This is Death Before Dishonor, a series in which I attempt to play through Dishonored with a self-imposed, semi-permadeath rule designed to make me improvise my way out of trouble, rather than re-loading an earlier save. For some background, read the introduction to the series first. Also be advised that, unlike most posts on this blog, this series will contain spoilers. For spoiler-free thoughts on Dishonored, read my original posts about the game. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
And so, my second adventure as Corvo Attano begins, and this time I’m forcing myself out of my old perfectionist habits by forbidding myself to re-load saved games when things go wrong. As I work to take down the corrupt government of the city of Dunwall, which has completely mishandled the deadly plague ravaging its citizens, I will try not to kill anyone unless I have to. But I suspect I will have to before long. When I’m spotted by guards I’ll need to deal with them, because if they take me down, I’ll start over all the way back at the beginning of the mission. Let’s see how this goes.
I wrote this up in the introductory text, but I’ll repeat it here just so we’re clear: this series will have spoilers, so read on at your own risk. If you are looking for spoiler-free thoughts on Dishonored, I refer you to my original posts about it, written back in 2013, about a year after its release.
The first thing that struck me about Dishonored as I fired it up again for the first time in seven years is how much older it looks now. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, but I remember it as a nice-looking game, and it was jarring to see low-resolution textures and simple geometry everywhere. Upon reflection, it’s likely aged better than it might have, since it always had stylized art that didn’t strive for photorealism. Its scenes remind me of paintings rather than photographs, its characters are exaggerated, with comically large hands. I quickly grew accustomed to this, but that initial shock was interesting to me. When I was young, graphical improvements in games year to year were profound, quickly making older games feel laughably obsolete, but with modern games these advances are far less obvious. This was a reminder that progress in art and tech may be subtler now, but it’s still very much occurring.
The second thing I noticed was the overly crowded user interface. By default, there are a ton of pop-ups and on-screen indicators, including an objective arrow that constantly points directly towards the mission goal. It’s horribly distracting, and frankly a bit insulting. It tells me it doesn’t trust me, the player, to figure out where to go. That I must be led by the nose to the next objective, because otherwise I’ll get lost, and confused, and give up or something. Exploring Dishonored’s spaces is one of its biggest joys, why would I rob myself of that? I restarted the opening sequence over and over, constantly heading into the menu to disable another interface option. As I did so, I realized my knee-jerk reaction was too harsh. The options menu is generous, with toggles for nearly every detail of the interface, and these types of interface aids might be invaluable for certain players. Accessibility options in games have been discussed a lot recently, and Dishonored had all of these aids back in 2013, which is admirable. If, like me, you prefer to play without them, you’ll need to spend some time turning a bunch of them off at the start. But I quickly found a balance I liked.
The third thing that struck me was how bad the opening is. I recalled that the story was one of Dishonored’s weakest aspects, but I’d forgotten just how awful it is right from the start. Empress Jessamine Kaldwin delivers an introductory narration about the plague that has struck Dunwall, and how she has sent our protagonist, the Lord Protector (glorified bodyguard) Corvo Attano, to the other Isles in seek of aid. Then there’s a short playable introductory scene in which I, Corvo, return empty handed. Approaching the palace, I run into the Empress’s young daughter Emily, who is overjoyed to see me, begging to play hide and seek. Moving on, I am briefly introduced to Anton Sokolov, the scientist whose inventions have transformed the city recently, and the Royal Spymaster, who clearly doesn’t like me very much. In fact, as I reach the Empress she is arguing with him, telling him emphatically that she must strive to protect all of Dunwall’s citizens from the plague, not just the privileged few.
This, I take it, is Dishonored’s attempt to establish the Empress as a kind and just ruler. Because, moments later, after an emotional reunion with Corvo, she is killed. Assassins appear out of thin air, dashing across the rooftops of the palace. I’m allowed to fend off the first few with my sword and pistol, but soon I’m immobilized by some arcane magic, and forced to watch as the mysterious assassins kill the Empress before disappearing again. Emily watches too. The Empress, bleeding out, dies in my arms, just before the Spymaster returns with soldiers and accuses me of being the killer.
