Improvisation is a word normally associated with jazz and comedy. You are presented with a situation, it changes, and you adapt. You start out with a key and a tempo or an audience suggestion and a scene but you end up with something different by the end through key changes, an unexpected turn of phrase, or that one guy in your improv class who keeps going back to a joke about sugar sandwiches.
But it’s also something Arkane Studios’ creative director Harvey Smith likes to talk about, especially when it comes to their upcoming supernatural stealth action game Dishonored. In a panel at this year’s QuakeCon, looking back at Looking Glass Studios — developers of games like System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project — Smith said that improvisation is a major part of both the games he likes and the games he makes. It’s an experience he likens to the first time you listen to your favourite album, that sense of discovery you get from realising what you can accomplish from a singular foundation like in jazz or comedy. It shows in Dishonored. Over the course of a couple hours and several sticky situations, I’m shown that improvisation doesn’t have to be relegated to the realm of coffeehouse backrooms and Drew Carey variety shows.
The level I was shown at QuakeCon takes places roughly halfway through the game’s story, when silent protagonist (but optionally-silent assassin) Corvo Atano must infiltrate a masquerade ball at the Boyle estate. For the purposes of the preview, I was given access to a full array of powers and weapons, but our objective remained the same: find the Lady Boyle you are supposed to kill (there are three from which to choose) and eliminate her.
But before we get down to the macabre business at hand, Corvo had to first make his way onto the party grounds. We started down in a water canal far below a well-lit and well-guarded bridge, driven in by a cohort on a boat, and after an unfortunate encounter with a surprisingly hostile fish, I ascended the nearby stairs to find two more guards blocking my path to another, less Tall-Boy-inhabited walkway. And a choice loomed over me in this rather somber ditty: do I wield my assortment of armaments and powers and force through or do I instigate the key change by possessing the aforementioned fish and seeing where that gets me?
I chose a third path. I realised I could instead Blink (teleport a short distance) to a lower path on the walkway, allowing me to slide by both the guards and an ambulatory watchtower. With a boost off a friendly dumpster, I jumped a side fence to find myself in an alley with three other masked party guests and an armed doorman.
Thanks to my “absolutely wicked” mask (really just Corvo’s normal, everyday mask) and a lost, sewer-bound invitation, I made my way into the party. I was soon stopped when a notice popped up giving me the option to deliver a note to Lord Shaw. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, I made my way to the courtyard and chatted up the lupine-masked fellow.
But oh boy did it hurt. It turns out that I was the proxy for a coward who was having me unwillingly represent him in a Burr–Hamilton style duel. We took our places and our guns. My opponent’s guards counted down from three, and I got a face full of fresh, pain. Corvo, being a badass and owner of one of the coolest names in existence, took it like a champ and I served Shaw rightful retribution. It was an improvisation almost gone awry, but my side objective was complete. I made a mental note to not deliver any more letters.
Inside the House of Boyle, I played the good party guest and chat up some fellow mask enthusiasts. It seemed everyone else was also attempting to guess who was who, turning my otherwise dishonorable (ha!) task into a nighttime jolly. A few folks even decided to share what they’d learned. For instance, I learned that I could find more information on the off-limits second story and that Miss White, the woman with the Goldblum — err, fly mask, might know more than she lets on. What I first learned from her, though, is that she likes to party, asking if I could get her a drink. I obliged, making my way to the dining hall and filling a glass with cider. She helped me narrow down my Boyle selection from three to two. Almost there.
I needed to head upstairs to snoop and look for clues to find out what the soon-to-be Atano’d Lydia Boyle was wearing. The main staircase in the foyer was protected by a Wall of Light, an electric field generator that kills anything caught in its zips or zaps. The back staircase, used by the maids and servants, was watched by a single guard, a stout man who promptly rebuffed my attempts to approach. But I see an opportunity to throw in a little panache to the extemporaneous events.
I picked up a bottle from the feast-laden table (you can almost hear the wood creaking and moaning under the weight of the smorgasbord) and positioned myself just so to the left of the doorway, out of his and mostly everyone else’s view. I chucked the bottle towards the cellar, off the walls and down the stairs to make as much noise as possible. The guard investigated, oblivious to the fact that he’d just been bested by the smartest assassin who ever lived.
