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Dishonored and the Art of the Prologue

The art of the prologue is sorely neglected in the broader video game industry.

Perhaps the very purpose of a prologue works against its utilization in modern interactive storytelling. A prologue works primarily to establish themes and the tone of the work, and in an industry where the talents of writers seem to be measured by how best they can emulate Spielberg, Lucas or Roddenberry.

Corporate shills. I hate these guys.

The opening to Bioshock is an incredible experience, a microcosm of everything the game wishes its player to consider. The subversion of seeming choice, as Jack is pushed towards the lighthouse in order to survive. The irony in the contrast between Andrew Ryan's libertarian rhetoric and the player's helplessness in the bathysphere, devoid of anything resembling Ryan's beloved self-determination as they are drawn into his warped, distorted utopia.

Did you know: There's evidence that suggests that Ayn Rand herself wanted to establish an underwater utopia. Well, she once said "Meet you in Atlantis" or something. Go post that on Reddit. Stop complaining about your new fact.

It's the perfect set-up to the game's denoument, Ryan's "Would You Kindly" speech. The overt message of empowerment is subtly subverted by the ironies of the situation, creating Bioshock's incredibly unique atmosphere. Bioshock holds a mirror up to the simulated nature of the interactive world, exploring what it really is to make a choice in a video game. In seeming contrast to every other mainstream title, Bioshock's main characters are not playable, and they are vastly more powerful and active than the player. Yet Bioshock pulls back the curtain on more than itself, showing "choice" for the Molyneuxian illusion it almost always is. As long as game development remains limited by the finite capacity of human beings to program in the results of certain decisions, "choice" as Mass Effect and Fable sell it cannot exist. It remains the domain of tabletop style RPGs alone, an arena where the human imagination trumps the rules.

The original overly convoluted "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.

In many ways, Dishonored is a spiritual successor to Bioshock the same way Bioshock was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. Dishonored takes many broad elements of the design of Bioshock, whilst creating its own tone, gameplay style, and narrative, much as Bioshock generally excised much of the survival horror from its predecessor. Dishonored does not ask one to consider the nature of the video game; in fact, it doesn't overtly thematically explore much in the sense that a book or a film would, using symbolism, events or characters to represent certain ideas and the contrast between them. Instead, Dishonored gives the player a living, sprawling world to explore, and gives them only one choice to make: what form will my revenge take?

Internet, all I wanted was an easily uncovered image of Corvo holding his mask ala Hamlet with Yorick's skull. COULD YOU REALLY HAVE NOT DRAWN ONE LESS PICTURE OF PONIES HAVING INTERCOURSE TO FULFILL MY SELFISH WHIMS INSTEAD OF YOUR OWN YOU UTTER BASTARDS

This question is shockingly powerful. Bioware games give players a superfluity of choices, none of which are genuinely impactful in any sense, because they aren't truly organic player choices. You cannot reduce human interaction to a series of options in a tree and then have the theme of your game be choice, because it makes absolutely no sense. Having a chat with a friend cannot be ruled by the same system that dictates how you interact with a moral dilemma, because of the vast disparity in potential outcomes.

By contrast, Dishonored has learnt a lesson from Bioshock, and its protagonist is merely a pawn in a much wider conflict. He is a weapon of the Loyalist Conspiracy, and nothing more. His choices are limited to how he wishes to remove each obstacle to the ambitions of his superiors. Yet Corvo's choices have high emotional currency attached to them. The foul creatures Dishonored places before its players almost universally deserve death, yet it is arguable few of them deserve the terribly ironic nonlethal punishments that can be visited upon them. It's a surprisingly reversal of Western notions of crime and punishment, those of the barbarity of extralegal execution and the poignancy and necessity of punishment befitting the crime. Savage to slay a woman to weaken the economic position of a foe, but there is a monstrous calculated malevolence in subverting her attempts to improve her positions by her efforts in bed through drugging her and giving her to an obsessed admirer, perhaps to fulfil his depraved desires.

There's a disturbing intimacy to the Boyle kill. You read the letters of the target and her sisters, you play a childish little game, maybe you flirt with her a little, and in the dark of her room, you impale her with a dagger. WAIT A MINUTE

And yet Dishonored fails to truly explore Corvo's most defining moment, the point at which he realises he will be blamed for the death of his dearest friend, his beloved ruler, and, in all likelihood, his romantic partner and the mother of his child.

Dishonored's prologue, painted in broad strokes, evokes the spectacle and expands upon the exposition elements of Bioshock's. Yet, apart from the contrast it will later provide to the bleak nature of Corvo's life and to the cruel, rarefied leadership of Dunwall, it fails to establish the theme and tone of the game. And after considering the opening, I find myself wondering:

Why didn't Arkane allow us to play out Corvo's response to the death of the Empress?

By all means, Corvo should be paralyzed whilst the Empress is murdered. This event is the driving force of the plot, and the player's helplessness in the face of the Outsider's gifts works well in demonstrating the immensity of his power. But to unceremoniously have Corvo bludgeoned into unconsciousness by a guard and bundled off to prison frivolously wastes a crucial storytelling element.

"Jessie, that Lord Regent guy is hilarious! "Kill the poor" and all that, perfect deadpan. Some Jonathan Swift shit right there. Get him to do the Imperial Revue later this year, it'll be great!"

A player might choose to futilely chase after those who have absconded with Lady Emily, making Corvo's tale one of dysfunctional fatherhood and loyalty to a dead love.

Perhaps they simply choose to run, truly making Corvo into a pawn, affected and controlled by forces far beyond his control.

Or maybe they choose to slaughter their way through deceived guards, an undiscriminating cyclone of vengeance, determined to murder the conspirators for what they've done. Thus Dishonored would truly become a tale of revenge at all costs, with Corvo choosing, from the very beginning of the narrative, to put all else aside to vanquish those who have wronged him.

With these elements, I doubt there would really be any need for a massive overhaul of the game's atmosphere or environment. A few pieces of dialogue about Corvo's cowardice once his regicide was discovered or a fearful discussion between guards about the transcendent bloodlust of the man they are to protect the regime from would have helped, but ultimately an opening goes a long damn way. A person forced to act immediately, denied a period of reflection and consideration, is widely believed to be one forced to reveal their true self. Perhaps Dishonored becomes a tale of trying to overcome the true stain on Corvo's character, the one he imprints himself through his reaction to the most trying of circumstances. Perhaps it becomes a tale of the psychological and moral collapse of a once noble character, drunk on eldritch power that yet cannot satisfy his infinite thirst for what his warped mind sees as righteous bloodshed.

Video games are art, Roger Ebert, I swear! Please call me man, we can watch Wreck-It Ralph together! You like animation, right, buddy?

As of now, Dishonored is easily my AAA title of the year, for whatever amount of absolutely jack-shit nothing that is worth. It utilizes real choice and a silent protagonist to truly immerse a player in its world. But video games are an evolving medium, and I can't but feel that Arkane missed the boat here.

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About Calibanone of us since 12:14 AM on 03.26.2012