The Golden Non-Rule

I finally finished Dishonored recently, on my second playthrough. On my first playthrough I was stymied by the final level, failing repeatedly, but this time I found the whole thing pretty smooth sailing. I did really enjoy Dishonored both times, for the most part. There are, however, a number of issues I have with the game, and most of them are centred on what I see as a disconnect between what the game says and what it does. That is to say, I believe there is a conflict between the direction the game gives the player, through explicit and implicit messaging, and the way its systems actually function. I want to try to unpack this a little, through one of the many things I picked up in the years I spent playing tabletop RPGs.

Dishonored allows for a variety of approaches, from killing dudes to violently incapacitating dudes, to avoiding dudes.

Dishonored allows for a variety of approaches, from killing dudes, to violently incapacitating dudes, to avoiding dudes altogether.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s a common disclaimer, something of a recurring cliché, often called “The Golden Rule”. The Golden Rule is particularly prominent in the contemporary supernatural RPGs put out by White Wolf in the 90s and 00s. For example this is The Golden Rule as it appears in 2011’s 20th anniversary edition of White Wolf’s flagship RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade.

After twenty years, this is still the most important rule of all, and the only real rule worth following: The rules are what you make of them. You should fashion this game into whatever you need it to be. Whether you’re running a nearly diceless chronicle of in-character socialization or a long-running tactical campaign with each player controlling a small coterie of vampires, if the rules in this book interfere with your enjoyment of the game, change them. The world is far too big — it can’t be reflected accurately in any set of inflexible rules. This book is nothing more than a collection of guidelines, suggested but not mandatory ways of capturing the World of Darkness in the format of a game. You’re the arbiter of what works best in your game — mutually determined in play with the Storyteller and other players — and you’re free to use, alter, abuse, or ignore these rules at your leisure. Besides, there are scores of fan communities online that delight in tinkering with the rules to get just the experience they want, and the exact rule you’re looking for may be just a Google search away.

The simple version of The Golden Rule is this: if you don’t like the rules, change them. This seems sensible enough. If you and your buddies are gathered around a table for a game, it’s better that you over-rule the rulebook than spend hours arguing over some technicality or special case. It’s meant to bridge any gap that exists between the experience players want, or the experience the game suggests its rules should produce, and the experience or situations which the game’s rules and systems actually produce.

The thing is, while this may be a good way to keep things running smoothly in the heat of the moment, it’s a stop-gap for the game’s actual rules. The more it’s applied, the less the rules hold together. It’s also an abdication of the designer’s responsibility for the system. It’s like an engineer designing a network of plumbing, and then waving his hands and saying any leaks can just be patched over when they show up. Sure, a certain amount of caulking is necessary, but the system should not be built to rely on it.

Instead, many would argue that, the designer should avoid conflicts between the experience desired and the experience the game actually produces. This is the objection to the Golden Rule that a number of theorists and analysers of tabletop RPG design raise. They argue, essentially, that a well-designed game should have a system that operates to produce the desired experience, rather than off-loading the work of producing that experience onto the players. What’s the point, after all, of having a system, if you can just ignore it on an ad-hoc basis? Surely the designer’s objective should be to craft a system that’s suited to a particular experience or range of experiences, and communicate what kind of experience the system is suited for directly to the players?

If, for example, a tabletop RPG suggests the possibility of an experience focused on political connivery and back-stabbing, isn’t it rather poor design to have elaborate systems for supernatural violence, requiring the rolling of bucket-loads of ten-sided dice? Shouldn’t the systems instead be designed to encourage and reward player action that produces the desired experience? Surely there’s ways of designing systems with positive feedback loops for creating that desired experience? That’s precisely the philosophy behind games like Fiasco, which has a specific desired experience – telling stories of tragic misadventure – and systems that encourage exactly that.

This is bad.

This is bad. You are a bad person.

To me, Dishonored runs into a big problem when It tells the player to do one thing, then gives them systems and tools best suited for another.

