Can you make a game out of nothing but neat touches? This is a question that I had hitherto not really considered before buying and playing Dishonored, a game which appears to be the answer. The world and art style are neat, but simply having an interesting world doesn’t make a game on its own. The profusion of secrets and easter eggs scattered throughout the various levels and missions are neat, but the definition of a secret is that it’s secret. You can’t build a game around secrets. The way the various powers can interact with the world and with each other are neat, but these are the tools you use to tackle the game and their utility/entertainment value is contingent on the game providing you with the appropriate opportunities to use them. It is both a testament to just how many neat touches there are in Dishonored and a damning indictment of how rotten and worm-ridden the underlying structure they’re bolted to is that the whole thing doesn’t instantly come crashing down around the player’s ears. Instead it takes, oooh, a good seven hours for that to happen. So I guess you can make a game out of nothing but neat touches. Temporarily, anyway.
You are Corvo, Lord Protector to the Empress of Dunwall and the most incompetent bodyguard ever, as she gets offed in the world’s most obvious assassination attempt about three minutes after the game starts and leaves Corvo to be framed for the deed. The game then jumps forward six months because… uh, well, it just does. Corvo is in prison, and the people actually responsible for the assassination stop by just before Corvo’s execution to do some supervillainesque mwa-ha-ha-ing about how they’ve taken over the city. Cue inevitable escape attempt and subsequent joining up with “the resistance” to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of the Lord Regent and replace him with the Empress’s ten year-old daughter, because obviously that’s not a plan that’s massively open to manipulation by outside sources at all.
Now, there were two ways Dishonored could have gone. The first is the way I wanted it to go, where Corvo would have to figure out who was responsible for the assassination of the Empress all on his lonesome and then exact revenge whilst trying to avoid apprehension for being Public Enemy Number One. This would have required a little more work on the part of the player but would ultimately have been satisfying for placing the agency and the story directly into the player’s hands; I would have felt like it was me setting things right and changing the course of history rather than progressing down some badly-greased plot rails, which is the second avenue open to Dishonored and the path it ultimately elects to travel.
So you get out of prison, and are immediately told by the leaders of the resistance to go kill a guy. Then when he’s dead, you’re told to kill two more guys. Then when they’re dead, you’re told to kill another gu—wait, lady. Then when she’s dead, you’re told to kill another guy. There is no choice on the player’s part about whether or not these people should die; Corvo simply accepts that they’re Bad Men (and women) who deserve their fate, whether that be Corvo shivving them in the neck or one of the various non-lethal methods of disposal that have been shoehorned into the game. For a game that’s supposed to be all about choice, Dishonored really is stingy with giving any sort of control to the player character. Sure, you can go in loud with pistol and sword, murdering the hell out of any City Watch that tries to stop you, or you can steal in quietly over the rooftops with the aid of the insanely useful Blink spell, but despite the amount of options you have in reaching your target, once you get there you have to get rid of them in order to clear the obstruction blocking the plot train from making its way to the next station.
I’m probably being rather unfair to Dishonored here as a linear series of levels with discrete events that moved the plot onwards is exactly how Deus Ex and Thief did it, but there’s something about Dishonored in particular which rankles with me. The protagonists of Deus Ex and Thief were portrayed as having their own opinions and independent streaks, occasionally speaking out against the orders and directions they were given and at least giving the appearance of concentrating decision-making power in the hands of the player. When Human Revolution introduced the fairly braindead character of Adam Jensen and took control out of the player’s hands entirely during cutscenes, people rightly complained that this was going against the spirit of what the game was supposed to be. Dishonored does the exact same thing, especially during the incredibly predictable plot twist1 during which I was screaming NO CORVO DON’T DO THAT YOU MORON at the monitor; Corvo is a silent protagonist who accepts his orders blindly and unquestioningly with no opportunities given to the player to argue about whether what he’s doing is actually a good idea. The open nature of the levels does much to enhance the actual gameplay, but this lack of overall player agency completely killed Dishonored as a coherent game world for me and turned it into just another FPS where the objective was to get to the end of the level.
This is the broad thrust of my philosophical problem with Dishonored; despite the incredible work that has gone into the world – the painterly visual style, the steampunk industrial design of the buildings and machines, the pieces of background fluff liberally scattered around for the player to pick up and read if they feel so inclined – it makes absolutely no attempt to support the suspension of the player’s disbelief at any point. The levels aren’t set up like places in a world, they’re set up like levels in a game; they have more in common with Doom than they do Deus Ex. In fact Dishonored reminds me of nothing more than Deus Ex for people with the attention span of a sugar-addled toddler, in that at no point is the player ever required to actually engage their brain to effect an entry or solve a puzzle and the game is prepared to break all sane rules of logic and reason in order to accommodate them. As a not-so random example that highlights Dishonored’s curious malaise, there are a number of combination-locked safes in the game which contain money and valuables. Opening them is entirely optional and never necessary to complete a mission, but this is a pointless affectation of choice when every single safe in the game bar one has an incredibly obvious clue as to the combination written down on a piece of paper that’s in the same room. Often it’s right next to the safe itself. The hardest one requires at most thirty seconds of effort to open. Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I would say that while there is a choice between opening the safe or not that choice is the very definition of a no-brainer. It’s the most superficial way of implementing player choice possible, and I hate it.
