I am playing Dishonored extremely slowly. Which is amusing, because apparently one of the main complaints that certain players have brought against the game is that it is too short. I hear that this is true, provided one heads directly for the objective in each mission. But I’ve been meticulously sneaking into every nook and cranny I can find, taking my sweet time about it, such that my Steam counter says I’ve played for 15 hours already but I’ve only just finished the second mission. And since I’ve barely been able to find time to play, it’s been a really rather epic stretch of time since I first started. I’m hoping I can pick up the pace, because I’ve quite enjoyed it so far.
It’s impossible to discuss Dishonored without mentioning games by Looking Glass, especially the Thief series, which I will write some History Lesson posts about someday. Thief invented the modern stealth game. It put the player in control of Garrett, master thief, and provided a set of huge, open-ended levels to sneak through any way the player chose. These levels didn’t feel like videogame levels, though. They felt like real places. Mansions, underground tombs, or sections of the massive City, filled with guards and other hazards to sneak past or otherwise eliminate, and, naturally, tons of loot to steal.
In another universe, Thief and the other games by Looking Glass revolutionized game design. Open-ended, sprawling locales became the norm, and game systems became ever more intricate, giving the player real control over how they approached obstacles. In our universe, that didn’t happen. But it would be a mistake to discount the influence that Thief had, with stealth games (or at least stealth mechanics) becoming quite popular. And recently, games like Bioshock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and now Dishonored have brought back some of the Looking Glass design ethos.
Dishonored’s similarities to the Thief games both enhance and detract from the experience. They are undeniable — anyone who’s played any of the Thief games will immediately feel at home, recognizing little details like the way certain objects light up to indicate they can be used or taken, and bigger things like the level design and the attention given to Dunwall, the massive city in which Dishonored is set. Also, you can lean! For the most part, these similarities are welcome, since there was never really a worthy successor to the Thief series, and it feels fantastic to play a game that pays such close homage. But it also highlights some ways in which Dishonored falls short of those classics. The missions feel a little less like real places and a little more like carefully designed videogame levels, in part because they can’t quite manage the sheer size of those in first two Thief games. That’s to be expected: the graphics are approximately 374 times more detailed, so areas take up a lot more memory. I was disappointed to find that missions are subdivided into smaller sections separated by loading screens, though, and couldn’t help but wonder if that was due to the aging hardware in the consoles. But then I realized I was thinking like the stereotypical “PC snob”, and besides, without console sales there was little chance that an expensive project like Dishonored could be profitable. I’m hoping that the new consoles bring some beefier hardware to the table and we start to see games that take advantage of it.
Dishonored’s stealth isn’t as tight as that of the Thief series, either, although I admit it’s a bit more believable. Shadows will not make you completely invisible while guards walk right past you, but this means it can be hard to determine when you’re actually hidden from view, until it’s too late. But Dishonored’s biggest failing is in the writing and premise. Let me be clear: the setting and world-building are excellent. Dunwall is a fantastic place to explore, with its dirty alleys full of plague victims and its massive whaling ships, bringing back precious whale oil to power all the creepy futuristic technology that’s grafted awkwardly onto the old city. I’ve only explored a small part of Dunwall so far but it’s been a blast. But the overall premise for the story is weak, boiling down to a cliched quest for vengeance against a wicked usurper. It doesn’t help that the protagonist, Corvo, is essentially devoid of character, without even his own voice; his words are implied but not actually spoken aloud. By comparison, Garrett from the Thief games is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of controlling. I was unconvinced, too, by Corvo’s acceptance of his new role as an assassin, and hoped for more moral quandries when he actually got out there. Sadly, my targets so far have all been such awful people that it’s hardly possible to feel any remorse.
I’m not sure that the writing will improve (indeed, other people who have written about Dishonored imply that it does not), but as for the other complaints, it’s important to realize that Dishonored is not actually trying to be a Thief game. Those were purely about stealth, with an ideal mission being one in which no one ever knew you were there. The player’s arsenal of tools reflected this, containing various methods of extinguishing lights or muffling noise. But Dishonored is different. You can sneak through it, avoiding detection, and you can even avoid killing anyone (yes, even though you are an assassin you don’t have to kill anyone). Or, you can play it like a straight-up action game, getting into swordfights, firing pistols, and throwing grenades. Or, you can mix stealth and violence, striking from the shadows and laying traps for your enemies. With so many ways to play, no wonder the designers made Corvo silent; his personality depends on how you decide to play. The world of Dishonored purportedly reacts to how violent you’ve been (I haven’t gotten far enough to confirm this) but pleasingly leaves it rather ambiguous. It’s become something of a trend in recent games to track player decisions as statistics, letting players view exactly how many people they’ve chosen to kill (or spare) and then rating them on some sort of moral scale. Dishonored has none of that; these decisions aren’t simple numerical considerations, they’re actually decisions. Should you kill those guards? Do you think they deserve it? How hard would it be to get past nonlethally?
I tend to take a more stealthy route through games like these, and I’m always tempted to try to get through without killing anyone if it’s possible (as I attempted with Deus Ex: Human Revolution). But I wanted to break that pattern with Dishonored. I told myself I would only reload a saved game if I was killed, so if I messed up when sneaking around I’d have to actually deal with the consequences. Even if that meant killing some people. I broke this rule pretty quickly. I’m still mostly playing with that mindset, but there were some occasions where I couldn’t resist going back and trying again. Still, I am mostly trying to get through with minimal violence, but improvising when things go wrong, and it’s been a lot of fun. My epiphany, however, came when I reloaded an old save just for fun, and stopped sneaking around. I fought instead. I used weapons I’d never even tried before, like grenades. My supernatural powers found entirely new uses, as I slowed time to backstab guards and possessed a nearby rat to confuse them before reappearing to renew my attack. I ended up eliminating my targets in a completely different manner than I had the first time, and it was kind of awesome.
Even at this early stage, I can tell that Dishonored is a game that must be played more than once before it can be fully appreciated. The stealthy route is one of precision and discipline, but there are tons of more violent tools available for those willing to take a more improvisational approach, and I’m anxious to see how differently things turn out if I play with more murderous intent. A single playthrough might leave you feeling that Dishonored is lacking compared to the old Thief games, but after a few runs through the game I think you’d change your mind, as you realize just how many ways there are to get through the game.
I’m also interested to see what happens with Corvo’s supernatural abilities, which I mentioned briefly above. These are the most interesting aspect of the game, story-wise, and could lead to some true character development between Corvo and his compatriots. I’ll post again when I’ve finished my first playthrough, and let you know what happens. Other reviews imply that this potential is wasted, but honestly, I wouldn’t be too broken up about it if it turns out to be the case. I’ve listed a lot of complaints in this post, but that’s just because the rest of Dishonored is so excellent that I’m bemoaning the few things holding it back from classic status. Actually playing it — not listening to briefings or pondering your unsatisfactory motivations, but actually playing the missions — just feels great. It’s not another Thief, but then you couldn’t teleport across rooftops or possess rats in Thief either. Dishonored is, in many ways, exactly what I was hoping games post-Thief would be, and that’s simply fantastic.