By Alec Meer on July 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm.
I am a creature of mercy. No, no, ignore any apparent evidence to the contrary – I do not seek to take life, even virtual life, unless absolutely necessary. So it was that, when my time finally came to play a level of Arkane’s upcoming Dishonored, I was resolute in my intention to spill not even a drop of blood, innocent or otherwise. But would such quasi-pacifism even be possible in a game nominally billed as an assassination sim? I stole into the shadows to find out. If you are mad you might decide to think that some of this constitutes spoilers. It doesn’t, but if you are mad don’t read on.
Before treading the streets of the plague-stricken, government-oppressed, alternate-Victoriana city of Dunwall, I snuck up on Jim, dragged him to the roof of Bath bus station and dangled him over the edge, demanding he tell me what he had and hadn’t done in his own recent playthrough. Thus armed with the knowledge that he had opted for a street-level assault in his attempt to abduct sinister state scientist Anton Sokolov, I opted to creep, teleport and stun-dart across the rooftops. Ideally, I would never be so much as seen by another living soul, let alone make eye contact – let alone blade contact.
The Blink rune quickly proved to be most powerful tool in my arsenal. A mid-range teleportation power, it’s my immediate way out of these gloomy, dank, patrolled streets and up to the relative freedom and safety of the rooftops. No guards there, not on this level at least, but it’s not a straight run to my target – Sokolov lurks inside what looks for all the world like a giant, elevated greenhouse wearing battle armour, with a ring of guards, forcefields and alarms around its entrances.
To run/jump/Blink directly to this building would also be to deny myself many of this level’s other entertainments. Blink entails a subtle but important shift in how I think about videogame navigation. Initially, I treat it as simply a way to teleport across short distances, to reach different altitudes and otherwise out of reach ledges and to instantly escape danger. A shortcut, essentially. What it also does, and something I don’t realise without prompting from a passing Bethesda rep, is allow access to whole new areas of the map.
I’ve become so accustomed, over the years, of seeing a locked door or an indestructible fence/pile of rubble/old sofa blocking my path to a space I can see that here too I give such things a cursory glance then run on past. I’m inside a semi-ruined, multi-level apartment building, making my way up the stairs to the roofs, and on the right of me is the entrance to a side room, blocked by fallen furniture. My knife has no effect on it. I continue upwards.
Wait. Go back. OK, so I can’t walk through, jump over or smash that barrier, but there is a big enough gap that I can at least see the space on the other side of it. Blink. And I’m in. Here be secrets. Assorted vials for health and mana, some cash, and best of all a Bone Charm – a minor buff I can equip. In this case, it increases the number of white rats I encounter, which allow for longer psychic possession times than the standard rodents. Thank you, Blink. My progress through the level is now slowed dramatically, as I’m constantly scouring my surroundings for possible secret spaces.
Some things I find for myself, others I again need pointing out to me, as this game – or at least this level; time will tell – is not in the habit of making all its contents apparent. If every level has this many routes and secrets, it is exceptionally unlikely that I will find the majority of it in a single playthrough. While Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a natural if not entirely appropriate comparison, tends to swiftly and evidently splinter into blatant sneak route/violence route/hack route options, I found Dishonored was much more about figuring it out as I went along, assembling a quietly chaotic route through the level that likely encompassed only a fraction of it.
Once my goal was achieved – Sokolov found, reached, abducted and successfully spirited away- I remained as yet unbest by cutscene or loading screen, free to head back into the fray, to explore and to hunt, and to once again risk discovery and violence at the hands of the guards and the patrolling Tallboy armoured stilt-walker.
I saw so much I’d missed on my first pass – the body tucked behind a chimney, with a note describing a hidden treasure room accessed by performing a certain action in a nearby building a certain number of times, the deactivated elevator that could be fixed by creating a certain object, the alarm wired to the front door I’d avoided, the dangling chain that acted as a makeshift ropeladder to a new plateau, the clusters of rats and fish here and there which would allow me access to new, smaller paths, the civilian prisoners trapped behind a wall of light, who could offer me a reward – or a sacrificial distraction, …
My own path into Sokolov’s lair was, technically speaking, ghosting it, though I did fluff it a couple of times. No-one died, including myself, but a poorly-planned cheeky stun dart on my part – the first one I’d fired – resulted in the now sleeping guard’s chum spying his unconscious form in the street before I could drag it into hiding. He summoned allies, and they swarmed towards me with bullets and knives. Unwilling to fight and once again forgetting the curious, vital power of Blink, I simply fled down the nearest street. Fell. Landed in the river. Guards shouting from above. Swam, piranhas snapping at my heels. The only way out was towards the guards. Unless… Yes, the huge wheel of a water mill yawned ahead of me, turning at speed. Thinking on my soggy feet, I activated Slow Time for the first time, affording me the opportunity to Blink onto one of the wheel’s blades. It turned, turned, turned – depositing me safely by a canal side underneath Sokolov’s fortress. I was in, by complete accident, and the guards didn’t even know it. I’m later shown several other, equally tricsky routes in I could have used – this was but one of them.
