Some games stand in the light, and allow us to examine their mottled skin. Others cower back in the dark, fearing the searing beam of our critical gaze. But which of these is Game Twenty-One? YOU DECIDE!
No, actually, we will decide.
Jim: Dishonored almost feels like an ode to game design. But not quite. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's the best-designed game, just that it seems to revel in the stuff where design is required. It seems considered, like a portrait. An artefact intended to capture the essence of a thing. To convey a specific message with a tightly defined purpose.
Design appears on the surface of everything. The glorious and shabby world, the range of powers, the nature of the levels, the behaviour of the AI, it all seems primarily about the designer's work. It's very much taking the design-as-everything lessons from earlier eras of greatness - see Ion Storm, Looking Glass - and trying to put those lessons into practice in 2012. It manages remarkably well, an with a sort of flair for production that makes the entire game seem like a luxury.
Someone - I can't actually Google who it was, because I am out of range of internet, and will have forgotten about writing this passage by the time it's published on the site - commented that The Outsider can be seen as analogous to a game developer. He's setting things up, adding systems and features, and toying with the consequences. Corvo is the player, and the player is Corvo. In this way Dishonored looks even more like an elegy to the art required to create it.
There's so much to be in awe of. It's so crafted and crafted just so. It's hand-built and refined, with the smoothed edges you get from an expert knowing where people will rub up against it.
John said to me - and he'll probably reprise that thought somewhere here - that he wished Dishonored had been about something. He was referring, of course, to the rather contentless plot, which meanders hesitantly onward, hinting at things that don't end up occurring, without surprising anyone along the way. That doesn't seem to have been about very much at all. And it would have been grand if the game had been about power, or greed, or something. But perhaps it's a game that really just about itself, and about game design generally.
That could be enough.
John: Gosh, I really enjoyed playing Dishonored. I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I started playing it again. That almost never happens with me. And I got about a third of the way in again, and then I forgot all about Dishonored.
It feels like a game with an expiry date. I loved it, I raved about how much I was enjoying it, and then its time was up and I didn't think about it again. I think that's a big part of why one of the best games this year isn't our bestest game this year. And a large part of that is to do with what Jim mentioned above: it always felt like it was about to be about something. Those ninja enemies - a couple of them appear randomly in an level midway through, and suddenly it's ooh, intrigue! Then they're gone again until the end, when they're just a slightly harder enemy to kill (and a brilliant one too - that level skipping across the rooftops, taking them out, was a real highlight) and then that's that. The super-telegraphed 'twist' delivered exactly what you were expecting, no surprises, and then felt compromised by some people still actually being on your side despite seemingly betraying you. Even that hint - and at the time they felt like lovely, subtle hints - that there might be something between Corvo and the pub's maid, went forgotten. The Outsider - I can't even remember what I thought he was about at the time, so thrown away his character became by the end.
I'm sure they were saving stuff up for a sequel. But that's a terrible way of going about storytelling. You tell your whole, amazing story in your game, and if it's detailed and interesting enough, people will want to know more, be told more tales in that world, and from there your sequels should grow.
BUT! Moany moany moan moan! It's a great game! A contender for our 24th door, one we discussed at length. It was mechanically so wonderful, it was such a satisfying sneak-and-stun game to play, and it managed that magical and all-too-rare feat of letting you feel like you were becoming genuinely more powerful within the world, while still matching the challenge to your powers. The contrast of experiences from traversing that bridge and moving around that masked ball, the myriad tasks in the brothel and the machinations of the various factions in the main town. It was constantly interesting in the moment, and truly bended itself to your will, allowed you to play it as you wished. That was a real treat, a memory of the glorious days of Thief, and a demonstration of where Human Revolution fell short - a guide, even, for Square's inevitable sequel.
It may require a concerted effort to put myself back into the place of recalling why I enjoyed it so much at the time, but at that time it was one of 2012's finest moments of entertainment.
