Saturday, 5 January 2013

2012's Finest: DISHONORED & LONDON

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2012 was the very much The Year I Moved To London. I found my flat on New Year's Eve and moved in on the second day of the year, so the two are inextricably linked in my mind. So it seemed only right, in my round-up of the year, to talk about the feeling of being A Londoner (or the lack thereof), in relation to the game that got me reflecting on the whole thing.

Dunwall
DISHONORED & LONDON

I'm that guy that loves the Shard because it reminds me of the Citadel out of Half-Life 2 – a single gleaming finger to heaven, a navigable point visible from almost anywhere. So it's only appropriate that a game designed by Viktor Antonov, the architect of HL2's City 17, should be the one to get me thinking about my relationship with the nation's capital.

It's important to stress at this point: Dishonored isn't set in London. It isn't – the city is called Dunwall. It isn't – the majority of characters speak in American accents, and even the game's title is missing a vital 'u'. It isn't – this is a fantasy universe, with magic powers and giant acid-spitting crabs. It really isn't London.

Dunwall

What Dunwall is is a beautifully realised caricature of London. To achieve that, all that Arkane Studios really needed to get right were two elements – the bricks, and the sky. They nailed both.

The sky varies between sheer grey and sharp blue, but the key is the permanent slight haze. I realise it's at least partly due to draw distance, but it's a beautiful use of its technological limitations. Seeing distant landmarks faded into the mist feels like London to me.

The buildings themselves are just right too, in the way they run up against one another, the texture of their bricks and roof tiles, and most of all the colours – that London mix of sandstone and terracotta and, yup, greyest grey.

Dunwall

I can pinpoint the exact moment that Dishonored becomes brilliant. It takes a little while to reach Dunwall proper – the game's opening takes place in a too-bright palacey bit, then a largely personality-free jail and sewer (which might be beautiful imitations of London's jails and sewers, I guess, not having been to either).

But that moment: You're in the boat of Samuel, the game's resident boatman, as it chugs along whatever Dunwall's equivalent of the Thames is, on your way to meet the hastily-assembled bunch of rebels that are your only allies in the game's world, as you round the corner and their makeshift base comes into sight. A pair of chimneys huffing out smoke into the overcast sky. A giant red-brick towerblock, bits of extraneous masonry pruned away by some unknown explosion. And in between the two, the crux of their headquarters – a pub. Of course it's a pub.

The Hound Pits is a perfect recreation of what a London pub should be – stained-glass door, brass taps, red-cushioned booths, backrooms and cellars ... the only thing it's missing is an overflowing urinal.

From this point, the game opens up – like an estuary, like an oyster, like another tenuously London-relevant simile – in all sorts of ways. Everything comes into focus: the way the game plays – as you get handed a mix-and-match toybox of magical abilities – and its structure – individual 'get in, assassinate target, get out' missions – and, most importantly, its approach-them-as-you-wish levels.

London

The same weekend I reached this bit, I rode the Thames Clipper for the first time. Heading east from the centre towards Greenwich, you escape the famous monuments pretty quickly, and the shore transforms into docks and those fascinatingly identical chunks of waterside flats.

I loved it, and it was an experience I would always have enjoyed, but something clicked. It's incredibly wanky, but I'm going to defer to Oscar Wilde's Decay of Lying here for a moment:
“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? ... At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”
See? Even in the 1890s, people were constructing their own personal London out of snatches of culture they'd experienced. After I started playing Dishonored, the rest of 2012 was spent turning corners and suddenly catching on a moment of strange déjà vu.

Dunwall

As well as being a brilliant imitation of London architecturally, there's something about Dunwall which resonates with the way I think about living in the capital.

A lot of London's history is collapsed into Dunwall. Most obviously, the Victoriana stuff, which is understandable, given how heavily that period still weighs on the capital. But the diseased rats which are constantly underfoot take their lead from the Great Plague of 1666. The occasional steel structures amongst all those brick buildings wouldn't be too far out of place on London skyline up until the end of the '90s. Walls are covered in the scrappy remains of those painted adverts that were the 20th Century's inheritance from its predecessor. The crumbling buildings hint to a post-war landscape.

That's kind of how London works. It's a city built on top of itself, in a very real sense, but especially in the imagination. If you try and summon up a vision of London in your head, everything overlaps - Dickens/Pepys/Curtis/Holmes/the Romans/Wilde/the Krays/Britpop/Abbey Road/Albert Square/graffiti/Zadie Smith/Jack the Ripper/Mary Poppins/gin/opium/tea - and this is the palette Dishonored uses to built its world.

London

Maybe it's just me. There's a consistency in the way I react to being dropped into any space which is dense with stuff - I'll try and get to the highest point I can, and I'll try and walk every street, retracing my steps endlessly until it feels like I understand how it all connects up.

Dishonored does something very interesting with its second proper level: it drops you right back into the first one again. The message is clear: dig deeper, find the things you didn't last time, and the different routes that link the main landmarks together (like London, Dunwall is best explored with the directions turned off).

It's a ballsy move, and although things are slightly altered, it only pays off because this relatively small map is so dense. The level itself is changed - some pathways open up and others close, there are new obstacles and characters and scripted events to witness. You've had chance to upgrade your abilities - maybe you're able to possess those rats and sneak into places you couldn't before, or you can jump higher and teleport further, opening up the level vertically.

There are conversations to eavesdrop on that might clue you in to a new hidden route; books and letters to read that fill in characters' backstories or the world's lore; and paintings to admire (and steal). Get up high, and you can watch the patterns traced by guards' patrol routes, or just stare out to the fog-smudged skybox horizon.

There's an excess of things to do and see, and there stories to be uncovered everywhere. Ultimately, that's probably the greatest strength of both Dishonored and London.

For a medium that revolves around carving out your own narrative, games aren't often a very personal experience. It might not be the focus of the game, but this sensation of familiarity elevated Dishonored from a well-designed shooter which I hope is a sign of games to come, and turned it into something truly special, the kind of thing that's worth picking out of a year of great games as the single one worth writing about.

Dunwall

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.