Dishonored, Bioshock: Infinite, and Critical Reception

So I’ve been playing Dishonored again.  This is my first playthrough since the original run of mine from when the game first came out.  I have to put my cards on the table, I think the flooded district level of the game is a mini masterpiece.  Really, a lot of the levels are like that, the game is somewhat short because it didn’t re-play it’s hand.  Why force people to do things over and over just for more story?  As much as that line of thinking can make for good gaming, for some gamers it would have been more time trying to choke every single guard out versus trying new things.  OK, explanations are in order if that didn’t make sense.

The game is a stealth game, meaning that the player has the option, as well as abilities and information at their disposal, to avoid direct combat.  Stealth games usually have to build up a sense of coding, letting gamers understand the systems at hand.  A game like Far Cry 3 used pissing.  Yeah, apparently there was some sort of UTI or STD, but every man on the island would walk away from his group to urinate, and this was a great chance for the player to deal with these menacing human-trafficers without alerting the group.  Similarly foliage provided visual cover and some weapons provided safer, more quiet solutions compared to others; at the same time you were being given information letting you know if you had been stealthy, really stealthy, or alerted everyone.  For Dishonored this feedback loop was also there, every level would end showing you your “score” but also things like alarms and symbols on enemy heads informed players that they were or were not being stealthy.

What stealth games breed is a sense of mechanics not found in many games now.  So, what pulls people into a game isn’t really a story, or some great voice cast, or even a great look but really engaging mechanics.  That’s one of the reasons games seem to fall into genres so distinctly, if you like certain types of games you can be sure others of that type will be easy to get into.  

For Dishonored the stealth was great, somewhat random, sometimes wonky, but it was an irreplaceable way to give the game another layer of character.  Similar to that the game also had a disturbing world the player would slowly learn about.  This world was one of science and technology mixing with mysticism and witchcraft.  The idea of an industrial and scientific revolution taking place in a world that could have been a Skyrim, or a Middle Earth, created a sense of a world moving into a territory it wasn’t supposed to.  This world, like all fantasy kingdoms, was meant to tell stories about magic and mysteries, but it overstayed its welcome and the magic and the mysteries don’t like the new order.

Enter The Outsider, the Deus Ex Machina of the entire thing, deciding the character of Corvo is important he imbues him with powers, special powers for a special person and everything falls into place.  While the game could be seen as a post fantasy world, I think in many ways it’s really Lovecraftian.  Lovecraft often built a modern world looking like our world on top of a chaotic and supernatural world.  A house built on top of a giant, monster-infested underground empire, a lost to time alien civilization in the snowy mountains, a normal city street whose inhabitants are all part of an aeon old evil conspiracy.  For Lovecraft the modern world was barely, but importantly and humanistically, concealing the awful barbaric past.

Though this is a huge aspect of properly reading this stellar game, most reviewers didn’t seem to really explain this.  The world you inhabit when you enter this game is astounding: the Empress is killed, Corvo is jailed, and the rest of the game is you slowly descending into the bowls of a society unravelling the narrative of a culture falling apart at the seams.  Whereas there are different types of stealth games, like modern military stealth, this game is an improvement in so much as the stealth-which grounds players and forces them to listen and study the world, allowed gamers to be carried though a dark narrative in a dark world.  While story doesn’t have to exist in a good game, Dishonored has a place in my heart as a game that can do both, though not always in a linear fashion.

Another game that, more recently, included a fascinating world was Bioshock: Infinite.  The Boxer Rebellion plays a tangential event in the story.  The event was a situation where mystics fomented xenophobic rage in China as the country was beginning to be full of foreigners in some areas.  This is an incredible simplification, but it’s part of what happened.  Columbia, in Infinite, is a magical floating city, fueled by Quantum Entanglement the city and story are beyond impossible, but are in some ways very allegorical to a desire people felt in places like America at the turn of the last century.  Utopianism, the idea that people can push to achieve the impossibly perfect arrangement. Be it communities with loose sexual identities or stern religious ones many groups have attempted to create micro-utopias.  Comstock, the man who runs Columbia, designed a world where people could live a life as close to heaven as possible, but he needed the labor to create this dream.  A major element of the story is narrative, part of the reason for the infinite worlds idea getting integrated into the story I imagine.  Whereas the first Bioshock was an attempt to look at how peoples philosophy might integrate into the world, Infinite attempts to show ones narrative.  

