Earlier today four RPS writers - each of them deep into their second runs through Dishonored - sat down to have a chat about Arkane's revenge-filled game of assassination and invisibility. Here's what they said. [We've avoided any major plot spoilers, keeping mostly to mechanics and a bit of world/setting discussion. We will have a spoilery discussion coming up later in the week.]
Jim: Gentlemen, we have entered the era where Dishonored is a game that people can play. Would any care to describe what they think Dishonored is?
Adam: I wrote, and perhaps you shall all disagree, that I think it's the best stealth game since Thief 2. I also can't remember a game from that there first-person perspective that I've enjoyed as much since...Stalker maybe?
Jim: The Portals?
Adam: Not for me. Which sounds like I just said they're NOT FOR ME. I meant they're not 'better' for me.
Jim: I would say it's more important than the Portals in a number of ways, because it's has many tricks. Portal was about saying that first-person games can be funny puzzle games, Dishonored is more like saying that FPS games can be complex, subtle and beautiful stealth cleverness with emergent bits. The Portals are not better, but they seem like the last really big first-person genre highlights.
John: I would like to state on the record in an official capacity that while this is one of the best games I've played for years, it's not as good as Thief.
Adam: Nothing is as good as Thief.
Alec: DXHR is obviously a big point of comparison, but suspect we'll get to that later. This gave me more, certainly
Jim: Dishonored is fascinating because it does a lot of things, some of them Thieflike things.
Alec: Well Dishonored *is* a superhero game, so Thief comparisons should be done carefully.
Jim: It felt to me like a mature work of a studio that has finally hit its potential, you can see the lineage - Bioshock, Thief, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, Dark Messiah - in all aspects of it. I think the Smith, Colantonio, Mitton, Antonov production team is sort of a supergroup, and the game is representative of that level of experience. (But yes, it's basically a superhero game. And certainly better than Spider-Man.)
Alec: Yes, and also of experience of recent accomplishments by the peers. Specifically, it's a lot more l like what I imagined Bioshock to be before I played Bioshock. I think it's been made mindfully of how gamers responded to that.
Jim: To Bioshock?
Alec: Yes, to Bioshock - as in, that went too far down the pure shooter route for some, this addresses an evident greater need in many players, but was cognisant that that need existed because Bioshock proved it, whereas without it industry wisdom dictated CODlikes were the only way.
John: I think perhaps the most helpful comparison is - to extend what Alec said - that this is BioShock without the enforced, over-complicated combat. Instead you've far more room to use your imagination.
Jim: Yes, that's a remarkable design victory for Arkane, that Dishonored has a lot of facets to combat, without the combat ever feeling overly complex or laborious. Every fight is acrobatically lethal (or non-lethal). But I think there's an aspect of something Adam was saying about Hitman recently, which Dishonored does best of all, which was "quiet time". In fact most of the game is quiet time. It's only really fireworks and bluster if you mess up.
John: Of course, in my first play through of Dishonored I had no idea what the combat was like at all. I never did any that wasn't ranged.
Jim: Sleep dart for great victory, John?
John: Sleep darts are my greatest friend. Which makes me confused why you were never allowed more than 10 of them.
Alec: Yeah, I was annoyed when I bought the bolt capacity upgrade but it only affected standard bolts. But I *think* this forces you to engage rather than consistently snipe from afar, which might make things too easy. Whether that's the right call for a game purporting freedom of player agency I don't know. It's been interesting playing it in tandem with XCOM, in that in both games every action seems to matter enormously, a huge amount of tension hangs upon pressing fire, or choke, or stun, or windblast or whatever. Cock it up and disaster ensues.
Jim: Yes, I think that consequence is something that games have trouble doing well, because you can always save/reload or whatever, but I still felt like when I messed up on Dishonored, it was a real disaster.
John: I'm likely to write more about this later, but I chose to play where getting discovered, cocking up, was a fail state, and I'd reload. I wanted to perfect a stealth route, and so put that rule on myself.
Adam: I only ever reloaded when I died, which led to some absolute disasters.
John: I killed a total of 4 times. Twice in the first level, before I'd implemented the rule, and twice with assassins later, where I panicked.
Alec: I killed no-one. NO-ONE.
Jim: In my first playthrough I just went with whatever happened, which ended in a lot of violence, but I am playing again now on Very Hard, and that persuaded me to be more careful still - because the guards are more perceptive and do vastly more damage.
Alec: Well, there was one, but I didn't kill them - they died as a consequence of another action. But, spoilers.
John: Did anyone else think the guard AI was pretty shitty though? I'm playing now on Hard, and it's still useless.
Jim: It's variable, depending on the environment. What aspect of it did you think is useless?
John: They walk into walls, throw themselves of ledges, and if you duck out of sight after they've stared right at you, they'll search behind themselves first.
Jim: I didn't see any wall walking or ledge throwing, I have to admit. Although their searching for you is very clumsy. I was a little disappointed that dogs and assassins weren't more threatening as the game progressed. It's very much a game of Dodge The Men.
Adam: I had one inexplicable moment where everyone treated me as if I'd turned invisible for a while, but other than that, I found them simple and, yeah, a little clumsy. But they worked well enough.
