Dishonored Is The Michael Bay Of Video Games
In Dishonored, you can kill people. You can also avoid killing people. When you kill people, you can do so in a variety of ways: you can skewer a man with a retractable blade through the heart, you can decapitate a man with a vicious counterattack after a delicately timed block, and you can even use your mind to whoosh a man off a bridge into a river of flesh-eating fish. When you avoid killing people, you can grab them from behind, only if they aren’t detecting you, and depress their necks until they pass out. Or you can just walk around them.
When you kill people, sometimes their bodies disintegrate or rats come and eat them. Rats just appear from the shadows and start eating the dead bodies. You can also use your mind to summon rats to kill people. When you choose not to kill people, rats don’t come. Rats don’t even try to nibble on an unconscious body, despite there being (as far as a rat is concerned) no difference between one of these and a dead one.
In Dishonored, all kills contain arcs. The pumpy, rhythmic nature of each of the kills makes them fun to watch, easy to follow and anticipate. The way the camera pumps inward as Corvo first drives his knife into a heart and then quickly back out, following his vision as he unceremoniously kicks the dying body off said knife is almost like a brotherly fist-bump acknowledging the clear and present badassery of the moment. It’s almost no surprise that when Corvo shucks a man’s head off, the camera work is virtually identical. Fist bump that violence, brother.
The way that a body flies off a bridge into a river of flesh-eating fish is arguably one of the more satisfying actions in Dishonored. The flick of Corvo’s wrist, the burst of air called forth, the laser-line trajectory into the trunk of a body, the impact, the first, slight lift as the coefficient of static friction is overcome, its conversion into motion, and its summary acceleration into the sky: twirling, flailing, arcing, gracefully, chaotically arcing up then down, down into a river of flesh-eating fish. Sploosh. The body being eaten by said fish.
In the face of each of these moments I was struck by the care with which they had been crafted, the attention to detail applied to each and every one of these situations. The way the rats don’t simply stay in a single position as they do their nibble-dance on a dead body, adding to the suspense and watchability of the event. The way that guards’ faces contort with rage right before they attack or their eyes flare out with shock and surprise when caught off-guard as a knife is driven through their hearts, delivering added weight and a sense of consequence to the act. In the face of each of these moments I am forced to acknowledge the mastery with which they’ve been executed.
In the face of each of these moments I find myself asking, why the fuck is they so good at making violence so cool, yo?
The main conceit of Dishonored is the way you’re given control of violence like a slider on a mixer, sliding it up and down throughout your performance, modulating the output that you play through. Turn up the violence, more rats appear, more spitting plants, and people are less happy to see you (if they aren’t already out to kill you). Turn the violence down and, well, more…”nothing” happens. It makes me wonder: why even have nonviolence as an option?
The people behind Dishonored are clearly amazing developers with oodles of creativity at their disposal. I know this because Dishonored is a really amazing game. It looks great, it covers details to a T, and it literally blows fish out of water. Literally. I mind-tossed a guy into the river and a fish came out. AND THEN I physically entered the fish, took over its mind and then bit the guy’s dead body. And yet, when I want to knock a guy out, the only options I have are to depress his neck from behind (ONLY FROM BEHIND, mind you. All people are impervious to sideways neck-depressing) or shoot him with a sleepy dart.
How someone who thought about how cool it would be to teleport above a guy, drop down onto him from nothingness, drive a knife into his neck, and then gently drop to the floor behind him silently couldn’t somehow decide that a guy capable of such acrobatics could also do THE SAME EXACT THING but choose to knock him out instead of kill him is simply beyond me. Why any designer would look at their own game, a game about stealth, the consequences of violence, and hugs from Chloe Grace-Moretz and decide to give you the option to summon a mastiff-sized swarm of rats to eat a man alive while NOT giving you the ability to somehow knock a man out in less than 3 seconds is really, really befuddling. But don’t get me wrong: Dishonored is still fun.
