I’m tempted to think this is all Tim Schafer’s fault.
At the beginning of 2012, “indie” meant the same thing that it did with Kyle’s article in April, just after the release of FEZ: 8-to-16-bit platformers with a twist. At the same time, the infamous Double Fine Kickstarter was changing games publishing – some, not me, said forever. Since then, the most-funded Kickstarters have been a glut of references and continuations of game licenses most of us had forgotten or shelved along with our Nirvana: Leisure Suit Larry, Wasteland, the Infinity Engine games, Shadowrun, twice, Tex Murphy, Carmageddon… it’s an autumn feast. Break out the gourds and mulled wine.
Now there’s this weird separation between “independent” and “indie”. How large is an indie developer? Judging from Indie Game: The Movie and Vancouver’s indie developer meetups and game jams, indie developers are mostly one or two-person teams. But in online discussions and on funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, indie increasingly means formerly AAA teams like Obsidian, Double Fine, and Uber Entertainment – just without the leash of the traditional publisher. No wonder EA is in a slump and Activision-Blizzard aren’t quite as secure as they usually are – the revival of Diablo 3 made for the loudest awkward pause I’ve heard since my last family reunion. Are Valve and ZeniMax independent, because they can publish their own properties? Are they indie? Is it size or philosophy? Does it matter?
Those questions are why Dishonored is so interesting. The development talent is top notch – Harvey Smith designed Deus Ex alongside Warren Spector, while Viktor Antonov provided the artistic direction for the haunting City 17 from Half-Life 2 – and it shows in the finished game. ZeniMax, parent company of both Arkane Studios and Bethesda, is clearly sympathetic to trend-bucking games. Dishonored takes place in a world which, for once, doesn’t seem brown or cliched – or at least, the steampunk-ish technology has an unusual aquatic explanation. The city of Dunwall itself is remarkably well-thought-out: the Flooded District, de facto colony and corpse disposal for those stricken with the plague, is flooded because a levee broke, not because a blood mage slipped or somebody liked Objectivism a little too much. The explanation is just poor construction and human error. The guards bicker about cigars and cards and people are assholes to their servants. The aristocracy is concerned with flash and social standing over petty considerations like disease and security. The mise-en-scene, craft, and audiovisual artistry of the game sets a high bar for those who intend to follow in Arkane’s footsteps – but there’s something off about it.
Corvo Attano, the game’s exotically-named protagonist, is the Empress’ bodyguard who fails at his job in the introductory chapter. He gets framed so that others can usurp the throne, gets busted out by loyalists so they can rescue and reinstate the proper heir to the throne, and is given supernatural powers by a trickster deity for very good reasons which we never learn. From a game design perspective, Dishonored takes most of its cues from Thief and Deus Ex – enabling stealth and experimentation at least as much as combat, it’s a game that claims to offer multiple routes to each objective, multiple objectives for each map, the ability to do lethal and non-lethal conduct playthroughs, and a world that notices the choices you make. I kept forming associations with Thief, Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and other nostalgic favourites of the 90s and early ‘aughts – exactly as I was supposed to.
But that’s the weird part – like Robert “Radiator” Yang noted, Dishonored doesn’t compare that well to those games. It’s clear that it has similar design goals to the “emergent gameplay” golden calves of the 90s, but it’s almost too polished to have the same appeal. Maybe I’m just jaded, but as much as I like multiple routes and multiple goals, when the routes are “up” and the optional objectives are in an easy-to-read-and-find list format with glowing targets, the shine tends to wear off.
There’s my dilemma. I had quite a lot of fun with Dishonored, but after the game ended, my reaction amounted to “That happened”. I’d stopped caring and started feeling frustrated about halfway through the game, when teleporting assassins start hunting you. Where Deus Ex had you jump out a window seconds ahead of an explosion to beat the more-powerful versions of you, Dishonored has you stop time or awkwardly wedge yourself in crevices until the enemies pass. Where Thief had a stealth model which expected you to stay mobile and aware, Dishonored’s “sneaky routes” tend to just be rooftops. I spent most of the game atop lamp posts, which is not a sentence I ever expected to write. It’s a neat idea, but the “variety” starts to feel same-y. As interesting as Dishonored is, I found myself bored.
So where did this game go wrong? In some ways, it didn’t. It had an all-star developer staff, an excellent voice acting team, and a setting and premise which puts virtually every other AAA project to shame. Peter Travers would love the shit out of it. Normally, so would I.
I think the problem is in exactly the kind of nostalgia that’s powering the success of all these Kickstarters. Yes, I miss Black Isle, Ion Storm Austin, and Looking Glass. No, I don’t particularly want them back. They did some fantastic and innovative things when they were around, but shouldn’t we be looking forward? As a loose community of fans and developers, when we focus so much on what’s behind us, we’re liable to trip over something. We end up with Dishonored. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air compared to Gears and Max Payne 3, but it’s really just as stale, only we forgot what it used to taste like.
By recreating our fond memories anew, we can only make distilled versions of games we already own. Yes, it’s nice to have a game in the vein of Deus Ex, but there was more to that game than vents and tranquilizers. Thief was more than just hoovering up loot, as satisfying as Dishonored’s loot grabbing is. Thief and Deus Ex were clunky, granted, but that was because they were intensely ambitious in their gameplay, where Dishonored’s ambitions are at the level of imitation, adding just a mashup of the Black Death with not-quite-steampunk. Arkane clearly loves their classics, and that’s certainly a good thing. I love them too – but maybe we’ve forgotten why zombies were ever scary in the first place, forgotten why the Ramones stayed out of the Pet Sematary. Immortality’s not necessarily good.
Dead things should stay that way. In my book, that goes double for games.