Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dishonored (PS3)

I haven't written a review here in a long time. Partially because I've been busy building video games. But, mainly it's because I've had little to say about the games I've played. My feelings toward them have been uncomplicated. Dishonored is different. I just can't figure out what's wrong with it.

On the surface, Dishonored seems flawless. The controls feel smooth. The stealth system is well polished. The combat feels visceral and punishing, but still winnable. The world is intriguing and dynamic. The characters are believable. The graphics are beautiful.

And yet, the whole time, I felt somehow disconnected from the game. Like I was playing with a stocking over my head. But, I don't think it was one thing that spoiled what boded so well.

The first flaw pulling me out of the story is the complete lack of characterization of the protagonist. I suspect the designers did this with the hopes that you would then better insert yourself into the story. But, they name your character. He has intimate ties with other characters. He's supposedly important in court politics. And yet you never see Corvo. You never even hear his voice.

For me, this was a substantial design defect. A protagonist's voice could have given players a much more detailed commentary on the politics of the world. Similarly, I would have felt more engaged with the hunt for the Empress' daughter if I had somebody indicating why I should care. Lacking a connection to the world's characters, I was chasing the bad guys simply because that's how you advance--I never felt like I wanted to push forward.

For Chell or Gordon Freeman, their silence works because their motivations and goals are uncomplicated or obvious. But Dishonored's framing story is one of political intrigue. But without some characterization for the protagonist, it's kind of hard to give a fuck about his struggles.

Next there's the standard video game binary moral choice. If you kill too many people in the game, you get the bad ending. Use non-lethal means, and you get the good ending. It doesn't matter whatsoever that I played through without killing a single civilian, and no more than a handful of city watch officers. Slaughtering my way through the pack of assassins was enough to ensure that I got the bad ending, complete with my former allies kvetching about my "brutality".

This sort of infantile morality always pisses me off in games. It's easy to code; it's easy to understand. But it completely misses the mark in making me feel "responsible for my actions". I think most people would agree that there's a moral difference between killing a police officer who's in the way of you committing a crime, and killing an assassin who's wrongfully imprisoning you.

But I think the real reason that I couldn't really forget that I was playing a game is that the levels were just too easy.

The level design in Dishonored always includes multiple paths to reach your goal. But one (or maybe more) of these paths will be truly optimal, in that they completely sidestep all of the challenges in the level. Faced with an open courtyard full of cover, patrolled by guards, I never once skirted my way from cover to cover avoiding the gaze of the AI. Instead, I just looked up, and was nearly always rewarded with an easily-accessible aerial path that completely skipped any interaction with the guards. And if there's no path above, there'll be a path bellow accessible to anybody who's spent the points on the Possession power.

These paths never seem to require much skill to access, and I can't recall any real time limits. So, unless you're terminally lacking in patience, I don't understand why you would ever choose not to explore for a better path.

And perhaps that's what I'm missing: impatience. I can imagine Dishonored being far more challenging (and therefore perhaps more engaging) if I had to constantly struggle with a childish urge to run out into the open and deliver doom with a crossbow. But with the stick of a "bad ending", and the carrot of conflict-free gameplay, I never felt tempted to dispense with my patient play style.