That’s right, Dishonored tries to motivate the player through the old and tiresome trope of killing a woman. A woman meant to be important to our protagonist, but who appears for so short a time that there’s no reason for players to care about her. A woman who is the Empress of the Isles. This is made even worse by the fact that, as far as I can tell (I am still early in the game), she is the only woman with any kind of authority in Dunwall. This society is rigidly patriarchal — inspired by 19th century London — with women only allowed to be servants, mothers and wives while men get to run businesses, sail on whaling ships, serve in the navy or city guard, you name it. So far, every enemy I’ve encountered has been a man, and the women have all been helpless against their oppression. Well, I guess there has been one exception. More on her later.
The point is, this clumsy opening was even more galling than when I played Dishonored the first time. I’m not sure if that is because I’ve been mostly playing indie games in recent years that have better writing than most AAA offerings, or if it’s because standards in video game writing — which, let’s face it, have historically been poor — are actually improving across the board. I hope it’s the latter. I haven’t played many recent big publisher releases, but from reading about them it sounds like female representation is better today than it was in 2013. We have female protagonists like Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn (which is on my list of games to play), or the optional leading ladies in recent Assassin’s Creed games like Odyssey and Valhalla, and high profile discourse about gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity representation in games as well. I hope this continues, because games deserve better than what Dishonored offers on this front.
Anyway, Dishonored properly begins after Corvo has been locked up and tortured for a few months. Apparently not everyone believes he killed the Empress, however, because some allies manage to sneak him out of his cell, leading to a short tutorial level as he escapes from prison. Here, I was able to try out my new playstyle for the first time. It began inauspiciously, as I, still getting used to the controls, flubbed my first attempt to incapacitate a guard with a choke hold and was promptly shot to death. Starting over, I managed to escape, and it went more or less to the Death Before Dishonored plan. Which is to say, not well at all. I choked out the first guard, leaving him unconscious in a corner, and snuck past the next. So far so good. Then, while rooting around looking for ammo or supplies, I saw a guard approaching and quickly ducked into a shadowy corner to stay out of sight. I’d forgotten, however, that stealth in Dishonored does not work like it does in the Thief games that inspired it. Corvo cannot stay hidden in shadows, but must dart behind cover to break line of sight and avoid being spotted. The guard saw me straight away, and alerted the other guard who I’d already snuck past. I had to kill them both, cursing under my breath.
The rest of the prison break followed suit. I usually only managed one nonlethal takedown before I was forced to fight the rest of the guards in the room. Amusingly, they were absurdly easy to kill, telegraphing each sword strike with a huge windup and then staggering backwards when I parried it, before falling to a single light slash of my own blade. Or I could just shoot them. I guess the prison isn’t where the most proficient fighters are assigned. I fared slightly better once I was out of the prison proper, making my way through the sewers to freedom. Here I succeeded in not killing anyone, mostly by jumping into the water and swimming to safety after some guards laid eyes on me. Still, I gritted my teeth as I heard an announcement over the PA system reporting my escape, and that I had left several members of the city watch dead. When I reached my benefactors, hidden away in the condemned Hound Pits Pub, I had killed eight guards, and the game reported that I was in “high chaos” territory (Dishonored’s system for tracking how violent players have been). This is the kind of thing I was expecting when starting this series. So far, so good (er, bad).
After exploring the Hound Pits for a bit and meeting my new and slightly suspect friends, I slept, and was transported to a strange dream world. This is the realm of the mysterious Outsider, a powerful entity who is the source of the magical powers players can call upon throughout the game. He’s also creepy as hell, and looks like he crossed over from the Devil May Cry series or something. He granted me the Blink power, a short-range teleport that is Dishonored’s standout feature and which completely transforms exploration for the rest of the game. And indeed transformed how my Death Before Dishonor play proceeded.
