Previous to its release, bloggers and critics hardened by years of wannabe "Deus Ex" player-freedom-as-a-priority disappointments withheld hope that "Dishonored" was their Huckleberry. They expected a game that actually delivered on its promise to give players a vibrant, simulated environment within which they could author their own narratives -- a world full of unpredictable, AI-driven pressures that would encourage players to excercise some creativity.
Partway through my second playthrough, I agree it may be the closest any big-budget game has come to scratching that itch in this gaming generation. But there's a missing element that throughout my 25 or so hours playing has kept me at arm's length from what should have been a true-to-form immersive sim masterpiece.
A recent article from VG24/7 adressed complaints a few people had about "Dishonored" being too short. Apparently, some players felt the game cheated them for content because you could concievably blow through it in under 10 hours. In response the writer condemned these people as playing the game incorrectly. He argued that they hadn't been enjoying all the game's wonderful mechanics becaused they'd been brainwashed to bee-line for the end of every mission by years of cookie-cutter military shooters.
While he was right to argue "Dishonored's" campaign isn't short for a lack of content, I found his argument dismissive. I was among those who wanted to explore the many options "Dishonored" offered up; I wanted to ruminate in the atmosphere of it's plagued Mieville-meets-Lovecraft setting. But, as it turned out, I was also one of those players who found a natural pace leading him to the game's finish line in only 10 hours.
This is where I'd argue there's a philosophical divide in what freedom means in a game. "Deus Ex" was fundamentally different from "Dishonored" (I only keep bringing "Deus Ex" up because it's so widely considered to be the gold standard of the genre) in that it's next to impossible to finish the game the way you initially wanted to. You're forced to employ a number of methods -- many of which feel like compromises of your predecided playstyle -- by decisions you knowingly or unknowingly made in the past. You make choices as the character, not the player.
Yes, "Dishonored" has tons of options, but if you make any one avenue of success good enough to see a player to the end, you can't rightfully expect the player to try anything else.
This may seem at odds with the spirit of the genre, but I contend that the best experience a game can give you is when the natural forces of the simulation actually push you to reevaluate your approach, to try something crazy. It's not fair for a game to just leave the pieces lying there and say "be creative!" All that does is impose a choice between rationalizing your actions organically within the game's world -- developing a character based on meaningful, circumstantial decisions -- and breaking from the experience for no other reason than to test out an arbitrary toolset.
For example, in "Dishonored," the pieces are there for me to summon a posse of rats, stick a proximity mine to one of the rats' backs, assume control of that rat and force him to suicide-bomb a nearby guard. I could do that, but why the hell would I? It's interesting, sure, but there are no circumstances within the game that make it a good idea. I'd be making that decision as a greasy little sadist sitting in front of a computer, not as a disgraced assassin making his way through Dunwall.
"Dishonored" made the mistake of giving the player a boatload of options, but no compelling reasons to select one over another. You never feel resourceful, because the most sensible way to progress through the game is to use no resources at all.
You have no such luxury in "Deus Ex." The game is arranged in a way that's decidedly unfair to the player. Every door is locked and there are never enough lockpicks. Maybe you wasted a LAM mine two levels ago or gave up your last candy bar bribing a kid who didn't actually know the freaking key code. You're always desparate, doubling back, thinking and testing out the game's multitude of options; authoring an adventure. You discover alternate paths through a mix of desparation and dumb luck, not just a passing interest in trying something new. Most importantly, when one of your little schemes does work, you actually feel resourceful.
The problem with "Dishonored" is that it's too easy to stick to your own dogma. Supplies were never really scarce, so the systems of the game could rarely force you to change up. It wanted so badly for you to have all the options all the time that you never really had to stop and think. Because you can do everything exactly the way you want to, it becomes clear once again that you aren't really creating your own narrative, but playing someone else's.
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