Serge Hascoët, the creative director of the French video-games company Ubisoft, recently told Le Monde that he didn’t want players having to “endure” stories that someone else had created. Instead, future games would be “anecdote factories” where players chose their own objectives and “freely expressed” themselves within the world.
He’s right in one respect. We tend to remember what we do and see in games, not what we are told. We’re having too much fun jumping to care what’s happening to Mario’s princess in that other castle. The problem is that as hardware becomes more powerful and game-play more complex, most game designers are creating adventure playgrounds instead of real worlds. These environments are designed to empower the player, but they often aren’t very convincing. The things you’re meant to climb are a certain height, and if there’s a way to sneak in somewhere, you’ll know it by the conspicuous pipe on the wall. Why, you ask yourself during “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided”, have the designers of this future metropolis run man-sized air vents into their high-security areas? Why can’t my magical superhuman character climb this waist-high wall? In shooters such as “Call of Duty”, brusque messages flash up if a player attempts to leave the corridor they’re supposed to go down.
“Dishonored 2” doesn’t immediately convince, either. The introduction to this fantasy-Victorian narrative is a five-minute succession of weary tropes that see the character you’re playing expelled from the family castle in a swirl of explanatory dialogue: “Impossible. My mother had a sister?” “My father’s promise, whispered in secret so many years ago, is now fulfilled!” A succession of mid-level Hollywood actors – Rosario Dawson, Sam Rockwell, Vincent D’Onofrio – deliver voice performances as though they were reading a list of terms and conditions. A slim and artless plot – travel the world, meet interesting people, take revenge, go home – is communicated through stiff monologues between acts. By the standards of other dramatic forms, which cherish strong characters, significant motivations and persuasive performances, this game is a stinker.
However, the weakness of the narrative is counterbalanced by some of the finest universe-building in the medium. Its designers have clearly given a great deal of thought not just to the coded language of the environment – jump here, swim here, climb here – but also to making these places look like somewhere people live. You’re still doing the same kind of problem-solving as you do in other games, but the process feels more organic and the options more varied. Buildings and neighbourhoods have a reason for existing that isn’t directly tied to what the player can do in them. It’s sleight of hand, of course, and the work of some very skilled developers, but the effect is to make you feel part of a universe, rather than the mysterious centre around which everything revolves.
And what a surreal universe this is: two fantasy cities powered by fluorescent oil extracted from blubber and running on a combination of baroque technology and low-level magic. A black-clad man makes sinister invitations in a void between worlds, where huge bloodied whales swim through nothingness between pillars of volcanic rock. A clockwork mansion forms and reforms about the player, its floors, furniture and fitments swivelling into place in three dimensions like a house-sized Rubik’s cube. Four-armed, ostrich-headed robot-soldiers pursue you through a seaside villa. A blood-smeared, beating heart whispers secret truths about the thoughts of passersby. Arcane magic lets you step into the bodies of your enemies, or yoke them together like voodoo dolls. A prismatic pocket-watch allows you to peer backward through time.
Ideas about morality, power, race and sexuality are also stealthily incorporated into the narrative but never hammered home. This is a game about killing that quietly rewards you – fewer enemies, better endings – for killing as little as possible. It has a female protagonist who’s neither objectified nor a damsel in distress, and who encounters no sexual abuse or sexualised violence. Its enemies include an all-male order of religious zealots, fearfully cleaving to the certainties of their doctrine, and a coven of witches whose sisterhood offers an illicit magical response to the gender inequality of their society. Each organisation, as you eavesdrop on its members and sift through its documents, proves more morally complex than its detractors suggest.
The result is a game with a strange push-pull between action and reflection. Would you prefer to be told a story or discover one? Choose the first, and you’ll see just another video game – fantasy-themed, task-oriented, implausibly narrated and fascinated with killing. Choose the second, and you get to pick your own path of increasing knowledge through a dense and polyphonic imaginary society. In an entertainment world hovering on the cusp of immersive virtual reality, it’s hard not to see the shape of the future in there somewhere.
“Dishonored 2” out now, published by Bethesda Softworks