WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE DISHONORED FRANCHISE?

Dishonored (which I will always maintain is spelt wrong, America) was one of those games which has received both too much and too little praise. This first-person stealth game was a critical darling upon release in 2012, achieving a stream of awards and much slobber from the online websites, even BEFORE most of them had been paid to like it.

And though audiences were positive and no real complaints were raised, the game faded in the minds of the public, likely due to the lack of multiplayer, the focus on a complex setting, a sense of genuine challenge and the fact that no gender controversies were made about it. These are all things that make it work in my mind, but that’s me – always bucking the trends to look cool. And people say critics don’t represent the people! To that I say: of course not, who the hell would want to? In the ancient Caddyshack war of Snobs versus Slobs, I stand firmly with Ted Knight against the invading forces of Rodney Dangerfield.

But I’m getting off-message. Dishonored was a good (if somewhat flawed) game, and with a sequel scheduled for release in November, I took it upon myself to consider how a potential follow-up might work. The answer? Well, read on, you lazy goose. I’m not going to do all the work for you.


STORY

Let’s consider things in reverse to what we did for Zelda (where we decided story should inform gameplay), because here we actually do have an excellent template for what a Dishonored sequel should be like: the Boyle Masquarade Ball in the first game. The absolute highlight of the whole affair, and a good blend of gameplay, world-building, organic side-quests, physical and social stealth with multiple solutions to a single problem: how do we work out which of the creepy women in wolf masks is our target, and how do we guarantee that she’s never seen again after this night?

And one of the things that made that mission work was that it was when the game suddenly had a lot more character. Thus, I would make our hero something very different to the silent, staring Corvo Attano in the first game. In this instalment the protagonist (we’ll call him Monty, purely because I like the name), is a charming raconteur and daring wit, the cream of high society… And also an accomplished cat burglar, going under the suitably thrilling name of “The Fox” when it comes to the popular press.

Bam. A solid set-up for a stealth game (yes, I know it’s similar to Thief, but there hasn’t been a good Thief game for ages, so I’mma take it), with bona ride reasons why our hero can sneak around at a professional level, not to mention why he’s breaking into places right from the start. When he’s seen trespassing, his mask covers his face and identity, and when he’s hiding in plain sight, he takes off that mask, and just goes around looking innocent and putting up a façade of endearing buffoonery. Basically, he’s a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman, with all the delightful fun that implies.

Then we need some inciting incident, after a couple of tutorial missions where we just pinch large diamonds and so on. To my mind, two things would happen in tandem – Monty would steal something that’s much more valuable and important than he immediately realises, and simultaneously be visited by the ghost of Edward Cullen (aka, the Outsider), to be given a stack of magic powers to do with as he wishes.

And everything then happens at once. Monty makes a few selfish decisions regarding the mysterious item (i.e., keeping the damn thing), resulting in a friend of his being hurt/killed by somebody who’s intent on taking it back. Monty decides he’s not going to stand for that, and works to discover the true purpose of his new toy whilst looking to get revenge on the faction that seeks to take it from him, a la The Count Of Monte Cristo. Oh, did you see what I did there?

As he does so, he finds that he’s being pursued by a deadly assassin that is more reminiscent of Daud and Corvo from the previous game, a symbol of Dunwall’s grim past that needs to be overcome and left there, in favour of the lighter, more merciful approach that Monty embodies. Along this journey he’ll come to understand that his actions have consequences and that he must learn to think about others… But that doesn’t mean he can’t pinch a couple of rare baubles from blustering nobles now and then. Got to have some fun, right?


SETTING

This one is tricky. Partly because Arkane Studios did such a good job of crafting the city of Dunwall the first time around, that it’s hard to think of specific areas where it can be improved. I know that the main characters in the first game seemed to lack the depth and substance of the world they lived in, but that’s one of those things that you can assume gets fixed for this one, like bringing your car in for a tire change and assuming that the tire will actually be attached to the car when you leave.

The real problem here is one of tone. Corvo’s grim saga of betrayal, revenge and revolution was a good fit for a city where everything seemed to be going wrong on an hourly basis, including an attack of zombie plague and a militant fascistic movement taking people’s liberties like one takes Twiglets from the bowl.

But the initial cheerfulness of The Fox’s life feels like we’re in a far lighter story, especially considering his own attitude. And whilst I suppose the city wouldn’t have to be Dunwall, it does feel cheap to move away from it purely for that reason.

