About Story and Dishonored

Dec 24, 2012

The story of Corvo in Dishonored is better than most games. But it’s not all that good. For a game that excels at immersive story telling, the main arch being told is not engaging. As gamers, we get a lot of crap thrown at us. Let’s face it, the games that sell big (Modern Warfare and Halo) focus more on set-pieces than story. Consequently, mainstream developers are not motivated to drive compelling story into their games – it’s too much additional work. Thankfully the rise of indie development gives gamers a shot at story as artistic expression.

(Warning: spoilers ahead) Dishonored is the story of Corvo, the personal bodyguard of the Empress. There are many who would see her removed from power, and we get the sense that the attack on her in the game’s first chapter was not Corvo’s first rodeo. As with all governments, this tale includes backstabbing, deceit, and betrayal. What drew me in and made me feel this game’s story could stand out, was Corvo’s adorable and admirable love for the Empress’s daughter, Princess Emily. And credit to Arkane Studios for their story delivery method – if you read the right letters around the world you’ll learn that Emily is likely Corvo’s own daughter. And that is my first criticism of the story.  If Emily is Corvo’s daughter, we should have had more interaction with her and how that impacts the story. Or, even if not his daughter, it’s such a rarity to have this type of connection between two characters in a video game – I could have used more development and attention. Regarding Emily, other than saving her (or not) at the end of the game, her story becomes the results of your actions not directly relating to her. Again, tip my hat to Arkane Studios: if you visit Emily between missions you’ll occasionally see her drawings which reflect how she views you and ultimately the outcome of the final cutscene. For someone so critical to the game’s final act, why is she hidden throughout the game? Instead, Corvo is spending his time assassinating rich people that his friends, who rescued him from captivity, have asked him to kill. The game’s mechanics are great – no question. But it’s not too much to use the story to structure the need for the mechanics. Instead of Emily, Corvo is fixated on The Outsider. The worst named character of 2012. What a trip this guy is. He’s obviously untrustworthy, but also a god. Corvo uses The Heart item to search for runes and worship sites of The Outsider. It’s an odd mix. Corvo lives in a steampunk world powered by whale oil and dominated by a god that dresses like a pirate and is a total dick. Ultimately, after a strong start, I was disappointed to see a game with a wonderful mechanic and outstanding story deliver system, execute so poorly on story. It can’t be easy to build a “create your own adventure” game like this, but the over arching story lacks a compelling reason to pay attention.

We are in the final stretch of this generation’s console lifecycle. A time when game engines are mature, production costs have come down, and margins should be higher. It’s the perfect time to focus on story. Granted, developers are also working on the next generation’s games, but what a perfect time for seasoned developers to come together and create a game with all of their experience that nets a fantastic experience. Well, good news! It’s happening in a place more and more gamers are looking: indie development.

Take Almost Human for example – the brain trust behind my favorite game of 2012: Legend of Grimrock. These guys hail from Remedy, Gizmondo and Futuremark. A wealth of experience that translated into a simple but addictive game that is top-knotch for a team’s first game. Quality, my friends, pure quality. We need more of this type of work. Now Grimrock is not a story-driven game, which is the argument I’m trying to drive home. But consider this: these guys now have a familiarity of working together and their overhead is low. Thus, their margins are higher. If interested, this is a team that can focus on story and not pimping out a graphics engine and making things go boom when a tear may be more effective.

I have never developed a video game, but I have ran several companies. I attach productivity to dollars. For example, if a dollar is spent here versus here, which is more expensive and returns a better dollar. The end goal is the customer experience. So my dollar is best spent if it efficiently leads to a better experience. That’s Apple’s philosophy, and they’re a pretty good company. When it comes to video games, this logic may still be applied. And I would argue that a game centered around story and emotion will appeal to a larger audience than the heavy production of explosions and inhuman feats. Certainly if you look at the sales figures, Call of Duty is always on the top charts and those games are heavily focused on a different customer experience. It will take some risk to shift the gaming culture. Telltale, perhaps, is the leader in this department. The Walking Dead: The Game is a leading-edge mix of action and story telling. In my opinion, it is the best experience of the Walking Dead IP available. An experience that can only be accomplished through immersive storytelling in video games.

In short, video games have the ability to stand apart as the best expression of storytelling. Instead of being the target of corrupt youth or the downfall of society, video games can rise above and be considered a form of artistic expression. I’m not calling for the end of Call of Duty or action games. I play them! Rather, for the rise of more games like The Walking Dead.

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