Before we get into the meat of this article, I invite you to look back upon some of the best core gameplay experiences you’ve had in the last decade. Odds are things like the Bioshock series, Metal Gear Solid III and V, and Hitman: Blood Money come to mind. But these games are wholly unrelated, you might say. Well dear reader, I beg to differ.
To understand the common thread of gameplay design philosophy that ties these darling classics together, you have to first know what an Immersive Simulation game is. An Immersive Simulation (Sometimes shortened to Immersive Sim or ImmerSim) is a game that, from the ground up, is meant to immerse you in its world with every aspect of its design — From its music to its gameplay to your character’s effect on the world at large, Immersive Simulation Games are designed to never trigger a disconnect between the world and the game’s other components. A very early example of an Immersive Sim would be the original Deus Ex — arguably the game that popularized this design trend in the first place, and still perhaps one of the best examples to date.
And so that brings us to Dishonored. I ask you to narrow your focus now, and think primarily about the gameplay of Immersive Sims. What patterns do you see emerge? The key ones here are:
- Consistency of gameplay rules, especially AI
- Emergent Gameplay
- Stealth, or the inclusion of stealth, as a primary mechanic
I think that these three gameplay design trends, when properly combined, make for many of the most engaging and endlessly replayable gameplay experiences that can be had in gaming today. The advantage is that these are a simple enough basis of trends that they can be applied to virtually any genre you wish to work in.
Part I: Consistency of Gameplay Rules
Now our focus recenters on Dishonored (and its sequel), which I consider to be a truly shining beacon of this design ethos — The pinnacle, if you will. Now, Dishonored is not a series free of issues. While the story can be poorly written and inconsistent sometimes, one thing that is consistent are the gameplay rules that bind this experience together.
Gameplay Consistency is a difficult thing to get right. In the days of physics engines, procedural animation, radial AI branching, and framerate-tied mechanics, it takes an inconceivable amount of fine-tuning to make your mechanics function in a consistent manner. In an Immersive Sim like Dishonored, consistency is everything. It forms the basis of what can and can not work, and that’s why, often, you need to throw out these more modern technologies entirely in favor of a more classic, rigid set of mechanics.
In Hitman, notably, every single NPC, from target to guard to bystander, runs on their own clockwork of AI interactions. That is to say, if you return to the same area in a level at the same time while having made the same decisions, it will always be the same. This is not easy to program. It requires hand-scripting of every single NPC (Or at the very minimum every group of NPCs) within a level. The effect this has is it creates a giant, delicately balanced living organism of guard timings, NPC movements, and operations that are absolutely begging to have a wrench thrown into them. As the player, you are this wrench, and you must engineer a sequence of events in your favor.
Dishonored may not be as particularly nuanced as Hitman, but it is focused more on Stealth-Action than it is on sneaking through lavish parties and crowded streets. Yet, this design philosophy remains the same. The primary enemies of Dishonored, the guards, all work on an absolutely consistent clock of events – some of which are triggered by the player’s presence. This leads to a deep consistency which, again, is begging to have a wrench thrown right into it that sends everything spiraling out of control. In Hitman, you might use a disguise to sneak into the staff room of a party, breaking an electronically locked door to route your target to exactly the room you want them. In Dishonored, you might freeze time so you can fire a frozen arrow from your crossbow, attaching a razor-mine to the projectile before time unfreezes to create a silent, lethal AOE projectile.
While the application is different, both these situations use the same design philosophy. None of this would be possible without the consistency and detail of the AI scripting. Every mechanical combination has to be accounted for and assigned an appopriate reaction. This is one of the major ways Ubisoft’s stealth-action games often go wrong. Enemies and various NPCs often stand around without any complex scripting whatsoever, and as soon as they get suspicious they switch to a reactive AI mode that, in all honesty, is just not very good. Ubisoft’s stealth encounters are simply too small and self-contained to be approached from any angle. This often leads to dominant one-size-fits-all strategies that leaves the game feeling samey.
This design philosophy extends to the actual gameplay mechanics as well. Consistency is absolutely key when your mechanical interaction gets to a certain level of complexity. Everything has to work, or the game feels highly inconsistent. Even the first Dishonored has a flaw here — If you cause an enemy to fall without knocking them into ragdoll, they fall with their normal standing animation. This doesn’t hinder gameplay, as long falls will still kill enemies, but it sure does look awkward and unintended.
Part II: Emergent Gameplay
Emergent Gameplay is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but that’s also because it’s an incredibly broad – perhaps even vague – marketing term. As usual, I will be asking you to narrow your focus to a specific form of Emergent Gameplay that is common primarily to Immersive Sims, which is something I like to dub “Rube Goldberg” player interaction.