So we’ll stick with the same city, but we’ll approach it in a time of relative prosperity. It’s not perfect – one of the likely themes considered would be the disparity of the poor versus the wealthy – but it’s doing well enough and doesn’t seem to need immediate saving from anything at the time. It’s like Gotham City between issues of Batman, whereas Dunwall previously felt like Gotham City in the third act of a major Batman arc – namely, completely buggered to hell. We navigate bustling cobblestone roads, cane tapping cheerfully as we glide between street urchins and market vendors. Then, when nobody’s looking, we duck into an alleyway, put on the mask of The Fox…


STEALTH AND COMBAT

… And the challenge begins anew! First of all, I should urge that I like the idea of Monty being a legitimate inventor, crafting strange and wonderful devices to help him accomplish his burglaries. To my mind he would make a good descendant of Piero, the brilliant but uncomfortable man in the first game – maybe a grandson? Ah, doesn’t matter too much.

So we have a combination of gadgets, black magic and natural agility working to ensure that the bad guys get bonked, the jewels get jacked and the guards stay unguarded. And the next priority is to clearly categorise these abilities and their purposes.

I’m thinking that black magic and Outsider powers should relate to mobility and interaction with the environment, and be the cornerstone of “I’m stealthing around, and I’m staying that way.” We keep the teleport “blink” power and X-Ray vision because they’re awesome, but we also add powers like levitating objects, sealing certain doors closed, making unconscious bodies invisible and triggering sounds at a distance to distract people.

By the way, hiding bodies is now more important than ever. For Monty is a thief, not a killer, and he does NOT leave a bloody trail behind him. He knows how to use his reinforced cane for self-defence and he knocks people unconscious when he has to, but he doesn’t skewer them like kebabs and doesn’t summon hordes of rats to eat them alive. This might seem discordant after the potentially apocalyptic death count of the first game, but even then you were subtly praised for staying your hand and utilising non-lethal approaches. Besides, this is a new age for Dunwall, and moving past the darkness of what it once was is a key element of the story here. It’s also undeniable that Monty would seem slightly twisted if he kept a sense of humour alongside his blood-stained dagger. Uncharted proved that the lovable hero becomes a lot less lovable when he starts breaking necks like a turkey farmer approaching Thanksgiving.

So you do have to be sure that nobody’s going to find the sleeping guards, because you can’t just turn them into dust when you’ve finished hacking them pieces this time. And It’s going to be harder than ever to keep them hidden, because one very valid criticism of the first game was that the guards were incredibly easy to navigate. They’d walk across a room, pick their nose for a bit, then walk back to where they were and repeat the whole process. No chance of being surprised by somebody taking a long circuitous route, which is usually where the average stealth game is at its most interesting – having to improvise in a heartbeat.

Beyond that, the original game doesn’t need excessive revitalising. The stealth worked then, still works now, and is made more enjoyable by the scope of options given to you. Admittedly, I would like to see more of a use to the environment other than platforming. Maybe killing the lights by finding switches in the basement, or sneaking up behind goons to put sleeping powder in their hip flasks. But Dishonored did that sort of thing fine, so I won’t say that it needs fixing, only emphasising the strong points. And then there’s something that does not need emphasising at all.


COMBAT

Look, I know Dishonored 1 proudly tells you to play it your way, but that leads to a lack of focus and a fundamental problem: if I’m just trying to get to the end of the game without much thought to specific tactics, why wouldn’t I just load up my pistol and grenades (something most enemies drop after being murdered), and hack through everybody who comes into my sight line? Dishonored’s swashbuckling was fun, but ultimately easier to do than sneaking if you were happy to go lethal, especially when certain powers only had capacity for loud, lethal means.

Here that doesn’t fly anymore. I said The Fox was a good fighter, but there’s a reason he doesn’t charge in and turn a burglary into a robbery – the odds of survival rapidly diminish as more enemies get involved. Fighting one dude? Yeah, should be fine as long as he’s not a real expert. Two guys? Bit tricky, but not terrible. Three? Well, now things are getting problematic.

This is where the gadgets and toys come into play – they provide means to escape or to end combat quickly when somebody advances on you with a sword. Tranquilliser darts, smoke bombs, flashbangs, and the steel walking cane for when you need to parry a cutlass strike or smack somebody in the chops. Maybe add some fun toys to that roster, like rope traps that’ll drag an unsuspecting thug into the air, but on the whole your various gadgets are to be used in the event of an emergency.

The reason for this is that combat is going to be a genuine problem, something that you really might not survive, with reinforcements charging in all the time to back up their friend. Anybody would call for back-up after being attacked by a man with a large walking stick and a selection of steampunk James Bond gadgets.


