This is what I did yesterday, for sixty whole minutes.
I sat crouched in a corner. A knife in my right hand. My left hovered. Preparing to make magic happen. In a split second I launch into a ‘blink’ teleport. I switch rapidly into a stealth crouch and careen swiftly into a hiding place that isn’t really a hiding place at all. This is terrifying. My target is a metre away from me and the only thing between us is a tiny metal box and a typewriter.
At a rough estimate, this is the 20th time I have made these precise specific moves. If the target spots me, I’ll do it all over again. And again. And again. Until I get it right.
I could very easily sneak up to this target, and stab him in the throat. He wouldn’t spot me. My mission would be complete, I could walk out of the room, with merry abandon, and I wouldn’t have to give this chap I’m supposed to steal from a second thought.
I could do that. Or I could pick pocket him, steal the object I need, and moonwalk slickly from the scene, leaving nary a trace that I had ever been in this room. 20 plus times. Making the same precise movement. Over and over again.
Until I get it right.
My name is Mark Serrels and I am a right old arrogant arsehole when it comes to my video games.
It is important to me that my gameplay is beautiful. That my performance is exquisite. And video games that allow me to ‘perform’; games that allow me to practice and refine a set of skills, are always my favourite. I think that’s why I like Dishonored so much.
Because good stealth games, more than any other genre I’d argue, are about performance. Performance and the restraints you place upon yourself that allow that performance to become meaningful.
Video games have rules, but you don’t always have to play by them. Sometimes you can subvert them and sometimes you have to create your own. Take Dishonored for example. The scene described above is typical of almost every scenario in the game. In every mission you have a choice to make: it’s very easy to run headlong into any stronghold, slaughter guards, head directly to the mission marker, look your target in the eyes, shoot/stab/murder/kill the poor bastard and charge out.
It is actually very easy to do this. But why would you want to?
Dishonored is about performance. And the restraints you place upon yourself.
I have imagined an elegant solution to my problem, and it is important to me that I carry that solution out and perform it beautifully. No-one is watching me. Why do I care so much? It’s because stealth is about the little stories you so desperately want to tell.
I imagine my target. I can kill him and steal his key; the key I need to get from point A to point B. This would be relatively easy, but the story is dull. Another man falls at the edge of Corvo’s blade, leaving naught but a corpse and chaos in his wake. Flat, featureless, completely lacking in any kind of conflict or drama.
Here is the story I want to tell: hours after my departure, the target wonders where his key is. It isn’t where he last remembers placing it. He searches his room. He checks his pocket frantically, the key isn’t there. Neither is his purse full of money, which I have also stolen. He realises that I, a great sneaky bugger with incredible testicular fortitude, have infiltrated his abode, sneaked past multiple guards, stolen his key and his money… and spared his life. Because I can. Because I am superior.
That’s the story I want to tell. That’s drama. That’s performance.
But that story is only possible if I, as a player, restrain myself. If I create for myself a new set of rules to follow and execute within that framework.
Most games endlessly attempt to manufacture drama. They put you in situations that should feel dramatic, but play out more like a series of dull bangs and blasts. My story in Dishonored was only meaningful because I chose to tell it, because I shackled myself with these restraints and worked within them. My choice was important, my choices had a narrative attached to them, a narrative that I authored, executed and performed.
I’m telling this story in the past tense, but that doesn’t really make sense — because I haven’t really executed this delicate little story I’ve planned for myself. Not yet! I keep screwing it up. I need more rehearsal.
I always do something wrong. I have to take a guard out first, and that doesn’t always work out as planned.
Or I forget to switch to the correct power. I teleport instead of slowing down time. Spotted. Bollocks.
Or my heartbeat speeds up frantically, my hand shakes a bit and mess up the pickpocket manoeuvre. ARGH!
But I’ll get it eventually. And what a performance it’ll be.