Hello all! Last week’s game was Ryse, a game with little substance but heaps of style. Enough style to make up for the lack of variety, at least for a six-hour playthrough.
This week brings us to one of my all-time favorites from the 360/PS3 days.
Dishonored is the story of Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector of the Empress of Dunwall, a sort of late 1800's London-esque fantasy city. Think lots of Industrial Revolution with a very light touch of steampunk and you’re there (The developers call it “whalepunk,” touching on the whaling that goes on behind the scenes on the game--whale oil powers mostly everything, for example). The Empress is killed by shadowy assassins with strange powers, her young daughter, Emily, is kidnapped, and Corvo takes the blame. Escaping prison (and execution) with the help of a group still loyal to the Empress, Corvo eventually gains powers from a mysterious being called the Outsider. Corvo allies with the Loyalists and attempts to rescue Emily, the rightful Empress, from those who kidnapped her. What follows is almost entirely up to you.
That’s because Dishonored, despite appearing to be a typical first-person kill-fest, is a wide-open game that lets you play how you want—I mean really play how you want. The game equips you with a small yet diverse variety of weapons and tools all focused on letting you choose a path through a level. You have a pistol that’s loud as hell, and you also have a silent crossbow and sleep darts. Powers, though, is what it’s all about. After meeting the Outsider, Corvo can equip powers like Blink, which lets him teleport a short distance, or Dark Vision, which lets you see through walls. Runes scattered about each level enable you to upgrade your powers, while Bone Charms (also scattered wherever) grant you more passive abilities, like more health, extra pistol damage, or whatever. If you come across a hall of enemies, Dishonored is tuned well enough to let you carve them up, teleport to the chandeliers above and sneak by, throw something to distract them, stop time and walk on by...the possibilities are endless for nearly every scenario, enabling you to play any way you want within reason.
I say “within reason” because Dishonored’s plot changes somewhat based on how you play. Be loud and murder-y, especially with the high-profile targets you need to take care of in each mission, and the world of the game becomes bleaker, with a more depressing ending (High Chaos). Opt for mercy, however, and you’ll get the (Low Chaos) happier ending (um, with Dishonored 2 out now, the “good” ending is canon, so). It’s a very cool concept; it lets you decide the fate of the game’s characters through your actions, rather than, say, a yes/no choice towards the end or something. But it always struck me as somewhat strange that the developers would give you all these insane ways to dispatch your enemies and then say “well, don’t kill so much, or you’ll get the bad ending.” Considering the bad ending is, well, bad, combined with the fact that this is all kind of explained to you at the start of the game, it feels like you’re slightly pushed towards the good, low chaos path.
If you’ve played Dishonored in High Chaos, you’ve probably seen the 10 year old Emily’s drawings of Corvo butchering people. Don’t tell me you didn’t change your ways after that.
Dishonored plays basically, if well—Corvo does what I want him to do, provided that thing is possible. But there’s two things that stand out for me, and they’re why I love this series. First: level design. Dishonored’s maps don’t feel like “maps.” They don’t feel like game-y levels. They look and feel like realistic places that just so happen to be in a game. Consider something like Call of Duty or Uncharted; those games are focused on delivering a tightly controlled experience with set pieces and the like. And it’s fun! But sometimes (often), the levels feel contrived, or constructed. Which, yes, of course they are, but...it’s like being on a set sometimes. Dishonored’s levels, conversely, give you an objective but don’t obsessively funnel you towards it. It’s like “get into this building,” yet how you go about that is your problem. I’m not saying it’s a necessarily better approach; what works for one game may not work for another. But it works for this game.
Consider “Lady Boyle’s Last Party,” a seminal Dishonored level. In this level, you infiltrate a masquerade party with the intent of disposing of one Lady Boyle. “One” Lady Boyle is quite literal here; there are three Lady Boyle’s in the mansion, and you need to remove the right one and only the right one. “Last Party” takes place in a sprawling mansion that feels like a place one could explore in reality. It’s laid out like a real home; bedrooms and bathrooms are where they would logically appear. Think about another famous video game mansion, that of the original Resident Evil. I mean really think about the layout of it all. It makes little sense, right? Dishonored never seems to have that problem, with “Last Party” or any level, really. It’s a lived-in mansion, hosting a party that feels like a party, with a billion ways to accomplish your mission. And it makes the game that much more immersive; for a time, you’re not playing a game—you’re Corvo Attano, seeking a way to clear his name, exploring this great and terrible world.
Speaking of the world of Dishonored--that brings me to the other reason I love it, and it goes hand in hand with the level design: Dishonored’s world is so fully realized, possibly more so than most other titles I’ve played. Journals and notes expand the lore, and there’s a ton of them. But it’s more than that. It’s the conversations you pick up as you (maybe) sneak through a level. It’s the changing attitudes you can feel shift as you go through a Low or High Chaos playthough. Something as innocuous as a sign you spot, or graffiti, or Emily’s drawings...you get the sense that you’re living in a part of a larger world, rather than a simple video game sandbox. Characters always feel like they’re more than what you see; typical grunts aside, the people you talk to have backstories and wildly different personalities. It’s almost a shame Corvo is silent in this game, as the dialogue can feel one sided. Still, everyone feels developed, much like the world. It’s clear the devs really poured their heart into it, and we all benefit from that effort.
I gush about it, but Dishonored isn’t perfect, especially if you go back to this one after playing the much-refined sequel. Controls are fine but can feel a bit loose sometimes, and you have almost no options for non-lethally taking down a foe who has spotted you, to name a couple of nits. But the good still outweighs the bad here, and I really liked taking another trip to Dunwall (though, as is my nature, I did a Low Chaos play again). Play this and the sequel if you haven’t, and if you have, well, play ‘em again.
Thanks always for reading this possibly too-long series of goofy, rambling articles. I have a Twitter and I like talking to people, so follow me!
Next week’s game is a fighting game, yet it’s part of a series of, well, not fighting games. It’s terrible, but I love it. One could say it’s a terrible night for a bad game.