Why Dishonored 2 allows you to skip its finest content

This is The Mechanic. Taking a dive into Dishonored 2 [official site] with Harvey Smith, it marks the first anniversary of the column. Holy heck! I hope you’ve been enjoying it. I want to thank everyone who’s read The Mechanic, and all the amazing designers it has given me the opportunity to speak to. Here’s to many more next year.

In the city of Karnaca is a district that lies under mounds of encroaching dust. Home to the labourers of the silver mines, Batista has been worked into exhaustion. Its people are spent and the mines so overexploited that dust from them has been billowing out and falling over the streets and squares, the heavy wind whipping it up into storms and engulfing entire buildings.

Dust District is one of Dishonored 2’s largest levels, a dense network of byways, apartments and compounds peopled by downtrodden miners and two warring factions. But you don’t need to play any of it. In fact, the entire level is designed around an idea that speaks to Dishonored’s deepest design principles. Because the Dust District is all about:

THE MECHANIC: Skipping stuff

(Light-ish spoilers for both the Dust District and subsequent level naturally follow.)

Your mission in the Dust District is to enter the house of a mining magnate called Aramis Stilton, which lies, apparently abandoned, behind unassailably high windbreaks. The entry to it stands just after the level’s beginning, but it’s locked behind a puzzle which you’re told is impossible to solve without a code. The puzzle is called the Jindosh Riddle, and getting its code means going deep into the district to take it, by force or otherwise, from one of two hostile factions.

The Howlers is a gang of thieves led by a boss called Paolo who’s rumoured to be able to survive being killed and wishes to wrest control of the city for the people. The Overseers are a fascistic hyper-orthodox religious sect who have heard of the Howlers’ use of black magic and aim to crush it. But you’re told at the mission’s outset that you can use their mutual enmity to your advantage. If you can present the body of the leader of one side to the leader of the other, you’ll be rewarded with access to the code.

But the thing is, the puzzle is not unsolvable. With application of logic and maybe a lot of Post-It notes, you can divine the correct configuration of names and symbols from the riddle and open it. And if you do, there is no need at all to enter the Dust District. You needn’t negotiate its streets, apartments, rooftops and walkways; you can ignore their intricately laid out opportunities for concealment and murder and avoid penetrating the factions’ bases and kill and meet their respective leaders. You can disregard all the wads of dialogue, text and environmental detail placed for you to absorb. The next level is entirely open to you.

“Player, if you want to skip this, you can skip it,” creative director Harvey Smith tells me. “If you want to go fast, you can go fast. Slow if you want to go slow. We just believe a game is about play and playing with things.” His studio, Arkane, rose from the legacy of Looking Glass Technologies and its inception of the immersive sim, and Dishonored 2 is a worthy successor of the genre’s core values of giving players opportunity for self-expression.

“I feel like there’s a pretty big argument between developers who want you to see every single screen in the game and play through it one way because that’s the most high-drama, impactful way. And the only way you stop is if you die and then you reload and perfect what you’re doing and move on. On the other hand there are people who are like, no, there’s a big ecosystem and by definition you can’t see everything because you’re making decisions. Sometimes those are binary or mutually exclusive and by the end of the game you have your experience.”

But even if the studio is philosophically founded on the principle that players won’t get to experience everything in the game, allowing them to skip an entire level was still a pretty big step. Smith says that though he and level design director Christophe Carrier were excited by the concept of the Jindosh Riddle, “other people on the project were shocked, like, ‘Really, we’re going to let people skip the mission?’” They therefore wanted to make it “really fucking hard, a legitimate difficult to solve puzzle,” so it has weight and a sense of reward. “We want to give something cool to the player that they haven’t seen before. We want them to feel challenged, to feel smart, and make the world seem interesting and cool and we think this is an edgy decision.”

Carrier went away to research puzzles worthy of the lock and came back with Einstein’s enigma, a series of facts about five different people with five different attributes. The number of variations is incredibly wide, but by following a set of clues the right attribute can be aligned with the right character and the puzzle can be solved. It provided an ideal template for a combination lock, its complexity such that players feel accomplishment that lives up to the name of the achievement you’re awarded for solving it: “Eureka”.

There was one more consideration, though, which was whether the game would be long enough for those players who walked up to the puzzle, solved it and moved to the next level. “Are we cheating the players? No, because if you want to go explore the rest of the Dust District you can. And there’s more than enough value in the game. I feel sometimes that we packed three games into one box.”

