I criticised Limbo for being basically a mood piece, with no clear plot and no definition of its own characters or setting. I criticised Deus Ex: Human Revolution for being a stealth and exploration based game that failed to entice me to explore it. When I started on Dishonored, SODOM point-blank told me that he felt the criticisms I had of DXHR would plague Dishonored and I’d therefore probably dislike it, too. Not so: No, I’m afraid, Dishonored is not just good, Dishonored is fucking excellent.
This is the official trailer for Dishonored. In it, we are given numerous shots of characters being stabbed to death, feelings of isolation, the great mystery of this strange, industrial gaslamp-tech city and its harsh, bitter people. We see clear signs that no matter where you think Dunwall is, it’s not anywhere in the world. We’re going to discuss Dishonored in two parts, parts that can be separated from one another; its story, which includes a discussion of its setting and its characters, and its mechanics.
Watch the trailer, though, and note carefully that wonderful tagline:
Revenge Solves Everything
Roads Less Travelled
This aphorism is never stated in game, anywhere I found. It’s not even words put in Corvo’s voice, or spoken by the Outsider. It’s just splashed on the promotional material, presented to the player before they get the game. It’s great, and I spoke about it before I ever had Dishonored as a wonderfully short character synopsis. Just with that one phrase, the game sets its tone to the player. If you embrace this idea, you experience Dishonored as a murder-driven shank-fest, where your betrayal, incarceration and torture are made prominent. You see a story of pain, sadness, and bitter revenge – and then see as your own actions are made real in the world around you.
This is the twofold nature of Dishonored. Some reviewers complained about how the (shortish) story ‘made’ you play through it twice to experience the content changing, but I don’t buy that argument. The game has two distinct paths, and you can choose your path through it, and if you want, you can play through it twice. The experience of murdering everything in your path is distinctly different to the experience of sneaking around – to think of the two games as just versions of the same thing is as distinct as playing two different games. You will see different art assets, you will hear different dialogues, but, and this I like, you will still see two sides of Corvo.
Normally games with moral choice systems strip elements away from their primay character as a way to give the plot the flexibility to not require re-writing on every front. A case for this is Infamous, whose protaganist has to unfortunately sacrifice a lot of characterisation when you realise that he is equally likely to be a total dickface and a saint on Earth, or anything in between. The tension in Dishonored, however, is not between the fundamentals of good and evil, selfishly killing or deliberately taking the harder route. The tension is between law and chaos, but the story is still written around the character of Corvo.
You do not choose who Corvo is. Corvo is a quiet man, a dutiful man, a man of honour and reason, who is not without rage within him. He can restrain his anger, he can choose to kill, or choose not to – but the act of killing is in his past. There is no purity in a pacifist run – the reason to kill or not to kill is a matter between law and chaos, about sending a message of terror. Essentially, you choose just how good, or how bad a day Corvo is having – and the influence you exert over him influences other people around him, rather than just him somehow having two different characters.
Corvo is an example of a way you can shape a character within the spectrum of how he acts. For example, in the introductory mission, Corvo has the option of playing a game with Emily or not – but the options for how to avoid it are ‘No, I need to talk to your mother, it’s important.’ Corvo cannot solve his problems with rap battles – he solves his problems with violence. If you kill nobody in the game, the story is no different than if you had instead killed a very small number of people – because it is not about the purity of the ideal, it’s about the pragmatic outcome.
Videogames condition you to just accept things that behave in ways without good explanation. Consider Bioshock, where steam powered turrets were capable of identifying friend from foe – and could even have that identification transformed. Now I’m not complaining about Bioshock’s steampunk aesthetic but it’d be stupid to claim that somehow boiled water formed complicated allegiances with a binary mental mode for support. Dishonored turned one of these assumptions on its head in a way that I’m even now not sure I didn’t invent. See, everything in Dishonored, from the lamps to the electrical tesla coil turrets is powered by supplies of whale oil. What’s more, in a setting that still uses whaling to fuel its cities and industries,
If you listen to the secrets of the setting, read the books, and make a few short jumps, this near-sentient form of electrical power starts to make more sense. The presence of the Outsider and the people who interact with him, too, explain it: Dunwall has found a way to industrialise through magic. Oh, they don’t realise it, most of them think it’s all the byproduct of science, but the thing that powers Dunwall’s industry, that drives its trains and powers its Tallboys is compressed and tormented whale souls. A society built on pain – like the slave society of the ancient Greeks, and indeed, the British empire itself. I don’t imagine there’s a message here, but it does cast a grim pallor on the society at large. Essentially, I feel the explanation for the magical technology creates a stronger feeling of magical technology. The runes are whalebone, there are references to ‘the deep ones,’ and the cetacean notes around the world do not necessarily overlap with real-world whales. There’s something a little more horrible in the waters of Dunwall – and I’d be interested to see more of it.
