Dishonored has been getting a lot of well-earned praise of late. Arkane Studios have successfully crafted a unique, deep, atmospheric experience. But beyond the wonderful, captivating atmosphere (which I really did love), I must praise the game’s brilliantly constructed, and purposefully contained, player-choice driven levels.
Take note that this is not a massive RPG along the lines of Dragon Age or Mass Effect where every little action impacts the world and drives you further to your own, player-constructed conclusion. Dishonored is much more controlled than that: you will always go to the same locales to assault the same group of people. However, you do have an effect, and I like how it’s written and handled almost better than the big sweeping diversities you see being attempted elsewhere.
Dishonored deals a lot in political intrigue, full of attempted coup d’etats, double-crossing, personal honor, and the ever-appealing and justifiable vengeance. You’ve been framed for murdering the impress, have been rescued from your execution, and have the opportunity to set things straight. In the process, you will seek to put the rightful heir, the young Emily Kaldwin, on the throne. It is up to you how to do this. Here, I feel, is Dishonored‘s strongest selling point. You really do have a lot of options, all exposed organically. Decisions are made almost implicitly.
The game is separated into discrete pieces, or chapters, determined by missions. Each mission has a set, determined objective — usually to eliminate a certain political member. The rest relies on you: how to approach the target (do I need a key? is there a security system to watch for?), how to get inside (ventilation? possess a rat? fight my way in?) , who to interact with along the way (avoid or help citizens?), how to deal with conflict (fight or flight?), and whether or not to kill the target (do you show mercy?). And these decisions are made strictly based on action, not by selecting from a menu.
Here are a some things I really like about this system:
- The concept of choice is prominent throughout every encounter. Characters constantly repeat that how you deal with a situation is strictly up to you – they just want results. This keeps it fresh in the player’s mind that there are multiple routes, many options, and everything is at his or her discretion.
- The rat plague is a clever “paragon” gauge. The more killing you do, the greater the presence of rats is; the less bodies found, the plague stays a bit tamer. This is much better for the world, and even for game play, than some growing bar on the menu screen.
- With most changes occurring from mission to mission, difficulty changes are easier to maintain. This is big, since playing non-aggressively (trying to keep people alive) is generally much harder than reacting violently. If you play more aggressively, each mission will be filled with more guards, your actions will be more well known. If you play “nicer,” you’ll have more friends to help you out moving forward.
- Since the game is smaller, more contained, every encounter and decision has more weight and the effects are more apparent. With larger games, not only can it be harder for players to detect how all of their choices mattered, but it’s harder for developers to take everything into account. With Dishonored spanning just about 8 hours, every step, every chapter, is refined and polished in such a way that nothing feels overlooked. With the plot being shorter and smaller in scale, any one decision means more, especially when dealing with taking the lives of political figures.
- Any route makes sense for Corvo, the protagonist. He is the trusted bodyguard of the empress and a very skilled man, who just got betrayed and branded a murderer: he has every right to react with anger, seeking vengeance. However, he is working for peace, working to restore what has been lost, and sparing lives could easily be his style. Choices don’t feel out of place or out of character for the lore.
- You are only one person in the plot. Admirals, regents, religious leaders, and the empress’s daughter – the heir to the throne – are all involved. You have an effect on things, of course, but you aren’t the sole driver of how things turn out in the end. I personally really, really like this.
I could go on and on about how tasty this game is and how wonderfully crafted the blending of choice, game play, and plot is. I would love to see more games focus on the smaller scale and really polish up their worlds as opposed to trying to make me the super epic hero who decides the fate of the universe. I like being the epic hero but only if the developer has the time to pull it off (Dragon Age II, I’m looking at you). That said, Dishonored is delicious.
Dishonored was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda. For this post, I played about 10 hours, enough to complete the game once and play the first two missions again. I purchased a copy of this game for myself on the PlayStation 3.
This post was originally written and published by me on a former site on January 3, 2013.