“Strange how there’s always just a little more innocence left to lose”, so says the Outsider, the obscure and morally ambiguous deity of the Dishonored series, shortly after you’ve encountered the primary antagonist of the game, your foil and counterpart, the assassin Daud. Those who have played the series know that one can only refer to these events as “encounters”, because the outcome is entirely up to you – to travel the high road, spare your enemies, and leave the world better than you found it – or to cut a bloody swath through the world on your path to revenge. This is the mainstay of the series, combining action and decision, morality as well as plot, in order to allow players to “play your way”.
In the first game, it was an intriguing and captivating dynamic. Now, months after the release of Dishonored 2 (and four different play-throughs), it can be said that Arkane Studios has truly developed their own brand of video game, having improved upon the original formula to reach new heights. The reactive world, highly detailed linear level design, and captivating story have all combined to make a game that should be treasured not only for the sum of its parts, but because it elevates the video game ecosystem as a whole. In order for games to evolve into a medium to rival and surpass film and television, we need more games like Dishonored 2.
My usual barometer for a game’s story is my roommate, Josh. An avid consumer of film and TV, Josh self-proclaims, “I’m just one of those people who don’t really get video games..” However, Josh does enjoy watching certain games, ones that tend to have cinematic flair, good dialogue, and unique concepts we can discuss. His favorite game to watch is The Witcher 3. His least favorite game to watch at the moment is Titanfall 2 (“I’m sure it’s a good game but like, I don’t even know what’s happening right now this is all so fast”).
There’s a level in Dishonored 2 where the main antagonist of the game, Delilah Kaldwin, traps the player in the Void and forces them to relive the experiences that shaped her into what she is. It was during this sequence that Josh looked up from his dinner and says, “This is actually crazy – I like, actually want the context of this game.”. Cut to a half hour later after I’ve ranted about decision trees and reactive world gameplay and Josh concludes with, “This game is making me want to get into video games.”.
This is the kind of reaction that only excellent video games will receive from the audience of the uninitiated, and it’s the kind of reaction every publisher should be striving for. We’ve hit a point where the video game industry is now very stratified – the largest publishers are cranking out several annual titles per year from their cash cow IP’s (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, even Halo has been revived for annual iterations) while glorifying the fact that they allow indie publishers to live under their umbrella and calling this “risk-taking”. In such an environment, the middle ground where true magic like Dishonored 2, or Shadow of Mordor, or the recently deceased Fable games spring from can often be overlooked by all but the most dedicated fans, let alone people who normally wouldn’t even play video games.
This isn’t all to say that there aren’t excellent video games being made all the time, by publishers at all levels of the industry. We’re fortunate enough to live in a time where gaming structures as well as technical processes are advancing at an exponential rate every year. What sets games like Dishonored 2 apart is the unique blend of gameplay into story, and vice versa. One of the most fantastic series of games in terms of epic and cinematic storytelling is the Mass Effect series, from BioWare (in fact, BioWare really just makes all the best gaming stories – Dragon Age is a franchise no fantasy fan should overlook). However, moral dilemmas and NPC character reactions are determined solely through the outcome of the dialogue wheel, a mechanism that rips the player from the immersive world they’ve entered and reminds them oh so brutally that, in the end, they’re simply inputting commands into an incredibly nuanced computer program. That being said, BioWare has already given notice that they plan to add more subtlety to this mechanism in their next iteration, without entirely doing away with the dialogue wheel. I’m personally very excited to see how planned changes to the dialogue structure for Mass Effect: Andromeda, out later this month, affect the immersion factor in the game.
Dishonored 2’s style is different. You don’t choose your character’s words. You choose their actions – through your gameplay. You can’t play a high chaos Corvo and then have him be buddies with Billie Lurk at the end (trust me, I wanted to). You need to play mercifully and thoughtfully in order for your character to act that way towards NPC’s or the world at large. It may be more difficult to find a way to get through the game without slaughtering any in your path, but that’s the point – a happy ending requires hard work. A ruler who simply buries their enemies will have to listen to their accusations forever. A ruler who rises above their enemies and shows their people a better way becomes revered.
