After posting my initial impressions of Dishonored, I’ve gone back and finished the game, so I’m now qualified to comment on it as a whole. While my first post spent a lot of time comparing the game to the Thief series, after playing further that sense of similarity disappeared. Dishonored is still clearly an homage to the Thief games, but it has its own character that shone through. And it’s absolutely worth experiencing.
In my first post I noted that while the gameplay in Dishonored is excellent, the writing is not as strong. I hoped it would improve as the plot progresses, but sadly it doesn’t. Later events make it more clear what the writers were going for, but the way it was executed meant that the most interesting part of the story felt rushed, and overall the plot was not very engaging. Which is a shame, because the general premise could have worked much better with stronger characters and a little more subtlety. It’s worth noting, though, that the world-building is significantly stronger than the characters and writing. Dunwall is one of the more interesting places I’ve had the pleasure to visit in a game, and I hope that we’ll get to visit it again.
It’s also worth noting that both the writing and the world-building benefit from exploration. I took a careful and reasoned approach to the missions, poking around into various corners to look for extra equipment and items, but I was more often rewarded with extra bits of narrative. Personal journals, books that give some background context, and even entire side missions were common rewards for straying from my primary objective. While these certainly didn’t save the writing, I imagine the writing would have felt even weaker if I’d taken a more direct approach and avoided distractions.
But the thing is, it didn’t matter. Because Dishonored is such fun to play. At a time when so many other games are steadfastly linear, with each moment choreographed to follow the last, Dishonored provides veritable playgrounds, where you’re welcome to approach obstacles in any way you please. Need to break into a building? Sneak around and scope it out to find a weak spot in the security, and then slip in. Or just neutralize the guards with your superior weaponry. Or use your magic abilities to possess a rat and scurry in through a rat-hole. You could even summon a swarm of rats to devour a guard, and then possess one of them to sneak through amidst the chaos. The magical powers are all quite excellent, and excellently adaptable. Blink, a short-range teleport, can help you stay out of sight and is an excellent navigational tool. But it can also help you zip between enemies in a fight, dodging their bullets. Windblast can be used defensively, to knock down enemies while you make your escape, or you can hurl them off ledges or into walls. Bend Time is great for escaping, fighting, or simply sneaking past someone.
Nowhere was this design ethos more obvious than in the mission taking place on Kaldwin’s Bridge. Spanning the Wrenhaven River, Kaldwin’s Bridge is massive enough that it sports quite a few buildings along its length. Your objective, at first, is simply to cross it. It is, literally, a line. The perfect example of a linear level. Except it isn’t, because there’s still so many different paths to take and areas to discover. A huge part of this comes from the vertical element of the level, with multi-story buildings, basements, tunnels, piers off the base of the bridge, and huge drawbridge towers all providing paths forward. And the player’s ability to mantle or blink onto ledges makes navigating all of these vertical elements immensely satisfying. Dishonored really uses its third dimension, something I find I’ve missed in recent games. While it was a little disappointing (if not surprising) that it’s not actually possible to simply swim underneath the bridge instead of crossing it, I was impressed at how the developers took what would have been a straightforward and unimaginative level in any other game and packed so many options into it. And then, to top it all off, the level ends with a small but perfectly encapsulated infiltration, complete with multiple entry points and tricky defenses.
These are the times when Dishonored shines, and I think the developers know it. It’s evidenced in the first bit of DLC (that’s downloadable content, for those unfamiliar) which opts for a purely mechanical set of challenges rather than another narrative episode. I haven’t played it, but its celebration of pure mechanics makes sense, as that’s clearly Dishonored’s strongest point. Still, despite the shortcomings of the story, I like having a bit of context to my sneaking, and more importantly, I loved the chance to explore an interesting and well-realized place. I would be surprised if there isn’t more story-based content forthcoming, if not as DLC then as a fully-fledged sequel. And it will be absolutely welcome.
Speaking of shortcomings, one of the main complaints from players is that the game is too short. I didn’t find this to be the case, but the thing is, the pace is actually set by the player. I took my time and got plenty of hours out of the game, but I could have been more direct and finished a lot faster. But then I’d just have started again, and tried playing in a totally different way. That’s the other thing; you’re going to want to play this game more than once. I’m already eager to try again with a greater combat focus, and I’m also tempted to try to complete the game while rejecting my arcane abilities. I think roleplaying a character who is terrified of what he views as witchcraft, and who chooses to rely only on his wits and his tools, could be a lot of fun. Probably really hard too, but still possible. Which is why Dishonored is so great.
Discussing multiple playthroughs brings me (somewhat awkwardly) to the way Dishonored reacts to your playstyle, which I found quite interesting from a design standpoint. The overall level of chaos in the city depends on whether a player has taken a broadly peaceful path, or has tended to spread destruction and death. This apparently affects not only the ending of the game but also the missions during the game; I’m told that high chaos means there will be more rats everywhere, for example, so what was once a few peaceful vermin might become a deadly swarm. I imagine that certain plot elements and characters will change as well. I don’t know how many endings the game has, whether it’s binary or if there are gradations to it, and that’s kind of the point: the chaos system was designed deliberately to move away from the artificial “moral scales” that have become popular in games recently. The idea to discourage treating each decision like a statistic, but rather like a real decision, all while still having the game react to what you do.
Most of the press have tended to discuss this chaos system, and the game in general, in binary terms: there’s the stealthy approach and the violent approach. Ignoring that a stealthy approach can still be quite violent, I think that such an either/or mentality is exactly what the chaos system was trying to avoid. I tended towards nonlethal tactics (and I admit that on a few occasions this was more because I was fascinated that the option existed than because I really felt compelled to choose it) but I still killed some people. Some were in self-defense, but some were in cold blood, because I thought they deserved it, or because I thought it was necessary to achieve my goals. While a strictly nonlethal approach is an attractive challenge, I think the really interesting paths are in the middle, where the question is not “were you peaceful?” or “were you violent?”, but “who did you choose to kill, and why?” And it’s not just about when to use violence; there are plenty of other interesting decisions to make during the game. Do you tolerate a local gang’s strong-arm tactics because they provide plague-preventing elixir to the populace, or do you shut down their operation, knowing that it means some innocents will get sick? Do you help a group of plague victims escape the quarantine, or do you leave them for fear they will spread the disease? And that’s ignoring the “non-mechanical” choices, by which I mean choices that the game doesn’t actually track. Things like whether or not you steal from your compatriots, or from others. Actually, the game might track that, although I would guess not. Still, I opted against it because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because I thought the game would punish me for it.
In the end I think the chaos system is aiming for a best of both worlds approach. It helps encourage you to roleplay the game, making each decision as you come to it based on what you think is best, but it also lets you come back and play through with a specific end goal in mind. Or the other way around. It may not be a perfect system, but it celebrates the middle ground as well as the extremes, and I salute it for that.
So: Dishonored is a game about choices. All the way from broad moral decisions to tiny details. And it is excellent. I highly recommend playing it. Some players will recognize the feeling of freedom it provides, while others might be experiencing it for the first time, but either way they’ll be in for a treat. Here’s hoping for more games like this in the future.