Dissecting the Straightforward - Nikolas Davidoff Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Dissecting the Straightforward

Almost a week after the infectious mushiness of Valentine's day had been showered off, I decided to get a nagging, unpleasant thought off my chest with my freshly minted Twitter account. Little did I realise that instead of smothering the fire in my belly, I merely carried it over to a new campsite. The issue revolved around Arkane Studio's Dishonored, one of 2012's most high profile hits, a game that its co-Creative Directors Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith continually said before launch would feature an unpredictable, grey morality system. This is natural and understood, as any creator wants their work to sound their best while they are still nursing it away from public scrutiny. However while reading an interview with them in Gameinformer's February 2013 issue, an interview thus conducted long after the game's October 2012 release, I found that Colantonio and Smith continued to put this morality system on the same high pedestal.

Now this is where the controversial fun begins. Seeing a disparity between their claims and the final game, I tweeted; “Support a game pre-release but its grating to keep reading @rafcolantonio & @Harvey1966 (Smith's username) lie through their teeth on #Dishonored b/w morality. Due to the incredible popularity of the game, I followed it up with a jest; “Probably going to get a lot of #hate over that last #Dishonored tweet. BAH! I don't have enough followers to be hated yet!:) #safe #ForNow”. Then lo and behold, a professional decided to respond to a public nobody. Smith replied to my humourous tweet with a triple threat, a mix of hurt feelings and nitpicking over my bio, to which I argued back, and thus the Twitter tag flamed on.



My argument was rooted in a specific comment by Smith in the Gameinformer interview; “The response to Dishonored and the chaos system is because we don't have a black-and-white morality and we don't punish you if you go one way – but we do have an outcome to your actions.” This is not the case in the final game, as I continued to stress that out of the two types of tools and abilities, lethal and nonlethal, killing results in increased numbers of hostile plague rats and zombie-like weepers, and also contributes to a darker ending. On the other hand, dispatching enemies with the nonlethal options prevents these extra foes from propagating, but these options are so limited that committing to them betrays the game's most alluring quality; creative experimentation with your tools and powers. Your only options for nonlethal business is the sleep dart and choke (polite version of the stealth assassination). What is lying in wait in the Reaper's treasure trove? A gun, grenades, trip mine, (pointy) crossbow bolts, flaming crossbow bolts, flesh eating rats, a disorienting wind blast that upgrades to a cranium splitter, and of course the primary sword, which enables simple sneak attacks and an aerial counterpart. Even the passive upgrades are primarily geared towards spilling blood, with disguised stealth kills and boosts to sword-fighting and health that are only properly utilised in aggressive combat, combat that can only be fought with the lethal sword. Let's just say this is no Batman.

Therefore killing remains the game's most creative and all-round enjoyable way to play, but it continually becomes harder due to the influx of infected immigrants. That was the core of the debate, as killing is sublime but harder, while nonlethal is painted as the 'good' option due to the positive ending and cleaner streets but is so restrictive, thus misrepresenting the main draw of the game. However Smith continued to debate otherwise. Who would have guessed 138 characters could have incited such passion?

His motive is understandable, he was defending an accusation of dishonesty, but his arguments were hardly strong. He continually claims that making it harder to kill by killing is not punishment, but a consequence. To quote oxforddictionaries.com, a consequence is a result or effect, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant”. Now that doesn't sound like punishment at all! 'Consequence' is such a nondescript term that can be placed upon any reaction to anything. A parent taking a toy away from their child can be considered a 'consequence' for a silly action, but when you apply morality to that 'consequence' it becomes punishment. Now when you are slaying your foes in a game for creative enjoyment, not challenge, and then that enjoyment populates the battlefield with things that make that action more difficult, is that not punishment?


