Aesop didn't have an Xbox. If he did, the ancient Greek fabulist may have given us some great games about boys crying wolf or hard-working ants and the grasshoppers who mock them. Instead we have his fables. The lessons are timeless, but the stories themselves are dated. Modern audiences are better served by modern storytellers.
Enter Harvey Smith, co-creator of the 'Dishonored' series. He may not have the name recognition of an Aesop but he has stories of his own. And his latest, Arkane Studios' 'Dishonored 2', will be full of the moral and ethical dilemmas found in a fable, but told through a more immersive, personal narrative.
"'Dishonored 2,' in a way, is an abstraction of the world we live in, a metaphor. And so we have the thoughtless abuse of power and the deliberate abuse of power as an underlying theme that leads you to these interesting ethical considerations," he told Newsweek.
The largest ethical consideration in 'Dishonored 2' is to kill or not to kill. For a game about the quest for revenge of trained assassin/deposed empress Emily Kaldwin, you'd think the killing would be a no-brainer. But 'Dishonored 2' is more complex than that. Underneath the dizzying knife play and frenzied shoot-outs is a system built on ethical choices.
"It's a game about an assassin where you don't have to kill anyone. So we give you a game where you can play through the whole thing without fighting or killing anyone. Or you can go through and paint the walls red," Smith said. "And maybe that's a cathartic experience for you, cutting off heads or whatever. So, ok, go for it. And we try to have the game respond."
That response is rooted in the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance." It's a fancy academic term for the disconnect found often in video games between a player's desires and the character's motivations. The oft-cited example is the 'Uncharted' series, which features a do-gooder hero who, throughout the course of the action-adventure gameplay, kills hundreds of people. If the aim of a great game is to immerse the player in another world, then ludonarrative dissonance is its Achilles heel. The first step, according to Smith, is recognizing it when it happens.
"Near the beginning [of 'Dishonored 2'] there's a line where Emily says, 'Damn. A week ago I was living in a palace and now I'm scrounging through someone's home.' She's digging for food. She's digging for coins. That's ludonarrative dissonance," he explained. "Because on one hand, you have this posh character who grew up rich. Why would she steal? ... On the other hand, you have the player whose desire is to collect things and scavenge resources as part of the gameplay."
Unlike the first game in the series, 2012's 'Dishonored,' the sequel features voice acting for both main characters (players can choose between Emily, or her father Corvo - the hero in the first game). The power of the voiced protagonist, Smith noted, can soothe ludonarrative dissonance and deepen the player's immersion in the game.
He mentions a technique at play in 'Dishonored 2' where certain objects are programmed with a range of dialogue options. Players interact with the object and, depending on how violent the player has been, the responses can range from the hopeful to the homicidal. At one point Emily will come across a pickaxe in a mining district full of workers who are being exploited by her nemesis, the Duke of Serkonos. She might say something about wanting to help exploited workers. Or she might say she wants to drive the weapon through the Duke's head. Playing violently produces a hero who is consumed with violence, and creates a game where the player's actions and the character's motivations are in sync.
"This is an action game about assassins but it has as much writing, easily, as big role-playing games," said Smith. "Once you layer enough things like this in, so many emergent things happen."
Smith cites a small scene of someone sneaking through a level and encountering a group of guards. Using The Heart, a magical item in the game, lets the player learn secrets about other characters. In this instance, the player learns that three of the guards are decent guys, but the fourth is a child-killing monster. If the ludonarrative dissonance has been handled correctly and the player feels truly in the game world, then the player will set aside the risks of taking on four guards at once because of a moral compulsion to punish the offender.
"Suddenly, you can't help it. You're like 'oh no, motherfucker! That guy is not going home tonight!'
It's not embedded drama. It's the emergent drama. The player made that. Those guys may have only been there because of what the player did earlier," he said. "It's not a textbook case version of an ethical dilemma... those are great, but this is much more like systems are running around you and you're engaging with the game. You've turned yourself loose."
There will be many decisions in 'Dishonored 2' that aren't as easy as Smith's example. But by rewarding players with a responsive world and emergent narratives they control, Smith believes he can live up to the lessons of his mentor, legendary game designer Doug Church.
"Doug is the first person I've ever heard say 'abdication of authorship' … So what you do is you turn it over to the systems and the players so they can author their own story. Or the systems can help them author their story," said Smith. "And it results in a very powerful experience for the player. Again, it's not that scripted, embedded, Hollywood-car-crash moment with reaction shots, it's a dynamic thing. But because it's done by the player's own hand, they sense that. And then they feel this kind of power."
It's that kind of thinking that will make Aesop's fables obsolete. The more generations that flock to gaming to sate their need for fluid, sophisticated narrative, the more effective the lessons of those moments will become. A living space to explore ethics and morality is an improvement over a static storybook page. And if Aesop had included a few more cathartic decapitations in his fables, maybe they'd be games by now, too.