The Jindosh Riddle is only one of the expressions of skipping in Dust District, which was designed by level designer Steve Lee and architect Christophe Lefaure. Each level in the game was created by these pairings of someone who considers the game and its flow, and someone who considers their spaces as coherent wholes and how it will feel to stand in them. Lefaure is the one who thought about the impact dust storms would make on a place: of how the dust would pile greater on one side of a building than the other and blast the colour from hoardings, and how the rich would be able to afford to build wooden windbreaks to save their homes from being inundated. Lee is the one who began to think about what it’d mean, as a player, to be compelled to take the side of the fascists or the criminals to get what you want.

By taking the body of one side to the other faction, you’re given a pass by that faction to walk into their territory. You therefore no longer have to work out how to traverse it stealthily or violently. All the little details that allow you safe passage and all the guard positions and patrols, carefully planned to provide challenge, are by-the-by for as long as you’re holding the leader over your shoulder. But the result in play is that you feel rewarded rather than cheated of experiencing content you’ve paid for. A big part of the reason why is that you have choice over doing so: the moment you drop the body you’ll be attacked, so it’s on you. But you also feel you’ve earned it. Entering the Overseers’ outpost or the Howlers’ headquarters feels like a full level in itself. And then there are two alternative ways of getting the code: by following a series of clues to a note, or by capturing both leaders alive.

Dishonored 2 as a whole is designed to have swathes that can – and sometimes must – be skipped. At the very outset you’ll choose between two characters, Emily and Corvo. Each has specific dialogue and reactions by NPCs, and each has a different set of powers. “You are skipping massive amounts of content,” says Smith. “You’re never going to see Domino and Mesmerise and Rat Storm. Tonnes of work went into those things. You could build entire games around those powers.”

And then there’s the fact that only 1.5% of players on Steam have so far completed the game without using powers. And yet the entire game has been painstakingly tuned and tested to ensure it’s possible. You have to wonder what it means to a development team to know that players won’t experience so much of what it worked so hard on. Smith describes a “great and depressing moment” during playtesting for the first Dishonored in which a group was discussing with each other their experiences playing the High Overseer Campbell level, while the team listened in. One playtester was disappointed in the game because marketing materials he’d been presented with had said it was all about choice but he’d seen no alternative pathways to what he’d played. And then the other playtesters said how they’d performed other actions and seen entirely other things.

We had a moment; we knew all this was possible. It’s there for us because we’ve played the game a hundred times, but it’s not there for them because they’ve played one or twice. How do we tell them, ‘Hey, you’re going left, by the way, you could have gone right!’ How do you do that elegantly? It’s still a challenge, and some would argue you should spent all your development budget on things that every player will see, because you’re throwing away part of your work if 98.5% of players never play no powers mode. It’s an arguable point. You have to be comfortable with it, it has to be part of your philosophy, I guess.”

Dust District isn’t the only level with significant skippable material. In the next level, A Crack in the Slab, you can perform a logical but otherwise un-signposted action at a single critical moment that will transform the level and the game to come. If you miss it, you’ll have no idea these transformations exist. But for Smith it’s all justified when people tell him of their surprise when they experience them.

“It’s more like we’re rubbing our hands together in delight and we’re hoping that down the road people get that, you know? They have that magical moment where they play and maybe they have to play twice or talk to a friend, or maybe they just sense when they play that maybe it could be… It’s a little stress, like, ‘Ahh, should I do this or that?’ And then they see the results of what they’ve done and it’s wondrous. Games are one of those things that are still full of wonder.”


  1. ariston says:

    I wish more developers would pick up on this design ethic. Nudge, wink, Ubisoft.

    I always replay games that I love. Dishonored 1&2 gave me good reasons to do so. On my fourth run through Dishonored 2, and I’m still discovering new places, books, situations, characters, dialogues… love it!

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Yes, indeed. It may seem foolish to create stuff that some will never see, but that’s not acknowledging the volume of content a little mystery creates in the mind. And the mind is where the game is really, isn’t it?

    • carewolf says:


      I always miss this in modern RPGs, too many single coridor dungeons or quest areas, because damn if they will let you skip anything.

      But this completely ruins replays, at least of me. If I want to see missed content, I want to be able to take advantage of my prior knowledge and skip things I have already done. But too many games do not let me do this.

  2. Marclev says:

    “you can perform a logical but otherwise un-signposted action at a single critical moment that will transform the level and the game to come. ”

    If it’s the one I’m thinking of, you technically have two ways of performing that logical but otherwise un-signposted action … each which has a dramatic effect on shall we say “future events”.

    • thedosbox says:

      I was initially confused on my first play through as to what was going on after re-entering the building. But my jaw dropped once I figured it out.

