Narrative scope has been a prominent feature throughout gaming since the start of the noughties. Brought on by a spate of innovative titles in the late 90s that focused on the story-telling elements gaming had to offer, games like Half-life and Deus Ex encouraged a notion of story that became a major hallmark throughout the past decade. This sense of story was quite varied, whether it was the grandiose sci-fi epic of Halo, the operatic moral choice ambition of Mass Effect, or the sophisticated contemplation of Bioshock (OMG objectivism is so lame), video games had something to offer on a novelistic and filmic level.
At one point, the whole darn industry thought this sense of Hollywood narrative was the future, until Little Big Planet was announced at GDC back in 2007 and the creative can of worms was well and truly spilled all over the conference’s shiny blockbuster floor. The moral of the story is, you can never quite put your finger on the purpose of gaming, but regardless of the revitalised sense of creativity Little Big Planet brought back to gaming, narrative had nevertheless impacted gaming in a big way.
Without imagination though, narrative would just be some miserable old fart there in the corner trying to add a sense of artistic validity to a game. Bioshock’s anti-capitalist response to a deluded sense of the American dream wouldn’t be half as effective if it was set in the real world, while Mass Effect couldn’t have blown us all away with that ending if it hadn’t instilled the sense of possibility and wonder that its interpretation of the galaxy offered. In other circumstances however, it is perhaps the sense of imagination that dominates the narrative, or in its own way, becomes the narrative, and this is the case with Dishonored and its dystopic vision in the city of Dunwall.
Developed by Arkane Studios, Dishonored is a First-Person Action-Adventure that places you in control of Corvo Attano, the royal protector to the Empress of Dunwall, who is framed for her murder and promptly sent to prison. Corvo later escapes aided by ‘The Loyalists’ and is tasked with hunting down important political targets in order to find the Empresses daughter Emily and thus overthrow the self-empowered tyrant Lord Regent. Thus begins a journey of revenge or reconciliation and espionage or action according to how the player wishes to play. The story then, is a trifle cliché, but it is the way this story interacts with the player and his experience of the environment, setting and gameplay that adds a sense of meaning to its narrative.
The city of Dunwall is a bleak steam-punk interpretation of Victorian London that is as much Dickensian in its disease-ridden slums, as it is King Charles luxuriant in the fancy aristocratic locations. It provides a dense backdrop with its tall classical buildings, small streets and alleys, and imposing despotic walls that become a playground for the gamer.
Each mission requires the player to utilise the abilities of Corvo, which include swordplay and marksmanship with a pistol or crossbow, but in addition, the supernatural figure of The Overseer gifts Corvo with certain magic abilities, such as swift movement, time-stopping and rat-summoning. The player then, is given a choice of game-styles that are adaptable, but never forced upon by the in-game environment. One way to play is to use the blink ability to flit across the rooftops of Dunwall unseen, subtly choking an enemy unconscious, or knocking them out with a sleep dart in order to reach a target. Or instead, a player can slit throats, charge in and cut down every opponent in his way with violent sword-play before summoning a group of rats to devour the rest of his enemies. The result is a sense of possibility in the player, in which the varied landscapes of Dunwall encourage a kind of player method creativity that creates moments of action brilliance.
The in-game movement is also done very smoothly, giving exploration and combat a real ability to fluidly respond to the controller and thus any actions the player wishes to perform. Complimenting this is the collection of runes, which can be used to purchase more abilities, and bone charms, which add effects to Corvo that can be changed and adapted to suit a play style. Consequence is not something that is forced upon the player in an obvious way, but there are still subtle reactions according to the choices you make. If trails of bodies are left behind, then the next mission will include more rats and thus more plague infected ‘weepers’, while if the alarm is raised several times, then the next target will feature higher security in the form of watchtowers and tallboys: heavily-armed stilt mechanised enforcers. On the other hand, if the stealth route is taken, then later levels will be unaffected by your actions and will therefore be a smoother ride.
What makes this such a captivating narrative experience though is its visualisation. Dunwall is as empty as it is dense, with the rat plague killing off most of the citizens, and so instead of populated, bustling crowds, the player is given a sense of the empty in contrast to the over-powering presence of buildings. This adds to the grim dread of the city, where rats scurry across the street, Tall-boys stomp across the stone pavements and the grandeur of the luxuriant aristocratic buildings look down across the slums with little sympathy. It’s typically Steam-Punk, with the clock-work, motorised contraptions of Corvo’s mask, pistol and cross-bow clicking in the usual archaic fashion.
However, the sense of technology never over-powers the more classic Victorian architecture, and so we are given a city that is stuck in a time of decay, rather than progressing. This dark atmosphere created by the visuals is added to by the audio, in which a sombre and menacing mood is purveyed throughout. This sense of menace is most brilliantly realised when a sudden crowd of rats attack Corvo, which is accompanied always by a dramatic soundtrack of panic-ridden violin strings that genuinely make the experience stressful by playing to the emotion of fear. Otherwise, the sound of Dishonored is mainly string-based, in obvious accordance with the steam-punk aesthetic, but it is used suddenly and abrasively when spotted by an enemy: adding to the sense of stress present when sneaking.
The story of Dishonored is nothing ground-breaking, and the empty city of Dunwall, while providing a better sense of immersion in its world and fiction via discoverable books and audiographs, never really makes you feel part of the whole picture. Similarly, while the exaggerated bodies and personalities of the characters present in the game create a great representation of a reality, they often become a little ridiculous. A strangling scene half-way through the game looks positively comical, while one character animation involving a contemplative face-rubbing is intended as engaging and personality building, but instead looks like he fancies his own head as a kind of fleshy pussy-cat that needs to be petted. However the experience of Dishonored, created by a brilliant realisation of visuals, audio and movement is what leaves the biggest impression.
To sum up
You are brought into a world in which through its sheer imagination creates an investment in the player where the conception of Dunwall, and your own personal involvement in and around this world have the most resounding narrative qualities. The opposing tyranny of the guards, the squalor of the poor, the presence of disease, the rich abundance of the aristocracy, the intervention of the higher power of the outsider and ultimately one man’s fate and the role he plays are all brought together simply in the imagination of Dunwall. Therefore, regardless of the main story, Dishonored features a masterpiece of narrative fiction, because the narrative qualities are created out of the experiences of gameplay. It is then for that reason, absolutely fantastic.