Nevertheless, when we got together to play and complete Dishonored recently, we made a surprisingly good team, racking up no kills and no detections in our first playthrough. And yet I'm left wondering - how much of that was Corvo, exacting revenge on those who wronged him, and how much was me, the gamer, trying to achieve the ‘best' ending?
Dishonored is, in my opinion, a fantastic game. It's got some great ideas, an impressively rich lore and some thoroughly imaginative missions, and all are bound together with astoundingly beautiful aesthetics. I loved it, and I loved the world it portrayed. Yet I never warmed to Corvo, the game's silent protagonist. For me, he was merely a framing device - my avatar in Dunwall. He had no voice, no personality, no heart.
Scratch that last one. He did have a heart, but it's precisely this organ that I found the most troublesome element of Dishonored. The heart is bestowed onto Corvo early on by The Outsider, a mysterious and morally ambiguous otherworldly figure.
Its main purpose is to direct players to various runes and bone charms scattered across each level, which will allow them to obtain new skills or enhance existing ones. When the heart is held in hand, the location of these items appears on screen, and the heart beats faster when in close proximity to them. Even when not actively equipped, game will actually encourage you to stop what you're doing when you get close to a rune or a bone charm, take out the heart and hunt down whatever stat boost is nearby.
There are those who will love the rune collecting and the challenges that it brings. My problem with the heart is that, in a game that's supposedly all about choice, its mechanic is interfering with and potentially even spoiling the game's story. It's pulling you out of character and actively pushing you to pursue a distraction rather than play out your role within the narrative. Effectively, it encourages players to act in a way that seems unnatural to the character and at odds with the world the developers have spent so long crafting.
Rather than leaving you to explore and discover at your own pace, the heart tells you too much and then leads you by the nose from A to B. During my playthrough, each time I was entering a new area, I got into the bad habit of immediately pulling out the heart and planning my route according to where the nearest runes were. If there were four runes in a level, I'd be looking for the shortest distance between each one, rather than the most interesting route or the direction I wanted to explore in. The gamer in me takes over, and instead of embracing player choice, I'm taking the convenient routes and detours in and out of those runes. Soon, you start to suspect that rather than playing your own game your own way, you're going through the motions and having the exact same experience as everybody else.
It's good to provide help and tools in finding these optional extras, but by its prominence and the way it works, the heart inadvertently and subtly steers players away from exploration and instead funnels everyone down the same corridor. Rather than being a map, it's both a compass and a crutch, and it can turn what should be an exciting adventure into a straightforward orienteering mission. The heart, quite simply, makes things too easy and all but eliminates the wonder and joy of personal discovery.
Aside from the power-ups they provide, the purpose of the runes and bone charms scattered throughout Dunwall is most likely to encourage you to explore, but unfortunately in reality, they perform the opposite function. Dishonored is not the only one guilty of this crime.
Other games like Assassin's Creed: Revelations offered side missions that really felt out of character for their protagonist. Arguably, AC:R harmed the focus of its own story by having an assassin drop everything to set up a chain of shops. In Batman: Arkham City, we have to suspend disbelief to accept that the caped crusader would stall justice in order to systematically collect trophies and solve puzzles, actions that are surely not in keeping with the character we know. When we ignore the next story objective to go trophy hunting, we're not Batman anymore. We're a gamer controlling Batman.
In Dishonored, a game about choice, I think I'd prefer not to know the exact locations of items in advance, lest my compulsive and competitive gamer instincts take over. And indeed, once I decided not to pursue the collectibles and instead focus on the mission, I enjoyed Dishonored all the more, because I'm eschewing my own motivations and embracing the story and the character at the heart of it.
This feeling of limitation is compounded by the fact that each chapter ends with a feedback summary of your stats and your performance, where it displays how many runes and bone charms you found next to how many were available. Rather than letting you live in blissful ignorance with the choices you made, Dishonored shows you exactly where you may have went wrong. The unfortunate effect of this is that instead of contemplating the conversations I overheard or marvelling at the sights I saw along my way, I'm made to mull over what I missed, and ultimately regret my decisions. If a game is really encouraging choice, it should allow you the freedom of that choice and how you want to play. It shouldn't make you immediately question what you did or didn't do or how you approached a certain situation.
Many games have fallen into similar habits nowadays. There are too many mechanics for players to lean on, too many collectibles that detract from the main focus, and the result are games that feel devoid of any real achievement because we've essentially been handed everything on a plate.
Dishonored takes a lot of cues from Half-Life, one of my all-time favourite games. I still remember playing it for the first time and being completely caught up in the game and the story, and in being Gordon Freeman. I played through the entirety of Half Life with the sole focus of keeping myself alive. Nothing else mattered. Games like Half-Life and Portal are celebrated because they find a healthy balance between the player, the gameplay and the world. Any secrets that you stumble upon feel like an extension of the narrative, rather than an extension of the overall run time. And when you find something extra in those games, you feel a little bit special; like you just might be the only person to have found it.
The problem with Dishonored's approach is that it tries to include both player choice AND a morality system. Players can play the way they want to, but the different endings are still ranked as ‘good' and ‘bad' thanks to the way the Chaos system works, and this in turn effects the way players will behave. Bloodthirstiness begets a darker ending, whilst fewer kills predictably results in a much more positive outcome. As ever though, the morality is difficult as shades of grey don't translate very well. There's either high and low chaos, never incremental chaos or contextual chaos. What if you murdered a few to save the many? Or killed weepers not out of malice, but mercy? Or conversely, you spared a life for purely selfish reasons? Morality and 'freedom' in a game is led too much by the game itself. When the choice is either ‘good' or ‘bad' you don't play by what feels natural, but by what the reward might be. When I play Mass Effect, I don't always respond in the ways I feel are appropriate for the situation; I play by how I want my Shepard to be viewed by the other characters.
I really did love Dishonored, contrary to my complaints. It's just that it also served to highlight, to me at least, how the need for gaming crutches can muddy the core themes or encourage the player to go against what we know of the characters. The bottom line is that Dishonored doesn't have to reward me with stats, hints and a magical thumping upgrade finder that detracts from what the game is really about. My overall experience in Dunwall and my inevitable revenge was most certainly reward enough.