    • FFabian says:

      Please elaborate. What action? Probably add a spoiler warning for others

      • Godwhacker says:


        I’m pretty sure they’re referring to either knocking out, ignoring, or killing Aramis Stilton in the past. I’ve only done the first but it has a really nice outcome. Going to try the others in New Game+ …


  3. Marclev says:

    I’ve played high and low chaos, with Emily and Corvo respectively. Now that New Game + is out I was going to give that a go, but having read the article I’m wondering if I should try “No powers” mode instead.

  4. Zenicetus says:

    If I ever do a no-powers run, I’ll try using just the lock (didn’t spend time on during my first run). If you’re using powers though, you’ll probably investigate every inch of the Dust District anyway, to grab all the runes and bonecharms.

    So it’s not quite the same as giving the player a way to freely bypass the level. Still, many designers wouldn’t do even this much of a side option, and I appreciate that.

  5. Jenuall says:

    I really feel like I’ve been playing a different game when I read some of the things people have said about Dishonored 2.

    Now I love the game, and the original, but the dust district is such a contrived play space, nothing about it feels real and there’s absolutely no effort made to convey a sense that there is actually a dynamic, ongoing conflict between these two groups. It’s made up of about three streets where the Howlers and Overseers just sit around doing nothing despite being only about 200m from each other. It also features the unforgivable sin of an immersive sim – spawning enemies (two overseers will appear out of thin air when you attempt to intervene in the execution of some citizens)

    Similarly with the clockwork mansion – great level no doubt but the way it was hyped up was ridiculous. I expected the reconfiguration of the mansion to be far more expansive and effecting of the gameplay – not just a few levers which flip a pool table into a dining table and similar minor alterations.

    Also many comments were made about how much larger and more expansive the areas in this game were, yet when playing the game it still felt diminutive compared to the spaces of Thief or the original Deus Ex, and still blocked off by loading zones (another real immersion killer).

    Also Karnaca feels dead and deserted in a way that’s not anywhere near as well justified as was Dunwall, and never truly feels like a separate and distinct society from it. Everyone in Karnaca sounds like they grew up in Dunwall – is there only one accent in the world of Dishonored!?

    Argh, apologies for the rant! As I say I loved the game and enjoyed it immensely – it just still makes a lot of errors that it seems to get a free pass on in my view!☺

    • Geezer says:

      “there’s absolutely no effort made to convey a sense that there is actually a dynamic, ongoing conflict between these two groups. It’s made up of about three streets where the Howlers and Overseers just sit around doing nothing despite being only about 200m from each other.”

      This describes 99.9% of the gang activity in my home city of Los Angeles. :)

      • epressman617 says:

        Absolutely true. People sit on the territory they have, for the most part. The video game idea of “I don’t like him so I must grab a rocket launcher and charge in shooting” isn’t as convincing as sitting a couple streets away with the safety of your buddies.

        As for having a limited play space, it’s a crafted, packed space. We could have 10 square miles of open land with not much in it, or a dense, intricate 3 streets. I prefer Dishonored’s way, at least for this bunch of powers. If I had a sniper rifle/wingsuit/vehicle, then maybe the space would make more sense. But that’d be a different game…

        • Snowskeeper says:

          To be clear: the issue here is that the enemies aren’t doing anything, and will continue to do nothing until the player intervenes.

          False dichotomy. We could have had a larger space, and the space we got wasn’t particularly intricate. There was nothing interesting about most of the Dust District, and nothing to explore once you were done with the one plotline of that area. In Dishonored-the-first, every area had plots, subplots, secondary missions (that went beyond just “get through the area faster,”) Heart dialogue for every district and enemy type, and better atmosphere overall.

          • fish99 says:

            If you compare with Thief (and T2), you could spend several hours on a level, think you’d cleared it all and then still bump into a guard on a really long patrol path that you just happened to miss up to that point. That kept you on your toes, and kept the tension from dying. Some of the patrol paths in Thief were like 20 minutes long, whereas in Dishonored they were about a minute, and the sequel about 20 seconds.

            I feel like the engine they’ve chosen for each game has limited the size of the levels too.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I enjoyed the game, but I’ve made similar rants here about how Karnaca doesn’t feel like a lived-in city. Not enough civilians except for a few areas near the docks. Almost every room you sneak through in buildings is deserted. Everything is tightly hemmed in to make it a Disney amusement park for stealth/mayhem while you reach your destination for the mission.

      It’s still a great game. Maybe they’ll open it up a little more next time.

