Long dismissed as mere entertainment (as most mediums, like literature and film were in their own eras), games have manifested into the pinnacle of all art forms: they are the culmination of story telling, dialogue, cinematography, animation, sound design, musical scoring, voice acting, hardware interaction -- even mathematics. Because of this, a breadth of genres exist more so than in any other medium. Over the last several decades, these genres have mutated and blended into one another, spawning new directions based on the maturity of the medium, improvements in hardware, and the ambitions of project scope.

One such genre I was exposed to back in the mid-late 1990s has since become my favorite. It's one of the few genres I care to take interest in anymore, so when games of this type are released -- which is, unfortunately, far rarer than its fans would like -- it's a momentous occasion. Luckily, 2012 has seen Dishonored released, an exemplary title for the genre.

Built from the heritage of exploration/interactive fiction/choose-your-method game series like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock, Half-Life, and Bioshock, Dishonored plays like a tightly crafted love letter to the game studio (and contributors) that started it all: Looking Glass Studio.

The Genre Traits

To glean the most insight into this genre, it's important to start with the efforts and innovations of Looking Glass Studios. The game studio had a prolific ten-year life during which it cranked out memorable, immensely influential titles until its unraveling in 2000 when parent company Eidos Interactive had to pull back on spending. Luckily, many of the great contributors moved into other shops, including Ion Storm, Valve, Irrational Games, and Arkane Studios. These folks (including game designers Warren Spector, Ken Levine, Seamus Blackley, Harvey Smith) have woven their influence over titles that have stood the course of twenty years' technological progression. And their inventive gameplay mechanics continue to seep into modern games -- Dishonored included (from Arkane Studios).

Their earliest works -- Ultima Underworld II and System Shock-- broke new ground for role-playing gameplay rendered in the first-person perspective)). Remember, back in the early 1990s (when these two were released), American PC gamers played RPGs from a "top-down" isometric view (an angled, bird's-eye perspective of miniature characters on-screen); first-person perspectives were reserved for the shooter genre (like id Studio's Doom). Ultima Underworld II and System Shock defied the assumptions behind this type of perspective. The first-person perspective, of course, permits an immersion into the gaming environment that no other point of view can yield. And immersion is one of the critical components to this genre. Tom Bissel's essay, Looking at the Uncertain Fate of Single Player Narrative Videogames Like Arkane Studies' Dishonored, explains the kind of immersion I'm talking about:

Game design that allows the player’s decisions not only to bypass but actually foreclose important narrative or gameplay beats isn't just a way to make the player feel like he or she matters; it’s a way to make gameplay itself feel like something deeper, stranger, and more irrevocable than play.

The releases of Thief: The Dark Project (1998), System Shock 2 (1999, co-developed by Irrational Games studio), and Deus Ex (2000, produced by Ion Storm) continued -- as well as improved -- this trend of immersive gaming. These games benefited from three critical components1:

  1. The inclusion of customization to character through inventories of items, weapons, and modifications (but with limitations to inventory storage capacity)
  2. Environmental narrative, whereby story is implied or shown through conversations/encounters with non-playable characters and world-building notes/books/audio/log devices dispersed through the games' areas (in a sense: direct and indirect world-building)
  3. Choices and paths of level/puzzle completion so that there is never truly one "best" way to complete a task, but many different routes that the game permits. Oftentimes certain choices made have a dramatic influence on how the game continues to unravel (in the same spirit of "choose-your-own-adventure")

In the case of point #1, System Shock 2 employed an interesting training concept that slowly segues you into the world by having you choose and qualify in a career at the "interstellar space organization" of the game world before on-boarding you to the setting on which the remainder of the game plays. These career choices (of which you may only choose one) specifies your skills, weaponry, and/or psionic powers -- in a sense, informing the context of your play style.

Likewise in System Shock 2 for point #2, as the player moves throughout the areas of the game world, the discovery (by choice, of course) of audio logs hosted in small computational devices (eerily like the modern tablet) and ghostly apparitions (yes, it's a bit of a mutation of role-playing and horror genres) reveal rich narrative, slowly building on the backstory of what happened to the two space ships and bringing the player closer to the reality of the mysterious person communicating and guiding you throughout.

Thief and Deus Ex are good examples for point #3. Both games offer areas of play that present environmental and narrative puzzles that the player may address in a number of different ways. In Thief, for instance, you play as a stealth-based character (as the title implies) who moves through environments to the chorus of a light indicator -- if you're in a well-lit area, you can be seen by enemies; if you're in the shadows, you can move unnoticed. So when you're presented with infiltrating a well-guarded mansion to steal a valuable item from the owner's safe, you can either sneak up behind the guards' on their patrol routes, knock them out, and hide their bodies; or, you may wander around the back of the mansion, shoot a rope arrow2 near the balcony and grapple in without harming anyone. (Or, if you're inclining towards role-playing the homicidal type, you can kill everybody.)

