With the significant advances in the realm of digital computation in the last half-century, games have often been at the forefront of what is possible with contemporary hardware and software. It might be argued that the video-gaming industry has driven this technology forward faster than any other use. As with the development of any new technological medium allowing new forms of expression, art in this domain has evolved considerably in parallel to its scientific advances. The earliest digital games bear little resemblance to modern examples, in much the same way as an early daguerreotype would compare to a high dynamic range, panoramic landscape. With the evolution of the medium, it becomes more difficult at times to shoehorn a particular work into a defined genre. Here we will analyze Dishonored as a work of interactive fiction, through its basic story-telling similarities with the text-based games traditionally associated with the genre.
According to Montfort, there exist four defining characteristics of Interactive Fiction (IF):
- “A text-accepting, text-generating computer program”;
- “A potential narrative, that is, a system that produces narrative during interaction”;
- “A simulation of an environment or world”; and
- “A structure of rules within which an outcome is sought, also known as a game” (23)
These point create obvious agreements and disagreements to anyone familiar with Dishonored, and here we will endeavor to demonstrate that the game can indeed fall under the label of IF, or at least be considered an evolution of the genre.
As a part of its player interface, Dishonored presents choices in dialogue in a manner familiar to many gamers: the finite (indeed short in most cases) list of possible responses to NPC dialogue. Similar systems have been employed in many of the most successful game franchises in recent years, including Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and The Walking Dead. At first this approach may seem at odds to the stereotypical IF game, which Porpentine grudgingly admits to be parser-based (Nightmare Mode). When one considers however, the function of a parser, specifically in the earliest works that begun the IF genre, it becomes evident that the player using parser commands is merely guessing at a limited list of terms or commands that the software will understand. The biggest limitation to parser-based games is this easily-shattered impression of creative freedom, though the list of acceptable responses is invisible to the player, it is certainly finite, and its limits are easily discovered, sometimes at the cost of a player’s immersion in the story. While Dishonored‘s player dialogue is much more limited than the sum of available options in a parser-game, it maintains immersion by presenting a player with speech options which are accurate to the context of the situation in which their character finds themselves. This choice-limitation is useful in keeping the player’s experience relevant to the story that is being told, while still allowing varied actions with realistic and varied consequences. In a text adventure, a player might be confronted with the text:
You drop down from the trap-door, hoping that the ground is closer than it seems in the dark. Landing heavily, you sprawl onto your back, the breath knocked out of you. As you slowly stand, disoriented, you try to get your bearings and look around. The darkness in the dungeon is profound, but as your eyes adjust you perceive dust-motes floating in a shaft of light from the open trap-door above. As you track the beam of light across the darkness, you perceive a low rumble, felt in your chest rather than heard. Your eyes reach the end of the light-beam and realize it has ended on a massive reptilian claw.
While a player in the mindset of a mystical dungeon-raider might try some conventional approach, to flee or fight the beast, a more creative gamer might be stymied by the refusal of the game to accept their solutions:
I’m sorry, I don’t know “dance seductively”
I’m sorry, I don’t know “liht torch”
I’m sorry, I don’t know “aASDKASDLKJASDKLAHNDS”
Your torch illuminates the statues of two sleeping dragons, flanking a double door of burnished copper. On either side of you, marble basins sit on pedestals, some dark liquid inside them glints in the torchlight.
Though parsers solve the problem of complex interaction with a complex world in a simple and elegant way, there is almost no way for a developer to take into account all possible solutions to a problem. As above, inputs containing spelling mistakes are also an easy way to be removed from the game-reality, and be clearly reminded that you’re dealing with a piece of software. A limited dialogue option tree provides one with choice, but not ambiguity. It is, to oversimplify, the same as a short text entry, with all acceptable options shown to the player, while it may lack some of the problem-solving of a parser, it solves the input/output problem well.
Dishonored provides a beautiful, steampunk inspired world simulation that players can explore. Here, the evolution of the medium from text to a 3D world can best be appreciated. Most of the classic IF games allowed the player to roam with relative freedom from one location to the next, being able to interact in each “zone” with some objects, characters, or creatures found in that area. With the more complex games, hundreds of zones made it near impossible for players to keep track of the game’s geographical layout. Without visual cues, it would become very easy to become lost in the labyrinth that was the game world. For this reason, many IF players would track their progress on homemade maps or flowcharts, some of which containing amazing precision and detail. (click image).
It seems fairly evident that the need of players to map their progress and to visualize their surroundings in these text adventures shows a clear desire for imagery in some sense or another. Though some may prefer their own imagination, certainly many players would have liked to see with their own eyes the worlds envisioned by their authors (developers).
