With the recent release of Dishonored 2, I felt it was time to finally kick off my new semi-regular series, the Optimistic Lookback. This week I’ll be examining Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ 2012 action-stealth game.
Dishonored sort of came and went for me back when it was first released. I remember very distinctly reading articles about it, most notably that Viktor Antonov, who designed City 17 from Half-Life 2, was at the helm of the game’s visual design. But the game came and went, passing under my radar almost completely back when I relied entirely on Game Informer for my video game news. It wasn’t until sometime last year that it really sparked my interest; word of mouth on this game was good in the circles I cared about, so I decided to give it a try.
My first go of it didn’t last long. I couldn’t nail down the stealth elements. The story seemed uninspired. It didn’t hold my interest, so I let it go. I probably wouldn’t have played through it at all if my copy of Dishonored 2 hadn’t come with the remastered version. But play it I did. I devoured it like a plague-ridden man presented with a great feast. I finished the game in its entirety, DLC and all, in four days.
So I have some thoughts. Clearly I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a remarkable game, albeit a flawed one, but my time with it was some of the best I’ve had in a long while. And that success can mostly be attributed to the main character of the game. No, I’m not talking about Corvo (he’s about as uninteresting as a protagonist can be; more on that later). I’m talking about the city where the majority of the game is spent: Dunwall.
Dunwall takes its inspiration primarily from London around 1860-1910. The city is in the midst of an industrial revolution; the discovery of whale oil, a powerful source of fuel, has lead to the invention of numerous new technologies, mostly thought up by inventor/artist/professional douchebag, Anton Sokolov. The city is also in the midst of a deadly plague.
Viktor Antonov’s hand in the design is clear from the get go. The city feels Victorian and old, every corner filled with detail, but it is also cartoonish in its design, sometimes grim and sharp angled, sometimes soft and elegant, and sometimes both at once. Antonov’s designs are the clearest in the technology that has recently risen in Dunwall. Their use of dark metal at sharp angles coming together in almost-improvised ways to create fantastical steampunk machines conjure up images of the Combine and their technology from Half-Life 2. Here it is much more grounded in the world around you, however; where the Combine’s technology is alien and inscrutable, the technology in Dunwall is the direct result of mankind and their ability to invent. In both games they are used to a similar effect, though. The dichotomy between the organic brick-built buildings of Dunwall and the imposing darkness of the whale oil-powered, chugging machinery serves to remind the player that they are small inhabitants in a rapidly changing world. It is effective and striking imagery evocative of World War 2 and the Third Reich’s terrifying image.
There’s a lot of detail packed into Dunwall. It feels like it has history. There is a deep, interesting lore to the world if you know where to look, but it never seems tacked on; rather, it informs each design decision in the game to the point that Dunwall feels like a real place. Every building, every city block that you explore has the feeling that it is (or was, in the case of most of the more plague-ridden areas) lived in. That is in part due to the level design. Rather than going open-world, they opted for more closed-in levels with many branching paths within them. There is seldom one approach to any given situation, and it is up to the player to figure out what those approaches are. This philosophy allowed them to pack detail into every level, so much so that I know that I only saw a fraction of what this game has to offer. Do you want to approach silently from a rooftop, sneaking into an adjacent building trough a balcony, sneaking up behind guards and never being seen? Do you want to dismantle the trap on the gate head on and risk facing the guards, or try to find a way to the top of the arch and bypass the trap altogether? There are many ways to go through each level, and it warrants multiple playthroughs.
On top of the branching level design the game gives you multiple powers to play with. These are bestowed upon you by the mysterious Outsider, a man(?) who lives in the Void and visits people because… well, who knows, really. The powers at your disposal are fun, but I only used a few of them the whole game. The main one, of course, is the teleportation ability (called Blink), allowing Corvo to zip from spot to spot, across rooftops and between cover spots, without being seen. There’s also Dark Vision, which allows Corvo to see enemies through walls. The most useful ability in my high chaos (more on that in a bit) run was the swarm of rats, which is exactly what it sounds like. Summoning swarms of rats to devour my enemies was fun and satisfying, but it trivialized combat, making it easy to distract guards, run in and hack them up while they dealt with the vermin. Each of these abilities is upgradeable, but there weren’t enough of them. I found myself wishing for a bit more diversity in my supernatural power pool.
There are two ways to play through the game: high chaos and low chaos. The former is the lethal method, where you summon swarms of rats and your sword gradually becomes red with blood. The latter is the pacifist run, where Corvo doesn’t kill (as much as the player is able to avoid it). These both result in different outcomes, differing resolutions to the story. They also have a palpable effect on Dunwall. If you’re going through and killing everyone, more rats will appear in the city, and certain characters will treat you differently. It will result in a much more pessimistic ending. This is a great idea in concept, that as you play the world around you changes, but they didn’t take it nearly far enough. I would like to have seen more meaningful changes to the story as you carve your path through Dunwall.
Speaking of story, there’s the weakest part of the game. The setting shines, the gameplay is fun, but the story of the main game is uninspired and a bit trite. Both the aforementioned plague and the industrial revolution have divided the city between its extremely wealthy and its extremely poor, and the city teeters on the edge of chaos. It is pushed over that edge when its empress, Jessamine Kaldwin, is assassinated and her bodyguard Corvo is framed for the murder. Jessamine’s daughter, Emily, is kidnapped and held ransom by the corrupt elite who were responsible for Jessamine’s assassination and it is up to Corvo and gang to get her back. The game throws you right into the story, not giving you any time to become attached to the characters, and the story itself is a pretty basic revenge tale. There are a few twists and turns along the way; the third act shakes things up a bit. But it never really breaks into amazing territory.
The world that they have created, Dunwall and beyond, is incredibly rich and rife with storytelling opportunities. You read in journals about faraway lands, great naval battles, old magic-induced fires. There is a creative spark in the world they created that the story never quite lives up to. And for some reason Corvo is a silent protagonist. He is surrounded by very vocal and sometimes very interesting characters, but his journey gets lost on the player because we never know how he’s feeling, or even who he is really. I understand that they were trying to put the players in his shoes, which makes sense given the choice-laden nature of this game, but it only serves to dull the storytelling experience.
The DLC serves to fix a lot of that. It centers around Daud, the assassin who took the empress’ life, and his regret after the act. He is not a silent protagonist (voiced very aptly by Michael Madsen), vocalizing his concerns and barking orders to his assassin underlings. The writing seemed to get better, too; Daud’s interactions with his underlings are sharp and concise but manage to convey a range of emotions. They explore some more interesting aspects of the lore, as well, but I don’t want to spoil that here, because it is absolutely worth a playthrough. In many ways the Daud DLC surpasses the main campaign, and it is included in both the remastered package and the definitive edition, either of which I highly recommend. I will mention that I played the remastered edition and while most of the time it ran fine, there were times when there were significant framerate drops, especially when there were many NPCs in a level.
All in all my time with Dishonored was very well spent. It got me excited to get back and play in a way that not many games have. I love the world that Arkane has created, and I want to know more about it. It almost makes me sad that Dishonored 2 is such a direct sequel, because the world beyond Corvo and Emily is such a well fleshed out place. It was smart of them to get away from Dunwall, and I can’t wait to see what the new location, Karnaca, is like. Any excuse to see more of the world of Dishonored is OK with me. If you have a chance I highly recommend you check out Dishonored. It isn’t perfect, but it does so many things so well that it’s easy to get lost in. Thanks for reading, and Stay Optimistic.