Arkane's Take on the Genre

A few games that have trickled out in the past several years that continue this legacy include Half-Life 2, Bioshock (spiritual successor to System Shock), and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Dishonored -- the most recent title in this blended genre -- reminds me most of the inventiveness of Thief and Bioshock. One-part stealth game (as an option, of course), and all-parts customizable character, the game has so many wonderful design successes that it's hard to be critical towards it. The game is, unfortunately, far from perfect, but its play mechanics far outshine the blemishes.

The game satisfies each of the three main components of the Looking Glass Studio genre. You're presented with an established character within the game world (Corvo Attano, lord protector of the Empress), and after a fatal incident that triggers the main story arc of the game, you're on your way to becoming a supernatural assassin. (You may argue that bestowing nonsensical powers upon the playable character is an effort by the game developers to satisfy every "wouldn't it be cool" urge they had while producing the game, but this worked to excellent extent in Bioshock and System Shock, and since this is a videogame, it fits perfectly into the aspirational fulfillment of the medium.)

As the player, you're presented with several ability and weapon choices. Abilities include passive forms, such as an increase in health, agility, and/or adrenaline; or, they may include active forms, such as an enhanced vision for seeing through walls, possession of other life forms, and teleportation of short distances. The active abilities present very unique gameplay opportunities, and the blink ability specifically (which allowing short bursts of teleportation horizontally or vertically) really opens up the playable environments. I quickly upgraded this ability to move slightly farther early in the game, and enjoyed the reachability of roofs, crawling along pipes that hugged building walls, and drop-assassinating from above. The developers allow you to upgrade any ability at any time in the game -- a testament to the game's flexible environment design. Often games prevent you from affording or acquiring certain abilities until late in the game, but you're free to use whichever ones whenever you want.3 The ability choices build successfully upon themselves throughout the acts of the game, rewarding investments in different types depending on the situation. It's also neat that the acts become much more vertical later in the game, and even if you don't invest in upgrading the blink ability (teleporting), for instance, you still can navigate these heights with other options (like possessing a rat and scurrying through air ducts, a whimsical nod to Deus Ex's endless air duct sneaking).

Narrative is handled through several different methods: non-player character (NPC) interactions (required or otherwise), notes/letters/books/materials scattered throughout the acts' environments, rides with Samuel (the boatman who segues you from finished act to hub to next act), and the Heart, which is by far the most unique. A couple notable games in this genre employ a sort of sidekick narrator that is assisting you throughout parts of the game, communicating through an audio device (Atlas in Bioshock, Janice Polito in System Shock). The Heart is a bit different -- it's an object you may use, but is entirely optional. It can be used in a number of ways:

  1. To identify and home in on a rune's hidden location in an act
  2. To guide you to an act's objective
  3. To extrapolate information and backstory on buildings, areas, and people

Unlike other games, the Heart isn't necessarily stringing you along to different objectives within the game; instead, you're choosing to unearth information about the world around you to either better understand it or assist you in making decisions. I've debated whether or not to knock out a guard or assassinate him on a number of occasions, and by learning his backstory through the Heart, it's much easier to choose how to handle him. It's details like these that improve the immersion element of playing the game as a morally-conscious character instead of an apathetic one.

Finally, the game environments are designed for multiple paths and access points to completing any given objective. Need to enter a building? Think Thief or Deus Ex, but with several more methods of infiltration with all the abilities from which to choose. And as with moral decision-making like assassination vs. non-violence, your choices have a direct effect on the changing environments and narrative of the game. The city of Dunwall, which is the game's over-arching environment, is slowly being overrun with a plague seemingly catapulted by a rat infestation. Rats attack the living in destructive packs, and feast on the dead whenever a corpse is exposed. By setting this stage early in the game, you feel slightly duped into thinking you'll play the game as a relentless, revenge-seeking assassin; rather, you must now make choices about how you want to play out the game. More corpses mean more rats, more plague, more violence. Fewer deaths (or none at all) could mean a more peaceful playing environment (and, subsequently, game world).

As of this writing, the next game to build on this heritage is Irrational Games' Bioshock Infinite, set for release in early 2013. Though it is not directly related to the other two games in the Bioshock series, it is thematically and spiritually related -- much in the same way that Bioshock is related to System Shock 2. How this genre will continue to improve and transform in the future is anyone's guess, but the current crop of games are moving in a promising direction whilst retaining what made the original Looking Glass Studio games so fascinating: a sense of discovery, wonderment, and reward through gameplay and narrative.

  1. There is a fourth consistency between several of their games that few other games in different genres have. Perhaps it's just coincidence, perchance it's thematic -- but each of Looking Glass Studios' main narrative games come with some form of betrayal. At some point in these games you're lead to believe you're accomplishing or moving towards a goal when *you*, as the player, are taken off-guard and betrayed. One of the most memorable gaming moments I've had is the System Shock 2 betrayal. It was so well-orchestrated, so well-conceived that the way it was done lead me to believe -- for one brief, dramatic moment -- there was a glitch in the game. Goes to show the power of video game narrative and the immersion inherent in the medium's version of a "plot twist".

  2. Rope arrows: once loosed from your bow, these arrows home in on a penetrable surface and a rope drops for you to climb.

  3. Granted, you must find and accumulate "rune" objects hidden around the gameplay environments, but these are relatively easy to find and the purchase price of an ability is always reasonable.