Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overcoming Triviality in Dishonored

This recent Kill Screen review of Dishonored earned its fair share of criticism, and rightly so - the review reads more like a rant than a well-reasoned criticism of the game, but I am no expert on the matter. I rarely review games, partially because I have a sneaking suspicion my comments are suddenly less compelling when numbers are attached. Instead, I prefer to explore ideas and their executions in more free-form and isolated situations, which is exactly what I want to do here.

The reason I mention the review at all is because the author specifically calls out Dishonored for its array of choices which, as he states, feel absolutely meaningless. As the article tag-line states, "Dishonored lets you do whatever you damn well please. Why?" Could it be that the glut of choices makes each of them trivial?

For awhile, I actually thought this was true. For those unaware, Dishonored is a stealth-action game, or rather, it is a stealth game and an action game - and a few other things as well. Corvo, the game's protagonist, can approach his assassination missions with a huge array of variability. He can use his Blink ability to teleport along the rooftop, out of sight from the watchful guards, or he can lurk in the shadowy sub-basements to reach his target, or he can leap into action and stab everything that moves, or summon rats, or possess fish, etc. etc. etc. It can all feel quite overwhelming.

Here is how I played the game for the first two hours: First I tried being stealthy, maintaining a height advantage over my enemies and sneaking up to guards. Then, time and again, I failed miserably. I would blink off the side of a building and land on top of a guard, or move out of the shadows and bump into a roaming NPC. In response, I would panic, kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, and then run back in the shadows. Frankly, it was boring and disheartening.

Then I learned how to play. Today I went through The Royal Physician campaign twice with two self-imposed conditions. In my first attempt, I would avoid touching the ground whenever possible. Functionally, the floor was lava. In my second attempt, I would kill...everyone (I know, I'm a terrible person). Both experiences were viable and incredibly entertaining, mostly because the I established the limitations myself and I was able to handle the job efficiently.

Play became an artful form of practice. The pathways left unexplored were intentionally abandoned. I felt more like an artist choosing her color palate rather than a tactician in battle. My perspective changed from when I first stepped into Dishonored. I abolished the sense of triviality in the face of so many options by measuring my ability, learning, and, most importantly, choosing to find meaning on my own terms. Sometimes you have to work for your enjoyment.


  1. This reminds me of people who criticized Banjo-Kazooie for having a character who just had too many abilities, a game which is close to 15 years old now. There's some truth there: lots of character abilities can be a lazy way to recycle the same obstacles. Jump over a pit, then long-jump over a pit, then fly over a pit, etc. Or instead of mastering an ability, you simply select whatever ability solves whatever problem you have in front of you. It's also a little more difficult and interesting to design fewer but deeper abilities (compare Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie). But like you said, a variety of abilities also give players more ways to interact with the system of a video game, explore its many nuances, or, more simply, to play.

    I think some people, at times, just don't want to "play" and want a more focused challenge. A system to master rather than simply manipulate. There's nothing wrong with that - it's the difference between XCOM and The Sims - but sometimes I think critics respond poorly to games because they just aren't in the mood for it within the deadline of their review. That's not necessarily the best criticism but I also don't think it's that terrible. Maybe it's not fair to pick on Dishonered like this review does, but maybe Dishonered is still illustrative of the problems the reviewer sees in games.


  2. That was a good review. I don’t see why any reviewers would
    knock the developers for offering too many options! Overall it sounds like a
    great game, but I’m still not convinced enough to buy it. Mainly because past
    experiences (like Deus Ex: Human Revolution) have left me a bit skeptical of certain
    games’ value, especially when I see a lower Longevity rating. So nowadays I
    follow some advice I got from one of my coworkers at DISH: I don’t buy a game
    until AFTER I’ve rented it and had a chance to thoroughly play it. It’s saved
    me a lot of money just in the past six months or so. So with that in mind,
    Dishonored is already in my Blockbuster @Home queue, so I’ll get to play it
    soon; it might not be as fast as if I ran to Gamestop and bought it, but that’s
    alright, I’m still working on Borderlands 2.

  3. Honestly, I think that's great advice. Give the game a solid try and only purchase if you feel like it's a good call. I have no shame in saying I gladly used - and will use again soon - rental services. (Gamefly for me.)

  4. Absolutely well said. I think the important point here is that every now and then, when a game isn't exactly what a player wants, they should try to enjoy it anyway. Can you try to force yourself to enjoy a game, or force yourself to look harder at what makes a game special, even if you know right away that it is not the style for you? Some games really do take an effort.

    Of course this is no more true than for reviewers.

  5. Yeah I used to use Gamefly—it's not a bad service, it's just
    that Blockbuster @Home is less expensive and it has movies too. I forgot to
    mention, the last line in your article: “Sometimes you have to work for your
    enjoyment”, is brilliant. Looking back at the handful of games that stuck with
    me, that truly affected me, they all took more effort and more of a ‘buy-in’
    from the player. The games that didn’t were more like disposable entertainment.