We live in the age of the grandiose promise. Time and again, we're given fancy talk of moons on sticks and games that are all things to all humans, and time and again we end up with spectacular but fairly obvious products as a result. Dishonored met is promises. It did what it said it was going to do, and then some. There was an "it's too short!" lobby, yes, but those snarling beasts exist to undermine others' entertainment, not for true justice.
Personally, I can't think of anything in Dishonored where I suffered that deflating sense of harsh reality colliding with my lofty dreams of what the game was. I think that speaks to the tightness of its design - Arkane seem to have been clear, since the game's earliest public showings, about what it is they were making and offering. They realised their realistic promises rather than had to compromise cometh the hour.
There's almost zero fat on Dishonored. It is tailored and lean, most every aspect (let's not talk about the Krusts, eh?) included because it serves true purpose either in function or scene-setting, and as a result we have a moderate number of wildly varied, themed levels rich with paths and possibilities, rather than a soggy marathon of similarity. Yes, the overarching story was oddly hollow - I think, perhaps, there's too much archly tucked under the surface rather than built colourfully on top of it in that regard, and that does take a heavy toll on Dishonored's overall personality - but the capsule tales of each level and the grey morality of their respective antagonists were strong and sharp.
For me it was a game about missions rather than The Mission (er - I don't mean the band), but I suppose an encompassing rise and fall and rise again structure is something of a commercial necessity. Oh for a world where Dishonored was a true episodic game, a new, branching and cunning mission every month for its master assassin, just doing his job.
One more thing - while Dishonored went further than many games of its type in terms of offering complete paths and solutions for non-lethal play, perhaps my single favourite thing about it is that it nonetheless challenged the urge to box-tick and Achievement-collect in that regard. I was resolute, in my first play, that I would kill no-one, but I was presented with two circumstances where I had to question that decision, where what superifically seemed like the noble thing to do might actually have been a dark one. The first of those two - spoilers here - was Granny Rags, who I did opt to kill because the threat that hidden monster presented to Dunwall's uncared for poor was so great, and so monstrous, that it transcended my inclination towards non-lethality.
The second was Lady Boyle, the target in that wonderful hiding-in-plain-sight masked ball level. When I opted to have her kidnapped and smuggled away by an admirer rather than slain, was I sending that woman off to be someone's sex slave? Was that perhaps not worse than taking her life? I still feel chilled and ill about that decision, about the awful, awful thing I might have done to a selection of bytes and pixels in order that my moral compass not waver. The rescue of the princess and the riddles out the Outsider did not stay with me for long, but what I did to Lady Boyle will, I think, haunt me for some time to come.
While there is an actual heart in Dishonored - and plenty to say about it - Dunwall is the game's most important organ. It's the thundering bank of pipes from which the whalepunk fugue bellows and it's the cerebral labyrinth through which the player squints, blinks and boggles. There are books instead of cutscenes and, within the context of the areas available to explore, I found more flavour in the few words describing foodstuffs and affixed to maps than in the billion dollar world-building of Avatar. Dunwall is a grotesque Dickensian nightmare of whale-flesh, class division and plague, but Arkane don't harp on about it. Dunwall just is.
I hadn't played the game before release so when Jim went hands-on at Gamescom I found myself in the strange position of being excited about an upcoming game while at Gamescom, where games were being beamed into my eyes with such force that it was hard to be excited about anything except the fresh air and cold beer waiting at the end of the day. Dishonored was the one game I didn't want to play - I wanted to experience it from start to finish, not to be dropped into a mission chosen to demonstrate a specific aspect that could form the focal point of a preview. All I wanted to hear when Jim met me afterwards was - "It's the sequel to Thief 2 that you've been waiting for", because, apparently, I didn't have the imagination to believe it could be anything other than that.
That Dishonored wasn't Thief became clear when Jim talked about how the powers were slightly concerning. I stopped listening then. I didn't want powers, I wanted a rope arrow.