Then there’s the characters in this setting; without giving spoilers, I found it easy to become fond of and Samuel and Emily, the oldest and youngest members of the cast. There are other characters I like – especially Lydia, the maid defined mostly by how none of the other workers like her, who has one of the best off-screen moments in the game. I think that’s the biggest difference between Dishonored and DX:HR – in DX:HR, the characters worth liking are few, and their presence is minimised. In Dishonored, everything oozes character, and every mission you come back, you get a chance to talk to someone you like, who will have changed at least a little from your work.
The Art of the Stab
It’s high praise indeed to mention The Sands of Time in the context of another videogame, but I think it’s merited here. In The Sands of Time, the addition of the time-reversing mechanic transformed the way the game could structure challenges to the player. It could afford to allow problems solved by leaps of faith, and it could also make challenges hair-trigger and precisely timed to maximise a sense of flow. The same is true of Dishonored‘s big addition to the stealth set – the addition of a short-range teleport, something so familiar in videogames it’s known as a blink. Blinking is something I’ve used in many videogames, but somehow I’d never considered how it would excellently mesh with a stealth game. It lets you evade pursuit in a stealthy way. It lets you structure impossible puzzles. It lets you make timing puzzles that would be unsolvable by people without the ability – and what’s more, it gives the player freedom to roam and explore without necessarily creating contrived-seeming pathways everywhere.
Dishonored has an upgrade system, with upgrade points obtained through exploration and a few rare points thrown straight in your face. There are only about nine powers total, but each of them is different and well-explored – and rather than multiple increments to justify a large number of upgrade points, the game gives each item two levels. I invested in Agility and Blink, myself, on my first play through, while other, more murder-happy methods open up other avenues. You can possess animals or people, you can slow or stop time, you can even summon swarms of flesh-stripping batshit insane rats.
Every single assassination target in the game can be defused or removed without killing them, and each one allows a different take on the problem. In each case, these methods are questionably better or worse than the alternatives, and offer you, in return, some small amount of money and a smug feeling of superiority. Interestingly, if you ‘kill’ one target in a nonlethal fashion, you find the same guy several days later, dying of the plague – asking the question of just how non-violent an end did you really give the guy?
I think that games like this are a rare pleasure to be enjoyed, because more often than not, they are incredibly expensive to make. I’m not saying I have insights into Arkane’s production costs or anything, but this game has some Shenumue-1 levels of detail in its environments, with multiple different pathways through cities on multiple different levels, art assets that are used just once and full voice acting. You couldn’t have made this game on the cheap, it’s just not reasonable, and even as an excellent game in its genre with critical acclaim all about, Dishonored was still exceeded in its launch month by Pokemon Black Version 2, Resident Evil 6 and NBA 2K13. Those three games are sequels of sequels, tie-in franchise games, and in the case of Resident Evil 6, was a piece of shit. I think that games like Dishonored are like drunken dares the gaming industry has going on, where the sensible spreadsheet men try it out, don’t get the effect they wanted, and swear off them for a few years. Then, a few years later, someone decides to give it a shot, and the budget for that game gets to be enormous and we wind up with this excellent game – but we shouldn’t expect another. Bethesda have announced an interest in making a franchise out of Dishonored, but right now they’re working on another Thief game.
I think it’s been fairly obvious so far, but I want to underscore this point. I fucking loved this game, and I did so for reasons other than simply enjoying its gameplay experience and setting. I loved how it told its story, I loved the character it let me play, and I loved the variety and thought that had to be put into the world of the game. While I can say that Dishonored is not for everyone, I can also say that the marks against it are much more fiddly and precise than the marks in its favour.
Buy it if:
- You like first-person stealth games.
- You enjoy exploration as a mechanic unto itself.
- You enjoyed Thief and Assassin’s Creed.
- You like the idea of a moral choice system that doesn’t try to be too absolute.
- You enjoy ‘dad’ character roles.
- You like a patiently paced story.
Avoid it if:
- You’re sensitive to animal cruelty or signs of endemic disease.
- You want a more straightforwards run-and-gun cover-based shooting FPS.
- You felt Bioshock was too slow-paced.
- You dislike little girls as depicted in media.