Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dishonored's narrative design: how The Heart lies to you.

(UPDATE: this interview at RPS with Arkane devs confirms that not only was I right, but that it was also a very conscious decision on their part to make it do that, wow.)

Dishonored does a lot of things with game narrative (abstract dream levels, scripted body awareness, lots of readables, overheard conversations, scripted sequences, branching missions changing based on player decisions) which fit neatly into the existing immersive sim / first person toolbox that we're used to. It's well-done, but it's not particularly new or anything.

The Heart is something slightly different, though, and I found it surprisingly subtle and ironic.

Level design / character SPOILERS (but no plot SPOILERS) below:

Throughout the game, the talking "weapon" that is the Heart implies it's actually the benevolent Empress character's heart, except all disembodied and spooky. Both characters share the same voice actress and the Heart sometimes makes references to her past life, which is a brilliant conceit because they never directly tell you they're the same character, but you feel smart when you realize it on your own. It also fleshes out a character who got approximately 1 minute of screen-time before she got murdered. It's a strong enough premise that covers up what the Heart is actually designed to do:

a) The Heart is an audio log player. Arkane couldn't copy BioShock by scattering audio logs everywhere to tell you corpses' stories, because that's really implausible and too obvious now. Sure, some of the rich NPCs have punch-card dictaphones, but that's just the red herring, false cognate of the BioShock audio log. Instead, Arkane has cleverly re-packaged the audio logs as the residual psychic empathy filtered through a narrator. The Heart is an audioguide.

("TALKING HEARTS" TRIVIA: Dishonored is, notoriously, a love letter to Thief. Coincidentally, Thief 3 has a sentient "Heart" talisman you have to steal that supposedly whispers things. The whispering got cut. Of course, a handful of the Heart's audio files remain in the Thief 3 archives...)

b) The Heart makes Bone Runes and Bone Charms glow through walls from long distances, and adds HUD markers from infinite distances if you have the particular setting enabled. But either way, these powerups will always glow through walls from a distance, so it's "powerup radar."

This is where the brilliance comes in. Arkane technically makes use of the Heart "optional," claiming it provides bonus narrative content and bonus powerups. Except it's not really optional because they do so much to compel you to use it:
  • Runes are very important in the player ability economy. A rune is one of the most expensive things in the store. Arkane wants you to think they're valuable and even puts a high gold coin value to it.
  • Given the importance of runes, you associate them with mission objectives. The dream sequence / tutorial trains you to think of the heart like this. Runes are valuable objectives.
  • A score tally screen that reads "1/4 Bone Runes Found" or "1/8 Bone Charms Found" is humiliating. It also implies you're missing a lot of the game that you paid $60 for.
  • In the grand scheme of things, the charms are surprisingly worthless -- they do very little, probably so that they don't unbalance or destabilize game systems. (I've never seen so many tooltips use the word "slightly" so frequently.) But still, we're supposed to collect them...
I argue that the runes and charms (of which the majority are useless) are breadcrumbs disguised as powerups -- well, radioactive breadcrumbs that glow through walls from a kilometer away -- which means The Heart is an objectives indicator / compass / hint machine, disguised as powerup radar.

Oh, look, a rune that's conveniently right next to the platform where I can jump onto a train that takes me to the end of the level? But how would the player know to climb up there?... Oh.

Would you kindly go pick-up that rune?

This is a brilliant piece of design because it combines cultural frames ("hearts are honest, tell the secret truth hidden inside"), character backstory ("the Empress was a good person, so the Heart is good too"), game narrative ("magic things sense magic, magic things are secret") and a sort of meta-narrative genre convention ("these are bonus secrets to make you powerful, only *the best gamers* with *the biggest penises* can earn them")... to make the functional equivalent of objective / hint markers seem palatable to a critical audience that'd otherwise froth at the mouth.

It's using narrative to weakly disguise powerups, which many players see through immediately, but only so they don't notice that powerups disguise hints. It's classic misdirection.

The runes don't function as secrets. They're "hidden" inside or right next to important places. They want to be found and most players will find most of them, and Arkane clearly thinks this game is best when you have a lot of runes and combine a lot of magic powers. There's no reason to hide or withhold them.

It's not about exploring the level for a rune reward; it's about chasing runes for an exploration reward. The Thief series made "loot" the main reason you explore most of the level; but with Dishonored's de-emphasis on gold, Arkane needed something similarly systemic to replace that.

Or is it just easier to accept that most runes happen to mark the critical path and important side quests, than it is to accept an objective indicator floating around in your business?

Or are we aware we're being led, but do we fail to verbalize / intellectualize / analyze it, and find the experience more "seamless and natural" because of it?

No matter how you rationalize these "secrets" luring you to key objectives, it is some sort of deception to some degree, and it worked.

Here's "True PC Gaming" with a "PC Settings Configuration Guide" telling you to turn off objective markers ("BECAUSE YOU'RE A FAKE PHONY GAMER IF YOU USE THEM") but suggests you keep the heart markers on ("but you can turn them off if you 'want a challenge'"). Arkane has convinced a PC gaming zealot that orange things glowing and growling through walls is a challenge.

And PC Gamer thinks you can turn these settings off for a "more immersive experience" which implies that orange things glowing through walls is immersive and authentic. Ah, so the navigation hints are a form of storytelling now, huh?

To be clear, I'm not complaining. I totally fell for it too. I love that I fell for it.

The more rewarding part of the realization was the irony involved -- a hint system that the accumulation-obsessed hardcore players will fixate over, a use of narrative to deceive and placate an audience that doesn't care about narrative, and a bleeding heart that lies to you and controls you.

(Good job, Arkane.)

(UPDATE: I read a comment expressing disappointment with this post -- they thought it was going to be about how The Heart is unreliable and actually lies to you, in narrative terms. I think that's impossible because (a) "magic" exists outside the worldly corruption of the city, "magic" has no use for a notion of reliability because it's MAGIC and (b) its dishonesty would only be important if you realized that it is the Empress' heart as well, which would imply that the city and politics really did corrupt the Empress after all, which would mean that her daughter was tainted from the beginning anyway... but it wouldn't really be a strong "twist" because we're never really invested in the Empress' integrity in the first place.)