Dishonored is several years old now, but it doesn’t feel like it has aged a day. It’s inspired by Thief and Assassin’s Creed, but is quite a bit different from either, making it feel unique. It has many problems, but the things it does well are so good they overshadow the negatives.
I’m sure it must have been a nightmare trying to market Dishonored, because it’s hard to nail down what it is in a simple way. In the reveal trailer Dishonored looked like Assassin’s Creed, but it isn’t like that at all. Like Thief, it encourages slow deliberate movement, listening carefully, and striking when nobody is looking. But at the same time the combat mechanics give you plenty of power to stand against any enemy, making it the power trip Thief never was. For example you have the ability to teleport with an ability called “blink”. This totally changes the power balance between you and guards. Despite this you don’t feel invulnerable like in Assassin’s Creed. Traversal isn’t easy, and running around is terrifying. When you sprint it feels like you’re relinquishing control and allowing yourself to miss things.
The most successful part of the game is the city. It’s brilliantly realized and is what will leave a lingering impression long after you’re done. It’s decaying, with feral rats attacking townsfolk, and deadly plants getting a foothold in the poorly maintained sewers. It feels like you’re seeing the last gasps of a once great culture, where whoever is left after the tumults will have a hell of a job piecing it back together. The rest of the story gives a cold and distant impression. It’s a revenge plot, but because of the silent protagonist it’s hard to engage with it. He has no personality, and the people you interact with keep the conversations to politics, again deemphasizing simple human connection. It’s not “bad”, just cold. The plot twists can be seen coming a mile away, but when they happened the motivations made sense. They nailed what mattered most for this game. The world, the sensation of exploring it, and the power of your character felt completely in line with how the story presented it. I don’t remember the finer aspects of the main story, but I remember the streets, and the people who lived there. It’s clear that was what the developers were most interested in, and they succeeded in making it memorable.
Huge parts of levels are optional, giving you a rewarding sensation of exploration that for example Bioshock never did. If you go straight at the objective you’ll only see maybe 30% of the level. The things hidden away in optional sections are often surprising, like it “should” have been part of the main path. But I’m glad they didn’t force you down a straight line, because this approach gives you a sense of control over the pace of the game. If you’re sick of a level and want to see what happens next, then you can just go ahead and advance. But if you want to take it slow, there’s nobody shouting at you to “move move move” like is so common in first person shooters. Here’s where the game feels most similar to the Thief games, as they also had sprawling worlds to explore. It’s the kind of design that makes it feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface, even if you were thorough. I love the sensation of feeling like there was more to the world than I saw, even if there might not have been. And even if I never replay the game, that air of possibility and mystery will never go away.
To give the world a strong impression, the graphical style uses hand painted textures and lighting which gives it a timeless look. It looks great now, and will most likely still do so in 10 years. There’s nothing obviously wrong with the style which will date it. Color, contrast and lights all look like they should. While it might be technically simple, it shows how much more important an inspired art direction is over raw technological grunt. Instead of a dynamic lighting system, the focus was on beautiful texture and color. This works well with the kind of game Dishonored is. In Thief you were so dis-empowered that the most terrifying thing in the game was a guard with a torch. Dishonored isn’t that kind of game as you can close the gap and take out guards in seconds.
One of the interesting missteps in the game is how the branching story is handled. Depending on how you play, the ending changes. This is a concept I find exciting, because this is where the developers are unavoidably saying something about how the world works. Whether you want to or not, the second you express how choices affect the world, you’re expressing a world view. Unfortunately Dishonored feels a bit too simplistic in how it manages this. If you kill people, your “chaos” ranking increases, putting the world’s story down a more violent path. This system doesn’t seem to take into account who you kill, or for what reason. The terminology of chaos and order tells a pacifistic message, that violence is never the answer, no matter the who or whys of the matter. I don’t think they should have exposed this stat between missions, as several people I know felt pressured not to play the way they wanted, because of the implicit messaging telling them they were doing it wrong. I feel they should have kept the branching story a surprise. Then when you got to the end and saw the result of your actions, it would have had more gravitas, as you’d be reflecting on it in hindsight. I’m hoping this system becomes more complex in the sequel, because it could add quite a bit of extra challenge and replayability if the story changes based on who you kill, knock out, or leave alone.
I could go on and on about how good the game is. Like the little touches like how if you crouch and move close to furniture you automatically crouch even lower to squeeze in under. I kept crawling in under tables for no practical reason, because it felt safe there. It opened up new possibilities for traversal other games don’t do, as their movement tends to be more rigid. The sensation of being able to play freely inside the game’s playground without adult supervision is important. It’s why I loved Crysis 1 and hated Crysis 3. The freedom makes the game more chaotic, clumsy and less “cinematic”. But it ignites that sense of ownership of your own actions. It makes it feel more personal. And this is what Dishonored does best. The story isn’t exciting enough to inspire a drive to see the end. But the sensation of exploring this world which is on its way out, to uncover its mysteries, and the beautiful art, makes up for the shortcomings.