The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 10

By RPS on December 10th, 2013 at 10:01 am.

No, for heaven’s sake, you can’t just walk straight through the door – they’ll see you. Come, over here, there is another way, for those who know how to reach it.

It’s Dishonored‘s story DLC: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches!

Adam: I wasn’t sure that I’d ever return to Dishonored. My first playthrough was a disastrous attempt to traverse Dunwall as peacefully as possible. I resolved, right at the start of the game, that I’d live with the consequences of every mistake, only reloading on death. Even in a game, death is the one mistake it’s impossible to live with.

The bodies were already piling up by the time I reached The Golden Cat. A few panicked pursuits had put my back against the wall and forced me to react with a flashing blade and a smoking gun. On other occasions, an overheard snippet of conversation or heartfelt insight into a guard’s inner life had made executing the ne’er do well a pleasure.

(As a sidenote, I’ve never understood the desire to complete a game without killing when, more often than not, a lot of enemies in games deserve a swift dose of fatal justice. If I discover that the gang whose den I’m infiltrating said unrepeatable things about my mum, I’ll gladly kill the lot. I tend to inhabit my role in the narrative, I suppose, rather than striving for meta-achievements of any sort.)

When I reached The Golden Cat, the scene became almost comically brutal. The first time a guard spotted me, I managed to jump out of a window, landing in the river below. I dragged myself to shore, stinking of fishguts, my clothes heavy with the slickness of the oily water, and as I worked my way back inside, I could hear the hunt in progress.

The next time they spotted me, I killed two and was in the process of heaving the bodies out of the window and into the same stretch of river when I was interrupted. I dropped the corpse that was in my arms and followed it, splashing into the muck again with a sigh.

By the time I’d finished the level, I couldn’t return to the façade of the silent assassin. I was a window-hopping catastrophe, caked in mud and blood, a nightmare to those who stood in my way but a rather farcical figure to those watching from afar.

And when I finished the game, inept but pleased, I thought that my Dunwall story was complete.

A few months later, the first piece of story DLC arrived. Rather than playing it straight away, I decided to replay the base game first. It was an entirely different experience. I stuck to my save and reload policies, but I was patient and calm, managing to breeze through The Golden Cat this time around. Knowing the layouts helped, of course, but I internalised that knowledge. Why wouldn’t Corvo know at least some of these things?

Over time, Dishonored has grown in my mind, like a place that I once visited and occasionally miss as if it were home. With Daud’s story, it became larger still and seeing Dunwall from a new perspective changes my approach to its architectural problems and opportunities significantly. The Knife of Dunwall peeled back the flesh of the city and showed some of the blubber and machinery belief, and The Brigmore Witches provided a taste of more distant horizons, hinted at so beautifully throughout every level in the game.

The genius of Dishonored is two-fold. It offers segregated areas of a world, designed to contain the player but not to control. Confidently providing powers that would swiftly break lesser urban design, it is made up of superb stages and very little in the way of overt direction. It’s a game for those who love to improvise as much as those who love to perfect a plan. The DLC, taken as a whole, is an extension of those philosophies.

But the real reason that Dishonored has remained one of my favourite games through this year as well as the last is the second part of its genius – throughout Corvo’s story we were teased with words and images about the world outside the city walls. The great ships themselves seemed as distant as spacecraft would, glimpsed between the clouds, to a beggar in the streets below. For all of its promise of connections to distant places – seen in books, maps and the names of exotic foods – Dunwall was also a prison.

The DLC allows the gates of the prison to creak open, just a little, tantalising with the notion of a whole world as richly realised as Dunwall. It’s an intoxicating dream.

Alec: Focusing on the dirtiness rather than destiny of Dunwall simply makes more sense. It justifies the design of the city, that striking blend of beauty and blight, and it makes convincingly roleplaying within it more effective – Corvo, despite options on how and who he neutralised, was necessarily Hero, shining in a way that the city did not, whereas Daud’s hard-bitten magic gangster is a more natural fit.

Daud’s up to his teleporting neck in Dunwall’s filth, and despite the escalating stakes and threat he’s up against the Dishonored DLC somehow feels like a slice of Dunwall life, with all its feuds and threats and corruption and betrayals and gangs and industry, rather than the main game’s pursuit of overly neat, oddly subdued revolution. While I felt uncomfortable ever resorting to violence in Corvo’s tale, as Daud there’s much more of an anything goes sense; he’s Clint Eastwood in Dishonored, steeped in alluded-to regrets, hating what he does but the best there is at what he does, and as such determined to get this one last job done no matter the cost.