The game explicitly tells the player early on that a non-lethal approach is desirable and preferred. Dishonored flat-out tells the player that a lethal approach will have negative consequences within the game’s world and plot. The game follows through on this with diegetic changes to the game’s world that reflect negatively on any lethal actions the player takes. This is very clear direction to the player, and Dishonored doesn’t have a lot of that, especially beyond its initial section. So if the game flat-out tells the player something, that stands out. Dishonored gives the player quite a bit of freedom, but that casts any specific direction that it gives into stark relief. It even casts it in absolute moral terms: the world that Dishonored presents is one in which the stealthy, non-lethal approach is the objectively correct moral choice. The player is directly and explicitly told to be stealthy and non-lethal, and that if they cause “Chaos” this is an immoral choice. You can’t get much clearer than that.

However, Dishonored also presents players with implicit directions through it systems and tools, and these systems and tools push towards something quite different. Rather than the non-lethal approach the game tells players to take, Dishonored‘s tools and systems encourage the use of violence, even lethal violence. Corvo, the playable character, gains access to a total of six active powers over the course of the game. Of these, two are only suited to a lethal approach, and at least two more are somewhat tricky to use non-lethally. Corvo also has four passive abilities, but fully half of these are only useful if taking a lethal approach. In general, Dishonored pushes players towards a mix of stealth and violence, a blend of lethal and nonlethal approaches to situations. Video games vary a lot in what affordances they provide. Even experienced players can’t rely on assumptions about what a game will let them do, or how it will react to what they do. So players will always need to do a bit of learning about what a specific new game allows for – perhaps even moreso for players who play a wide variety of games. If the player digs into Dishonored‘s systems, and learns to use the tools the game provides, they will find that a mixture of lethal and non-lethal approaches is the path of least resistance, the game’s point of equilibrium. If the player works with the systems the game provides, this is the level, the balance they will find. But this mix of lethal and nonlethal game mechanics presents an implicit message that is in clear and stark conflict with the explicit direction the game gives.

What I’m talking about isn’t the controversial “ludonarrative dissonance”, where the game’s systems are in conflict with the narrative or theme it presents. Because the conflict I’m talking about here isn’t between rules and story. This is about Dishonored presenting conflicting messages to the player about how they should play the game. It’s a conflict between what the game tells the player to do explicitly and what the game tells the player to do implicitly. It’s a conflict, essentially, between direction and mechanics. If the game explicitly directs players to do things one way, and its system tell them implicitly to do something entirely different, surely this is a failure of design, at least at some level? If the design is meant to produce the experience it communicates to the player, and the mechanics produce quite a different experience, isn’t this a fairly significant conflict?

Behave yourself, or there'll be rats.

Behave yourself, or there’ll be rats.

In this review of Dishonored published by Edge, the proposed solution to this conflict is for the player to set their own restraints. Basically, to make up their own rules, just as the Golden Rule of tabletop RPGs would have players do. This is an approach that has any number of very obvious problems. The Edge review brushes off the diegetic and non-diegetic direction the game gives, but that just shifts the problem around. If you can just ignore it, if – as this review would argue – players in fact should ignore it, then why is it there? If the player is supposed to just make up their own rules, why are those systems, and that explicit direction, there in the first place?

More than that, if you say it’s all up to the player, where does that leave the game, and its creator? Why bother even having the game? Why bother even making it? The player can make a great many choices in Dishonored, but to make them wholly responsible for their experience with the game means negating the role of the game and its creator entirely. Dishonored, like any other text, does not exist in a vacuum, and the player will interpret it based on the context in which they experience it. But Dishonored as a text does still exist. And that direction, both explicit and implicit, does still exist. Even in the console version of the game, Dishonored has a considerable number of settings that can be tweaked to change the experience of the game, but there are still elements that can’t be turned on or off. Even among the settings you can change, the creators have chosen certain defaults. This is a clear and unambiguous communication of the desired experience. This is especially significant when you consider that many – if not the vast majority – of players probably won’t tweak those settings at all. So when the game presents contradictory messages, the fault cannot lie solely with the player.