Smith's misconceptions with morality become even more apparent upon viewing a Gameinformer video interview dated July 27, 2011, amid the earliest pre-release hype for Dishonored, where he makes a veiled criticism of inFamous, Sucker Punch Productions' superhero series that also takes a pop at morality.  He summarized the game's approach as "oh, you murdered everyone in the village so now you have the red lightning but you saved everyone in the village so now you have the blue lightning.  That doesn't make any sense to us either."  There is no doubt that inFamous had a stark black and white choice system that, until the final decision in inFamous 2, pitted lazy personal gain against the welfare of an entire city, but upon closer inspection reveals a system not dissimilar to Dishonored.  

They both run on an aggregate style system, where in Dishonored you are pulled toward high or low chaos by your lethal or nonlethal actions, with the 'consequences' or lack thereof, being the results of cumulative player interaction.  It is very possible to play the game primarily with nonlethal tactics and make the occasional kill because you will not constantly be contributing to the high chaos end of the scale.  inFamous on the other hand ask whether you want to be a hero or a villain, and has a wealth of general activities you can pursue for both sides to increase.  Healing civilians swings the pendulum to the good side for example, while attacking police officers puts more strength into the evil gauge.  However when you commit one moral act, it also decreases its counterpart's meter, thus providing you with two extremes and nothing in between.  You can very well be a hero and commit the occasional execution on a foe, as it won't instantly revoke you justice license. 

So what is the difference between the two games? They follow the same style of morality system yet Smith condemns inFamous and claims his own baby is more mature. At least inFamous gives an equal amount of powers to both heroes and villains, thus making both paths an equal treat. Oh, but I forget, Smith told me that they “deliberately made it harder to be good.” I suppose he meant 'limited,' but he told Gameinformer that “we don't punish you if you go one way” and the marketing campaign focused on the game's unbridled freedom. I think we are seeing more of those disparities here.

One particular oddity in the juncture was Smith's incessant need to peddle the positive response from "most people," right up to the very end.  Was he trying to make me feel guilty?  Hopefully it wasn't his alibi, because I can quote this gamefaqs.com thread and Gameinformer's review to show that this isn't just my opinion.  In it, Reviews Editor Joe Juba summarizes the issue perfectly; "For all of Dishonored's attempts to avoid the traditional morality found in choice-driven gameplay, you're still making a binary choice: Will you kill people, or not kill people?" in an otherwise glowing appraisal.  Perhaps Smith misconstrued my intentions, taking me for one of the average internet 'haters' that have become so prolific in recent years.

I too am one of those “most people” who enjoyed and appreciated the game. In fact my original tweet never made a single claim against Dishonored, I called out its creators on an untruth, a lie. When I later say that the game does not do morality well it is truth, for just like inFamous its morality system is unremarkable. It is not a Mass Effect that asks which ally will you leave to die, or whether an entire species deserves extinction just because they are not like you. But I suppose since Smith does not work at BioWare so I'm not allowed to criticise him? I never attacked Dishonored, I never even said whether its morality system works or not, just the fact that it is not what its creators claim. For an entirely different statement can be made in defense of black-and-white morality, and that is whether it benefits the individual game or not.

You are never compelled to be truly sadistic as a villain in inFamous so that an off-putting story never deters the desire to play with the evil powers. BioShock only provides you with saving or harvesting the defenceless Little Sisters because in the desperate city of Rapture there is no space for compromise or comfort, you either fight for your own survival, or risk it all for these strangers. The over-the-top villains of Dishonored (pious warrior priest that secretly indulges in booze and prostitutes anyone?) provide a guilt-free vehicle to propel the violent assassination story forward. Perhaps the limited nonlethal options are intended to persuade you to kill, an approach most befitting of such a macabre society. A great deal of personal interpretation can be applied to these systems, and each of them compliment the games they are attached to, but it is an undeniable fact that they are flawed systems. This fact does not change, it is merely a case of 3 games working well off of black-and-white morality.

In the end, morality as a game mechanic needs to match the goals of the game as a whole, but it can very well be critiqued on its own.  Not every game requires pause inducing moments of doubt and fret, and some emotions can be effectively triggered in the arms of simplicity, but the accompanying message needs to be just as simple.  PR pretense can only take you so far before the truth catches up.

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