For all that though, I think a goodly part of the surprising appeal of the Dishonored DLC is that I/we came to it once we knew what Dishonored was, once our monocles had been thoroughly cleaned of coagulating hype-juice and we were free to enjoy what Arkane’s stealth’n’teleportation game did as opposed to what it didn’t. Thoughts of Thief and BioShock and Deus Ex, and all we felt entitled to from such apparent bloodlines, were gone, and there was only Dunwall now.

Dunwall with its towering walls and disease and whale slaughterhouses and unwatched rooftops, its super-powered movement and its skulking in gutters, its grey and gold and its brutality and subtlety. It is a truly great game place, and one that is better left unredeemed, unsaved by heroism and revolution: it must remain a magnificent, cruel prison fortress bounded either side by an underworld and an arrogant elite, for that is where the greatest and most evocative adventures lie.

Jim: One of the reasons this is on the advent list is, well, in some ways it’s better than the original game. Sure, it’s not as large or as cogent, and you don’t get that bigger picture, but I’d argue that the protagonist is more interesting, and that he makes more sense for the actions you perform. Perhaps this wouldn’t have worked if Daud hadn’t already been framed as the trouble super-assassin in the original game, but playing as him in these DLC was one of the most satisfying and believable experiences of the year. Hell, perhaps it’s just because this DLC articulates my unspoken desire to be a noir-voiced antihero with teleporting minions and a secret base, but I found myself completely engrossed, and – unusually in these busy times – I returned to it after completion.

I suppose none of this should be all that surprising: game studios are often best at making their game after they’ve finished making it, because they’ve had all that practice. That seems in stark evidence here, because the level design is nuanced and sprawling. Details are strewn about with the meticulous hand of level design gods, and its brings an even broader palette of life and death to the streets of Dunwall. There are a few scenes here that made me immediately task switch out to show people screenshots, or write articles on RPS. These are inspiring add ons to a great game, and they makes me want to enthuse, to tell people about my experiences. Only the very best pieces of game design do that.

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25 Comments »

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  1. Ansob says:

    The Daud DLCs were really good, but the way Dishonored’s super-naff morality system interacted with a plot about being a man who kills for a living was even sillier than it was in the main plot.

    Although I think they realised how daft the end to Knife of Dunwall was, because Brigmore Witches largely doesn’t have this problem. With any luck, they’ll get rid of the stupid black-and-white morality system in the sequel and replace it with something more nuanced.

    [SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS]

    The problem is specifically that the game decides whether you get the good or bad ending based on whether you have low or high chaos, and nothing else.

    Since the end of Knife of Dunwall involves your lieutenant betraying you in a bid for control of your actual gang of actual assassins, having her respect you enough to admit it and surrender when you’ve gone out of your way not to do your bloody job is incredibly stupid.

    Knife of Dunwall should have absolutely taken the opportunity to revise how the chaos system worked, or at least introduced tracking what you did to targets independently from chaos level, since murdering just the target isn’t enough to go above low chaos. What should’ve happened is that Billy fights you unless you’re low chaos and killed only the people you were paid to kill (small margin of allowance for random guards, of course).

    If you’re low chaos, you’ve gone soft and aren’t fit to lead the Whalers; if you’re high chaos, you’re clearly slipping and aren’t fit to lead the Whalers. It’s only if you did your job properly, minimising casualties except for the people whom you were supposed to kill as part of your actual job, that it makes sense for Billy to go “it turns out I was wrong and you are the best person to lead the Whalers.”

    [SPOILERS OVER SPOILERS OVER SPOILERS OVER SPOILERS OVER SPOILERS OVER]

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      Snidesworth says:

      Dishonored’s Chaos system is really weird. In theory it’s supposed to shape the world according to how you interact with it; Dunwall becomes a more desperate place at High Chaos, and the people that inhabit it become nastier too. It sets the tone. The KoD endings make sense in that context, but they’re utterly mad if you look at it another way. The disposition of that character is indirectly influenced by your actions, but it’s not because they’ve been judging Daud. It’s because of that weird tone-shifting mechanic.

      For the inevitable sequel they could very well keep the Chaos system, but when it comes to characters interacting with the protagonist they NEED to react directly to what the player did, not their current Chaos rating.