It’s not good enough to just tell the player to pretend these flaws don’t exist. Shouldn’t players aim to take the game as it is, as a whole? Shouldn’t reviewers also take the game as a whole, for that matter? Simply choosing to ignore parts of the experience Dishonored presents seems like an approach with a lot of problems.

Despite this conflict, Dishonored does present a lot of situations where the conflict between what it directs the player to do and what it allows them to most easily do is minimised. But there are still many times when that falls down, times when the system at least in some sense fails to produce the promised experience. Those instances still mar my general satisfaction with the game. They’re flaws in an otherwise well-crafted experience. And if, as I’ve argued, creating that well-crafted experience is the responsibility of the game’s creator, then they are also responsible for the times when that experience falls apart.

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9 thoughts on “The Golden Non-Rule

  1. “To make them wholly responsible for their experience with the game means negating the role of the game and its creator entirely.”
    This has and always will be the design philosophy of Arkane and anyone raised on Ultima Underworld and its immersive sim progenitors. And, with Dishonored essentially being more of a stealth game than not, it is a reflection in gameplay of the stealth ideology: go where you’re not supposed to go; do what you’re not supposed to do. A stealth game is a one in which the protagonist subverts the rules of society, whilst a stealth game like Dishonored is one where the player subverts the rules of the systems themselves.

    • The game’s creator is still ultimately responsible for what situations the game presents, the tools it presents, and so on. Yes, the player is responsible for what they do in the game, but that will always be informed by the game the creator has produced.

      I’m not sure “it’s a stealth game, do what it tells you not to do” flies either, since what Dishonored tells you to do is be non-lethal and stealthy.

  2. “The game explicitly tells the player early on that a non-lethal approach is desirable and preferred. Dishonored flat-out tells the player that a lethal approach will have negative consequences within the game’s world and plot. … It even casts it in absolute moral terms: the world that Dishonored presents is one in which the stealthy, non-lethal approach is the objectively correct moral choice.”

    No, no, and no. The game explicitly tells the player early on that “a higher body count will result in a darker outcome”. That is all it says. It indicates no preference for the darker outcome or otherwise; it doesn’t contrast a lethal approach with a non-lethal approach, but indicates a relative effect from leaving more bodies in your wake rather than less; and it makes no moral judgement on whether a darker outcome is bad or good. That judgement is left to you, the player.

    I suppose you could make a case that from the point of view of many of the characters in the game, dying or being struck down with the plague would be “negative consequences”, but that is far from a universal appraisal even within the game, let alone imposed upon the player. Havelock, Martin, and Pendleton are quite happy killing others (by proxy, at any rate) to get more power for themselves. Sokolov kidnaps innocents and infects them with plague so he can study its effects, all with a cheerful lack of remorse. And Hiram Burrows actually imported the plague to gain more power for himself, even if he was a little disconcerted (pragmatically, not morally) by how much it spread.

    In the end as far as moral judgement goes, the character who comments your actions the most is the Outsider, and if anything he approves when you have the highest chaos ending: “I don’t know about you Corvo, but I’ve had a lovely time. Intrigue and mystery, butchery and betrayal.” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70ZwV8EbHCc )

    • I’m not sure you can argue that “…will lead to a darker outcome” is in any way morally ambiguous. Dishonored makes it very clear what its moral position is.

      In particular, I don’t think it’s ambiguous when it comes to the morality of chaos. Yes, it’s pretty down on extreme order, but the game also makes it pretty clear that chaos, the Outsider, and other agents of chaos are, at the very, very least, not good. I really don’t think there’s much ambiguity about that at all, so if the player chooses to act in accordance with chaos, the judgement the game makes about their choice is pretty clear.

      • “Dishonored makes it very clear what its moral position is.”