Another curious artefact of Dishonored’s obvious nature as a game is the bizarre reactions NPCs have towards pickpocketing. This is a game feature that rarely surfaces as most of the people you’ll have the opportunity to pickpocket will be hostile towards you anyway, but there’s one level that involves infiltrating a party in a swanky mansion. As long as you keep inside the clearly delineated neutral zone the guards won’t go for you unless they see you’re up to something nefarious, and unarmed NPCs are programmed not to react to anything short of cold-blooded murder. This led to an absurd situation where my Corvo spent a good ten minutes shuffling around the party stealing everyone’s money pouches in broad daylight while about twenty aristocratic partygoers looked on in complete indifference. The rules of the scenario did not allow for Corvo to be exposed through pickpocketing, and so he was able to rob everyone blind without them – for example – running off to report his thievery to the guards who were literally standing right across the room. That is not a scenario that could take place anywhere except inside a game.
Perhaps the ultimate evidence of Dishonored’s naked artificiality can be seen in its morality metagame, which basically tracks the number of people you’ve killed so far and correlates it to a “Chaos level”, which can be low or high. Finish the game with a low Chaos level and you get the good ending, whereas sowing chaos by indiscriminately murdering everyone buys you the bad ending. First off, I have issues with any game based around “choice” that heavily leans on you to choose one option over others; you get all sorts of neat toys for killing people but if you want that good ending then you’re going to be stuck with sleep darts and choke holds for most of the game. Second, since when was a non-lethal playthrough an end in and of itself rather than a simple means to one? I think developers have looked at the non-lethal run possible in Deus Ex and completely misunderstood why that was amazing. Completing Deus Ex without killing anyone is actually really difficult and requires you to actively glitch the game out in one or two places, and as a consequence it’s a minority option that maybe one or two percent of players will ever attempt. The game still makes provision for it, though; if you haven’t killed Anna Navarre – something I thought was impossible to avoid until I read how to do it – then the game will acknowledge that fact in your subsequent conversations with Gunther. In the grander scheme of things Paul would chide you for slaughtering the NSF terrorist cells and Navarre/Manderley would chide you for not slaughtering them, but the crucial thing here was that the game didn’t force you to pursue a non-lethal playthrough to the point of absurdity; once MJ12 shows up the gloves come off and JC can kill whoever he wants without the game smacking him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and doing things non-lethally after that is purely up to the player. While Deus Ex permitted that kind of playstyle if the player really wanted to do it, it wasn’t built around being non-lethal or not. It was a genuine moral choice, not a moral imperative.
Dishonored isn’t completely shallow in its acknowledgement of a non-lethal playstyle and some NPCs will drop the odd comment about it here and there (there’s even a fairly major event during the final level that changes substantially depending on which way you’ve done it) but unlike Deus Ex the major manifestions of this reactivity within the game – more rats, a darker city and a darker ending, or not — make no sense. It’s never explained why killing more people will result in a bad ending and bad reactions from characters, even if the people you’re killing are zombies, thieves and assassins who are actively trying to kill you. Not even Paul complained when you started icing MIBs in Deus Ex; this absolutist binary approach between lethal/non-lethal is a massively abstract and gamey way of tallying up the player’s actions, and is largely present because Deus Ex-style games are supposed to have non-lethal runs and multiple endings now, and this is a way of combining the two into an arrangement that confounds all rational logic. Human Revolution had one (although all you got for it was an achievement, putting it in the realm of fun challenge2 rather than a gameplay necessity) and now Dishonored has worked it into the very structure of its metagame, boiling it down to nothing more than a simple number of deaths which leads to one outcome or the other. Dishonored displays a level of moral complexity and ambiguity that is on par with Bioshock, for crying out loud. And it sucks.
(Fair play to Dishonored, though, in that there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on that you can miss if you’re not paying attention and/or exploring and which serves to flesh out the game’s backstory far better than any hundred in-game books. It’s just a shame that I consider it to be largely wasted effort in light of how flimsy the overplot and underlying game mechanics are.)
I haven’t even tried to give a fair and balanced assessment of Dishonored in this review; it’s basically 2,000 words of me giving it a damn good thrashing. That’s not to say that it’s all bad; it’s a game with a lot of good ideas – and neat touches — and there’s the odd level where everything comes together and it actually works the way I think it should. I certainly did enjoy a fair amount of the time I spent playing it, and it was only because I found the overall experience so hollow and unsatisfying that I decided to take the knife to it at all. I figure that if you want to read dewy-eyed praise for Dishonored, though, then all you have to do is visit one of the more reputable mainstream games review sites. Everyone else seemed to love the bloody thing. I didn’t.
- Plot “twists” in games are starting to reach the point of parody in that they’re so obvious they don’t even qualify as twists any more; the player is expecting a twist to occur at some point because the laws of game narrative demand it, and so the twist, far from surprising them, is merely fulfilling their expectations. At this point it’d be more surprising to me for a game to play it completely straight.
- Non-lethality was also the powergamer’s choice in HE as it straight-up gave you more experience points than killing people did.