“These waters are greedy. They will never give back what they have taken.” This is quote that, by itself, is innocent enough. However, when uttered at the right time and place, it becomes a brief glimpse into the bleak history of DisHonored‘s Dunwall city. The quote belongs not to a person, but a gift; something precious given to our character to “assist” him on his mission to right a most horrible wrong. It is “the Heart”, and it is probably the single best storytelling device produced by modern video gaming.
Even though video games are an inherently interactive medium, it’s still fairly rare to find one that has an interactive story. I don’t mean interactive in the sense that the player is crafting their own story. There are plenty of RPGs like Mass Effect or even TES: Skyrim that allow for that. Instead I’m talking about games that call the player to interact with the story that is unfolding around them; ones in which it’s left up to the player to uncover more about the world and circumstances that have caused the main story to unfold in the first place. Games like Metroid Prime and BioShock introduced us to this concept with their respective scanning and audio log mechanics . More recent games like Transistor have built upon that foundation with innovations such as contextual narration. However, I believe DisHonored is still the game to beat in terms of interactive storytelling, and it’s all because of “the Heart”.
As mentioned above, “the Heart” is a precious tool given to Corvo Attano (our protagonist) in order to “assist” him as he tries to either take his revenge or save the city. I say “assist” because “the Heart” doesn’t provide tactical information. Instead it peels back the curtain of Dunwall’s surface and gives Corvo brief glimpses the city and its citizenry for what they truly are.
At its core “the Heart” functions in the same manner as Metroid Prime’s scan visor. Just point it at something and press a button to learn more about it. The key-phrase here is “at its core”, because its similarities with the scan visor all begin and end with its core functionality. See, the brilliance of the scan visor was in how it allowed the player to take in the lore at their own pace. Using it on an enemy or a piece of technology provided all the factual information about it and told the player exactly how it fit into the bigger picture. Conversely, the brilliance of “the Heart” is in how it doesn’t really do any of that.
“The Heart” isn’t a tool, but something else entirely. It doesn’t deal in factual data, and isn’t there to spell anything out for you. “The Heart” deals in brief glimpses, in brief points of insight whispered into Corvo’s mind which often raise more questions than they answer. If Corvo points it at a pair of guards, “the Heart” is just as likely to reveal a good personality trait in one as it is a horrible deed from the past of the other. It will also never tell you if the first guard is an otherwise horrible person or if the second guard has lived with a deep sense of regret after committing said horrible deed. “The Heart” may be looking beyond the veil and may indeed be revealing the unseen, but what it’s truly seeing is for “the Heart”, and only “the Heart”, to know.
What’s more is that “the Heart” actually has a degree of personality. When pointed at something or someone from its past, it exhibits signs of regret, sorrow, and even anger. It has emotion, which implies a mind and even a spirit of its own. This adds a layer of uncertainty to everything it says. After all, something that has a mind and a spirit doesn’t necessarily have to reveal everything it knows, nor is it obligated to tell the truth at all. With that in mind, even the few solid kernels of info it provides can be reasonably called into question. The mystery doesn’t even end with it says, as “the Heart” itself is an inherently enigmatic object. It has spoken of and reacted to places and people it recognized as familiar, and some of what it’s said has implied that it knew Corvo in the past. It isn’t something that the Outsider (a mysterious and oft-hated magical being) created out of thin air, but was once a true heart that most likely belonged to someone close to Corvo. There are a handful of hints pointing to “the Heart’s” identity, but I won’t spoil that here.
“The Heart” is an object that takes the function of simple scanning and transforms it into an action that directly builds up the world around Corvo and makes it come alive. It can turn a simple guard into a desperate family man and a seemingly random alleyway into the somber final destination of some poor dockworker who’s only crime had been going home too late. True or not, it provides the pieces of the greater situation that’s set the main plot into motion, and it calls upon the player to put those pieces together themselves. It creates depth for the surface plot to sit upon, and changes that surface the more those depths are scoured. It’s a device that more games would do well to make use of (and build upon), and one that we’ll likely see at least once more in DisHonored 2.
After all, “the Heart” cannot rest while it still has loved ones that are marked by the Outsider…
What were your impressions of the Heart? Who do you think it will accompany in DisHonored 2?
Image captured by Hatm0nster