I awoke to a bunch of extra items clogging up my room — resulting, apparently, from one of the smaller DLC packs included in the Dishonored Complete Collection that I’m playing, which adds a bunch of upgrades at the start of the game just in case I want to be overpowered instead of following the difficulty curve that the developers carefully designed (hint: I do not want to be overpowered, why can’t I turn off all this extra stuff?) — but I ignored them and got briefed for my first real mission. The Royal Spymaster was the real culprit behind the Empress’s assassination, and he’s now ruling the city as Lord Regent. One of his key co-conspirators is the High Overseer, head of the church, who knows where Emily Kaldwin, the Empress’s daughter, is being held. I’m to infiltrate the cathedral in Holger Square, eliminate High Overseer Campbell, and retrieve the black book he keeps on his person, which may hold Emily’s location. After purchasing some equipment from Piero, an ally of questionable mental state, I set off to the Distillery District for my first real test. It played out differently this time.
Well, not at first. On my first attempt I was spotted immediately, ran away, and then was spotted again and shot dead. But my second attempt went surprisingly well, all due to my newfound blink ability, which I upgraded as soon as possible. With blink, I could move quickly between hiding spots and climb up to high vantage points, from which I could carefully observe guards’ movements. I used my Dark Vision power — which I’d completely forgotten about even though I’d used it constantly when I played the first time — to observe patrol patterns through walls, determining the best moments to take action. I soon fell into a rhythm, using blink to appear behind unaware foes and choke them out one at a time, dropping their unconscious bodies in dumpsters (halfway through the mission I realized that the game only allowed a small number of unconscious bodies to exist at any one time, deleting the oldest ones as it went; I had to use an ini tweak to get it to keep them around). If I was discovered, I’d use my new sleep darts to knock out my assailant without killing him (thanks, Piero!). With blink and sleep darts I was able to get quite far without killing anyone. I was emboldened. I explored areas that I didn’t need to, just to see if there was any money or equipment to find, and often tried to incapacitate most, if not all, of the guards so I could explore every nook and cranny.
This did backfire once, when a whole group of thugs converged on me with their swords drawn. I ran, using blink to get up to a rooftop and drinking some elixir to recover from the wounds they’d inflicted. Then I watched with horror as one of the unconscious thugs I’d dropped in a corner was devoured by a swarm of plague rats. At this point I resolved to be more careful, to not take unnecessary risks just to nonlethally take down every single guard. It’s OK to just sneak by some of them, I told myself. And I proceeded to do just that, moving through the distillery district and the more heavily fortified Holger Square. Other than that unfortunate rat meal, I still hadn’t killed anyone, I think. One might have killed himself with his own explosive bottle as he tried to take me down, but that’s it.
This mission is the one I remember most clearly from my first time playing, but even so I was struck once again by the impeccable level design on display. The areas are wonderfully vertical, explorable on street level, along ducts and pipes above the roads, ledges along the sides of buildings, rooftops… buildings have multiple floors with windows leading out onto these higher paths, and there are even entire roads running underneath others. This is all facilitated, once again, by blink, which makes it easy to climb quickly, and I bypassed many an obstacle by keeping out of sight in high places. Playing Dishonored again now made me realize just how few games use vertical space this way. Even big budget open-world games in recent years tend to have flat expanses to explore, with maybe a few cliffs or mountains. But layers of explorable space, interweaving through each other? Maybe there are some examples that I haven’t played — Dark Souls is on my list and I hear it has some superlative environment design — but it seems that this type of vertical traversal may be the sole purview of the Dishonored series. Soon I was moving up and down just as naturally as left and right, and it was marvelous.
