5 Awful Things You Learn About Yourself Playing 'Dishonored'
It's here: video game season. That magical time of the year right after the veritable desert wasteland of summer, when game developers the world over suddenly remember that they have jobs to do and go about trying to drown their customers in a glut of quality entertainment. I know you're going to feel unproductive, sitting there on the couch while the world enjoys itself outside -- children leaping and skipping through the fallen leaves, women laughing gaily on their bicycle rides, men, like ... tossing a medicine ball, I guess? I don't know a lot about outside. But the point is this: You need to stay on that couch. Because gaming isn't a waste of time. If you pay close attention, it can teach you volumes of hard lessons about yourself.
For example, I just picked up Dishonored, the new stealth game from the people who brought us Skyrim, and already I'm learning things about myself. Awful, terrible, disappointing things that I wish I could forget but will probably haunt me forever. Like ...
I'm Way Nicer Than I Thought, and It's Going to Get Me Killed Someday
I love stealth games. Developers, if you let me convincingly pretend to be a ninja, a spy or a laughably inadequate Batman, I'm going to wad $60 up and throw it in your face. Then, while you're distracted, I will steal your game and run away (it's the perfect crime -- nobody ever comes after me, for some reason). So it's too bad that, without exception, I am universally terrible at them. I finally figured out why: To nobody's surprise more than my own and that of the child I am currently kicking, I think I'm terrible at stealth games because I'm simply too good of a person.
Yep. Paragon of virtue over here.
If you're not familiar with the genre, the core of any stealth game is staying unnoticed. Rather than resorting to something as vulgar as slapping helmets on the players and asking them to sprint through a beige war zone full of cinder blocks and exploding minorities, stealth games set players loose in a semi-open environment and let them plan their murders discreetly, like gentlemen. Sometimes one of the murder-dolls will turn out to be an important character, however, or at least be programmed to do something mildly interesting if you let them live, thus giving players some sort of incentive not to kill them (just yet).
And that ruins everything. Because, if you're anything like me, instead of flapping out of the darkness, a flailing half-seen shadow of death whose name, as far as the enemies are concerned, is "OH SHI-," you are now cautiously approaching every guard like a timid squirrel taking breadcrumbs from a pensioner in the park. I am of course aware that they're probably going to kill me even as I approach, but the doubt is always there: Maybe not this time! Maybe this guard is different. Maybe he's just a friend I haven't met yet. Sure, he has the exact same character model as all those other guys who have, historically, done nothing but try to kill me, but you know what? Somebody once told me that you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover. I think it was Jesus. Or maybe Reading Rainbow.
And so, with love in my heart and a friendly word on my lips, I will cautiously sneak up on some jackbooted sentry and optimistically press the button that breaks stealth. At which point he'll holler, "Ha! GOT YOU." And then spit fire into my face.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Fuck you, LeVar Burton; you have ruined me.
I'm Not as Smart as I Think I Am
When I was in grade school, an assessor came through and gave all of the children IQ tests. From my class, myself and another boy scored in the "genius level" and were considered "gifted students." This meant that we could be transferred to a special school for the remainder of the year. I was proud, surprised and a little humbled. Although I was worried about leaving all my old friends behind, I put on a brave face and agreed to the transfer, because I knew. I knew this was it: This was the day I discovered my mutant powers and joined the X-Men.
"You know what this group is missing? A bunch of chubby 10-year-old boys!"
That special school very quickly realized their mistake.
That's when I learned that intelligence is only one part of the equation that makes up genius: The other part is patience. A smart and patient child will read an interesting fact in his science book and then devote himself to the study of chemistry. A smart but impatient child will read that same science book, learn that acids and bases "react violently" and drop everything to sprint out of the classroom. Two hours later, he'll be in the principal's office for throwing water balloons full of baking soda and vinegar at the local bully under the mistaken assumption that he would explode.
You can see the same thing when you watch somebody play a game like Dishonored: The truly intelligent player stalks his prey cautiously; he memorizes the patterns and refines the angle of attack. He waits for his moment, and then strikes, merging back into the shadows before the scream can even leave his victim's lips. The impatient player will watch those same guards, slooowly walking their routes, muttering the same three lines of dialogue to each other, and he'll snap and toss a vat of exploding whale oil at them, because explosions are awesome and watching dudes mosey about unimpeded is not.
My Immaturity Will Be the Death of Me
Early on in Dishonored, you're informed that empty bottles, dishes and various other items can be tossed to distract enemies. Players could grab a teacup and gently toss it into an unused alleyway to distract the cyber-ruffian below, and then, when the ruffian goes to investigate, they could drop from the sky and stick their telescoping sword right through his bowler.
They could do that.
