Breaking Down Dishonored’s Untold Stories

I always thought a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead type of video game would be neat. Just as how the story always focuses on the hero that we have been with or become familiar with, these types of games would expand on the side stories of some ancillary character. It’s already been done a few times like in Resident Evil 4‘s Assignment Ada bonus content, but they’re all too directly tied to the story. They are, for this purpose, too crucial to the main story.

A Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in my mind is much more superfluous. They only seem to exist for a singular need at any given moment. This need and moment could be vital or could be totally inconsequential but could just as easily be filled in by any other character, fabricated or otherwise. It also couldn’t hurt to be more absurd, but that’s just me.

The desire for this “telling the untold” sort of game greatly increases when I play a game that has a much more fleshed-out world. It’s not just that the story is good and cohesive enough to support these side tales but that the world in which you interact with it is rich enough to warrant it and inspire it.

Think about the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3. It didn’t just seem like the world was built just for you to navigate and solve a few problems along the way but rather the world already existed and you were dropped in the middle of it. There was a thick and hearty narrative swirling around in that irradiated stew pot and you were just another potato being put into the mix. It just so happened that you were the lil’ spud we kept an eye on after we dumped everything into the soup.

Dishonored, the recently released first-person stealth action game from Arkane Studios, also does a pretty great job of this. Dunwall feels like an immensely well-realized world that existed not just years before Corvo Attano and you set out to right some wrongs but more like it existed for decades before our time together, maybe even centuries. Not only are we just a blip on the map of the Isles but also merely a bump on the timeline of the entire world.

The game pulls a BioShock for some of its fleshing out (flesh outing?) in that you get some awesomely detailed (and disturbingly dark) audio logs in the way of audiographs, 1960s-style computer punched cards that play audio recordings when placed in obstructively large card readers. Seriously, they’re like the size of a sewing machine or large Christmas ham. But the fact that they fit into this old timey Victorian-era world and also deliver macabre notes of not very vital information is what makes them work. They do nothing but enhance the fiction of the world, and better yet, they don’t require any reading. Just press a button and you can continue looting the rest of the room while you hear about how Sokolov treats his house guests.

There are, however, some options for the more literary-minded. Much like in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the world is absolutely littered with books for you to read. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of Fahrenheit 451. Everyone loves reading in Skyrim, just as they do in Dunwall. From the maids to the lords to the guards, everyone’s a reader. I suspect even the tallboys have FlexLights up in their canopies for when patrolling gets boring.

The point is there are a lot of books, and each one brings in a new wrinkle to the fabric of Dishonored. You hear a lot about how everything runs on whale oil, but did you ever wonder how they get it? Or what it’s like to work on one of those whaling ships? Be warned: it’s more gruesome stuff, but it’s so unbelievably interesting that it’s well worth pushing through whatever reservations you have towards animal cruelty.

And each scrap of text is written as you would expect, which is to say in the voice that you inevitably hear in your head when you grok the context of the pages. An uneducated street urchin, for example, has terrible grammar compared to a royal lady. Commoners speak with a lot more idioms and colloquialisms than guards and the like. The castes of the Dunwall society feel like they’ve existed for decades and that these differences have evolved over that time, each one identifying classes and prohibiting them from interacting.

Hearing these characters talk is a bit different in that regard, though. Actually hearing guards go through their chit chat is almost identical to hearing some homeless survivors jabber on underneath a warehouse when it comes to differentiating their linguistic tones and mannerisms. Their topics of discussion are vastly different, though, as guards will talk about how terrible their supervisors are or how there has to be a connection between the Lord Regent and the Empress’ murder while party goers will talk about how much they envy gross wealth and shiny trinkets. You know, like beavers. You eventually get the impression that there are nuances to the social hierarchy, more so than just the rich and the poor and the moderately employed. It’s only the kind of minute delineation that you can get from a comprehensive and deliberate crafting of the background narrative.

It breaks down, however, when you hear the idle chatter, or barks as I believe they’re called. For all the graceful nuance imparted upon you from the conversations you drop so many eaves on and books you tear asunder in your never-ending quest for invading privacy, hearing every pair of guards ask if they are partaking in whiskey and cigars later that night is overwhelming. Even at the moderately quick pace I was moving through the game, every guard that bumped into another guard would either ask if they wanted to get down on some stogies and get ripped or yell at them to shut up.

Asking about getting their own squad after what happened last night is excusable because, let’s be honest, Corvo is up to a lot of shit every night, but the two heavily recycled barks breaks the illusion of the fiction for me. I no longer wonder what kind of life I’m ruining by undermining their singular purpose in the world or if some little baby guard won’t have a daddy guard to welcome home tomorrow morning. I instead wonder how they can just keep putting the same smoky alcoholic guy on duty at every seemingly crucial junction.

And eventually I stop caring. Not about that guard but the world in general. I don’t care about that book; I’ve already read it. I don’t care about that painting; I’ve already seen it. I simply stop caring about the entire woven fiction placed before me and just care about killing dudes. It’s a horrible way to go through a game that clearly has so much put into it and it does a severe disservice to every other revealing or affecting story or conversation you come across.

It’s not just a problem in Dishonored but in all of these types of games. Eventually, you realize that Skyrim and New Vegas and the Capital Wasteland and so much more are not endless seas of history and culture but rather very large sandboxes and that you’ve finally found the edges. You colored and colored and colored and now you’ve filled up the page and there’s nothing left to color. There’s nothing left to ponder and there’s nothing left to explore. Victims of their very success, the assassins pretty much stay at home.

I stop wondering about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and begin to hope Hamlet is dead.

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