What You Take With You
"In, you must go."
"What's in there?"
"Only what you take with you."
―Yoda and Luke Skywalker
I'm at a pretty massive convention. It's the sort of convention where different groups of people can occupy themselves for the duration, keeping to their own interests, and never see anyone outside that focused interest. I could do my thing, hang out only with people who do my thing, and still have plenty to do, but I can also dip into things with interesting titles (or walk into a room before a session on literature and behavioral economics starts, and then chicken out).This is the way many conventions are experienced, though we speak afterwards of having attended a convention as if it were one cohesive experience.
We do this all the time. It makes sense to us to talk about how amazing a restaurant is, despite only having eaten one of many possible meals there. But there's a reason that restaurants offer options, rather than insisting on a prix fixe offering: Each customer arrives with their own appetite, and perhaps even dietary restrictions. So restaurants offer varied menus, with hopes that everyone can go home satisfied, and leave a positive review on Yelp — or at least that nobody vomits or goes into anaphylactic shock.
On the convention floor, I run into a friend from a decade ago. He's there to interview for jobs, and to hear about 19th century American literature. I know a thing or two about the area, but I'm here for entirely different sessions. So we talk about games.
I suppose it's no surprise that a man getting a doctorate in Melville would be playing Dishonored. Of course he comes at the game with a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the industrial whaling culture that Dishonored takes as inspiration. He is having a very interesting experience — one which I could only share if I put in years of study before playing the game.
I come to Dishonored with my own background. I've got some experience in academic and enthusiast games criticism, and I've had the game spoiled for me at a broad scale, plus a couple interesting mechanics. I've read a number of articles online, and a couple interesting drafts as well. And then I mention the marketing to my friend.
It didn't get terribly widely covered, but somewhere in the chain of marketing, the game's advertising slogan, "Revenge solves everything," got paired with documentary footage of a shooting in Chicago. It was clearly a misstep from the start, and I winced both for the pairing and for those who would be held responsible.
It made a mark on my mind, and it, along with everything else, skews how I approach the game — how the empress, in the opening scene, declares, "They're sick people, not criminals." Maybe, I think to myself, this game will make something out of this sick anxiety in my gut. Revenge doesn't solve everything — might not solve anything, and witnessing an inner-city shooting makes sickeningly clear. Will Dishonored play on that common misunderstanding? Will it help players reconsider their views? Will it glorify vigilante revenge? Will it take the suddenly common path of forcing players to do unethical things, then rubbing our nose in it?
I get to see an electronic poetry reading during the convention. One book, Between Page And Screen, features a book that must be held up to a computer camera, which will recognize the ink patterns in the book and display, on the screen, the camera's image with poetry superimposed between book and camera. It's a literal working out of what academic theorists know: A creative work needs an audience to interpret it, and until that time is just ink shapes on a page, or bits on a drive.
Dishonored is like many games. It allows players to make choices, choosing their own paths through the game (with limitations). A player might prefer stealth to swashbuckling, may be enticed by the notion of a pacifist playthrough. The player may delve into the lore, immerse themselves in the setting, or may see all that as mere window dressing over the game's mechanics. These all yield different experiences for the player, and they are all valid ways to experience the game.
But, like all but a very few games, it requires a player. The player may have gotten the game as a gift, or might have saved for weeks to be able to afford the game, now desperately hoping that it wasn't a waste. The player may be new to first-person games, may have trained their hands over years of twitching, or may have trouble achieving the delicate finger origami of modern games — adding an emotional lens of frustration through which the game will be experienced.
That player may have, like some here at GWJ, decided months before playing to go on media blackout, so as not spoil the experience. The player may have had their excitement built and teased until they can't wait to play. My friend is trained to see every small allusion to industrial Atlantic whaling towns. I am crossing my fingers that the game will use the background that I bring as fuel to power a better, deeper experience for me.