Dishonored is ugly. As the former bodyguard of the queen, framed for her murder in an alternate-history 19th-century England, the only way you can un-dis your honor is to pay the murder forward. You sneak through rotting buildings and leap over heaps of garbage, stabbing plague-infected people in the neck. Rancid stuff. The game, which came out last year, takes about eight hours to finish. Maybe 10 or 11 hours if you go for broke and ferret out hidden treasures. This is the perfect amount of time to admire the fetid Dunwall streets and play amateur Sherlock Holmes in the Mystery Of The Disappearing Assassin. It takes just long enough to have some fun, not long enough to wear out its welcome.
I hold up Dishonored—one of the hits of late 2012—as an example because one of the most important lessons in life is learning to recognize when the party’s over. I went to college in St. Louis and moved to Chicago after graduation. But many of my friends had less aggressive plans (and my plan wasn’t so aggressive, either—I grew up in the Chicago suburbs). My buddies stuck around St. Louis and went to grad school, got jobs, or generally wandered through existence. The city was cheap, after all. You could get a sandwich and a pitcher of beer for about 10 bucks. A fitting Tuesday night.
One particular friend—let’s call her Maggie—was so desperate to recapture the casual social chemistry of undergrad that she chose to live one block from Blueberry Hill, our college bar. But without a bevy of classmates around to hail Maggie with open arms and an open barstool, Blueberry Hill was a sad place, forcing her to acknowledge that college was over. Yet she continued to hang out there, and she was around when I came back for the one-year reunion. (A one-year reunion is kind of like the after-after-after-party, where desperate loners go for one last shot at a drunken makeout session. I was one of the first to sign up.) Maggie regaled me with tales of a job at the St. Louis Zoo where an orangutan literally bit off her finger. She smiled reluctantly, despite the fact that she lived in a place where primal beasts were actively trying to remove chunks of her. She no longer belonged here.
College is an experience with a predefined end point: four years for undergrad, a few more for advanced degrees. Conversely, there often is no end to the amount of time you can play a game, especially in the last few years. When the Nintendo Entertainment System took hold in the mid 1980s, many of its games favored the number eight. There were eight worlds in Super Mario Bros., eight dungeons in The Legend Of Zelda, and eight robots to beat down in Mega Man. You started the game and saw exactly what was in front of you, knowing that, at some point, the game would end.
Not so anymore. Now we see open-world games and online kingdoms that allow players to run around forever. There are important and meaningful tasks to complete—dragons still need slaying and princesses still need rescuing. But there are endless things to do off to the side, and finishing the main quest can be, ironically, a secondary concern. And you usually get to keep playing after that anyway.
I understand the appeal of such boundless freedom. Once you’ve built your character into an all-powerful superhero, you can waltz right into enemy camps and kick ass without so much as taking a name. In perpetuity. But when this happens, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve become Maggie. The game is shouting at me to move on, and I’m trapped in a purgatory of meaningless roundhouse kicks to the face.
Dishonored offers no such chance to linger. When the end credits roll, that’s it. The moments leading up to the finale are full of opportunities to explore, but that exploration is limited by a rigid structure. After fleeing the castle guards, you escape to an island off the coast of Dunwall, and the only way to go back and forth between danger and the tavern serving as your safe haven (your Blueberry Hill, as it were) is to take a boat ride. It’s dangerous to venture into Dunwall, you are told, so the only time you do is when there is a very specific mission to complete. You don’t, say infiltrate a masquerade ball to slit a spy’s throat unless it’s for the good of the cause. Who do you think you are, James Bond?
You are told, in no uncertain terms, that getting from point A to point B is your primary objective. You can only explore within the small sliver of Dunwall that you’re currently infiltrating, and even then, the surprises you find serve mostly to fill out the details of the world. You might spend a little time being yelled at by a blind woman with the plague. Or maybe you’ll discover a soiled mattress. These abound in Dunwall, for some reason. You’ll only come across these smaller details when you’re foraging, which adds gravity to your sight-seeing, but these are still accents to the main event.
Playing Dishonored mirrored my college experience. Dunwall, decrepit as it may be, can be mesmerizing. I remember being boated over to the city at sunset, staring at a tall building on the end of a bridge. The awe of freshman year. Later, the mission rundown at the bar started to feel routine; I simply wanted to get to Dunwall and start stabbing, maybe sniff out a few mattresses. It was a time to explore with the false sense of familiarity—sophomore year. Junior year arrived with a plot twist that painted former allies as soldiers in a different war entirely. Once I hunkered down and saved the queen’s daughter, it was time to graduate to another game.
There is value to knowing when you have overstayed your welcome, in recognizing that moments in your life are important because they end. Our temptation is to linger in a moment—to dig deeper and hold onto it in the hope that meaning will surface right away. But reflection is what turns experiences into lessons, and reflection has to take place after the fact. After the end. If you try to hold on too long, the world will shout at you—an orangutan will literally or metaphorically bite off your finger. Dishonored never lets you get to that point. You stab just enough, and not one moment more.