I’ve been playing Dishonored. It’s beautiful; the Dickensian fever-dream setting, the watercolour concept-art look, and most of all, the stealth. Stealth in games often degenerates into a patience-sapping waiting game, but here it’s an endlessly blossoming series of choices, brimming with player agency. Instead of cringing behind a crate, interminably waiting for a vision cone to swing the other way, you blink-teleport across rooftops or skitter past in the possessed body of a rat. Dishonored lets you take the fight to them, an apex-predator on the rampage, in constant motion, leaving a trail of havoc in your wake.
Not me though. Oh no, apparently I would prefer to inch my way through it like it’s a driving test on Groundhog day, endlessly, obsessively loading and reloading and just strangling the thing. No minor faults for me.
I can’t help it. It’s a problem I have with stealth games. Something about them means I can’t tolerate failure. In fact, forget failure, I can’t tolerate imperfection. Caused an alert? Restart. Seen by a guard? Quickload. Discovered looting a desk drawer and rushed by six guys? Stand there and die. Escape? No. Never escape.
Stealth games give you the tools to escape, sure. You can retreat to the shadows, or hide in a locker or a box or whatever, and it will work. But you’ll look like a nob. In any other medium, you don’t see Batman trigger an alert because he forgot to hold down crouch then watch him run away and hide in a bin for forty-five seconds, until everyone decides it was probably nothing to worry about and goes back to standing around looking away from air vents. The reason you don’t see it in any other medium is because it looks stupid. It shatters the suspension of disbelief, breaks the spell, lays bare the truth: The elite platoon of heavily armed guards you’re trying to sneak past or quietly eviscerate aren’t elite at all, they’re just simple and intentionally exploitable AI routines, wandering around on predictable patrols, stopping somewhere conveniently out of the way for a fag, waiting to die, bred stupid, designed to let you win.
But it wouldn’t work otherwise. After three of your guys don’t radio in, the best thing to do is lock the VIP or mission-critical Macguffin in a room with no windows and one door, and then aim shotguns at the door, and then stay put. In games your opponents don’t do that, because if they did, if they showed that hopelessly basic kind of intelligence, Batman, or Corvo or Garrett or Snake or whoever would be shit out of luck. I suppose they could post a bat-frag-grenade through the letterbox, but then that would spoil their non-lethal playthrough.
Ah, the non-lethal playthrough. How I hate thee. How you make me hate myself. I can’t help that, either. Every time, I say to myself, this time, no more Mr Nice Guy. This time, things will be different.
They never are.
Arm me with long knives and matt-black silenced pistols. Let me lurk on shadowed rafters, glistening with murderous potential. Send me a guard, whistling nonchalantly on his predictable patrol path below. So many choices. Flying death-from-above instakill? Doubletap subsonic nine-millimetres to the back of the head? Force-tear his skeleton clean out of his bottom?
I look wistfully at my armoury, quickslots rattling with deadly goodies, elbow blades and sticky grenades, and shuriken all in a row row row. So awesome. So lethal. I look down at the guard. The poor fella, oblivious, just doing his job. Sigh.
Stun dart. Good old unspectacular stun dart, or sometimes, just sometimes, a kind of taser thing. Whooo, stealth games, you spoil me on my non-lethal playthrough. But there’s only about three rounds of non-lethal ammo in the whole of your average game. Never mind though, there’s always the melee range go-to-sleep neck cuddle.
Deus Ex at least let you knock motherfuckers tha fuck out, bionic style, but I’ll see you a punch to the ‘grill’ and raise you black ceramic elbow-blades. That’s the problem with all this non-lethal bullshit. I get the feeling that while I struggle and strive to weasel my way through the mission, teeth grinding in frustration, in an alternate universe my Nega-Self is rampaging joyously through bloodspattered hallways, stroking his box beard and laughing with delight.
When I come across a guard, I hug him to sleep, and hide his body in a feather bed with an extra pillow, an aspirin and a tear-stained note of apology in his top pocket. My Nega-Self kung-fu kicks him into a ceiling fan. He’s awesome. And I suck.