And, while Dishonored’s main story may be simple and poorly written, its environmental storytelling is fantastic. It’s not an accident that the first mission sees Corvo going up against the Overseers, since they are, as the Outsider puts it, “a cult dedicated to loathing me.” As I made my way through the city, I learned that the Overseers are an armed force, tasked with rooting out witchcraft. Their strictures guide them in resisting the temptations of the Outsider, and through their reports and religious texts (which I found scattered around their cathedral and compound) I learned more about the Outsider and his history with the people of the Isles. I learned that Overseers are selected as children, if they display the right aptitudes (perhaps those with a predisposition towards the Outsider’s magics are instead drafted into the Overseers’ ranks to stand against him?), taken from their parents to be trained in secret camps. They can no longer mingle with the populace, and wear masks to hide their faces. They lead witch hunts, rooting out and killing any of the Oustider’s followers that they find. Their reports tell chiling tales of practitioners of the dark arts possessing other people, wearing their skin like clothing (something that Corvo can learn to do, eventually), or wielding other terrifying abilities.
The Overseers are prejudiced and oppressive, as evidenced by an eavesdropped conversation between several parishioners and a member of the order. A man complains that his daughter is uninterested in housework, preferring to read about engineering and medicine, and asks if this is a sign of the Outsider’s influence; he is told that it is. The smallest and most innocuous behaviors can lead to citizens being dragged off by the Overseers, never to be seen again. But of course, the witches that the Overseers hunt are real. The Outsider is real, and he grants his gifts to many in Dunwall. Before I reached Holger Square, I met Granny Rags in the Distillery District, an old and quite mad follower of the Outsider with a creepy habit of appearing behind me when my back is turned. She’s also the only woman I’ve met so far who wields any kind of power. I guess the Outsider is happy to fill the void left by Dunwall’s strict gender roles. She was having trouble with the Bottle Street Boys, the local gang who are extorting the locals, and asked for my help in exchange for more of the Outsider’s power. This gang is strong-arming everyone and taking their money, but they’re also the only ones delivering the plague-preventing elixir to the poorer residents. Well, a watered-down version, but it’s better than nothing. The city’s rations seem to only go to those with status. Anyway, Granny Rags wants me to infect the Bottle Street Boys’ still with the plague, killing them and anyone who gets elixir from them. I’m not a fan of the gang but I wasn’t willing to sentence all the poor folk in the district to death.
Not that they’re doing that well anyway. I’d forgotten just how bleak Dishonored is. At the very start of the mission, the first thing I find is a note written from a man to his love, saying that he’s gathered up his life savings and will wait for her so they can flee the city together. The meeting place is where the main road crumbles into the river, remains of what must have been a grand bridge once upon a time. There are a lot of ruined bridges in fact, suggesting that Dunwall’s good times may have been long past, even before the plague. Investigating this one, I find the man, dead, alone, with his life savings beside him: a measly 100 coins. As I move through the Distillery District I’m constantly finding people reduced to scavenging for survival, stumbling into run-down apartments where entire families died of the plague, seeing ruin and filth and rats everywhere.
The Heart, another gift from the Outsider, doesn’t help. A half organic, half mechanical beating heart, its purpose is ostensibly to help me locate runes and bone charms, but it also speaks to me. It is heavily implied that its voice is the dead Empress, speaking to me from beyond the grave. It will comment on my location, or, if pointed at a person, will tell me some secret about them. But it only sees darkness. I am told of the horrible, violent thoughts running through guards’ heads, or about how many people they will kill before they take their own life. I hear about traumas and tragedies afflicting Dunwall’s citizens. If the Heart is to be believed, Dunwall and every person in it is wicked and depraved, or at best, crushed beneath those who are. Maybe this is all that the Outsider can perceive. Or maybe it’s all that he wants me to see. Maybe the Overseers were on to something in their crusade against him, before their purpose became twisted and perverted.
