Embedded Narrative in Dishonored 2

Many games published and/or developed by Bethesda Studios are often known for their use of environmental storytelling, a concept similar to our talks on embedded narratives in class. A fine example of this method comes from the Dishonored franchise of games, specifically the second game. While the game has a coherent story that can be fully summarized by playing through with little deviation from the main plot there is a plethora of lore that is almost never relevant to the current story. This lore comes in the form of letters, books, recordings, and even art work that is scattered throughout the world. While exploring each individual level the player can pick up several of these items and interact with them in some way. A few of these notes contain clues to progressing through the game while others are simply there to build the world, nevertheless each serves a specific purpose in the broader context of the world.

The first and most relevant component to these embedded elements is that they often provide more depth to the main plot of the game. A book may be a biography of a major character in the story or a painting may reveal some aspect of the character’s personality as seen by one of two in universe artists. These small touches are crucial to the game because Dishonored is a franchise built around the concept of player choice affecting the game world. The player has the choice to play through the game in a lethal or nonlethal manner, it is possible to play through every game without killing a single person. That makes these tiny details for each character crucial to the overall meaning of the game, they inform the decision to either kill or spare the main antagonists before it comes time to decide.

The second and broader reason for these minor details is to build up the world past the game’s story. Some books contain a historical record of some kind while others detail the religious practices of the different countries in the game. Not only does this create a large history for dedicated fans to dive into but it also helps build the world for casual players. The fact that a book such as “Litany on the White Cliff” or “The Fishmonger’s Cookbook” exists and can be interacted with sends the message to players that this is a real world with a real history and their actions will have serious consequences within it. So even if players don’t interact with the majority of the content within the game it still serves a purpose in building up the world around them.

Bad News and Death

As the creators of Bad News prepared themselves for the start of their game I expected their world and characters to be fully scripted and handcrafted for the event. I was taken by surprise when the game master, or “wizard” as he referred to himself, opened up a python script which procedurally generated the world of the game.  The script simulated 150 years of relationships, jobs, and families in order to create the town that the player explored, each person the program created had a remarkable depth to them with at least 100 variables to each person. These variables ranged from their appearance to their love interests in the town and reminded me of the simulated characters from the video games Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld. Of this pool of characters one is selected to die and it is the player’s job to deliver the “Bad News” to their next of kin. What followed was not just an interesting narrative of a stranger exploring this small world of the game, but a conversation on how death is handled in games.

In most games, especially video games, death is a trivial manner to the overall structure of the game. Players can die and come back to life within seconds and many games involve the death of many non-player characters with little to no importance to the game at large. Bad News flips the situation entirely, making death a much more somber and emotional moment for the player and the world. By speaking to those who knew the dead subject the player and the audience is able to learn so much about the life they lived and how they touched the people around them. All this without ever actually speaking to this deceased character ever. Death is not portrayed as a trivial thing in the world but as something that has long-lasting impacts on the whole world and those who inhabit it. Bad News also shows how death is an inevitability that us humans strive to cope with.

Early on the gamemasters revealed to us that there are billions of possible unique outcomes for their simulation, meaning that each playthrough takes place in a unique setting with unique people. Once the game was finished the gamemaster quit the program, effectively erasing the generated world from existence. Due to the sheer number of variables and possible outcomes, it is impossible to create that world again even if you had several computers generating new outcomes a second. (Unless, of course, you’re astronomically lucky…) This made the idea of death within the game much more intimate because even if we play the game again for a billion times, we’ll never find ourselves in that world again. Much like how the dead are gone forever, we left that world forever.

After watching Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, I kept asking myself how far Jim Carrey’s method acting truly went during the filming of Man on the Moon. While the cameras are rolling its clear that he was fully committed to this act, as he said it was a Jekyll and Hyde moment for him. I wonder how this act changed when there were no cameras on him and it was explicitly a moment outside of any film. The documentary informs us that for the most part when Carrey adopted the role he was fully engulfed in the character for hours, sometimes entire days. Early on the film, my initial thoughts drifted to what other members of the crew thought about Carrey’s performance. How many of them found his performance funny and how many were unable to voice discomfort due to the immense pressure of telling Jim Carrey to do something other than act. The film glosses over this question unless its Jerry Lawler not reacting positively to Carrey’s teasing. For the most part, it seems as if the majority of the cast and crew went along with whatever the act asked of them. But there is one moment that stuck out for me towards the end of the documentary.