But I can’t do it. If a game gives me even the hint of a moral choice, guaranteed I will leap all over the opportunity to be an obsequious pussy. The sentries go to dreamland, not the morgue. The evil baron gets spared, not speared. The orphans keep the gold and I fast-travel away barefoot, with enough Light-Side points to redeem Hitler, and a nagging sense that I could be having a lot more fun if I was a bit more of a bastard.
The problem is that moral choices in gaming are a little… binary. Adopt the tiny undersea orphan girls, or tear the live organs from their bodies, feast on the delicious goo inside and piss electric fire on their husk. Help the plucky rag-tag band of survivors to defuse the bomb, or destroy them and their children with a colossal pillar of nuclear fire and light a high-tar cigarette from their smoldering remains. I might be able to get behind being a conflicted anti-hero, a ruthless, expedient badass that does wrong for the right reasons, but all they offer me is the chance to eat someone’s baby just to see the look on his face. Sometimes the writers of games try to help you, to frame it all in some kind of infantile good/bad context. You can lurk on the rafters, or behind a potplant, and listen to the nasty merc baddies shoot the shit.
“Sure can’t wait until we get off duty so I can stomp some puppies.”
“Hell yeah. Then let’s grab a beer and harbour some far-right political views, man!”
Moral imperative thus supplied, you can descend from the darkness and kill them all over the carpet with a clear conscience. Not very sophisticated admittedly, but it’s a start. Anything to stop me wringing my hands and get wringing some necks. Such a scene plays out in Dishonored in the barracks in an early mission. They’re going to put one of their colleagues to death. A man with a family, I read his note, you bastards! He kneels on the stone floor. The sword rises, poised at the nape of his neck. The man on the floor says “Thank you.”
Goddamn it. Suddenly the tone in his would-be executor’s voice makes sense. This is a mercy killing. The man kneeling before him, his friend, has the sickness. He’s asked for a clean death, and the man with the sword is going to honor his friend’s last request, though you can hear in his voice what it will cost him.
Duty. Honor. Sacrifice. Love.
I weep as I replace the fucking awesome razorwire grenades and pull out the stundarts.
The reason I’m like this is tied up with the reason I enjoy games generally, and particularly the kind of games with a well realised, evocative world, one you can explore, with a character you can inhabit. I like to roleplay. I’m not sat at a desk in my dressing gown, I’m there, frost edging the blade of my axe, snow crusting in my big ubermanly barbarian beard. I scan the valley ahead, choosing my path, pretending I can’t see the huge bloody white chevron that tells me where it is. Immersion.
It’s why I find it difficult to separate myself from my character in the games. My character does what I would do, as far as possible, if I had a real lifetime of special ops training and a quickload button. God bless you Far Cry 3, which has all the lovely evocative, explorable stuff, and only gives me three verbs to interact with the world; stab, shoot, loot. Not a stundart on the whole archipelago. Licence to kill. Good times.
Aren’t they? Far Cry 3 is prodding the fourth wall in the same places as Spec Ops: The Line. As you butcher your way through the game, your character becomes gradually, increasingly unhinged by it all. Both games ask interesting questions about the relationship between player and avatar, and about your limited vocabulary. Stab, shoot, loot. Who would want to behave in this way? What sort of person would enjoy it?
And I’ve hit upon the answer to my stealth problem. The answer is more roleplay, not less. I’m willfully missing the point, agreed, but introspection about the implications of my escapist murder-fantasies can at least wait until after I’ve enjoyed them, only fair. I started Dishonored again. On my first abortive playthrough, on the tutorial level, I had massaged everyone to sleep, as per bloody usual, creeping my non-lethal way along until I came to the room with the shackled leather chair and the bloodstained floor. I played the little audiolog, the one that said my character had withstood more torture than Dunwald’s steampunk Stasi had ever inflicted. They could scarcely believe what they had done to Corvo. And there was my answer. My reason. The roleplay hook, the thing that happened in that chair, and made my Corvo the invisible velvet murder-machine I wanted him to be.
They cut his nob off.
And he’s killed everyone he’s seen since.