Deeply disturbed: Dishonored review
It’s not often that playing a game gives rise to a mental conversation so intense that I actually have to stop what I’m doing, turn off the screen and stare out the window for a while. In fact, most games do their utmost to stop you turning them off at all costs—witness the whizz-bang-boom of the latest blockbusting offering distracting you from the troubling things it says about you, and the world you live in. Dishonored isn’t like that though; it doesn’t care about easing you into a simulation of the world, it wants to suck your very soul into a black pool of moral ambiguity.
My thought process went something like this:
Welp, I’m in jail. I suppose I’ll break out then.
Oh, that’s interesting. The guards have unpredictable patterns of behaviour, and actual conversations. Until I stab them in the neck.
Ah. Stabbing is unnecessary. I can just sneak my way through.
Wait. Sneaking is a good tactic, but being seen isn’t a fail state? And there are multiple paths, rewarding exploration?
Magic. Really weird body horror magic. That extends the way I can move through the environment in multiple ways. Cool.
Hang on. This game is the bastard love child of Bioshock and Thief. I think I’m in love.
That’s when I had to have a little sit down. You see, Arkane have taken the best elements of two games that I love in the abstract, but laboured to enjoy in reality, and overlaid that with things that seem specifically designed to appeal to me: a living city that is like a Lovecraftian reflection of urban brutality, a complex plot that leaves much important information unspoken and a choice system that eschews simple moral dualism.
Stop. Let’s take it back a moment. After all, this is supposed to be about you: whether you should obtain this product or not. Well, you should. Glad that’s settled. What, that’s not good enough for you? Fine, I’ll elucidate.
Dishonored follows the misadventures of Corvo Attano, world’s worst bodyguard, who is a professional murderer in service to the Empress of Dunwall. Now, being Empress may involve a certain amount of say, empire-building and suppression of the natives, but we’re not really given a chance to interrogate the moral character of this particular potentate, as shortly after your Corvo’s arrival she is brutally slain by assassins. Not only that, but the innocent heir Emily is snatched away by the council of plotting civil servants behind the regicide (you know she’s innocent because she wears white and plays hide and seek with you). After the traditional jailbreak/tutorial level, it’s up to you to don the mask of justice and bring terror to the slick cobbles and putrid garbage of Dunwall.
Oh, and did I mention that the town appears to be going through a massive outbreak of supernatural plague, and that a paramilitary police force is frantically slinging infected members of the populace into cordoned-off districts of the city?
At your disposal are a range of tricks culled from some of the most interesting fantastechnical* imaginings. You are equipped from the very start with an assassin’s blade and brute strength, but reckless frontal assault against armed guards is often a recipe for quick death. You’ll add to this a crossbow and grenades for ranged shots, sleep darts for non-lethal takedowns and razor traps for dissuading tenacious pursuers. What elevates this beyond the ‘choose the right killing tool for the job’ process that stealth games like Splinter Cell have previously employed is the introduction of a bizarre form of magic, gifted by an odd character who shows more than a passing interest in your choices.
The magic is where the game really comes alive. While it can be satisfying to drop from a rooftop perch, silently slitting throats on your way down, however much better does it feel to silently teleport to the ground, before possessing a fish in the moat to slip through a grating beneath the wall? Add to that the capacity to summon swarms of ravening plague rats, to leap massive distances and see through walls, and the tactical permutations widen out considerably.
That set of choices that make up your toolkit are as essential as chest high walls in a cover shooter, drip-feeding you new strategies and possibilities as you unlock new powers. This kind of experimentation is at the heart of Dishonored in a way that it wasn’t in more focused narrative trains like Bioshock; in one play through, for example, I was able to use secondary powers and lateral thinking to avoid killing a single person.
The element of choice looms large in this aspect of the game design—so much so that it feeds into elements of the games that you might expect to be isolated, like the level design. Each section of the game takes place in a particular chunk of Dunwall, usually with a specific building at the heart sheltering your target. Instead of a linear path cluttered with obstacles though, it’s as labyrinthine and inter-penetrated as you might care to wish. In one mission for example, I was tasked with breaking into a brothel. Making friends with the local psychotic thugs gave me access to an adjacent building, and teleporting jumped me directly past the patrolling guards into the relatively unguarded attic. None of this was signposted; it was simply an option open to me. It would have been an equally valid solution to sneak in at ground level, or slaughter the guards on the door.
The same plethora of choice appears to be laid out for you when it comes to morality; there is for example no system of points for gauging where you lie on a light-dark spectrum. However, this is a bit misleading. The game rewards the player for not indiscriminately killing with fewer maddened plague victims, fewer rat swarms and a less dark outcome. While it is significantly less restrictive than a Bioware-style alignment, the plot is no less linear for all that.
As straight-laced as the plot is, the characters are similarly limited in scope. While early on in the game you will receive an item that whispers secrets about the friends and enemies you will meet, their actions are fairly predictable, and their roles are obvious in advance. Here is the bluff, loyal seaman; here is the double-dealing selfish noble. The fact that Corvo is a silent protagonist begins to grate somewhat, especially since as an important state functionary who is loved and feared in equal measure, it is difficult to imagine him possessing no personality of his own. The plot shares this odd voicelessness—it’s a real shame that the focus on the revenger’s tale has blotted out what could have become a fantastic meditation on the collision between feudalism and mercantile industrialisation, or perhaps a gripping exploration of court politics and fleeting alliances.
What are handled well, and this is an area that is crying out for further explication, are the mystical aspects of the world-building. The religion of the Overseers, the state cult that forms a bastion of your enemies’ power, is dedicated to preserving the world from magic and the influence of a hated Outsider. You will come to know a little bit more about the Outsider and his works and worshippers, but always at a distance—he’s a lurking signifier, never a plot device. The same goes for the magical powers and semi-magical technology; it exists and exerts a malignant influence over characters and places, but it’s peripheral to your character’s motivations. It’s a part of the world that exists mostly for itself, not because it has any gameplay function.
In a way then, Dishonored is a story of unfulfilled promises. It comes equipped with a deviously intricate world, peopled with hoary stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. It gives you the power to make meaningful decisions about the way you want to approach many situations, without forcing you into defined channels, but the destination is somewhat disappointing. If offers the prospect of defining your own challenges, choosing to handicap yourself for a more interesting experience, while some choices can lead to a feeling of resentment at the game’s length. I’m not suggesting that this is a valid criticism of the game, I’m just pointing out that some paths lead to more action than others.
But for me, that’s a wholly acceptable outcome. I want games to hint at the possibility that they could be better than they are, that there is still something left to iterate upon and refine. I have no qualms about recommending Dishonored, because to me it shares what I find attractive about a beautiful woman; it’s the very imperfections that give it character and personality. We should be thankful that Arkane have had the guts and the resources to take these risks, and we should be grateful that it points the way to even better things in the future.
*I can’t stand the word ‘steampunk’. Sorry.