John: They showed no improvement in AI than, say, Thief 3. Perhaps if they did, of course, there'd be far less fun.
Alec: I didn't notice guards doing any of that, though they didn't always catch me when I thought they would
Jim: Yes, but they basically have the same job as Thief 3's AI.
John: But that they even say "Must have been rats" seems like a deliberate nod toward Thief 3's stupid-o-guards.
Adam: The AI, I'd say, is functional rather than interesting. It doesn't do anything surprising.
Alec: And yeah, I was suprised dogs didn't sniff me out. They were too easy to avoid and stungun. Though I loved that you could pick up their slumbering bodies.I spent quite a while running around with a sleeping dog over my shoulder just for the hell of it.
Adam: I didn't know dogs could be picked up. I think I discovered that I have a primal fear of being attacked by dogs. Never knew. I love dogs in real life. In Dishonored they HORRIFY me.
Jim: The only surprising AI thing I saw was a chap toppling over a railing after a sword lunge that I dodged. Although that seemed like emergent physics for of thing, rather than AI
Alec: I avoided too much use of stun dart purely because the victims had a tendency to topple off things and die afterwards. Which contravened my non-lethal mindset.
Jim: How much did you guys bother with moving bodies? I was really careful about it by the end. Also, I notice one of the powers turns bodies to ash if you kill them.
John: A lot. Great piles of snoring folks and doggies in every dark corner.
Jim: I love the snoring, it's so cute.
John: It was a real shame that presumably 360 limitations meant that bodies rapidly disappeared if there were too many in one place.
Alec: A personal mini-game I played was storing as many bodies on top of each other as I could, and always in the toilet. I loved the idea of them all waking up and saying "what the...? Get off me, what the hell are you doing? And why is my face in the crapper? What did we DO last night?"
John: I wanted my piles of sleepy guards to become towering, but alas it didn't like more than four anywhere.
Jim: What a terrible shame.
Adam: I never noticed that. But I was turning a lot of people to ash, using the aforementioned shadow kill power, or whatever it's called.
Adam: This is what happens when reloads are only used at death.
Jim: Shall we talk about the sheer amount of secrety side-questy stuff? It's really something, isn't it? This is a game that doesn't even care if you miss great chunks of it.
Alec: I notice the results screen only says what you did in that regard, not what you didn't find, so it's still a mystery to me what I Might have I missed, which I like.
John: Yes. I'm loving that on replaying, and playing now in a very silly way where I kill everyone possible, I'm finding big areas I'd not the last time, despite thinking I'd been utterly comprehensive.
Adam: It's not just side quests either - there are branches, things shut off or revealed.
Jim: I know I missed one big chunk, and I have no idea how I missed it, either, what decision I missed that closed it off. Who did I kill?
John: I think the most revealing stat in those missions screens was the coins found. I rarely found more than three quarters, meaning I must have missed so many nooks and crannies.
Jim: The coins are really hidden obscurely - under the corners of bookshelves and so on.
Alec: Yeah, that you can easily miss like 2000 coins speaks despite thinking you've been thorough says much. Though quite a few come from robbing or looting npcs.
John: I also love how if you stumble on a mission that's designed for later, you can still play it now, and the game adjusts. Like, getting into the artist's house before anyone's told you about it.
Adam: There's an early side quest, completely unnecessary to the actual mission taking place, that could be an actual level in many games. It's not particularly large but it has a story, characters. Takes place in a building that you might not even realise you can enter if you weren't told about it.
Alec: I had a brilliant quasi-emergent moment there, where I'd got the code for the artist's safe and delivered it to Slackjaw,then thought 'hang on a minute, *I* want what's in that safe'.
John: Surely everyone did that?
Alec: So I rushed over to rob it, and while I was doing so his men came in, realised someone was there and started hunting me. Oh yeah, I just like that there's a little thing put in to acknowledge that greed. Plenty of other games the safe would already be empty or no-one would come. Instead I was feeling all cocky and smart and suddenly I had to hide and flee in terror
Jim: Speaking of Slackjaw - what did everyone think about the characters and acting in the game? That was a little patchy wasn't it?
Alec: I'd say more homogenous than patchy. Piero, Sokolov and the boatman left an impression, everyone else seemed kind of indistinguishable - gruff but noble or sibilant panto villain, basically.
Adam: Yeah. They're seldom better than OK. There are touches there I like as well though.
John: My biggest issue was that what they were saying was frequently so dull. I had no problems with any of the acting. But these great long speeches didn't hold my interest.
Adam: Learning snippets of their inner lives and what they were before the plague became so bad.
Alec: What I really liked in that regard was the Heart.
John: It should be stressed that the Heart was incredible.
Alec: Telling darkly poetic stories about them, rather than expository monologues.
Jim: It's interesting that the environment had more personality than the characters in it - and yes, the heart was part of what made that so beautiful and detailed.
John: The heart gets incredibly angry when you ask it about innocents you've killed.
Alec: Hah, I didn't know that. I also like that it basically encourages you to trust no-one. I expected betrayal from everyone, because it suggests they all have an agenda. Added to the tension and paranoia beautifully.
