunch hours for electronic entertainment ;)

Simon Kewin said...

That sounds great, actually. Perhaps I should switch to gaming in my lunchtimes rather than catching up on blogging...

Loren Eaton said...

It's almost as if good characterization and narrative is optional for even a truly well-crafted videogame.

That's exactly how the state of the industry is right now, CR. Gameplay comes first. (It used to be graphics, which thankfully is less and less of a factor nowadays.) Story falls far down the list for most titles. Thankfully (and as you know), Pat Rothfuss is signed on to do some game writing, so maybe we'll see general improvement in the future.

Loren Eaton said...


If you have the least bit of motion sickness with first-person games, you definitely don't want to play it! The blink mechanic is fun, but it can get really disorienting.

Loren Eaton said...


I suspect that blogging is a far more productive use of time! (Still, this was a pretty great title.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Yeah, I'm excited about the return of the isomorphic RPG for just that reason. Shadowrun Returns had some great writing; nothing profound, but their almost-over-the-top hardboiled voice combined with a surprisingly cozy what-is-the-nature-of-a-family theme made for a fun single-player game that strangely captured so much of the emotional experience of an actual tabletop RPG. (Some critics panned it as a "choose your own adventure" because of the large amount of text.)

Still and all...I kinda want Pat Rothfuss to finish his own trilogy before writing video games. Even if it's a video game I helped to Kickstart. :-P

Loren Eaton said...

I think we all want to read the end of the Kingkiller Chronicles sooner rather than later.