This is where Dishonored 2 surpasses its predecessor – the gameplay has been designed to have a smooth, visceral, and engaging flow regardless of your play style. Every enemy represents an opportunity for new and innovative ways to eliminate, incapacitate, or evade. More importantly, each enemy represents another facet of the storytelling – will you kill them, or spare them? The decision doesn’t have to be arbitrary, as the game equips the player with what’s known simply as “The Heart”, which can be pointed at an enemy and used to extract their secrets. Secrets provided are unique to the enemy NPC, and generally place them on a three tiered spectrum of good, balanced, or evil – allowing you some context with which to decide their fate, and in turn the overall outcome of the game. This sort of “‘micromorality”’ is what sets Dishonored 2 apart from other reactive world video games. You don’t just mow down hordes of enemies to make a moral decision at the end of the level; rather, your actions throughout the level and game overall shape the consequences you’ll see.
While fascinating and engaging by themselves, the true benefits and significance of Dishonored 2 are greater than the sum of these parts. The game elevates video games as a medium through the effects all of this can have on the player. As Josh asked after watching me use The Heart to ascertain the relative good/evilness of some NPC’s, subsequently dispatching the evil ones and knocking out the good ones, “Does it ever freak you out that something like this could make you too used to playing God? I mean, you’re able to make this arbitrary decision because they’ve put a few lines of code in there per character but really, morality doesn’t work like that..”
That is not a typical question you think of when playing video games. Yes, there have always been the concerns from the non-gamer public regarding GTA killing sprees and their consequences on impressionable minds. However, this line of thought is more nuanced – it’s not, “do video games make you more violent”, rather it’s “can video games change the way you perceive the world”. I would argue that this is not a consequence, but the goal of any true medium of expression, be it film, TV, or literature. We should be hoping for, asking for, games that affect us in this way and put us into a different perspective.
In the end, Dishonored 2 works out the response to Josh’s question by itself. Yes, one can feel like they’re playing God – or, perhaps, the angel of death – all the way through the campaign, yet the resulting end credits scene will not leave you feeling satisfied if you do. The first entry in the series didn’t shy away from showing players exactly the kind of consequences their actions had, and the second is no different. When working through a high chaos play-through the gameplay can be faster and more brutal, but the world is inevitably darker and less fulfilling… the writers of the story have done an excellent job of making sure the only way you feel vindicated by the end of the game is if you truly deserve it. You’re not God, deciding who lives and who dies with impunity – just another mortal who has to live with their actions once the story is completed.
All of these mechanics and nuances tie together to make Dishonored 2 the complete experience that it is, to the benefit of the video game industry at large. We’re at a point in time where the mechanics and structures of games are becoming more innovative and at a faster pace than ever before. Additionally, gaming is being considered less and less of a niche market, with the demographics of those playing opening up to wider and wider fan bases. Games such as this one are incredibly important to the future of the industry – not for mere entertainment, but for their artistry; experiences that are crafted, which provoke the same kind of thought and discussion that we usually reserve for film or television. We need to take advantage of the medium, because we’re uniquely positioned to affect the audience: with control over the character and perspective, audiences become uniquely engaged in video games like no other medium. I recently re-watched The Fellowship of the Ring, and have always loved the scene at the end where Aragorn decapitates the Uruk-hai chieftain,… but then realized that the satisfaction from that moment in film pales when compared to being mocked for an entire level by Kirin Jindosh and finally being able to be in the driver’s seat as you plunge a sword through his heart (or decapitate him (or kick him off his balcony (or get his own clockwork soldier to kill him for you (etc. etc.)))).
On top of this “immersion” advantage, which will only increase as the industry evolves, the ability of reactive game worlds to build out decision trees and non-linear storylines means that there are infinite endings to your story. Film and television can have an ambiguous ending (Inception) which leaves room for interpretation, but only in video games can you truly craft entirely separate storylines dependent on the players’ decisions. This flexibility allows for writers to build out incredibly robust storylines that allow for multiple types of conflict and resolution within the same game. With this sort of advantage in play, there’s no reason that games shouldn’t be giving story and depth as much of a focus as any other aspect of development, and indeed games that truly stand out often do. The future of gaming will be determined by the impact of these types of experiences as much as the technical kind. As an industry, as a fan base, it’s our job to make sure these gems are recognized.