Rube Goldberg player interaction is just that — It is a small list of very simple core mechanics that are scripted in such a way as to have absolute unfaltering synergy with one another. This tempts you to create complex machines of interaction out of simple components in order to accomplish a simple task. If you think something can interact in some way, it can. This is the core of Dishonored’s gameplay design philosophy/ Above all else, it is what makes it so endlessly replayable.
Let me show you a topical example. Here is a video of a special ability in Dishonored called ‘Bloodthirsty’. This skill allows you to build up adrenaline through lethal combat and then execute a finisher, which slows time and swings twice — Both swings are guaranteed to kill enemies.
Simple and efficient right? But Arkane goes the extra mile here — While using bloodthirsties, both your left hand abilities (powers, projectile weapons, gadgets) and all movement options (Sliding, climbing, vaulting, etc) are all available to you. What this does is give you a very large arsenal of potential super-combos of lethal attacks and supportive abilities. Take this video for example:
This is an example of using these abilities in tandem with one another to fit a specific situation. Using Emily’s far reach to pull yourself across an enemy in close quarters to kill him before the second swing follows-through is the core of what Dishonored is about — finding creative solutions to combat-stealth puzzles. The game eschews the traditional “sneak up behind guards and bump them on the back of the head” system that stealth games tend to be so entrenched in. And when you get up to advanced levels of synergy, well…
All of the above footage is courtesy of an excellent youtube channel by the name of stealthgamerbr. Please check out their content if you like seeing Dishonored absolutely mechanically vaporized.
Part III: Stealth as a Primary Mechanic
Those of you with a better memory than me may be exclaiming “Stealth?! But Bioshock isn’t a stealth game! Remove it from your list of examples immediately!” And my answer to this question is: Isn’t it? Bioshock may not have traditional stealth game mechanics, per say — yet the scripted combat encounters that populate its underwater halls are designed with stealth game-like observation in mind. Splicers make noise, they have loud conversations with one another. They’re often in other rooms with choke points. You’re encouraged by the game to prepare for each combat encounter beforehand, which is, in essence, the role of stealth in Dishonored.
Stealth gameplay is very fine n’ dandy on its own. Some games project an absolute horror-atmosphere level of tension from their finely-crafted stealth mechanics, but stealth in Immersive Sims provides another purpose: Analysis. Dishonored and it’s sequel both occur in incredibly vertical, multi-level environments, open enough that you can often (and on nonlethal, are encouraged to) sneak directly past guards. In fact, the very first power you get in both games is a traversal tool, allowing you to cover great distances and large heights in an instant. From the getgo, you are encouraged to get above-ground and observe. Observation is key. Playing with the guard timings, seeing how they react to different stimuli, encourages the player to pay attention to detail and interaction, and, in turn, teaches them to look for similar mechanical interactions in the powers, skills, and gadgets of Dishonored.
Have you ever played a game where you came up with a great idea for handling a particular situation, but the developers hadn’t thought of it? Odds are, the enemies either didn’t have any programmed reaction to your idea, or the idea worked, but clearly wasn’t intended. Perhaps they lacked the animations but somebody at least made the interaction functional, or maybe the interaction was already functional based on mechanics implemented elsewhere. Dishonored eschews this common trend. If you think something can work in Dishonored, based on mechanical knowledge, nine times out of ten, it will, and it’ll look and feel awesome to do. The role of stealth in all this is to trend players toward observation, otherwise they’re very likely to make assumptions about what can and cannot be done, and totally miss a deep well of mechanical interaction that is core to the design of the game they’re playing.
In addition to stealth, another feature that heavily promotes this kind of gameplay is quicksaving and quickloading (Tip: When developing for consoles, holding down either the start or select select buttons makes for excellent quicksave/quickload. Valve figured this out years ago with The Orange Box). Being able to take a single situation and at the flick of a button replay it over and over, trying out every possibility that crosses your mind with little concern for convenience, is something I’d consider absolutely imperative. I recommend developers in the process of making these kind of deeply interactive stealth sandboxes immediately implement this. Games like Metal Gear Solid V, for example, became very arduous to experiment in, due to the sparsely-placed autosaves and clunky manual saves that you were stuck with. Quicksave and quickload is also conducive to high difficulties and player-imposed challenges that give your game that extra longevity that marketers crave. Quicksave compliments, and does not replace, autosave.
I hope that this article was enlightening to those of you confused as to why I talk so highly of Dishonored. While the game has its flaws, from a raw mechanical perspective, it is perhaps the most engrossing gaming experience I have ever had the pleasure of partaking in. Now you can see, despite dodging spoilers, why I’m looking forward to seeing Arkane’s take on Sci-fi shooters with the release of Prey in just a few short weeks.