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The Assassin's Guide To The City: Dishonored 2

How to read a city

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During one decade in the late eighteenth century, one gang was reportedly responsible for around 80% of bank robberies in America. That gang was led by George Leonidas Leslie, an architect and a criminal genius. He utilised his knowledge of buildings and their secret ways to break them down piece by piece, building scale models of targets, and replicas of their safes and vaults, planning for years. Like many master burglars, he could look at an exterior and understand the interior it hid.

Designing a game like Dishonored 2 [official site] requires some of those same skills.

I’ve been reading about Leonidas Leslie recently. He’s one of the main subjects in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, a new book written by Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDGBLOG, one of my favourite websites. In the book, Manaugh explains how a knowledge of architecture can inform and facilitate burglary, describing buildings as legible things that a keen eye and educated mind can pick apart and unlock.

I couldn’t turn a page without thinking two things: 1) I really really really want a new Thief game 2) I wonder if there’s a copy of this book on a desk somewhere at Arkane.

Speaking at E3, the studio’s co-founder Harvey Smith was clear about the work that goes into building the spaces within Dishonored and its sequel. I hear people say things like “the city is a character in and of itself” often enough, but Smith goes much further than that. He wants the city to be a city, not a character, with all of the messiness, utility and confusions of historical accumulation that a real city might have.

The first game’s setting, Dunwall, is astonishingly well-realised. It takes notes from historical London as well as the hallucinatory vision of the same in Dickens and his contemporaries, but it has flourishes that make it more than a homage or recreation.

Like many great (or once great) cities, Dunwall has a river as its focal point. Rather than spreading out from the water as it has grown, however, it seems to have hugged the banks tightly, its economy and technology reliant on the trade in whales that allows for many of the game’s most striking images. Produce might arrive from far and wide – just look at the names of the foodstuffs you find and their points of origin – but Dunwall is inward-looking.

Whether its the blubber and blood of the abattoir or the serenely surreal corpses that almost dwarf the barges that carry them downriver, the whales are at the heart of Dunwall. They cast shadows and, through the oil canisters that power so much of the machinery, they produce light. The rats might be devouring Dunwall, piece by piece and person by person, but the city was built on whalemeat. It’s in the foundations.

I wrote about some of the killy-stabby-time-twisty reasons to be excited about Dishonored 2 but I’m much more excited about having a new city to explore than I am about having new targets to kill. Though it begins in Dunwall, the bulk of Dishonored 2 takes place in Karnaca, a coastal city that spills down toward the shoreline, layers of rooftops and gardens carpeting the hills. Even the brief views of street action that we’ve seen show that, structurally, it’s very different to Dunwall, the verticality of the buildings now reflected by the shape of the city itself. It’s the finer details of the buildings I’m looking forward to exploring though.

In his book, Manaugh studies individual buildings from the perspective of infiltrators, showing how an ability to perform a close-reading of the environment and architecture is a key tool for burglars. When discussing Dishonored 2, Smith sounds like he is having his team do something very similar. Every aspect of a level, he says, must have function and history. A light or a drainpipe or a vent shouldn’t be placed because it is convenient for the player or the AI, but because there is an architectural or cultural reason for their inclusion.

One moment that I’ll always remember from my first playthrough of Dishonored is relevant here. I was making my way through The Golden Cat, a brothel with various entrances at street level and above. Rather than aiming to ensure a pacifist or perfect stealth playthrough, I’d decided to live with the consequences of my actions, whether planned, reactive or accidental.

The Golden Cat was thick with corpses of my own making.

With three guards pursuing, I dashed across a room and dived out of a window, not sure where I’d land or whether I’d be tumbling from a frying pan into a fire. To my surprise, I was safe. To my greater surprise, I recognised the place where I’d emerged, right back near the beginning of the level. The fact that I was here, at the beginning, just as I thought things were about to end was the moment I realised how cleverly interconnected all of those entrances and exits are. Being able to leave the scene of the (many) crimes and see guards searching from my new vantage point outside was fantastic, and all of those rooms and corridors I’d crept through, sneaking from one silent takedown to another, suddenly seemed like opportunities rather than traps.

Partly because of the tools and powers that Corvo has at his disposal, Dishonored feels more like a sinister superhero simulator than a recreation of the kind of anxiety trip that comes from the vulnerability and fear of Thief. It’s not just the player character’s abilities that make Arkane’s game so empowering though, it’s the construction of the levels. Thief is often claustrophobic, hammering home the fact that getting out might be even more difficult than getting in. Dishonored lets you barrel and punch through the swiss cheese of the levels as you construct a model of them in your mind.

If Dishonored 2 is able to expand on that, with larger or denser areas, it’ll need to present players with a legible city. Architecture that makes sense, right down to the smallest detail. George Leonidas Leslie and other architect-burglars understood how drainage, power, ventilation and service access all provided opportunities. There’s something of that in Corvo’s first adventure and more than any of the supernatural abilities he or new co-lead Emily bring along, it’s Karnaca that I’m pinning my hopes on.

Whale oil is still important there but the city has a healthier relationship with its surroundings, drawing power from the currents of wind captured in the gaps cutting through its mountainous backdrop. Whatever glorious past Dunwall might have had was in maps, books and uniforms rather than buildings, the city itself seemingly caught in arrested development and degradation. Karnaca has more obvious historical layers to go with its architectural ones, however, with the riches of former times still hidden away intact, or decaying in full sight.

If Arkane can show the scars and trophies of that history in the quiet moments of observation as well as the extravagance of big setpieces (not to mention the actual time travel), Dishonored 2 will be the studio’s strongest achievement to date. In a recent interview, lead designer Dinga Bakaba said the team hadn’t been sure how Dishonored would be received. With its success behind them, they seem much more confident that people want to see not just kinetic stealth powers and assassinations, but fictional places that are much more than a backdrop to action.

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Adam Smith

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