      • Ansob says:

        This is the problem: by having everything react to your chaos score and having low chaos = good, high chaos = bad, it becomes a very silly, simplistic morality system instead of just measuring the chaos your actions are causing. For the sequel, it needs to be more nuanced, and the game definitely needs to take into account the morality of individual acts rather than assuming low chaos is good.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      The Chaos system isn’t tracking your morality so much as your restraint and efficiency. Being sloppy, loud and noisy is, for Daud, unprofessional.

      Billie Lurk betrays you because she feels you have lost your edge after killing the Empress, showing her that not only can you still get to your targets efficiently and professionally, but that you don’t need to kill them to get what you need shows her that whatever chsnges you’ve undergone you are still just a capable as you ever

      I’m not sure I’d consider killing Rothwild and Timsh as contracts you fail to fulfil, because gaining information on Delilah is your aim.

      You are right though that The Brigmore Witches sidesteps any potential confusion with the Chaos system; another reason I feel it’s the better of the two.

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    Mungrul says:

    Dishonored’s a game I just keep going back too. Indeed, after a prolonged gaming funk that I just can’t seem to break, I ended up reinstalling it again last night because it’s one of my favourite gaming worlds to exist in.

    And this DLC is one of the best I’ve played; I won’t say it’s necessarily better than the main game, rather an excellent additional story in the same universe.

    What continues to astonish me is the quality of the voice talent they got for the game, and Michael Madsen’s turn as Daud is no exception. It’s a lived in voice, full of character, and superbly directed. I’d love to read interviews with some of the actors from the game, as it’s such a change from their usual Hollywood fare.

  3. Laurentius says:

    Actually I’ve finished Dishonored and both DLCs about two months ago and it’s my contender for a big game of a 2013. I bouned back of it a couple of times, was going settle ofr “stealth is not my forte” but i gave it another try and bingo had great time. Story and characters are weak, but blinking through rooftops is ace. I still remember this level when you are subdueing Sokolov, that i managed without being seen and only two kills (actualy i knock guars down but thrown them into river …). Game’s also suffering from console limitations, not enough interactivity, levels are tiny and mostly dead, disappaering bodies etc.

  4. eQuality_Ninja says:

    Dishonoured: F*** Yeah

    I’m a pacifist by nature (and in real life!), so this game forcing me to confront the horrors of a whaling factory was something completely new. I was surprised with myself when I left its inhabitants all dead dead dead after hearing the heart-wrenching wails of that whale. I didn’t reload that level to get any ninja badge (the norm for me in all of Dishonoured’s other levels). However, I’m really glad I got to experience it – especially seeing how I reacted to it.

    On another level, maybe me being from Wales might have something to do with it as well…

    • Bedeage says:

      The usual activist hypocrisy.

      • eQuality_Ninja says:

        Care to actually make a point?

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          VelvetFistIronGlove says:

          As I understand it, they were making a snide remark about how you’re unhappy with the slaughter of a whale, and yet happily slaughter all the people.

          • eQuality_Ninja says:

            Snide is indeed the adjective.

            If they had cared to actually read my post, they might also have noticed that the ‘hypocrisy’ was not entirely lost on me. Yet I’m not sure where the absolute comparison comes in here – that whale was defenceless and suffering. The people around it were not – and were in fact participating in the whole sordid affair.

            What was particularly fascinating to me was how determined I was to shut the entire operation down – and that too immediately. My reaction to that scenario was what I found most striking about this DLC – I never felt anywhere near as compelled to do anything violent in any other Dishonoured level (main game or DLC), and for me that is why this game shone. It made me feel something new, and that’s what my favourite games all have in common.

            The Walking Dead comes closest to this for making me feel that I would do anything to protect such innocence. And incidentally Tomb Raider, when Lara has had enough of being pushed around and starts to push back.

  5. Teovald says:

    As a sidenote, I’ve never understood the desire to complete a game without killing when, more often than not, a lot of enemies in games deserve a swift dose of fatal justice
    I killed only one ennemy in the entire game, a magical character that stood too close to an exploding boiler. I first thought it was scripted and moved on, only to return later and realize that it was just a glitch.
    I used quick save load generously, in particular when a difficult situation made we want to make a little carnage to calm my nerves. Other than that, upon starting my escape, I tried the different options, including slithing the throat of the first guard I saw. However, I could not help but feel that it was not very satisfying, after all it is just a guy doing a shitty job, so I opted to reload and knock him out instead.
    Continuing from that, there were very few ennemies that really felt that they were something else that passers-by and the presence of a little girl that already saw too many deaths was another motivation to do not kill.
    Finally, the merciful choices at the end of assassination missions was always very ambiguous, in many cases letting the target live felt like the cruel option and the silent main protagonist (which for once worked) only accentuates that ambiguity.