CHOICE

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Dishonored’s original choice system doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. The deceit of “play it your way” means either taking the easy, evil option or the difficult, more merciful path, and that in itself is a problem. It’s well recognised at this point that most “evil endings” equate to a weak-willed game over screen, feeling ultimately cheap and unrewarding after hours spent striving to accomplish something.

But for this game we’ve shifted the focus more firmly onto stealth, and removed the option to slit the throats of people who treat you with disdain. And whilst I’m happy to keep a reactive gameplay experience, it can no longer be to who you kill and who you spare.

No, the game should be altered by your methodology and approach, something the original did do right to a certain degree. Maybe you find the location of a target or rare item by conversing with the chatterboxes in a crowd, or maybe you break into a guard’s office to see where the hired goons seem to have been assigned to, and peak in through the windows to see what’s inside. The approaches you take will affect future missions, with those who decipher your tactics taking steps to prevent them, and those who are on your side trying to support you accordingly. If you kill the power to a building so that you might blend into the shadows, the next one you go for will have the fuse box under lock and key, because they heard about what you’re up to, you rogue. Of course, if you really work hard and take extra risks, you could conceal your approach after everything, and get to use it with hindrance again next time.

The social stuff also has a good template for how to converse and persuade others – the dialogue minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the best means of approaching persuasion in video game history. It would be easy to reimagine reading people as an Outsider power, and the rather terrifying Heart from the first game would actually have a use in the secrets it told you.


CONCLUSION

Like Zelda, Dishonored is a good game that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just recognition of what work and what doesn’t. But whereas Zelda’s problem comes from a distinct reluctance to change or innovate for the better, Dishonored is too young a series to be guilty of that. What it needs is urging on for the stuff that it has already worked out how to do right, and the sense of discipline and focus to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe the sequel next month will be good, maybe it won’t. But Arkane Studios, just remember that I’m happy to do some work for the next game, hmm? I’m the only freelancer who’ll take his hourly rate in Cadbury’s, you know.

 

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE ZELDA FRANCHISE?

Over the last year I’ve been playing Zelda. A LOT of Zelda, actually. Wind Waker, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, A Link Between Worlds, Oracle Of Ages, and Metal Gear Solid 3 on the 3DS. That’s not a Zelda game, I just hate it so much I want to grumble for the rest of this paragraph about how awful it is. Ugh.

And though I have great affection for Zelda, like many Nintendo properties I think it could use an injection of fresh blood, not just remaking it periodically with alterations at the fringes, like putting a woollen jumper on a decaying sheep and hoping nobody will notice. All ideas lose their lustre and charm the more we are exposed to them, and concepts that seemed good at the time can age poorly or be supplanted by better ones.

Admittedly, it’s an exercise in futility to demand change from Nintendo (or at least the good kind of change, such as NOT reducing Mario to an infinite runner and compromising on elegant and nuanced design), but I’m going to demand that change anyway. In an age flushed with reboots, reimaginings and remakes, it’s not hard to concede that another one could make its way forward and even achieve some success. This is my hypothetical Zelda game that’ll likely never get made, despite the fact I’d want to see it.


STORY

This is the first thing you work out, because good design should complement and serve a basic narrative. And whilst it’s not usually done that way round in the industry, this is a fantasy and I’m going to indulge myself a little more before we finish.

First of all, we throw out Link being a character with no personality. Wind Waker proved that he’s more likeable when he emotes realistically, rather than trying to be a blank canvas for the player to project onto. Emotionless Link doesn’t work now and never really did, the idea was just so inoffensive that nobody cared too much. Maybe we keep Link being silent for this game, because a voice might be jarring at this point, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give him obvious drives, hopes, desires, fears and complexities. After all, the hero’s journey demands a proper hero at the centre, not a training dummy on marionette strings who has no more investment in what’s going on than the average deku nut.

Which brings the question of what exactly Link wants to achieve. Well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’ll go with the classic explanation and say that Ganondorf is being evil, so Link has to hit him with a sword until he stops. But “generically evil” isn’t enough of a reason for somebody to commit atrocities, so we ask ourselves another question: why is he doing this?

Well, it occurred to me that we never really see things from Ganon’s perspective, not properly. There’s certainly not much of a personal motivation to defeat him, as he usually has only a couple of appearances in each game, once at the beginning to announce that he’s there at all, and once at the end for the boss fight where you kick his ass.