Upstairs was much different scene than the one down below. It was quiet and dead, no indications of an ongoing party, what with the plentiful and vigilant guards patrolling the hallways. They didn’t, however, enter the Boyles’ bedrooms or art galleries, making it more manageable to sneak around and steal paintings. By peeking through keyholes and leaning around corners, I got a hold of some diaries and figured out that Lydia liked musicians, sleeping around, and wearing black. Not only that but some stored correspondence suggested that she met with or intended to meet with someone in the cellar and Dunwall Tower, the respective keys haphazardly strewn about.
I felt the need to speed up, so, instead of going back the same way I came, I sprinted down the main staircase. I thought it would allow me to integrate back into the party the fastest. The Wall of Light had other ideas.
After respawning and rethinking my approach, I decided it was best to take the path I knew to be safe and quickly reinserted myself into the foppish bacchanalia. Tracking down Lydia was easy. An onscreen indicator pointed me to her location. Deciding how to take her out was something else entirely. She was, as expected, in the middle of the Victorian rager and I’d much prefer to not get intimate with anyone else but her and my sword. And so our dueling melodies engaged.
Approaching her and knowing her hussy ways, I told her we should get a drink, opting to not let on that I knew who she was.
But a necessary riposte now. If she wasn’t going to give in to my smouldering good looks and unrelenting charm, I’d have to deceive her. I told Emo Boyle that someone wanted to meet her in the cellar, playing her with the tools I gained through her diary.
She began to walk away, with me following in her anxious wake. I knew where she’s going, where she wanted to take our duet. So I charged ahead to the lower levels. The guard was gone, presumably still searching for that noisy bottle. I flipped a switch, entered the cellar, and waited.
But then I was reminded that guards and electricity weren’t my only enemies in Dunwall; rats were viciously nibbling at my feet, draining health along the way. Panicked, I began to run and jump around, hoping to evade the varmints until Lydia showed up.
And then the truest form of improvisation shined through: serendipity. We’d played back and forth, lobbing lyrical and comedic response to and fro. We could see where this tune ends, but the unexpected took hold and we ended up somewhere no one had seen coming. Action and measured reaction be damned, our improvisation yielded fruit beyond my expectations.
My objective was completed without ever setting a single finger on her despite my previously rock-solid plans. Instead, Boyle came into the cellar and through what I can only assume is a sinister preference for darkly-clothed meat, the rats began to swarm her, quickly reducing her to a pile a mushy lumps and bloodied bones. My job here was done.
Up in the courtyard, the phrase “reach exceeds grasp” was proven as I attempted something I’d seen in the game’s Daring Escapes promotional video. In a nutshell, I planned on hopping the 15-foot tall fence around the garden, fell down the two or so stories, and Blinked just before I landed to avoid incurring any fall damage. But I don’t see how this particular improvisation could have gone any worse.
Falling, I mashed on the Powers button, hoping my persistence would mitigate the need for experience. A predictably punishing outcome occurred as I used my ankles to break my fall and, due to the wicked kung fu grip I have on the controller, still managed to Blink just in time avoid the gaze of the nearby guard. I landed directly under the patrolling Tall Boy.
And that was just my first time through. Each subsequent adventure was completely different. As in jazz, each time you jam out to the same standard, it’ll never be the same thing. In comedy, you may get the same married-couple-in-a-deli scene, but the results are so vastly different it could hardly be called identical. In Dishonored, you attend the same party and talk to the same people, but it is never the same level twice.
I possessed a rat and crawled through air ducts; I climbed up a balcony and broke into a bedroom; and I froze time and cheated at a duel. I even at one point Blinked on to the top of a Tall Boy, a heart attack-inducing moment if I ever saw one. The improvisation Smith talks about is one we’re all familiar with, but Dishonored presents it to us in a way we rarely get to see: in a video game. You may get variations on the same theme with other games, but Dishonored allows for an incredible depth of possibilities, the interacting systems facilitating your ability to create new and unknown things out of the familiar, and I can’t wait to find out what they are.
Dishonored will be released this October for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
Tim Poon is a writer from Dallas, Texas, with a deep, almost illicit love for computer science, video games and dodgeball. Take the first step towards becoming best friends at his blog, on Twitter or Facebook.