A steady diet of Blinking, rat-possession and desperate running got me through several floors unscathed, though I did have to spend an awful lot of time hiding on top of a big drainpipe. I managed to choke – non-fatally – one passing guard and steal a doorkey, but primarily Blink was the only key I needed. Before too long, I was up high again, with only a door standing between me and the Rasputin-esque Sokolov.
There’s something about the calm in here, the light that beams through the slatted metal walls, and how Sokolov does not look like a man who’s ever thrown a punch, that puts me at ease. I may not be welcome here, but I know there’s no immediate threat. So, from my position crouched behind a wall, having been pilfering health vials and listening in to Sokolov’s conversation with a woman Sokolov seems to be conducting dark experiments on against her will, I stand up. His cruel, bearded face turns to meet mine. He knows who I am. He knows why I’m here. He claims I’ve been duped by Piero, his great rival in the search for a plague cure. If I do kidnap Sokolov, I might be hurting the city. Who’s telling the truth? Who knows? I have no option of verbal response, only action – leave alone, or leave with him, as my prisoner. I think upon it for a moment – he’s in no hurry, at least.
I look at the caged woman behind him, I look at his cold eyes and snarling mouth, and I decide I plain don’t like or trust him, even if for all I know his claims are true. My hands go to his throat. I turn to leave, his unconscious body thrown over my shoulder. Then I remember the woman. A key looted from Sokolov sets her free – she thanks me, and sits in the corner shaking. Videogame logic dictates she can’t make her escape until I’ve completed this level – her story will continue in the invisible space between maps, and I am told I will hear something of her fate at a later date. Had I not saved her, that too would have had an effect on the city and its response to me. I’ve played on this level, so cannot say who important these effects will prove to be, but I am pleased to think that my actions are not simply filling a progress bar or accruing Achievements.
I’m on my way to the exit, a boat waiting by one of the canals that runs under the city, with Sokolov still on my shoulder, when I once again fail to exercise due caution before a Blink. The Tallboy, those stilt-mounted armoured guards we’ve seen in so many screenshots and videos, catches me square in his gaze, and in his sights. Desperation once more ensues as I Blink from roof to ground to bridge to waterside, only realising in the nick of time that just because I can swim doesn’t mean the passed-out scientist I’m carrying can. One more Blink and I’m at the boat. I hand Sokolov to the boatman – who the Tallboy seems mysteriously uninterested in, but opt not to leave just yet. There are still civilian prisoners out there – innocents. What’s the use of not taking life if I’m not equally determined to save life?
Stun darts don’t work on the Tallboy. Possession doesn’t throw him out of his stilts, though it does make him pause to throw up when I exit him, so all I can do is avoid him, Blinking and sprinting and crouching back towards the area I started this mission in. I find the Wall of Light that imprisons the civilians, through which guards may pass but I may not. Three guards patrol the area, and attempting to Blink straight through the Wall of Light would cost me my life. I’m going to have to engage.
To the roofs! Or, more specifically, what was once the second floor of a building but is now technically a roof as a result on some unknown devastation. Crouched – I’ve been crouched throughout this adventure, really – I aim my crossbow through an empty windowframe and let loose a stun dart at a guard in the street. As he slumps to the floor, one of his allies runs over and looks towards me. I fire again. As he slumps to the floor, his other ally runs over and looks towards me. I fire again. The little pile of snoozing bodies is comical, but it buys me the time I need to deactivate the wall of light and release the grateful prisoners. One of them’s telling how to access another secret I hear the Tallboy stomping towards its fallen comrades and flee. I’ll never know that secret, but at least the civilians have their lives, and so do I. A moral victory, even if not an otherwise beneficial one.
Everyone on this level has their lives, in fact. Apparently from two plague victims I found in a basement, but they were long dead before I ever got there. Though I sure do regret summoning a swarm of rats and watching them devour the putrid corpses, right down to the bones. I lost my cool there, just for a moment.
Back to the boat, this time being careful to avoid the Tallboy. Today, there were no deaths, no boss fights, no forced action. Today there were only my choices, and my victory. Today, I am a good man.
If the same can be true of every level, Dishonored is absolutely the game I’ve been hoping it will be.
Important disclaimer: I was not quite as cool as I made this sound. I died twice and had to run and hide thrice. I count it as a successful ghosting nonetheless, purely by dint of not knowing how the systems and controls worked from the outset. And because I don’t like to admit my own ineptitude.