By Alec Meer on October 8th, 2012 at 7:00 pm.
There’s going to be a backlash against Dishonored. It can’t be helped: when a game makes big promises, a justice squad will quickly arise to loudly demand that it accounts for not meeting them to the very letter, and in this case I suspect there’s an additional flock of people who have been led by marketing to expect an all-out action game. I can predict, even sympathise with, some of the complaints, others I suspect will be absolutely mystifying to me. It’s the finest hour in what we might loosely but innacurately term ‘blockbuster shooters’ in years – I’d feel petulant were I to demand it give me even more. But there is one complaint that may reach a crescendo in short order, and that is the issue of length. For me, Dishonored was a deliciously long game, clocking in at about 25 hours even without the total replay I intend on having very soon. For someone else – someone who has a lot of numbers in the name they use when playing Halo 4, say – it will be insultingly short. It may not even make a double figures quantity of hours. That’s not the game’s fault, it’s theirs (or, perhaps, the fault of the marketeers who sold the game as an action opus). They gobbled the onion up whole, too greedy or too lazy or too accustomed to inflexible fare to peel apart its layers.
When you start a mission in Dishonored, your main objective/target will, if you not deliberately deactivated it on option, appear on the HUD as an ever-present marker. In most cases, the objective will be under 300 metres from your position (though will require a transition from an outdoor space to an indoor one). You can take out your gun, your crossbow, your grenades, your sword, your razor mines, perhaps your windblast power if you’ve been minded to acquire it, and you can run towards that marker.
You will have to do some jumping, you will probably have to do some fighting, and you’ll almost inevitably need to do some saving and reloading, but with a bit of skill and a bit of luck you will make it to that marker in a matter of minutes. This is certainly the case if you play on Normal, though expect a need for greater caution and precision on Hard. I have tried it myself on a couple of missions, and lo, it can indeed be brief.
If that is your Dishonored, your Dishonored will last but a handful of hours. You will have followed a cursor and you will have shot some men, and you will perhaps be questioning why there was so very little of it. Dishonored does contain that game, but Dishonored is not that game.
My Dishonored was largely spent in a crouch, in the shadows, killing no-one, collecting everything. That is not the necessary way to play it to get more out of it, but it’s certainly one way to do so. Dishonored’s levels always appear, at a quick glance, as straight, albeit lavish, runs across short distances with perhaps a couple of dozen enemies to contend with. You can do this, if your skill at shooters so allows, but by God you’re denying yourself so much.
Power upgrades, vignettes that flesh out this broken world, capsule puzzles and magnificent sights are hidden away to the sides and most of all under the skin of the map. Events and choices with some pretty huge repercussions on not just plot, but the contents and nature of later levels. What looks, superficially, like a small area is dense with layers, both of possibilities but also architecturally – maze-like buildings with satisfyingly inconvenient access points and hidden rooms, tragic notes from plague victims, books from lost authors, references to the unseen monsters which pull at destiny’s strings, and even requests for lengthy assistance from the occasional damned survivor. Things that change matters, things that flesh out a world that largely avoids open exposition, but also things to be seen for the simple joy of seeing.
Ignore the objective marker. Turn it off, ideally, but if you must have it on because otherwise you feel too unfocused, don’t even look towards it until you’ll teased open all the layers, scoured every corner whether for loot, for context, or for spectacle. Creeping around the back entrance to an enemy-occupied townhouse, I stumbled across a narrow, flooded street stretching off into the distance. Dunwall’s metal-plated walls towered at either side, suggesting something massive, fortified, impregnable. In the water below floated rubble, bodies, misery, but the light played across one iron face of this artificial valley in a sharp white beam, bleaching out the dirt and death, turning this bleak scene of ruin and oppression into one of stark, unblemished beauty. It became a hint of the gleaming metal-Victorian metropolis Dunwall once was on the way to becoming, before the plague, before the death of its beloved ruler, before man’s awful hunger for power laid it so low.
It wasn’t a scene to do anything with, or in. But it was clearly hand-crafted, put there by someone proud of it, who wanted to describe Dunwall in a single scene. Had I run from A to B, I would never have seen it – never even have known it was there. It was put there for people like me, who will play the game not to complete the objectives, not to get the end and kill anything that moved, but to explore for the simple, pretention-free pleasure of exploring.
I want, with perhaps unhealthy compulsion, to see everything that’s there, everything that’s been made for me. It’s not just that I want to find all the Runes, Bonecharms, paintings, side quests and money (I do though – oh, I really do. Even though, as a non-lethal player, most of the things I can buy with this loot are of no use to me), it’s that I want to know that I have not missed anything. It agitates to me to even suspect some stone was left unturned. If the level results screen shows I’ve missed something, it burns me. This is nothing to do with kleptomania or achievement-hunting, and everything to do with the knowledge that something was created and I didn’t get to see it. I don’t know why it matters so much, but I know that Dishonored is a game designed to meet this strange, silent, selfish need.
In almost any game, should I encounter a hallway with one staircase going up, towards my target, and another going down, towards nothing obvious at all, I will go down. In the vast majority of shooters – and I lump Dishonored into that category even though I shot no-one in it, bar the occasional emergency stun dart – that stairway will end abruptly, in a fallen bookcase, a crumbling sofa, a pile of bricks or a mysteriously damage- and jump-resistant Closed For Maintenance sign. In Dishonored, it goes somewhere. An alternate route to your objective, perhaps. A path to a different objective. A letter or character who will reveal how to neutralise your assassination target non-lethally. A Rune, a nest of maddened plague victims, a key that won’t serve a purpose until the next level, or just a new perspective on part of this infected, drowned, proud, painterly world.
So fearful of missing anything was I that I felt compelled to knock out or stun-dart every guard I saw, purely to ensure I could then explore unfettered. Even once everyone was sleeping their bruised-necked sleep, I would creep and Blink about the place, possessing rats and fish, combing every corner. The maps felt palatial to me. The idea that that they contained just 200 metres or so of space ludicrous. Because they didn’t. They contained kilomotres of it, folded in on itself, braided, shielded, but all there to unravel for those willing to do so.
If you want to rush around with a gun, shooting anything that moves, don’t buy Dishonored. It has put those things in there for you, and it offers slick, brutal, varied permutations on how to use them, but they are not its all. If you’re looking for 10+ hours of shooting men, or even stabbing men, you are well-served already and forever by games that do that, do it well, and do it for a long time. You and those like you are the victor of the great games race, and you have the spoils, many times over.
So let us have Dishonored. Let us have this one expensive, luxurious game that only truly works, only sings a glorious tune, only becomes a 20+ hour game if met by those who treat it in the spirit with which it is offered. Don’t tell us it’s too short and too slight just because you don’t find combing through its many layers, peeling back every last millimetre of artfully subdued skin, of interest. Because you want to rush to the conclusion, and you don’t believe anything that doesn’t explicitly inform reaching that conclusion is worthwhile.
As for me, I ignore the objectives. I wait, I watch, I wonder. Eventually, with a working knowledge of guard movement patterns, I run a careful knife across the surface, make myself a way in to what’s underneath. I start peeling and that deceptively short 200 metre sprint sprays open, exploding into a sprawling, handmade world of navigational puzzles, short stories, unspoken character studies and bespoke beauty spots. Dishonored’s Corvo has bullets, blades, bolts and black magic to call upon, but it’s Blink that is the game’s bedrock. The power that lets you reach more places, because, underneath all the distorted Victoriana stylings, that showy skull mask and the artful violence, Dishonored is a game about going places. And there’s no hurry.