Critics have found Dishonored to be a tremendously interesting game with a forgettable story. In one sense, I think that the criticism leveled at the game’s story is entirely fair—Dishonored certainly seeks to contextualize the player’s actions within something of a linear narrative frame. In another sense, I have to wonder what these critics mean by “story” when they dock it a tenth or two in their review scores. By “story”, do they mean the written dialogue of NPC characters? Voice acting? Linear or nonlinear plot developments?
Here is what a handful of critics from respected game sites said about Dishonored’s story:
Cam Shea, writing for IGN says:
It’s a shame that Dishonored‘s story isn’t greater than the sum of its decidedly memorable parts, but its gameplay absolutely is.
Jake Gaskill, writing for G4 says:
Corvo’s revenge tale has a solid enough setup, an appreciated, if predictable, twist towards the end, and even wraps up most of the loose ends in the closing moments. . . .
The story is perfectly serviceable; it just never quite lives up to the mythos established and supported by the universe in which it takes place.
Alexander Sliwinski, writing for Joystiq says:
There are many elements emphasized regarding life in Dunwall, but hardly any of them are explored in this specific story. It creates a bit of dissonance over time, since set pieces and locales you’d swear should be included are not. . . . .
I enjoyed the story Dishonored was trying to tell, but wanted more based on the enticing world it teased.
I understand why these criticisms were made. There is no “would you kindly” moment in Dishonored. Its talented cast of voice actors failed to save the majority of characters from banality. The information delivered to players through the game’s various books and notes is poorly written and failed to consistently pique my interest. And finally, the game asks players to take a lot of crucial plot elements at face value with little to no explanation: The Outsider is good and your targets are awful people who are better off dead. The hope of any game writer would be that such plot elements would add weight to the player’s actions but these do not. These complaints do, however, illustrate something pernicious about the state of games criticism.
Game critics, by and large, seem committed to critiquing narrative in games in almost exactly the same fashion as film. This is disconcerting because Dishonored would make for a horrible movie and yet, it’s one of the most compelling videogames I have played this year.
To be fair to the above reviews, they all agree that Dishonored is a well designed game that creatively emphasizes choice. These reviews, however, seem to view story as an easily detachable element from the game’s systems. Like “graphics”, “sound”, or “replay value”, story is just another component that is thrown into the game review. Having read these reviews, however, I believe that these critics enjoy the story of Dishonored more than they realize.
Game critics have had a difficult time discussing narrative in games. PC Gamer recognizes this as they hosted a panel at PAX Prime titled “The Incredible, Uncertain Future of Storytelling.” The panel included designers of what we might call “narrative heavy” games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Supergiant’s Bastion alongside the designers of more systems-based games like DayZ and Minecraft. When asked if he considers himself a storyteller, creator of Mincraft, Marcus “Notch Persson, said “no.” That doesn’t mean Minecraft lacks a story. After all, it isn’t so much telling a story to the player as it is allowing the player to create their own internal narrative.
While Sliwinski acknowledges Dishonored’s narrative foibles, he also points out that it
“is the specific story of Corvo Attano and his reaction to the conspiracy against Empress Kaldwin.” I agree that the game tells a specific story but that specific story is more complex than Sliwinski lets on.
Dishonored is the story of Corvo Attano, former body guard to the Empress, who finds himself with little choice but to strike back at the Empire than betrayed him and slaughtered his friend and leader, the Empress. It’s the story of a man who refuses to use the destructive weapons his loyalist friends have equipped him with. He refuses to kill any number of the Lord Regent’s guards, after all, it was only 6 months ago that Corvo was serving the Empress along side them. Corvo trusts no one except Emily, the young daughter of the Empress, who is caught in the middle of a deadly conspiracy with which she had little to do. Corvo refuses to kill, save for the purpose of protecting Emily. The few times he does kill, he doesn’t relish it. He sticks to the shadows, perhaps because of the many decisions he regrets.
Dishonored is the story of Corvo Attano as I control him.
Next week, I will play as Corvo Attano the psychopathic serial killer or Corvo the masked servant of Dunwall. I will probably keep playing until I run out of Corvos that I find compelling.
The “story” of Dishonored is found somewhere in the dance between, Corvo the product of a disease and conspiracy ridden culture, and my interaction with the game’s systems—Corvo as I envision him. I agree that the game’s setting and cast often fail to add weight to its narrative. However, the vast majority of what players do in Dishonored is creating such a robust and fulfilling narrative that I cannot concur with critics who claim “it’s a shame that Dishonored’s story isn’t greater than the sum of its decidedly memorable parts but its gameplay absolutely is.”
I am glad that Dishonored was not a movie, I am sure I would have hated it. Thankfully it’s something altogether different. I think Arkane Studios set out to create a game that struck a balance between more narrative heavy games and more systems-based games. It certainly it falters at times in maintaining this balance. But the internal narrative I am creating within the game’s systems is the opposite of the one critics keep telling me is rather “predictable.”
About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.
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