On Dishonored, the Inside, and the Outside

This is a quick post about Dishonored, a game I wrote a lot more about back when it came out. Spoilers abound.

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I’m playing through Dishonored again after a very long time (so that I can play the sequel, finally), and I’m struck by how often the side characters talk about the “mission area” of the game versus the “home hub” of the game. If you don’t remember, the structure of Dishonored is that the protagonist Corvo is assassinating and missioning his way through various tasks that have been set up for him by a group of conspirators. Those conspirators want to put the true heir Empress back on the throne of the Empire of the Isles, and to do their bidding Corvo hops on a boat, gets taken into the city, and then comes back again to discuss whatever he needs to that might make the plot move along.

The characters he’s speaking to are very explicit about the separation between those places. They say “the city” despite the Hounds Pits Pub (their base of operations) being located within, or at least in tight relationship to, that city. Sam, the sidekick who operates the boat for Corvo, helps maintain that, and lots of his dialogue pretends as if he isn’t a few hundred yards from Corvo’s violence/sneaking mission.

The big reveal of Dishonored is, of course, that the conspiracy you’re a part of were villainous the whole time. The Hounds Pits Pub, this place that you’ve been traversing for funsies throughout the game, gets turned into its own level. And it would have been easy for that just be a linguistic and mechanical turn (“these people are now your enemies!”), but the game’s continual statements about the content of the game taking place “out there” and “in the city” means that the reversal of the home base into the “out there” is even more distressing.

In a conspiracy, there’s only one safe harbor, and it’s who and what you trust. Through these throwaway lines, the game spends hours establishing that this place, this pub, is 100% legit. And in a moment, it’s flipped around.

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Consuming Problematic Media

I was re-reading Alexander Galloway’s Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization earlier today, and I came across this evocation of Magnus Enzensberger’s theory of the media:

Taking his cue from Marx’s sometimes sarcastic rhetoric, Enzensberger offers readers the following political warning: “Fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewerman cannot necessarily afford,” meaning that those who are oppressed (the “sewerman”) cannot be afraid to engage with the media (the “shit”) that oppresses them later.

I think there’s certainly a more complicated account of this process available (and Galloway does the work of pulling it apart), but I love the “sewerman” phrasing. I immediately thought about Jenn Frank’s “On Consuming Media Responsibly“. Both pieces lay out the necessity of analysis, of pulling  a thing apart to see how it works.

 

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“No One Criticized Bioshock Infinite Before!”

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All week long I’ve been reading tweets that have intimated that there has been some kind of sea change opinion shift in the way that Bioshock Infinite was received by audiences. The entire conversation has had a kind of “these damn hipsters” feel, as if the HD rerelease of some blockbuster game should be met with the sanctified silence of the venerated tomb, and I just wanted to take a moment to maybe put some of these sentiments into perspective.

In my neck of the internet woods, Bioshock Infinite was put under the knife. I collected thirty pieces of criticism on the game myself, and I probably made the active choice not to put another thirty on there for content overlap reasons. It was a game that the critical community showed up for, talked about, and came to some general consensus about. People were critical, have been critical, and actually formed an opinion about this game before it was expedient to on the release of the HD remasters in TYOOL 2016.

I’m not surprised by the surprise that some people critically engaged with the game. Tevis Thompson’s post-Infinite review castigation piece neatly split “critics” and “reviewers” into two camps, and if I had to hazard a guess I would say that the people whose tweets I’ve seen were maybe more familiar with the latter than the former.

And it isn’t their fault. Games criticism seems to be everywhere in my internet social circles, but that’s because I’m in it, have been in it. I’ve watched a dozen sites, magazines, and personal projects centered on critical inquiry in games sink beneath the tides of no money, no attention, no time. I’ve seen other places linger on (this site might be in that lingering zone). I can’t really say that I’ve seen any site thrive, even if thriving means living on the best side of precarity, but I have seen some critics do well, which is maybe the best thing that I can ask for.