As I pondered these questions while making my way towards the cathedral, I also considered how all of this environmental storytelling is nearly (but not quite) hamstrung by Dishonored’s small areas. This first mission is actually very large, but it’s split into no less than six distinct areas divided by loading screens, and each of these feels too cramped. A couple of streets does not a neighborhood make. It’s a limitation we wouldn’t see today, and arguably wouldn’t have seen even in 2012 if the game hadn’t been tied to old console hardware. The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 were nearly seven years old when Dishonored was released, and while my PC could have handled larger areas even then, the consoles could not. I’m reminded of similar issues with Thief: Deadly Shadows back in 2004, which somehow managed to be good despite reducing the massive, atmospheric City in which it’s set to a few streets and a handful of buildings. When a single level set in a small part of the City in Thief II is larger than the entire City in the sequel, one can’t help but be disappointed. Dishonored manages better here, and works well within its limitations, but I long to explore the places that could be created without these constraints. Maybe that’s exactly what Dishonored 2 is; I look forward to finding out.
In fact, these separate sub-sections of the mission may have been my undoing. I’d reached the cathedral, having systematically choked out City Watchmen and Overseers along the way, but that is where things went sour. Feeling unstoppable as I neutralized Overseers one after another, I thoroughly explored Holger Square, looking for the best way into the cathedral itself. I quickly found not one, but two area transition points, into the back yard area or the kennels, but decided to finish exploring the square first. Making my way up to a ledge along the side of the building, I found an open window on the second floor and looked inside. It turns out that this is the High Overseer’s meeting room, and my arrival triggered a scripted sequence in which he enters along with Captain Curnow, a City Watchman who I’m trying to protect. You see, Curnow’s niece is one of my allies at the Hound Pits, and she told me he’s in danger. It seems the High Overseer wants to kill him, and I’m to stop that from happening (Dishonored takes great pains to ensure Corvo’s assassination targets are evil people with no redeeming qualities, pantomime villains who are written as poorly as the Empress’s death scene in the opening). Before they enter, I dash to the glasses of wine on the table, since I’ve learned Curnow’s has been poisoned. I could swap them, but I’m afraid the other Overseers will then blame Curnow for killing the High Overseer, so instead I smash them both, and then hide.
This backfires, because the High Overseer decides to lead Curnow somewhere else, presumably to kill him there. But the corridors are crawling with Overseers, and I haven’t neutralized any of them, since I bumbled through the window instead of more sensibly making my way through one of those other two separate areas. My reticence to pass through a loading screen has landed me here. I panic. I try to follow the pair while staying hidden, but I’m soon spotted, and quickly killed in the ensuing firefight. A valiant attempt, but due to my self-imposed rule I must start all over again.
My next few goes are all worse. I’m less patient, wanting to repeat my earlier performance but not taking the time needed to check all the patrols and make sure I won’t be found out. Eventually I make a mistake, get into a fight, and get killed. Several times. I never managed to make it half as far as I had before, and grew increasingly frustrated. I’d hoped that playing this way would force me to get into and then out of trouble, but death comes alarmingly fast if I’m faced with more than one enemy. Dishonored has tools for getting out of scrapes, but I don’t have many of them yet, and my attempts to get myself out of trouble all prove fatal. Finally I take a break, play some other things for a few days, and then return with more patience and start to make some headway.
This time, I head through the kennels, in the cathedral’s basement. The Overseers keep scary hounds that they use to root out evildoers, but fortunately these don’t seem to be able to smell me. It’s going OK until I decide to steal a cache of supplies that one of the Overseers has hidden in the incinerator room. I also figure that would be a great place to hide one of the unconscious Overseers, so I pick him up and dial in the door combination I’d found. To my surprise, a pack of rats emerges from the newly opened door and attacks me. I must have made a comical sight, being nibbled by rats while awkwardly carrying a sleeping man, but I wasn’t laughing as I frantically tried to escape. What I should have done is dropped the Overseer and let the rats eat him. That would have been in keeping with the ethos of this series. But instead I try to run (not even using blink, because I’m dumb) and get nibbled to death.