The visual world of Dishonored might disqualify it from IF in the eyes of some, and it certainly does not support the description of “text-adventure.” The game’s graphics and stealth-based combat serve as a platform for an intriguing story. Without disclosing “spoilers” suffice it to say that Dishonored’s story contains intrigue, betrayal, moral ambiguity, and fascinating characters. It could be argued that the plot to Dishonored has much more in common to conventional fiction than does a game like Zork. The distinction of course lies primarily in the reasonably open-world audiovisual setting; completely explorable to the player. Through visual imagery the developers can set a tone for a particular story without resorting to tired “dark and stormy night” clichés. Being able to explore an environment using sight and sound allows the player to pick up on clues and setting intuitively. The command “>listen” is not required to know that a dog is barking to the west, and in-game writing like signs or newspapers do not need to be directly interacted with to be read. One must have little doubt that given the technology and skill many of the early IF developers would have dropped everything to create a game-world like that of Dishonored. The best contemporary medium available to tell the story that they wanted to tell was the parser and text program. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Rules, limitations, and freedom
Another key distinction between an open world game and a text-based game is the system of rules that governs that world. As mentioned previously, parser-games are limited severely by the imaginations of their programmers. A game running a physics engine that allows a player direct agency and mobility provides that player with near-infinite choices of how to approach problems. Problems and their solutions are certainly a defining characteristic of a game, call them puzzles, riddles, obstacles or enemies, a game contains “a structure of rules within which an outcome is sought” (Montfort, 23). Giner-Sorolla points out the error in the common trope of puzzles requiring one or more specific key in IF, saying:
“To my mind, the crucial difference between a “puzzle” and a real-world problem is that the real problem has more than one possible solution” (11).
“…the reason is simple: the Model Adventure-game Programmer is only human. Game designers would rather spend time coding a variety of locations than implementing every second-string solution to a problem…”, “Players would rather play a game with a variety of challenges, and to this end, are willing to accept some restriction in possibilities, especially where the alternative solutions are less obvious than the intended one” (11).
While puzzles can be fun, in a limited medium such as the text-adventure they can become repetitive. A common situation is to find a lock that requires a key to open a door, so the player must continue exploring the world on that side of the door in order to locate this key. Where the key is hidden is also occasionally so bizarre that it damages the realism of the world. The limited options are sometimes explained by magic, or other commands are simply not recognised.
When considering the rule structure of classic IF, it becomes very important to consider the origins of the genre. To anyone who has played the classic tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, the parser based system is eerily similar to playing a game of D&D with an infuriatingly smug “dungeon-master.” In fact, according to Wardrip-Fruin, “the most story ambitious genre of computer games is probably the computer RPG—a form that traces its roots back to a noncomputer form of gaming: the tabletop RPG” (44). This is interesting to note, as the assumption one might immediately make when considering the ancestors of IF, is that the genre descends from fantasy literature and specifically “Choose-your-own-adventure” novels. In practice, Dishonored comes much closer to this latter in terms of its limited choices affecting story outcomes than say Adventure or Zork, which emulate the tabletop game much more closely. Hypertext-Fiction is much closer than Text-adventures to the “adventure-book” model, but provides the player with far fewer challenges. Viewing the role of the software and computer in this equation we can equate it to either the “dungeon-master” or the “adventure-book” to gain some perspective on the underlying game mechanics. The parser serves to provide the player with output concerning the result of their actions, it calculates stats, and generates random numbers (dice roll) to determine the outcome of combat. A parser is thus the only window through which a game world can be experienced, and the quality of the programming dictates the clarity and size of that window. The use of dialogue trees in Dishonored constrains the player to a few possible story outcomes, many fewer than those possible with parser-games, but all fully developed as story, not just programmed response to interaction. Because the developers had less variables to work with, they were able to fully develop those that they were given.
The more significant distinction in rules and play when comparing Dishonored to say, Zork, is that the player is offered some choices which are essentially meaningless to the outcome of the game (as indeed the end result is the same), but that have a profound effect on the tone or mood of that outcome. The developers chose to include a “chaos-factor” in the game, meaning the more chaos the player causes (namely by killing NPCs), the more chaos is reflected in the game world. This use of “Chaos” is to avoid the classic good/bad that is explored in other RPGs, the “light and dark” sides of the force being used in Knights of the Old Republic as an example. The intention was to allow the player to make moral judgements on their own terms by avoiding strict “evil-scoring-systems” like “every character killed equals one evil point.” By allowing a player freedom to dictate the terms of their interactions with NPCs, many self-imposed goals can be applied by the player. Though it is very difficult, it is possible to play through the entire game without killing any single character.