There was a time that the primary argument in the broad world of games criticism went something like this: if we can get things archived so that people have a history and if we can get people paid so they’re not scrambling all the time then we will be able to have a critical community that will raise the level of discourse around games. That seemed to be a shared goal, and many, many people have left the world of games disgusted because they came to believe that achieving the first two might not move the chains on the third in any way.

So “no one criticized Infinite before!” comes to signify two things for me.

The first is that the games criticism of three, four, five years ago wasn’t all that successful. We didn’t reach the broad audience, and that’s a bummer, but it’s also not surprising.

The second is that something has changed. If the world were the same way it was three years ago, the people finding out about these long standing critiques would still be walking around thinking everyone sees Infinite as a holy grail of achievement. And that’s heartening, in some ways, because it means the discourse has shifted that little, small amount. The words got out, somehow.

In any case, that’s just what I’ve been thinking about this week. I’ve got the long view on “games criticism” at this point, like quite a few others, and I’d say that 80% of the people doing that kind of work on the internet who predate myself and my “cohort” have gone on to other things. Maybe even higher. But there’s a weird print in the culture in the shape of their words, and well, I guess that’s something.

 

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Like Mages and Murderdads on Facebook!

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Baldur’s Gate and its various sequels, you might want to do both me and yourself a favor by clicking on this here link or the image below so that you can signal your “liking” of our show that is about those games. Wowee!

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Mages and Murderdads Episode 8

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George Orwell on Atrocities

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But unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. The fact often adduced as a reason for skepticism–that the same horror stories come up in war after war–merely makes it rather more likely that these stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides an opportunity for putting them into practice.

George Orwell, “Looking Back at the Spanish War

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On The Last Door: Season 2

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I’ve been sitting on the second season of The Last Door for some time now, and I can’t really explain why. It was less an avoidance and more of a saving, like I wanted to make sure that I was in the right headspace to play it. I loaded it up on a whim and played it through in one long session, and I have a few thoughts.

[I wrote about the first season here, by the way.]

1.
The Last Door has a longform plot, but since the game is episodic, that plot is kind of dropped from piece to piece. Some characters carry over, and the plotline carries it all together, but the game is fragmented in an interesting way. Imagine that most episodes of The Walking Dead game were 400 Days and you’re getting close to what The Last Door does.

The first season of the game ended on a cliffhanger. Our protagonist went missing, or went beyond the pale, and the second season is all about his doctor trying to find him. The fragmentation is important here because it keeps us from having access to too much knowledge. This is critical in horror, and it can oscillate in the thriller (Zodiac is an apex example here).

The cycle of The Last Door is based on finding something and having it snatched into the aether. There’s a lot of talk of Veils, of places beyond, and dream worlds (this ephemeral gesturing is something I am a fan of in my own work). But where my Epanalepsis differs is that I am always gesturing toward an outside–the places beyond are truly beyond the scope, scale, and environment of the game that I am making.

The Last Door Season 2 goes for it. They show you the world beyond in that Lovecraftian way, and they hold you down in that dreamspace logic for quite a long time. Wonderfully, the dreamspace logic that governs film, the novel, and basically all experienced media is perfectly suited to the adventure game. Nothing ever really makes sense in the genre, so having to pick up piano keys from a mirror universe to play for monstrous Beyond Beings makes as much sense as anything else. As I said on Twitter, these developers have clearly been in the adventure game headspace for a while, and it shows in a really positive way.

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2.
That fragmented narrative allows the end of the game to be this amazing stitching together process. Throughout both seasons of TLD I kept thinking “well, I guess this scene will be explained at some point” and I was basically wrong every time. The Last Door really trusts the player to keep up with some strange happenings, and those happenings are made even stranger if you pay attention to the “last time on…” bumpers between each episode that tell you information that would have been impossible to know when playing.

And this isn’t criticism. I have this real love of games that just give it all to you and let you do whatever you can with the information you have (look, my favorite novel is The Book of the New Sun, ok? I’m the person who commits).

The last episode of the two seasons does this amazing job of wrapping up several plotlines, showing the “locationless” scene spaces that dotted the rest of the games, and generally filling in the history that you knew was there but did not have access to. The developers really went for it here in order to make it a coherent, special experience at the end, and I appreciate the density of knots that they went for.

 

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