When I actually started playing, it didn't take long for me to start enjoying those powers I hadn't wanted. What Dishonored offers is stealth as an expression of agility and movement rather than secrets and shadows. Corvo is the arch-manipulator, folding the environment to his will and leaping across architectural dilemmas that would thwart an ordinary man. He's the first stealth superhero, or at least he's my first stealth superhero and he doesn't hunt monsters he hunts men. Dishonored's best boss battle is against a bridge. You have to cross it.
I've completed the game twice now and that's enough for me. It is strangely fleeting, a short story that doesn't linger in the memory rather than a novel that will always have a place on the shelf. But it also captured that Looking Glass feeling that's been missing for so long and it gave us Dunwall. I worry that more of Dunwall might not be a good thing. I'd rather leave it as a fragment of fiction, a place forever in disarray and transition.
But then what would I have Arkane do next? Well, has there ever been a first-person Golden Age superhero game?
I don't usually read books in games. I mean, I'll pick up the odd Ancient Tome of Infinite Plagues here or there for a stat boost, but I generally play games to, you know, play them. That's not to say I don't appreciate the obsessively crafted fictions underlying it all, but I tend to experience them on a need-to-know basis.
I'm not really sure why I picked up the first book I saw in Dishonored. Maybe it was the alluring industrial-magic mystique of Dunwall's structures. Maybe I saw a glowy thing and reflexively decided to interact with it. Maybe it's because I really, really like whales. Regardless, the second that cover opened, I was slurped up by a black-hole-like force. Dishonored's bizarro whale-punk alterna-dimension was just so fascinating to me. I mean, look at this entry about a holiday called The Fugue Feast. I DEMAND IT.
"The new year has not started and thus the time that follows is ‘outside’ the calendar. A period of celebration and feasting begins, during which the people abandon the very practices that keep them whole and healthy over the year... Families return to their homes, wives to their husbands. Enemies put down their weapons and fires are extinguished. No complaint is given for those who have wronged others, deviated from ancient codes, or discarded oaths; for this time during the astrological alignment does not exist, and is not recorded."
That's wild! There's an entire holiday devoted to just saying, "Fuck it" and busting down the chains of civilized society. I want to live in a world unhinged enough to do that. But reading about it was a nice enough consolation.
And yet, for all its unabashed strangeness, Dishonored also portrayed the mundanities of day-to-day life in its plague-worn world remarkably well. The lovely Paul Walker already put the Heart under-the-knife for us, but I can't discuss Dishonored without gushing about it myself. Much as I loved mixing and matching powers to slither and slice my way through brilliantly designed levels, that achy, breaky, oh-so-talky organ was probably my favorite thing about the entire game.
Thanks to its manic whispers, I became obsessed with this miniature workplace drama unfolding just beneath the surface of my heroic deeds and superpowered skulking. On the surface, there were just a bunch of faceless NPCs milling about the Hound Pits pub, but the Heart let me see so much more. These people had goals and dreams and lives, and well, they were kind of terrible.
For me, it all came back to Cecelia, a seemingly nondescript employee who was sort of just... around. She swept floors, tended to rooms, worked behind the counter - that kind of thing. I didn't think much of her, but then the Heart told me she was supporting multiple kids all by her lonesome, and one of them was showing symptoms that sounded distinctly rat plague-y. A couple times, I also rounded corners to find her boss shouting at her for not tending to my comparatively pampered existence well enough. And yet, she was always dutiful. Overtly exhausted, yes, but unfaltering in spite of the pressures constantly threatening to crush her. If she resented me for being the indirect cause of so much grief in her life, she certainly didn't show it.
I love that Dishonored gave multiple dimensions to even its itsy-bitsiest of bit characters. Even amidst all its world's madness, people were still people. Flawed - sometimes to the point of being unforgivable - creatures, certainly, but determined to keep on pushing forward nonetheless.
It really is a shame the main plot was so shit, though.