For Our Consideration

Dishonored

Stopping Short

Too many video games overstay their welcome. Dishonored shows the value of letting go.

By Steve Heisler • July 9, 2013

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.

Dishonored

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.

Dishonored

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?

Dishonored

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.

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  • http://starttocrate.tumblr.com/ Http Lovecraft

    You’re stopping short with ME?  I INVENTED STOPPING SHORT!

    • http://starttocrate.tumblr.com/ Http Lovecraft

      Sidenote, I am just starting Dishonored and trying to play stealthy/without kills and I’m kinda bored/frustrated.  Is it better to do a full-violence run for my first playthrough?

      • Simon Roffe

        You’ll get a much better ending if you stealth it up, and i found the stealth kills inherently more satisfying, to the point where i refused to use the pistol & crossbow after a while…

      • OhHaiMark

         I always tend towards playing these games quietly, but with Dishonored I absolutely blasted through everyone, using my powers to destroy everything. The ending wasn’t as good but I found that the game was almost meant to be played aggressively.

        It’s an interesting world, Dunwall. Especially considering how different I consumed the game than most of my friends, who felt the world demanded silence and stealth. I’d recommend playing both ways, or, if you only want to play once, blast through it killing everyone, then watch the ending. Then go watch the good ending on YouTube.

        • http://starttocrate.tumblr.com/ Http Lovecraft

          You’ve convinced me!  VIOLENCE WINS AGAIN!

      • 2StoryOuthouse

        You’re probably doing exactly what I did. I bought the game a few months after release but had trouble getting into it until about a week ago. I eventually realized I was doing exactly what I had done with Deus Ex:HR, trying so hard to play it like Batman that I was constantly saving and reloading to get the outcome I wanted.

        As of about a week ago, I eventually found my groove. The trick was to drop the obsession with getting your ideal outcome and just accept whatever happens. When you get caught and get into a gunfight, run and hide… don’t just get yourself killed so you can reload. When you’re cornered, fight your way out. A few kills will keep you from getting the murder-less achievement, but you can still have low chaos (which is the only thing that impacts gameplay/story).

        No matter what approach you’re taking, max out Blink and Dark Vision before you do anything else. Those skills are absolutely essential.

        • offalWaiter

           You’ve inspired me to give it a second go!  Had the same reaction about half-way through.  It’s been on the shelf taunting me ever since. 

        • TheMostPopularCommenter

          I did the reloading thing and basically just completely ruined the game for myself. I barely made it through the first level of the DLC because it felt so much like work.

      • TheMostPopularCommenter

        I choked everyone out, reloading about a thousand times, and still didn’t get that fucking no kill achievement. 

      • mrm1138

        I played through a stealthy no-kill game, and when I got to the final level, I found it to be rather anti-climactic. I looked up a video walkthrough for the high chaos version of the last level, and it seemed far more exciting. I say go ahead and play your character as “Slit-Pipes McGee” (to quote Yahtzee Croshaw). You won’t get a happy ending, but the game will be far more satisfying throughout.

      • JamesJournal

        Much like Deus Ex games. I only killed people when non-lethal options were too difficult. Not everyone is awesome enough to be Batman

      • TheInternetSaid

        I did a murder run and then a no kill run 6 months later.  Both were very satisfying, and the sad-face ending on the murder run made the no kill run that much more fun.

    • djsubversive

      THAT’S MY MOVE!

  • DrFlimFlam

    I was okay with the idea of a story about when to stop not having comments because the discussion was over.

    As an adult, I’ve become more concerned with spending less money on games for a tighter, more focused experience. There’s stil the odd Skyrim here and there, but I appreciate it more when my $10-30 goes towards a game that’s maybe 5-10 hours of really good.

    • NakedSnake

      Yea, agreed. As you get older the money vs. time payoff reverses. In high school, I would have been super happy with a cheap, medium quality game that would keep me occupied for hours. Today, that gives me shudders. Now, its easier to take a financial hit, and when I see a game only takes 6 hrs to beat (I look everything up on howlongtobeat.com), I consider that a feature.

  • GaryX

    The thing about Dishonored is that people complained about how short it was, but when I finally played it, I spent almost two hours sneaking around the first level not trying to kill anyone (I failed because I didn’t know rats would just randomly eat people). 

    • DrFlimFlam

      I’ve already played at least a dozen hours and I can’t be that far in.

    • beema

      Yeah, if you do a no-kills no-alerts run, it takes up TONS of time

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Yeah, I really can’t imagine Dishonored as a short game. I went for a stealth-based playthrough with minimal violence, and it took me almost 24 hours. If I had gone for full-on violence with little to no exploration, I could have maaaaybe cut that down to 12.