Or they could grab a fifth of whiskey, carefully plot out the arc and velocity and then whip it right into an old-timey riot cop's face and laugh as he swears profusely and staggers about. I mean, sure, that cop's next action is to discover and immediately shoot the dude who just whipped a bottle at his head -- but just imagine the conversation they'll have when they fish your corpse down and discover that the uppity 12-year-old they thought was tossing garbage at them was instead a super-assassin with a biomechanical face, loaded up with razor-wire mines and explosive crossbow bolts, who inexplicably decided that his best method of attack was bourbon to the face.
Now, to apply it directly to the forehead ...
That's just one example of the many, many stupid practices that get me killed in Dishonored. Here's another: Like most other stealth games, Dishonored also gives the player a nonlethal option. You have choke-out holds and sleeping darts if you're not comfortable butchering old-timey policemen just trying to do their jobs. But while the developers no doubt envisioned a noble antihero stalking the shadows -- a Batmanesque figure of stern, uncompromising morality who strikes fear, even as he shows mercy -- what they got instead was me: An alternate universe 19th century pervert who sleep-darts all the guards and carefully positions their bodies so that, when they wake up -- just before they pull out their pistols and mow me down -- they find that they've been touching each other's junk.
My Lack of Focus Is Crippling
I have trouble focusing. This is a problem larger than just stealth games, obviously -- but let's keep the focus off my failing marriage and sinking career to talk about video games (which, incidentally, is exactly what my wife and boss keep asking me to stop doing). Due to my admittedly tragic and debilitating lack of focus, any open-world game will find my character meandering from rooftop to rooftop, staring at in-game posters and jumping up and down on rocks -- only occasionally, accidentally tripping over a quest line and falling face-first into a big steaming pile of plot.
In Dishonored, distractions abound. One of the magic powers lets you take control of a rat, or a fish, or, at higher levels, even a person. Obviously that's the end of the game, if you're anything like me. You just stopped trying to unravel a world of steampunk intrigue, and now you're playing an American Tail simulator, or a particularly gritty reboot of Finding Nemo.
Dory is ... slightly less adorable in this version.
Another power is a kind of biomechanical heart-thing ... that beats at power-ups, I guess? I don't really know what Bethesda's trying to say with that, aside from that Japan doesn't have a lock on RPG weirdness. But if you press another button, the "heart" will tell you random, tangentially related stories about whatever you're pointing it at. Sometimes this adds to the story, sometimes it doesn't, but any mildly obsessive, easily distracted player will end up just like I did: stalking the dirty alleyways for hours at a time, pointing a disembodied organ at a dumpster to see if the dumpster has any compelling secrets (hint: it doesn't. It's a dumpster).
That might effectively destroy the atmosphere of a serious steampunk assassin game, but in all fairness, it does make for a very compelling crazy hobo simulator.
I'm a Poor Sport
The whole point of a stealth game is to blend strategy with action, with a little more emphasis on the strategy aspect. Ideally, once the player has identified the approach and method, he executes a careful attack and takes out a room full of guards without a single one ever noticing. When it works, you feel like a complete badass: You are ninja. You are the bat. None may stand against you.
When it doesn't work, you're Jerry fucking Lewis, all sticking your biomechanical boots of silence into a bucket of fish and tripping into a wall of vaporizing light as the befuddled guards laugh and record your twitching with their steam-powered iPhones so they can upload this shit to Dunwall's Funniest Home Videographs later. As the player, you're supposed to learn lessons from these mistakes, and hone your next approach accordingly. After you've screwed up a few times and refined the perfect attack, you become that seamless blur of death again.
"Hey! It's OH SHI-"
That is not what I do.
If I miss a jump and fall down a trash chute while the sentries chuckle at my ineptitude, I'll immediately reload and charge in there to just stab them all in the neck. See, a stealth game can't just leave you helpless if stealth fails. They have to give you an out if you're discovered, so they almost always build in a combat mechanic as well. The problem is, once you learn that combat mechanic, it's way easier to run into Murderham Palace and start cutting Victorian bitches in the face than it is to orchestrate a series of perfect assassinations.
And so a typical game of mine involves a pair of guards carefully whispering to each other about the master assassin who may be stalking the very night around them, only to be interrupted by a raging psychopath sprinting right down the middle of the street, hurling explosive whale fat and frantically hopping about while firing off an electric blunderbuss. That's how every level in Dishonored ends for me: I slowly, carefully sneak around, hiding bodies and laying traps, until I accidentally hit the wrong button and fall off a building. Then I think "Fuck it, I'll just suicide next mission," only to find that, when the smoke has cleared, the high clergymen whose wine I was supposed to discreetly poison to "make it look like an accident" got drop-kicked to death in the ensuing melee and I'm too lazy to reload and do it right.
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Brockway, check out 5 Reasons GTA IV Is The Worst Great Game Ever Made and 5 Real Skills Video Games Have Secretly Been Teaching Us.