  6. airtekh says:

    I played both DLCs back-to-back in the Summer, and they were brilliant. Easily amongst the best things I’ve played this year.

    Not often you can say that about DLC.

  7. Emeraude says:

    As a sidenote, I’ve never understood the desire to complete a game without killing when, more often than not, a lot of enemies in games deserve a swift dose of fatal justice.

    I think it partly comes from people loving system-based games, wanting them to offer the *possibility* to kill no one – or everyone – if so wanted turning it into a quasi-fetishistic demand that got separated from the reason it was wanted for in the first place.

    Killing no one (or again, everyone) was a thing we used to do just to see if it was possible, if the game allowed for it. Until doing it became its own end.

    Of course, the influence of a game like Thief cannot be overstated.

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      I would add to your excellent points that it still has that novelty value – very few games of this AAA calibre allow (and even reward) such a play-style. What came closest for me was Deus Ex Hum Rev, and after the infamous boss battles, this game was almost cathartic.

      Also, I found the merciful path trickier – the levels become massive puzzles for the budding ghost (especially in the generously vertical DLC levels).

      It is just supremely satisfying (for me) to not engage anyone, and slipping in and out completely unnoticed – especially when you know that much of the game was designed with violence in mind, it’s really cool not having to resort to it. I guess the whole brains over brawn thing.

      • Tacroy says:

        That’s definitely something Dishonored did a lot better than DX:HR – in Deus Ex, the game mechanics forced you to engage with almost every enemy you came across, because XP was directly tied to combat. Basically, an optimally-played Jensen is a knockout-happy psychopath who inflicts severe trauma because he likes the way it feels.

        In Dishonored, there’s no direct mechanical benefit to engaging with guards; the benefits are purely tactical. This changes the gameplay a lot – instead of having to go back and take out every single guard in a courtyard for XP’s sake, you can just climb up a window and be done with it.

        • KenTWOu says:

          That’s definitely something Dishonored did a lot better than DX:HR – in Deus Ex, the game mechanics forced you to engage with almost every enemy you came across…

          Who cares? eQuality_Ninja already chose not to engage every enemy. And DX:HR is slightly more challenging using such play style, because you don’t have forced Blink ability and your mobility is limited, while AI is smarter.

  8. plugmonkey says:

    “I tend to inhabit my role in the narrative, I suppose, rather than striving for meta-achievements of any sort.”

    I do the same!

    Personally, I always think the fun is in deciding the tipping point. If you play with a predetermined resolution to always do one thing or the other, then you are essentially removing the feature from the game. Usually to it’s detriment, as those decisions are the real role-playing, not getting the achievements or min/maxing your powers.

  9. cookieheadjenkins says:

    Hi Alec, did you mean Eastwood in Unforgiven (not Dishonored)? Love that film.

  10. sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

    Playing Dishonored for the first time (not dlc) and I’m not sure if I’m enjoying it or not. Chiefly because:
    1) I’m doing ghost. Which means 70% of all the abilities are useless, and everything just blink, possess, choke-and-hide which gets repetitively quickly
    2) My play style for all games is to investigate every nook and cranny. In Dishonored this means just finding lots of routes which lead to the same place.

    • Emeraude says:

      Yeah, two of the problems I have with the game: not enough verbs allocated for players who want to avoid killing as much as possible and the overall complete lack of resistance.

      It’s a weird game, in which you play basically play an unstoppable avatar of Retribution. If you get past that though, it does worthwhile have things to offer

      I think mostly the game fails because it tries to follow a narrow path between auteur oeuvre and mass market product and never exactly get either quite right. It has a point, is thoroughly designed around it, but cannot do without the fact it is also meant to be entertainment.

    • gganate says:

      I think these games work better when you don’t reload after you mess up. Even if you’re trying to be stealthy, don’t reload if you’re spotted or if you have to kill someone. Try a ghost playthrough later.

    • Junkenstein says:

      So stop trying to ghost everything. You’ve seemingly come to the correct conclusion that the game would be more fun if you started using all the toys it gives you, so why not have some fun?

      • sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

        That would make sense. But then I wouldn’t get the shiny achievement as I rarely ever play a game more than once (too many games, not enough time).
        Also if I did start killing people and running round screaming (in the game) it’d feel, I dunno, wrong somehow, and therefore not fun. Not sure how that makes sense.

        • Aradalf says:

          Only kill people you must kill, and don’t reload just because you mess up. That’s how to not make a game painful for yourself 101.