Narrative is a funny thing, right?  It decides why I vote one way but my neighbor votes another, and why we read different blogs on top of it.  We can all be living in this same world but we all think it’s for a different reason.  Again, this is a topic not often found in a game, but Bioshock: Infinite builds this world in a stunning fashion.  Though I think many rush through the game too quick, part of the way they get people to learn about the world is to get them looting.

Looting becomes a major facet of the game as more weapon upgrades and powers, or vigors, are unlocked.  Every kilometer or so theres a couple of vending machines which allow one to enhance their weapons and vigors.  Theoretically normal people only used these sparingly but Booker Dewitt’s one man war on all of time and space has him using them in earnest.  The games weapons have this great design, since they’re all before much of the military upgrades of the World Wars came along they’re sort of clunky, tough looking gear.  Nevertheless, Booker needs this stuff to survive the fire fights, so players begin looting everything.  It becomes a habit, enter a room fight baddies-finish of baddies loot their bodies, loot the drawers, loot the floors-enter another room.  However, if you find a piece of a story hook along the way you look at that, since the looting would get boring if you didn’t have a story to listen to.  

I know many people felt the games combat was too relentless, but it seems like they wanted to make sure people were looking everywhere so that they alway found the story hooks.  How important was it to understand why a Beach Boys song was played by a barber shop quartet?  While not seeming to be too weird(for a game) eventually one learns this explanation(thanks to Cyndi Lauper) and that story explains more about the quantum situation which in turns explains the ending.  As much as anything might explain this games ending.

While people will tear apart and praise this ending for years to come I really loved the process of the ending.  It felt like a wonderful ride, pulling you through this games world at an epic pace as all the high-weirdness began to fall apart and at once come together.

But is this an easy thing to review?  Similar to Dishonored there are games that seem to be able to do well at reviews and games that don’t.  I think Bioshock: Infinite achieved better reviews all around but was quite similar to Dishonored, while the latter was cloaked as stealth and the former an intellectual FPS they were, at heart, both about examining these incisively envisioned worlds.  While Dishonored had 2 separate “ending reels” Infinite provided 15 minutes of walking through this conclusion-definitely feeling like something you could yell to others in the next room “come in, its the ending, you don’t want to miss this mind-fuck”.  

The thing about these games is, as far as being self-supporting narrative wise, as in creating a concrete world, they are equal.  As far as developing a narrative with meaning they’re equal, so to speak.  They have something worth exploring and do so.  But game reviewing isn’t a criticism about getting to the heart of the matter, it’s about examining the subject of mechanics and whether these things work.  Yet, at the end of the day, people like what they like so reviews are not a valid comparison to experience.  Just remember metacritic.  As stated, one who likes FPS knows what sort of games will most likely be worth their disposable income.  

So there is a concern I’ve developed for the way reviewing is going on.  it seems difficult to truly understand whether a game is worth buying. I know the big games will be reviewed, they’ll be so intently reviewed it will be difficult to truly know if they’re worth the time.  But the games that don’t have that mind share, or that already came out years ago, they might not get the credit they deserve.  Bioshock: Infinite had a 10 on Metacritic(or is it 100?) but a near perfect evaluation-meanwhile Dishonored less than 90.  Obviously metacritic is fucked beyond belief, but I think something of note is discernible as concern over violence became more of an issue for Bioshock: Infinite.  Suddenly review sites decided they had a problem with violence in a game where a revolution is taking place.  As bizarre as that is, it didn’t seem to get noted in changing their reviews.  

Critical reception for games is, in my estimation, about how well a game fits into a box.  The reviewers aren’t examining aspects of a games world or what it’s mechanics might mean, but whether consumers will find a problem with what the experience of the game is over the advertised expectation.  This is inherent as this sort of reviewing is more about consumer focus than, say, industry focus.  When people got upset with the violence they forget that the game is advertised as FPS and for many there’s a level of violence expected, or at least reasonable. I didn’t find the violence a problem, it was supposed to be a terrible world, but God, everybody willing to give such high scores to the game was somewhat absurd.  If anything I think that really points to release timing. People can take a game or leave it during the holidays, but whenever March rolls around suddenly it’s back to just appreciating a fun experience.  But I think that’s what most reviewers should be doing, it’s not a bad thing, just there’s not enough interest in the other aspects of a game right now.