Which is where my central story concept originates from – I would structure a narrative in which Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and an extra fourth friend (no, not Tingle) grow up together as children and genuinely get along, before the Triforce then shows up and ruins everything by gifting each of the main three heroes a third of its divinity. Zelda gains great wisdom and understanding from her segment as per usual, whilst Ganon is hit with the Triforce Of Power and promptly goes megalomaniacally insane from its influence, unable to function stably now that he’s been hit with the power of a god.

See what I mean? My Ganon would be a good person corrupted by an object that was not intended for mortal usage, hence why his close friend Link has personal investment in stopping him and separating the two. It’s like the second Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, but with a gold triangle instead of a robot octopus. Ganon isn’t evil at his core, but the Triforce has warped him into a monster, making him both more frightening and more tragic all in one go, especially considering his new insanity would cause him to attack his friends for their pieces of that golden triangle.

Which brings me to the last point – Link is NOT the receiver of the Triforce Of Courage. Everybody thinks he has it, including himself, but what I’d actually do is send it to that fourth friend I mentioned and reveal the truth in the third act before the finale. Because it would make Link’s acts of heroism all the more heroic, as he’s not backed up by magic and he’s not a chosen one. He’s just a guy who stepped up to do the right thing, and that was all that was really needed. Link, the unnamed new character and Zelda work together to bring Ganon down, and rest is all details and plot points to be finalised later.

Who would that fourth friend be? Well, I was thinking of a younger kid who looks up to the rest of them, the symbolic representation of innocence and purity that lies in the balance. The game is about trying to save civilisation, but we see that struggle represented in the confused emotions of a younger friend, who embodies the battle of good, evil, power, courage, wisdom and more, deciding where his loyalties are owed. Exciting stuff.

Which leads us to the question of where to put this epic saga. The grand, sprawling majesty of Hyrule Kingdom? Well… No. Not exactly.


SETTING

Here’s something else to make the diehard Zelda fans bluster a bit. I would confine my story to one city, and one city only, with maybe a bit of land around the outside as and when plot demands it. Probably Hyrule capital, as the existence of Zelda herself suggests that her castle has to be in the area, but it doesn’t have to be there if we decide to reincarnate her like they did with Tetra.

Because if there’s one thing these games have always done well, it’s oddly emotive and endearing NPCs and random townsfolk. When Ganon blows up everything in Ocarina Of Time, the only part that made me sad was seeing the bustling market square turned into a lifeless ghost town. I couldn’t really care less what happens to the fields and plains outside, because nobody lives there except Maron, her lazy father, and their entrepreneur field hand Edmund Blackadder.

So double down on the city and personality of everything within it, making the whole thing feel like one vast but diverse settlement that all connects to each other. Make various districts, regions and locations that are visually distinctive, and include a likeable melting pot of all of Hyrule’s races. Maybe the Zoras live around the river, just next to Gorontown and its Hard Rock Café, arf arf. We should be establishing from the beginning that for all its faults, the city is something good, something that needs protecting and deserves these efforts to restore it.

The point of this is that when said city is threatened, the audience gives a damn and feels invested. Ganon promises to blow up the world in a lot of these games, but considering you never stay in one place for more than ten minutes, it’s hard to care about any of it. Having the whole map feel like Link’s home – albeit a very big and messy home – means that there’s a sense of community, and ideally enough of one to make the audience shout “hell, no” when a demonic boar comes threatening destruction.


GAMEPLAY AND PUZZLES

Well, right from the start it just makes sense to boost Link’s basic agility, increasing his climbing and jumping skills, as well as giving him the option to sprint. This is a city full of rooftops to be run across, alleys to hide in, crowds to duck through and drainpipes to climb, and Link is some simple urchin who would know how to scamper around an urban landscape. Enhance the ability to parkour across the town a bit and now it’s a vast, three-dimensional map that’s simply fun to traverse on its own terms. And not only that, but we can make it even more fun with the reintroduction of a couple of old toys from Zelda lore.

Those toys are the hookshot and the deku leaf. For those of you who don’t know, the latter was a Wind Waker item that functioned mainly as a parachute, slowing and controlling your fall whenever you leapt off something. So clearly it has an obvious function in any game where roof tiles are the new pavements. I don’t want to see my innards getting scooped into a barrel by some grimacing guard every time I slip on a drain gutter and take a tumble.

The hookshot is equally self-explanatory, a retractable grappling hook that historically has allowed Link to rappel up surfaces or drag enemies towards him. Here it would fit the mechanics like a glove, allowing you to swing over gaps, launch up the sides of buildings, and be used as a more central weapon in combat, but more on that later.

And none of that snapping to first person in order to aim it, OK? We can do that on bows and arrows, but here the emphasis is flow of movement and not stopping if you don’t have to. Take influence from Arkham Asylum, with the little symbol popping up on hookshot-friendly ledges when you get close enough to them.