I was unsatisfied with this death. Before entering the incinerator room, I’d used Dark Vision to check that it was unoccupied; normally even rats appear in this second sight. There should have been no danger. But this rat pack was a scripted event, appearing out of thin air to scare players, or in my case, end my run. I decided to cheat a little, and restart from the auto-save from when I entered the kennels, instead of going all the way back to the start of the mission. This second trip through the kennels was marked by completely flubbed stealth; I used blink to sneak past one Overseer only to stumble directly into another. I cut him up with my sword before he can react, terrified that he’ll alert his comrade. I’m lucky, the other Overseer doesn’t hear anything. But I have killed my first foe. Later, I get caught by the other Overseer and his hound anyway, but manage to hit both of them with sleep darts. At least I’m able to loot the supply cache this time. And I’m still alive.
After this, I’m able to return to a stealthy and nonlethal approach. Entering the cathedral proper, I’m back to tracking patrols and silently incapacitating Overseers, until I’m ready to enter the meeting room again. This time, after smashing the wine glasses, I’m able to hit the High Overseer with a sleep dart, and let Curnow run away to safety. Only as I fire the dart do I remember that this is almost exactly how it happened the first time I played Dishonored. You see, Dishonored makes it possible to complete the game without killing anyone, including Corvo’s assassination targets. I tried for these my first time, largely for the novelty; in some cases, killing the target may even be kinder than the alternative. In this case, however, I liked the nonlethal option. I’m able to take the unconscious High Overseer to the Interrogation Room and brand his face, marking him as a heretic to the order. This feels more appropriate for our upstart rebellion against the corrupt administration. It’s one thing to hear that the High Overseer has been assassinated, but to hear that he’s been branded a traitor for his role in all this? It sends a powerful message to the city of Dunwall. The High Overseer is a traitor, complicit in killing the Empress and kidnapping her daughter, and how he’s marked as a traitor for all to see. Justice will be administered to the rest soon enough.
This done, all that remains is to escape via the back yard. I’ve also managed to gather enough runes (the Overseers had confiscated them from servants of the Outsider) to unlock the Bend Time ability, which I hope will give me an edge if I am caught again. By slowing down time I’ll have a chance to react before I’m killed, and can decide to fight or flee as appropriate. Feeling emboldened once more, I decide to scour the back yard for more runes, bone charms, or other loot before departing. This goes well, for the most part, until an unfortunate incident when I’m seen just as I’m sneaking up behind an Overseer to get him in a choke hold. The shouts alert others from outside, and soon I’m facing several angry Overseers and their hounds.
Reader, this would have been the perfect moment to use my new Bend Time ability. But I forgot I had it. You see, after dealing with the High Overseer, it was a few days before I had a chance to play again, and I simply didn’t remember that I’d just unlocked the ability. Instead I pulled out my pistol, but only managed one shot before I fell to a hail of bullets. I stared at the screen in disbelief. How could I let myself get killed, so close to the end of the mission? I couldn’t bear the thought of doing everything over, yet again. Not when I’d come so far.
So, I decided to cheat again. I went back to where I’d started the session, after branding the High Overseer but before entering the back yard area. This time, I managed to stay stealthy, nick everything I wanted to, and escape to the loading dock far below where Samuel the boatman awaited me. Only after finishing the mission did I remember that I had Bend Time. I never actually used it. But I had finished the mission, having only killed one person: the Overseer I blundered into in the kennels. I may not have followed the letter of the law I laid out for myself in Death Before Dishonor, but I feel I followed its spirit. I always genuinely tried to deal with my mistakes rather than fall back on saved games, but the result was a lot of frantic sleep darts rather than killing. And two mid-mission re-loads when I met an unfortunate end.
Does this mean I need to amend my rules? Only one mission in, and I’ve already failed to follow them completely. I’m not sure. I may end up making judgment calls in specific instances, as I did here. I also hope that as I gain more abilities and equipment, and get more comfortable using them, I’ll be able to escape death more reliably. I also expect I’ll find more people that I want to kill. Corvo will have many more targets to stalk before his story is done, and I’ll be sure to write about them here. Stay tuned.
Next time: Corvo smashes the patriarchy.