      • suibhne says:

        I didn’t have that impression at all. I sneaked through many occupied apartments and found many lived-in corners of the city. But it helps that I broke into everything and grabbed as much of the lore as possible – I was exposed to more content, and I also got the strong impression that this was a city under siege from multiple sources (the bloodfly plague, but also and especially its own rotting decline under a corrupt dictator and his murderous police force). The first level opened up with a lot of city life (not just by the docks, but throughout), and it made sense to me that the rest of the game moved through areas that were more locked down yet still supported pockets of civilian life.

  6. LessThanNothing says:

    No one wants to be “forced” into completing a section of a game but it’s a shame that some players miss them entirely.

    • Marclev says:

      For the lock thing it’s pretty damn obvious that you’ll miss out on a not insignificant amount of game-play by solving it using logic (although the really cool thing is also that you can complete the level a third way beyond cracking the puzzle or delivering either target to the other).

  7. fish99 says:

    I solved the puzzle myself, took about 90 minutes, including an hour wasted by making a faulty assumption. I then went through the load zone not realizing that ended the level, and while you can come back, it doesn’t let you explore the level.

    Luckily though I had a save just before the puzzle door, so solved it again, then didn’t go through the door, and then did the rest of the level, so you get the achievement, see the level, and get the runes/bonecharms.

    The puzzle wasn’t ultimately that bad, just like a sodoku really. I’ve also read it’s somewhat randomized to stop you looking it up.

  8. Dave L. says:

    I’d really like to be able to play more of Dishonored 2, but they introduced a bug in the 1.3 patch (that is still present in the 1.4 patch) that causes a GPU crash on Radeon 380s and Arkane and Bethesda have yet to even acknowledge the problem, let alone say that they’re working on a fix.

  9. Bull0 says:

    I find it incredible that the name “Aramis Stilton” has passed you all by without further comment. “Aramis Stilton”.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Like that level design. I like everything that gives you multiple ways and choices not just do I use the conveniently placed stack of crates/vent etc. but also choices like do I go through the Undead Burg or take the key and descend through that garden ? in Dark Souls.

  11. Kinsky says:

    Typical of an AAA studio to pat themselves on the back for (crudely) reinventing a mechanic games have been using for decades. Popularity must do things to your head. The high budget sphere has been suffering from obnoxiously overbearing scripting/railroading since the 2000s, is it really so profound that designers are finally learning to avoid it? Has nobody played Star Fox or Resident Evil 2?

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Warp zones in Super Mario do exactly that.

    • horrorgasm says:

      Careful. Don’t cut yourself on all that edge.

      • Snowskeeper says:

        The idea that this door has been here for this long without anyone solving the puzzle, despite the preponderance of treasure hunters in the area, sort of hurt immersion for me a little.

        • kalzekdor says:

          Yeah, what kind of person protects their home with a puzzle? That doesn’t really make any sense to me, just the devs throwing in something only because it seemed cool. I can see something like that locking a temple or shrine where “only the worthy may enter”, but someone’s home?

          • Snowskeeper says:

            A password would have made more sense. Something you could find the answer to in Jindosh’s manor, maybe.

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            Velorien says:

            I think the question answers itself. Jindosh is exactly the kind of highly intelligent, smug, self-satisfied git who would do this. After all, surely no one in the world is as smart as him and therefore capable of solving the puzzle on their own. And conversely, a mere lock or password system would not give him the opportunity to show off his brilliance to all and sundry.

          • Snowskeeper says:

            An immensely complicated lock allows him to show off his brilliance just as well. And say what you like about Jindosh; he shouldn’t be stupid enough to believe that a process of elimination puzzle couldn’t be solved by anyone with enough time and energy.

  12. TheSplund says:

    I solved the puzzle almost by accident after trying to figure it out with pen and paper for around 20 mins. I’d already figured out the ‘knowns’, and entered them, and popped in a few of the possibles and presto! it unlocked. I did then set about playing Dust District though on reflection it totally screwed up my low chaos playthrough as I simply got frustrated and started wiping out almost everyone who got in my way. I may go back and pick up my save from the unlock and step through the door.

  13. Blackfish says:

    I remember when I first played Fallout 3, after Megaton I was just randomly exploring Washington and came across this wreck of an aircraft carrier. I entered Rivet City and inadvertently triggered a later part of the main quest, skipping out the whole Three-Dog leg of the story. For a while I didn’t know you could meet that detached voice on the radio, or that there was an amazing setpiece (vs the behemoth) that properly introduces the Brotherhood of Steel.

    Finding out later that you could have done this and that differently to get the actual, uncropped experience is pretty offputting. When I play open-world games now, I’m always second-guessing which quests and directions will trip some hidden flag and progress me further along the game than I mean to.