Qualia are irreducible experiences, also known as instances for “the way things seem.” They are a key component to human consciousness, and integral to the concept of strong emergence. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole, in a sense. Weak emergence, then, is a reduction to the individual components of an experience, laying bare disintegrating systems. Peanut butter and jelly, I’d argue, produces qualia. Denny’s Sunrise (Surprise!) Sampler, I’d venture, is a “get what you get” kind of affair.
Dishonored is no damp amalgam of breakfast food. Its strong emergent gameplay is, in fact, an inspirational success story in game development. To come out of a hands-on preview wondering what everyone else did indicates a preponderance of choice-driven play that the gaming industry is just now growing into. There are, of course, still the scripted choke points for quest completion, but phasing across, under, along, through, amid, and under the architecture of Dunwall still gratifies the player like few other experiences to date have.
Forget the dystopia, and forget the Dickensian themes. In the gameplay demo, the player focuses squarely on tactical infiltration. Dishonored rewards stealthy, creative solutions above all else, and encourages the player to experiment with the additive combination of powers to reach those ends. Whether sneaking into a famous cat-house to murder two lusty politicians or creeping through an industrial lab to secure a brooding scientist, avoiding confrontation along the way or dealing with threat quietly behooves every future move. The choices that players make in these scenarios will also affect how the game ends; a path plagued by violence will, for example, beget violence. And, oh, what carnal violence it is.
Never before have I seen that many nameless guards penetrated through the skull – THE SKULL – by the protagonists’ knife. I mean, a decapitation is practically ritual, and the throat slash is just efficient. The straight-up head-stab is vengeance, the message of Corvo’s mission as he attempts to clear his name and survive a hostile world of disparate means and opposing liberties. Guards (or innocents) can also be dispatched by the gnawing of a dozen summoned rats, or by the projectile flying from a musket-fire pistol or crossbow. If all else fails, there are grenades, lethal gusts of wind, and reliable gravity to expedite assassination in the dramatic cityscape punctuated by vertical platforming.
Careful players (all of us, by experience incentive) will spend a majority of the time in Dishonored learning the world by way of shadow traversal. While this employs the predictable first-person mechanics of running, jumping, crouching, and climbing ledges, the real evolution here is the Blink ability, which allows Corvo to teleport short distances unseen. The way the E3 demo level was constructed, each intersection had three or four possible routes, most of which relied on Blink to cross gaps or well-lit hallways. Those paths then branch off two or three more times along scaffolding or across neo-futuristic masonry. Once the prey is in sight, Blink also aids in darting from shadowy corner to darkened inset. Then, the murderous choices explode.
To give a few examples of the variety in being a pseudo-magical assassin:
- Use Possess to walk the victim to a ledge then de-possess and Whirlwind off the edge.
- Use Sleeping Dart to put victim to sleep, Summon Rats to chew victim to death.
- Stab in head.
- Attract attention, wait until victim or guard fires weapon, Slow Time, Possess victim, walk in front of stopped bullet, de-possess, resume normal time, watch.
- Sword fight with blocking mechanic.
- Shoot with pistol.
- Bar door, turn on toxic gas in room with victim.
- Turn on toxic gas in room with victim, set explosive by door, ignite upon victim’s exit.
- Choke out, carry body, toss off bridge.
- Choke out, carry body, shoot body.
- Choke out, carry body, throw body off edge of building into an electrical fence three stories below.
- Choke out, carry body, throw body off edge of building, Slow Time, Blink to street below, Whirlwind into ocean.
- Choke out, carry body, annoy Tall Boy, wait until Tall Boy shoots fire arrow, throw body into incoming projectile.
That’s just using what Arkane Studios has showed of the game so far.
Given the jacked-up, super-powered E3 demo, it’s hard to say how Corvo’s creed will evolve over the course of Dishonored. There is an experience system, and nearly every piece of equipment and power can be upgraded, but how quickly each element is accrued or made useful remains a mystery. Likely, these details won’t be apparent until the full release.
A single criticism stuck in my mind from what was presented in L.A. this year; the voice acting sounded as effusive as Andre the Giant. That is, it lacked the emotional peaks and valleys that can sell the player on the world, the characters, and the narrative. At the moment, that doesn’t seem to matter as much as the strong emergent qualia of becoming the 19th century’s stealthiest manifest vendetta. At release, it’s hard to imagine that gamers who’ve heard the soundscapes of BioShock and Uncharted 2 will be as forgiving.
Dishonored will sneak its way onto PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on October 9th, 2012 in the U.S.