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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 10

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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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