        To which I reply: no it doesn’t. You’re misrepresenting it, and you’re overstating the importance of a single loading screen tip. You interpreted that tip in a particular way—which was not unreasonable—and then tried to view the rest of the game through that same lens—which is. The dissonance that you describe at length is a dissonance between your chosen perspective and the game, not inherent to the game itself.

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  4. As much as I like the article, I have a basic problem with the assumption that more lethal tools & abilities are equivalent to the game’s systems being in conflict with each other. I think all of that is deliberate and not an objective flaw in their design. Perhaps I am not quite sure what you mean, though, as you do not specifically mention the elements that are in conflict with each other.

    Dishonored rewards players that are capable enough to complete levels without murder. It even encourages not being seen at all. This will give you the most points and perks at the end of level screen. A ghost-like player who decides not to kill is rewarded with a low chaos rating that will, if the player is consistent, bring a lighter tone to the end of the story.
    Violence is supposed to be the easy way out. It is simpler to kill all the guards than evade their paths: the kill animation alone is significantly quicker than choking them out. Non-lethal is supposed to be harder to warrant a greater reward that is itself justified by the supposed moral high ground. Being good should not be easy, especially not in Dunwall. I don’t think the game contradicts itself when it shows you all these shiny tools of mayhem and destruction and only really rewards those who do not use them. That kind of restraint is part of doing the low-chaos runs and for those that want destruction and mayhem, well, they are served but have to suffer the consequences, which, presumably, they would be okay with. Chaos is seductive, I felt that Dishonored understood that quite well.

    • There’s an inherent contradiction in making stealthy and non-lethal play the desired outcome, and making lethal, non-stealthy play easier. That’s the core of my point.

      I don’t think it makes sense to construct the game’s systems in such a way that the desired style of play is harder for players to adopt. I don’t think that encourages the desired style of play. I think making the stealthy, non-lethal style of play harder to adopt actually discourages players from adopting that style of play.

      This is the contradiction: that everything about Dishonored’s presentation tells you that you should be playing non-lethal and stealthy, but the actual systems of the game discourage this, and make an entirely different style of play more practical, and more in accordance with those systems.

      If you want players to be non-lethal and stealthy, why make it harder for them to do so?

      • It’s not necessarily harder to adopt this style of play, it’s simply less varied in its available tools and abilities. That is not the same thing. I might argue that the game does find convenient alternatives to lethal approaches. They usually don’t require an insane amount of acrobatics or twitch skill to complete. At least in terms of level design, the route necessary to complete a lethal objective versus a non lethal objective probably does not differ that much on average. The Bathhouse would be one example where I found non-lethal to be easier.
        I would describe this style as reasonably distinct and restrictive but it is supposed to be the morally superior way of striding through the game, so I don’t think that is entirely unexpected. It’s different.
        Even that I am unsure about, since the game does make a statement by presenting the non-lethal options not as nicely adorned happy endings but pretty horrific outcomes for the characters involved, as bad as some of them are; at least when it comes to disposing of the greater targets. Lady Boyle is especially troubling.

        My point still stands regardless. In the diegetic world of Dunwall, it is not easy to do the right thing. It’s a place of decay and corruption. It’s not untypical that the player’s tools and abilities seduce him to the ‘darker side’ of play, in favor of careless fun – which is fine but has consequences in the world. The brute force of killing has a seductive quality that lures players in. If you are able to resist the momentary outbursts of pleasure through absolute power, players will be rewarded through favorable narrative (although favorable does depend on the individual, I guess). That does mean resisting the thoughtless pleasures of the game’s more forceful systems in favor of adopting a strategic approach that relies of positioning and the blinking mechanic. It would be weird if the opposite was true: if non-lethal would be easy, where would the moral dilemma of choosing between momentary ease or permanent good consciousness go?

        That said, I would be interested to know what you think of the Knife of Dunwall & The Brigmore Witches. Both are actually quite interesting in that they do add some other non-lethal tools, not sure about abilities. I actually found it a little bit more interesting than the main game even.

        Best,
        Regenherz

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