And then there’s the puzzles, and right away I can think of something I’d do to change those: integrate them more cleanly into the world around them.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the things I liked most about Majora’s Mask is that the time-travelling puzzles made sense within the context of the story. You find out that an old woman got burgled last night, so you hop back in time to prevent it from happening with your new knowledge. That all holds up within the established ideas of the world and doesn’t feel like the game is intruding on the story and setting.

But most puzzles in Zelda games don’t feel that natural. There is no real reason the water temple would have several buttons to change the tides, as well as moving platforms and spikes that lead to a chest holding a key that opens a door on the other side of the building. And don’t think you can get away with just calling these labyrinths “tests of courage,” either. In my Zelda game, the puzzles are either based on navigating traps set by somebody who genuinely doesn’t want you to progress, or more focused on plausible problems within the context of the world around you.

Finally, I’d make my dungeons and my open world a little less distinct from each other. Not cut out the dungeons altogether, but don’t make them an entirely separate pocket dimension. In the urban context it makes sense that most of them would be located in buildings, so why not have the option to access them through different entry points? Not as some mandatory thing that you do because you can’t complete the dungeon otherwise, but because you’ve found out from an NPC that you can deactivate certain traps and get a good sniper position if you try going through the higher window first.

I’d also make dungeons shorter and much more common, maybe a dozen brief rooms each, with most of them being optional and containing various new abilities. With time, all dungeons get frustrating, claustrophobic and run the risk of being repetitive, so we break up the monotony before it can ever sink in.

Notice how I very specifically DIDN’T say power-ups just then, I said abilities. Hacking your way defiantly through some secret labyrinth should unlock new attacks, or fresh options in combat and exploration. It should NOT just make the weapons and moves you already have become more powerful. Link is a small child going up against the hordes of darkness – it makes sense that he’d be fighting intelligently, utilising a bag of tricks scavenged from various hidey-holes around the capital.


COMBAT

Which I guess brings us to combat mechanics proper, and if there was anywhere in the Zelda games in need of a tune-up, this was it. First of all, Nintendo can sort out the targeting system, for god’s sake. Just make it how every other game in the universe does it, locking on and switching between enemies with the right analog stick. I’m sick of trying to engage in combat with some ravenous beastie, only for the Hero Of Hyrule to advance nervously on some dozing caterpillar far beyond it, all because the programmer doesn’t know the correct etiquette for target-lock.

And as mentioned, I’d also increase the utility and importance of the hookshot, maybe using it to replacing the shield altogether. Remember, my Link is a nimble, light-footed rapscallion that won’t block an enemy attack if he can avoid it altogether, and in my mind the shield would be a heavy, unwieldy thing that comes with suitable penalties. But by using the hookshot in tandem with the sword, I’d like to see the player drag enemies around with the chain, disarm them of weapons, throw them into other foes, trip them up, and maybe work with environmental objects in order to get that edge in combat. How cool would it be to organically swing over some goon’s head, only to pull down a damaged wall with the same item and squash him with the debris?

I’d also remove the aspect where you stun-lock most enemies easily. For a while in the 3D Zelda games it’s been pretty simple to get the edge on most bad guys by rattling their heads with the Master Sword until they die, but that won’t fly in mine. Ramp up the AI intelligence so that they know how to deflect a sword blow AND recover from one too, so it’s less about knocking down various armoured weebls than it is about looking for the opening or opportunity. A lot of enemies won’t even leave easy ways for you to attack them in the first place, making the environment essential for success.

Same principles apply to bosses, which admittedly is something Zelda has usually been pretty good about. My choice of bosses would be a rogue’s gallery of monsters, mercenaries and minions, all of which have legitimate backstories that explain their actions. Which is why upon defeating them that Link doesn’t just kill/desummon/explode the bastards, but hands them over to the city guard for a just trial. After all, this city is meant to be something good, right? It knows how to treat criminals with respect.


CONCLUSION

So there we have it. Rather more experimental than most Zelda games, but I think there’d be real potential in something like this. Originality and reinvention associated with old products is often approached with disdain by hardcore fans, but if Nintendo are going to keep making these games, I’m going to ask that they acknowledge the times we live in to some degree.

Did you think this premise sounded solid? Can you think of anything you’d add or subtract from Zelda games as a whole? What games would you also like to see tackled in this way? Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll be looking at refining a certain sneaky-stabby franchise that’s now coming back after a temporary hiatus – and no, it’s not Assassins’ Creed.