  • Citric

    I don’t mind long games, provided it doesn’t feel like they’re padded. For instance, I’m playing 2 JRPGs right now. I’m nearly at the end of Radiant Historia, which reuses areas a lot but is otherwise pretty tight – most of the story feels necessary, the reused areas are at least often subtly changed for each trip, it doesn’t feel very padded, apart from it really wanting me to grind my balls off before the big stupid final boss. So its 20 hours feels mostly justified, though it could use fewer trips to the Lazval Hills area anyway.

    I’m also playing Tales of Eternia (Better known as Destiny II, but then they did another Destiny II so blargh). This does feel too long, because it’s padded as hell. Really lazily padded, dungeons and crap reuse backgrounds repeatedly, so it just emphasizes how unnecessary a lot of the area is – they couldn’t even be bothered to draw a new background. Since it feels padded, it feels too long. A lot of sandbox stuff gives me the same vibe, mission structures are reused, lots of stuff is busywork instead of pushing you forward, you’re constantly revisiting the same area, and it feels like padding.

    • Roswulf

      This captures my feelings as well. I don’t care about length, at least once I’m past a minimal dollar-per-hour-of-fun ratio that is easy to achieve via sales.

      I care about narrative momentum, the feeling that each act I take leads to the next in a satisfying way. To use a standard Gameological example, this was something I thought Mass Effect 3 absolutely nailed while Mass Effect 2 fell short with its loyalty quest grind.

      • mrm1138

        Interesting. I found Mass Effect 2 to be absolute perfection. (In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s my all-time favorite game.) I think Mass Effect 3 really comes close, but overall, it just didn’t grab me in quite the same way. (I’m also one of those people who was less than satisfied with the ending.)

        • Roswulf

          I agree that there are a bunch of things ME2 does better than its successor (a richer pool of companions that includes Mordin, an ending in keeping with the preceding game, a greater period of time with Mordin…).

          But there comes a time in ME2 where you have to choose between dealing with the Collector threat, or traveling to a galactic backwater to help Jacob with his daddy issues. For me, this downplayed the immediacy of the game’s main threat, and hurt the propulsion of the game. The post-Legion Normandy abduction offered a great incentive not to dilly-dally, but came very late.

          By contrast in ME3 I felt that every action tied into the overwhelming arc of combating the reaper threat. I found it a more confidently paced game than ME2.

        • JamesJournal

          @Roswulf:disqus 

          For me both games were appropriately paced for what the story needed to do at that specific time.

          In Mass Effect 2 you are the captain of a ship in peace time dealing with episodic concerns. In Mass Effect 3 its wartime.

          It would have been exhausting carrying out the urgency of ME3 over multiple games, not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have cared about the universe or characters as much as if I’d lived in the universe for a long time before it was attacked.

    • DrFlimFlam

       Tales games are the absolute worst at stretching things out.

      • Citric

        That frigging mountain mid-game that uses the same four backgrounds. I briefly thought there was some obscure trick to actually progressing since I clearly was in the same place, over and over again, but no, it’s just lazy design.

        The weird thing is that I do like the game – I’m even tempted to get Xillia or Graces – I just wish it wasn’t so lazy sometimes.

  • Dave Dalrymple

    I like when a game gives me lots to do. After spending 30 hours to beat Kingdom Hearts 2, I happily spent a further 30 hours to fill up Jiminy’s journal.

    What I’m wary of, though, is games that don’t seem to ever end. There are numerous RPGs that encourage you to grind for better gear and skills, but they don’t give you anything worthwhile to do with those new skills. When I was grinding giant turtles in Final Fantasy XIII, it occurred to me that the only reward was to become a more efficient turtle-killer. And maybe a trophy?

    • Archfriend

      I think here is a perfect opportunity to mention Nippon Ichi Software and their standard model of JRPG where the story mode is short and easy, but the real challenges are seemingly infinite–building the perfect character and leveling them to 9999, finding the most powerful weapon and leveling it to mathematical perfection–I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still grinding away in Disgaea 2 even though we’re up to Disgaea 4 by now.

      In my younger days, being unemployed and endlessly bored, this was exciting, but now I stare upon the concept with absolute horror. There is a part of me that wants to go back to my youth, but even if I lost my job now, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve moved on.

      Goodbye, Nippon Ichi.