When Jim Carrey plays Andy Kaufman and announces that he has cancer, there is one actor who immediately objects to this act. Danny Devito objects to Carrey’s performance and makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with this part of the joke and it’s clear through his actions that he feels uncomfortable with the situation. This moment raises the question that lies at the core of this documentary. At what point does a harmless joke become something much worse? What I believe it comes down to is the responsibility of the actor to know the audience. Not every joke is going to be perfect and even the best jokes will be frowned upon by someone. That doesn’t make this a terrible film nor does it make Carrey a horrible person for going too far on occasion. The film goes to great lengths to show how he’s grown as a person since he played this role and there’s definitely a sense of maturity in the way that he handles the interview. It’s something to consider when creating any form of art that seems obvious but is often brushed over. When we experiment and try new things in art we shouldn’t expect it to be perfect or comfortable for us, and when things fail we should take responsibility for our failure and make sure that we grow as whatever kind of artist we strive to be. So that when we do cross the line we can step back, take responsibility for our actions, and ensure that we do better next time.

Ethics of Public Disruption

While it is clear at this point that there is no requirement for a review board if an experiment is made to entertain, I believe that doesn’t mean experiments should be free of ethics.  While it is impossible to understand the exact impact of an experiment there is always a way to ensure that the intent of the experiment is not malicious. While watching the Push documentary I feel as if the show failed to create an effective experiment and skirted the boundaries of what is ethical.

The worst offense of the documentary for me was the intent and the methodology they used while setting up the experiment. From the get-go, they focused on individuals who already displayed a willingness to follow orders simply because they are told to. In fact, they specifically decline one applicant because she is not as compliant as they hoped for their contestant. This undermines the final point of the show, that most people would be complicit in following orders because they had already chosen people who would demonstrate their outcome. Which could be excused by the fact that it’s a show made to entertain, their premise may be to show that it’s possible to convince at least one person not the majority of the population. What invalidates this is the final scene of the documentary with Derren Brown attempting to make some moral point about how we all have to stay vigilant about ourselves or else we could be convinced to act against our personality as well.

This leaves me with the impression that this was Brown’s attempt at making some grand flashy artistic statement and not to raise some point about human nature. In my opinion, this wasn’t so much of an experiment and more of some form of performance art. Instead of trying to prove that most people are susceptible to social pressure, they succeeded at demonstrating that a few people from a cooperate focused world are susceptible to social pressure.

ARGs and the Post-Truth Era

In the documentary and readings for the fifth week, we learned about the meaning of a Post-truth society and the ways in which this was brought about. McIntyre states that the post-truth era is one where ” feelings sometimes matter more than facts.” (McIntyre, 13.) While this is a terrifying thing to comprehend in the face of modern politics it leaves many wondering about what could be done to stop this trend. It is my belief that this is where arts and the humanities must take on a greater role in creating stories that address this issue in ways that we can’t do only with hard scientific facts. Humans are accustomed to telling stories and playing games as has been demonstrated in class multiple times. Stories in general always come with some further message to them, whether it be some moral to follow or belief about the nature of the world, all stories are in some way political. This is where ARGs come in as they play with the boundary of emotion and fact in a less risky manner than political elections. ARGs are fundamentally based on the lingering question of “what is truth?”

Is truth simply stating that which is and not that which is not as Socrates first stated, or is it something more akin to a shared experience across populations? Of course, no one can truly answer this question, it’s been the subject of debate for ages, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about this issue. ARGs are a perfect way to make people think critically about what the truth is around them. The second the rabbit hole states, “This is not a game,” the player is put into a position where they must critically evaluate the world around them. This critical thinking will most likely figure out that any ARG is probably a game, but there will always be some part to them questioning the nature of reality in the game. Here is where we can begin to push back against post-truth thinking, or at the very least confront the cause of it. I say this because stories tackle emotions, and when people place more emphasis on emotion than fact then a good game will involve people reevaluating their emotions in order to play the game.