And that’s what brings up the biggest question of all for me: do videogames think that violence is the only thing that’s fun? Because in Dishonored, it feels like it. Dishonored tells me that nonviolence is less dark, more positive, better for everyone overall, but once I start to play it screams GOD LOOK AT HOW AWESOME IT IS THE WAY HIS HEAD CAME OFF! and DUDE, TOTALLY THROW THAT GUY INTO THE GIANT FLY ZAPPER IT’LL BE SO COOL. Even when these options aren’t available and stealth is almost “encouraged”, it seems to be saying eh, 3 seconds is a long time huh and maybe even man, you are so bad at stealth. Maybe you should just kill this guy and move on. It doesn’t explicitly say any of these things, really, but through the things that it chooses to do well, through the actions that have been fleshed out, given details, facial expressions, and fantastic particle effects, it does. It screams VIOLENCE IS ENTERTAINING.
And part of me is thinking, well, I do play videogames to be entertained.
Of course, another part of me just realized the Dishonored is more or less what a video game by Michael Bay would be.
It might just be because I recently watched Bad Boys II for the first time in its entirety, but the similarities are jarring. Is there a story in Bad Boys II? Yep, absolutely. Is it what makes Bad Boys II capable of holding the attention of a viewer for its 2 hour run time? Absolutely not. Is Bad Boys II somehow still entertaining? Yes, but not for any complex or deeper reason: Bad Boys II is entertaining because the events that it contains are made to entertain.
As shallow and tautological as that is, the amount of skill it requires to execute is nothing to sneeze at. It takes equal parts gall and ingenuity to create scenarios worth watching even when the outcome is known. And in Dishonored, the thing made most watchable is violence.
The long-standing question when analyzing violence in video games has been “why do we find violence so entertaining” and the response has thus been “we should move away from violence in videogames altogether so as to reset our tastes,” but here I want to say that I believe that the underlying assumption that we find violence entertaining is flawed: violence isn’t inherently entertaining. It’s shocking, yes, and perhaps effective in making us pay attention, but entertainment, the ability to hold attention for extended periods of time and unwavering interest and admiration, is not an inherent trait of violence. It’s a product of creativity.
Violence in Dishonored is entertaining because it is in fact creative. The contorted faces, the flowing combat maneuvers, the carnivorous rat-dances, these events were made to be watched, to be engaged with, and to captivate. The violence in Dishonored is executed and presented with such great care that an evaluation of any depth would conclude that to be violent is to play the game, save for the few voices and words that decry it. And in fact by choosing to forgo violence you see less of the game, stretch fewer mechanics, and even miss some NPC interactions. I also ran up against so many invisible walls and ceilings that I started to wonder if this game had been made 10 years ago.
So while Michael Bay glues moviegoers to seats by having cars both flip AND explode WHILE heavily-armed biceps with men attached fire impossibly large guns AS THEY eject themselves from windshields all for the sake of “justice” or “love” or “saving the universe”, Dishonored keeps me playing by disintegrating a man after being impaled by the flaming bolt that I plucked from the air when I stopped time. And when I choose to do none of these things Dishonored says nothing. It makes me think maybe I should have just killed that guy. That would have been fun.
Dishonored‘s choice to inject every violent action with panache, bombast, and entertainment while simply frosting its nonviolence with celebrity is no different than any film constructed by Michael Bay.
This is the current state of AAA games: VIOLENCE THAT ENTERTAINS. This is where I then ask, “why violence?”
All I can really think to say to that is maybe it’s what they grew up on, maybe it’s where videogames really started to take off, or maybe it’s because that’s where the money is. Maybe it’s because it’s easy to call upon the tradition of “the spectacle of violence” that threads its way through western culture from Roman Gladiators to modern UFC matches. Maybe because the kind of people who go into game development are predominantly male, predominantly heterosexual, and grew up under predominantly protestant/authoritarian parentage which equipped them with a “might makes right” mentality. Maybe it’s because western culture is characterized by violence as a means of change and so we’re constantly looking for new ways to do it.
Then I have another thought: maybe it’s because it just feels good to be violent. And then I think: maybe I’m part of the problem.
And then my therapist says “Yeah, that’s probably right.”