  • duwease

    I loved that Dishonored was short.  It served the story and the atmosphere well by having it move forward and not spin around on variations of the same themes so that there was “more to do”.  So often, games get to that point where you want to finish the story, but you’re no longer interested in what you’re actually doing to get there (aka actually playing the game), because it’s basically what you’ve been doing for hours on end.

    In fact, I’d prefer if more games did this.  I’m not naive enough to think that it would reduce the price of games, but it would reduce the cost of games, which in turn means studios could experiment more with riskier properties.

  • Halloween_Jack

    I recently started playing Diablo III again, after not doing so for months, and holy crap is there an assload of filler in that game. 

  • The_Juggernaut_Bitch

    If the total play-time of a game is 8, 10 hours… I better not be paying $60 for the damned thing.  Not when I can pay $60 for a 500+ hour game like Skyrim.  My time, that is, the time I am willing to invest in being entertained in this manner versus being entertained in that manner is more valuable to me.  Why pay $6 an hour for a 10 hour game when I can buy a game I can play for 500 hours?  That’s 12 cents an hour!  That’s gaming value right there.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      I do care somewhat about the amount of game I’m getting for my money, but not all game is created equal. Sure, there are plenty of 100-hour RPGs out there, but a lot of their gameplay consists of just walking around, which can be enjoyable, but not very engaging. Sometimes, a tighter, more focused experience that is just pure fun from start to finish provides an equally valuable option.

      • The_Juggernaut_Bitch

         That’s true, too.  Not every game needs to be 500 hours, of course, but I’m just finding that, for the price, a game that only clocks in at 8-10 hours is just not capable of justifying its $60 price tag.  To me, that is, like… a decent DLC for a game.  I mean, conceivably, one could buy the game on Friday night, pop it into the console on Saturday morning, and be done in time to go out Saturday night.  For $60?  That’s… just not enough game.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Yeah, I’m not fond of the $60 price point either, and to be frank, that goes for most games. I never buy games at that price point, but I don’t mind paying $25-$30 for a relatively recent, shorter title.

    • Dave Dalrymple

      I’m at the point now where my free time is a bigger limiting factor than my budget. I’d rather a game with 6 hours of solid fun and thrills than a game with twelve hours of fun interspersed in twelve hours of filler/tedium. (But, hey, a game with 100 hours of solid fun like Persona 4 is even better.)

      There are lots of reasons I play games, but I no longer play them just to pass the time.

    • JamesJournal

      It just depends on the game for me. It is kind of a joke how short games in the Fable series are, but I wouldn’t be able to sit through a 40 hour Halo campaign.

  • Gipson

    That “I should really move on” feeling is horrible.

    I felt it bad about a year or so ago when I plugged in to Rock Band by myself for about the millionth time. The industry had moved on, my friends had moved on … and finally, it just felt like I had to move on. As I blasted through some viscious death metal tune on expert that I’d downloaded from Rock Band Network, I literally had a “What the hell am I doing?!” moment.

    I still play from time to time – parties or with my wife – but I never play alone anymore.

    • Trentasaurus

      I know that feeling and it’s a real bummer. But I actually recently found a group of friends that enjoys Rock Band still, and will actually attempt to harmonize three ways on 3/Beatles. Good times, hold out hope.

  • subclarke

    Love my job, since i have been transportation in $82h… I sit reception, music enjoying whereas I add front of my new iMac that I got currently that i am creating it online… http://www.Pro67.com
     

  • PhonyPope

    “eight robots to beat down in Mega Man”

    That’s a strange way to spell “six”.

    • Jason Walton

      Also, there were nine dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, not eight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/george.s.louis.73 George St. Louis

    Spoilers….

    When Samuel the boatman dumped me off on the island and told me he had warned the guards because I had done so much killing I was seriously gutted. I thought Samuel was my most loyal, and only-friend. After that, my fury knew no bounds. One of the best “moral choice” games I’ve ever played. And the short length was a plus-It allows tighter focus.

  • JamesJournal

    No good game is too long. No bad game is too short. Beyond that, there should be enough content to justify the purchase.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eclipsemattaru Eclipse Mattaru

    I agree with the reasoning of the piece, but I think Dishonored is a bad example: I felt this particular game was not just short, it was small; which is much worse. For me, the whole thing felt like the overture to something that never happened; just when it seemed like all the training would pay off, it was a little more of the same as before, and then the game just stopped and the credits started rolling. 
    Rarely do I ever regret a purchase since I try to read and learn as much as I can beforehand to make informed decisions and whatnot, but in this particular case I felt flat-out scammed.Then again, I’m probably wrong, if the opinion of everyone else and their dogs are any indication :T