Friday, 23 November 2012

Imagining Dunwall

Dishonored is a game. Most of us who play computer games regularly (and even those that don't) are most likely aware of this. It's a game which gives the player control of a character with the ability to knife people, teleport, possess living beings and peek at a bathing lady - amongst other things. It  has also been widely praised for its breadth of player freedom; not so much in terms of critical narrative choices (though there are a few of those too) but within the gameplay itself. Much like it's spiritual forefathers Deus Ex and Thief, Dishonored lets the player make gameplay decisions for themselves. Questions such as: "How shall I infiltrate this building?" and: "Do I want to kill all these people?" are important and actually answerable by the player. In this respect Dishonored recalls the playgrounds of late nineties, early 2000s PC gaming; it is a toy box in which the player can use the toys any way they wish. So there is Dishonored: very much a game. And then there is Dunwall.

Whether or not you engage with Dishonored's oddly detached plot of betrayal and revenge it's hard to ignore the setting. Dunwall: the city: the other side of the game. Dishonored, like many successful games before it, not only gives the player a set of mechanics and tools to play with but ideas and images as well. The player is given a chance to play, not only with the given interface of the game (be it mouse and keyboard or joy sorry game pad), but with their own imagination too. What's interesting here though is how Dishonored goes to lengths to actively recommends this.

From the off the game drenches it's player in lore and suggested geography. A dying whale being shipped in, hoisted to a gargantuan vessel, slipping along in the horizon; a rising, gothic building marking the players entry into the troubled city; the mention of another land. Corvo - the player's character - is said to be on his way back from an extended trip to some unknown (to the player) location. There is also mention of black magic and Dunwall's need for "help with the rat plague". These three subjects are threads which the narrative picks up and become mechanics in the game - the fact that Corvo has been absent allows his enemies to plot what becomes the  narrative's catalyst; the 'black magic' turns out to be that which gives the player their Assassin Powers!; and the rats not only exist as a integral mechanic to play but also supposedly serve as signifiers of the degradation the player's actions - but significantly none of these elements are concluded by the narrative. Instead they work as a series of catalysts for the imagination as well as the game's plot.

Two of the things suggested in this passage point towards Dunwall as an imaginable society within a wider continent. Dunwall itself, though clearly at no odds about dumping half its citizenry into open graves, seems haunted by its own impending collapse. From the formalist, hyper-industrial representation of Tower Bridge to the decadent delusion of Lady Boyle's Last Party there is the suggestion of a once flourishing city which thrived thanks to its ruthless exploitation of its immediate resources - be they whale or citizen. This of course draws direct parallels with London - a city which also possibly thrived thanks to its own ruthless delusion - but also immediately connects Dunwall with the surrounding world.

The most powerful resource - and supposedly that which gives Dunwall its power  - is Whale Oil. The presence of whaling as a major source of power not only develops its own mythos but also delineates travel. Dunwall is a city which must travel and explore the seas to exist. We see - in the introductory passage - the returning whaling ship. "Where has it been?" we might ask. What has its crew experienced? Are they happy to return with the dying whale hoisted to their ship? Or are they weary to return to this oppressive city?

Corvo's own travels are just as provocative. His mission has been to search for outside help with the crippling rat plague. Therefore, despite all the displays of power and Imperialism, the city is suffering and must look to the outside world in order to survive. The world in which Dunwall exists is therefore more than just a well of resources - it has (or it is suggested to have) other powerful cities, other states which no doubt have their own cultures, their own methods of gathering resources and their own civilians which may or may not be exploited. However any further exploration of this outside world is limited either to written extracts which scatter Dunwall or the player's own imagination and wanderlust. After reading about the island Serkonos I'm left only to imagine what such a place might be like; or the continent of Pandyssian which lies untouched by the machines of Gristol. These places - which hold so much mystery - in many respects don't really exist in the game, yet their presence (for me at least) is felt throughout.

One way the game increased this desire for information strongly recalls a similar method used in the design of Half-Life 2 - namely in-game maps. When travelling through Valve's dystopian landscape certain settlements reveal tactical maps which show you the territory surrounding City-17. I spent a good few minutes each time I ran across one of these maps looking at how everything fit together. Dishonored employs this same principle of in-game maps (possibly a little too verbatim), bringing the world surrounding Dunwall into picture we build of the city itself. Cleverly it is only at the end of the game when the player is given the widest view of The Isles. As the narrative closes around it's personal story of one guy killing (or not) lots of people, we see the wider world and perhaps, if we're finally feeling thoughtful after murdering so many, think about the role this singular place has within the world as a whole.

'Black Magic' is deployed in a similar way. Introduced to the player - via some guy possibly from Street Fighter - as simply a mechanic (Assassin Powers!), the mythos which surrounds these abilities builds gradually as the game progresses. Runes and bone charms, which are found in each level via The Heart (more on this later), draw the player closer to the cultish underworld of witches and the supernatural. There are shrines devoted to the runes and strong  suggestions that people hear the Outsider (Street Fighter) in their dreams. Feeling somewhat like Lovecraft's narrator in Call of Cthulhu - rifling through notes and interviews trying to unravel the mystery of the Cthulhu cult - the game only gives you hints towards what could possibly lie behind this magic and strange behaviour leaving the player to investigate as much as they wish. Even coming into contact with Daud, a fellow assassin (and possibly the game's antagonist?) with the same powers as you, hardly reveals much. The cult of the Outsider therefore feels of incredible importance whilst also lying in the background. Like the wider world surrounding Dunwall, the details of this mysterious cult are pretty much left up to the player's imagination.  

All this conjecture is distilled in the game's most offbeat mechanic, The Heart. A mechanical beating heart endowed with a woman's spirit which not only shows Corvo where runes and bone charms are hidden in each level but also talks to him. When triggered The Heart tells you about your current location or if pointed at a target will reveal information about them. This mechanic which serves no gameplay function rather seems to exist to encourage the player's imagination. We are told about the atrocities and secrets of Dunwall - even of its rather dullard city watch - making us aware of an underlying reality behind the gameplay. Therefore, if we wish, we can spend time, away from the game, thinking about the implications of Dunwall's deterioration upon its population, from civilian to shambling guard. While this sort of engagement with a game is of course accessible without the mechanism of The Heart, its inclusion points towards the developers desire for the player to be aware of the world around its narrative.

While there are many games which engage the player's imagination in a similar way to Dishonored - recently games such as Bioshock and Dark Souls - the way that this game implements story strands and game mechanics seems unique. Though Dishonored as a computer game may seem surprisingly succinct, its fictional world stretches out into a murky horizon. But this isn't exactly Lost. Instead Dishonored gives its players ideas to run with; a spectacle of  imagery and suggestion once all the blood splatters have dried up. In fact the player might feels something akin to Dunwall's average citizen - adrift in a world of violence and unreachable lands of mystery we can only imagine.   

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