Because Dishonored follows a relatively linear narrative, it distinguishes itself somewhat from many other more “open-world” RPG titles like Skyrim or Fallout 3 where a player has much more freedom to ignore the underlying story of the game or “main quest line.” In this sense the comparison to a “chose-your-own-adventure” novel stands out as the player must participate in the game’s narrative. This lack of freedom may sound negative, but for the purpose of digital storytelling it allows for a more controlled focus on the plot of the story the developers wish to tell. In many ways this reflects the real world much more accurately, in the sense that real-world problems tend to occur without the willing participation of those involved. Take Skyrim for instance: by avoiding one particular conversation, the player is able to prevent the arrival of dragons into their world indefinitely. While convenient for a player wishing to create their own narrative, it seems unlikely that a major, world-changing event would be staved off by two people refusing to talk about it. Dishonored places much more importance on its main storyline, and in fact has only two possible endings, with minor variations in one of them. The player can choose to fail in their task, and leave the city where the story takes place by allowing their young charge to die, or they can succeed in protecting her. Considering that most players intend to succeed (trying to “win” as it were), the subtle elements of the successful accomplishment of one’s task become important. On successful completion of the story, an epilogue is provided to the player based on the actions taken throughout their gameplay. A player who caused little chaos will be presented with a hopeful epilogue, whereas the chaotic player will have something considerably darker.
Dishonored makes excellent use of the dialogue tree to provide the player with the potential for replayability, and makes use of its semi-linearity to ensure that dialogue is natural, happens at the right time, and accounts for the players current accomplishments (quest-flags). The player character is intentionally left silent to allow players to better identify with him in the classic silent-protagonist model, though dialogue options gradually provide insight into his personality. While the game-endings are fairly limited, the approaches one takes to arrive at them can often have poignant in-game consequences, many of which are the lesser-of-two-evil types of scenario. The strength of the game’s narrative truly lies with its depth, drawing from world-class artistic talent. Before the game was even released the developers put out several beautifully-animated “backgrounder” short films to introduce potential players to their world and provide context.
Though a sequel is rumored, Dishonored seems to have been created as a stand-alone, and indeed has all the earmarks of a successful work of fiction; compelling plot, characters and environment, and a fleshed out fictional universe in which the story takes place. It also has the benefit of added replayability supported by the chaos-driven morality system.
To conclude, we can see that the category of Interactive Fiction is rather loosely defined at best, and that despite the initial appearances of the fairly basic criteria that Montfort lays out for us, Dishonored may actually fit with the IF genre better than expected, and indeed better than some of the titles that are classically associated with it. We have seen that text accepting/text generating programs are at best an illusion of dialogue relying on a human-composed list of finite possibilities, at least until the Turing test is convincingly passed. From this understanding it seems clear that the dialogue tree utilized by Dishonored meets the criteria in terms of input/output. It is clear as well that Dishonored has a fair amount of high-quality potential narrative, likely better comparable to literature than the parser-based game. Quite obviously, the game provides players with a simulation of a world more detailed by default than any classic IF game, and even one which holds up extremely well to its contemporary RPG cousins. Finally, when we consider the problem of maintaining realism while incorporating the elements of a game, we can observe that Dishonored avoids the many pitfalls of the repetitive puzzle or lock-and-key scenarios so common in IF through the use of its first-person 3D world. Given the ease with which this game fits into the genre of Interactive Fiction, perhaps a re-evaluation of our own expectations about the genre is merited, what other works have been overlooked?
– Sebastien Kishi
– Devin Mens
– Richard Parker
– Alberto D’Onofrio
– Sean Gallagher
- Dishonored. Bethesda Softworks Inc. 2012. Video game.
- Dishonored – The Tales from Dunwall, Part 1. Bethesda Softworks, 2012. YouTube.
- Montfort, Nick. “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure” in Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Pp. 1-36.
- Plunkett, Luke. “The Delightful Home-Made Maps of the Zork Series.” Kotaku. 26 September 2011.Link
- Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution.” Nightmare Mode. 25 November 2012. Link
- Sorolla, Roger S.G. “Crimes Against Mimesis” in IF Theory Reader. Boston, MA: Transcript On Press, 2011. Pp. 1-24.
- Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Computer Game Fictions” in Expressive Procession: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Pp. 41-80.