Jim: I thought the wider fiction of the game was interesting: The Outsider as a mythology was strong, even if the character itself was a bit... teen vampire?
Adam: He looks terrible.
Alec: I just thought someone had read too much of Gaiman's Sandman. The Outsider's followers were the more compelling aspect - the occultist powergames and hints of a monstrous world in the shadows.
Jim: Yeah, there were strong Gaiman influences in there - but then there were lots of pulp fiction references in there. (Several Portal references too.)
Adam: I like that the Outsider's fascinated by Corvo simply because Corvo is fascinating.
John: I felt like the Outsider story was one they started but then had no idea where to go with.
Alec: I suspect the Outsider will be the construct of sequels.
Jim: Yes, I suspect the deeper Outsider stuff might have been postponed for other games.
Alec: It's clear within the books and letters that he's got other agents doing other things in parallel with you. Primarily for his own curiosity.
Adam: I'm probably more generous - I think the Outsider works well as a suggestion rather than something conclusive. It's a game full of suggestions. Did anyone else find themselves as giddily excited just by finding maps with names of places that had been mentioned in a book somewhere else?
Alec: Yeah, I agree with you there. I guess I just wish he wasn't a character we met, more something implied that sent messages and directives somehow. e.g. if it all came from the heart - that would have been strong?
Jim: The entire worldbuilding methodology for Dishonored is to imply the world outside Dunwall, as if that context makes more of it as a place.
Adam: Yes, for all the detail of Dunwall, it's a place so often defined by what it isn't.
Jim: Agreed re Outsider - it was an "oh, don't SHOW the monster" sort of moment.
John: While we obviously don't want to say plot stuff, I thought the "twist" was horribly over-telegraphed. While the game itself is so strong that the average story doesn't really matter, it's sad to think how even more amazing it could be had it had a BioShock moment.
Alec:Yeah, though I sort of read it as coming across as deliberately inevitable, we're encouraged to think about this world in a certain way, and that was always going to happen within it.
Jim: Yes, the plot was obvious from the first few moments. The twist was "when, not if".
Alec: And who, exactly.
John: However, and I think this might be one of the best things about the game, its pacing was just the best I think I've ever seen. When I thought it was beginning to wind up I was thinking, "No, this is too soon! I want more!" And then it delivers me that more.
Jim: Comparisons with DXHR are going to be inevitable, aren't they? I think Dishonored shows up how clumsy a lot of that game was.
Alec: But then Thief always made DX1 look clumsy in a lot of ways. DX games are maximalist, trying to be jack of all trades whereas Thief and Dishonored focus on one particular thing. Though Dis tries to do two things, really.
Jim: Several things, arguably. This is Deus Ex without much of the role-playing aspect. Still maximalist for a combat game, I would say.
John: You know, I never once thought of DXHR as I played. Thief, BioShock certainly, but Deus Ex never crossed my mind.
Jim: On John's point about pacing - the game let you play - and i think it shames the like of Assassin's Creed in that regard. While there was an extra layer of silly fiction, the game was the game, and you got right into it
Alec: Yeah, I've seen a lot of people saying in regard to length that Assassin's Creed games offer far more 'content' despite being stealth, but while I dig those games hugely, there's so much filler. And most all it's largely telegraphed - here is the icon showing where the minigame is.
Jim: The reason DXHR kept occurring to me, was because of the environment and architecture - I kept thinking how in DXHR there was always an alternate route, whereas in Dishonored there were just routes, and you discovered them or not - they never felt like "this is the air duct".
Alec: Yeah, to the point that you got XP for finding Stealth Route in DX. Which meant I was grinding, finding all three routes just for XP's sake. While Dishonored is about organic discovery.
Adam: A quick interjection, on the word clumsy, all of the clever clever stuff really wouldn't be as impressive if the foundation wasn't so elegant. Corvo, in a weird way, is the most well-animated character despite being unseen. He moves so *well*.
Jim: Exactly - and so little of AssCreed rewards real skill - whereas in Dishonored I am getting better and better with the tools.
Alec: Yes, Dishonored has worked hard on movement and travel - even swimming feels good.
John: I loved how skidding was completely fun, but never had a useful purpose.
Jim: Adam: agreed, and I think that sense of flow in everything is enormously important to the success of the game. Seldom do you find first person controls as perfectly poised as this. Or any controls, really.
Alec: I didn't use skidding much, but a couple of times when I did it felt incredible, really dramatic action movie stuff, actually sliding into cover just before I was seen by an overseer. I was beaming, all "I am so good at this".
Jim: Yeah, i did it by accident the first time, in an escape, and was so pleased with myself.
John: Did people ever use possessing humans?
Alec: Yeah, loads.
Jim: Yes, possession was super great. Interesting that people think it's “unrealistic” having read just the previews and stuff. Once you play the game you realise: it's magic! This is a game about a magical assassin. That's the point. (The possession mechanic is also a variant on the one that appeared in Requiem: Avenging Angel, many years ago.)
Alec: Possession was crucial to non-lethalling the last three levels or so for me
Adam: I was mostly a rat man.
Jim: I possessed a fish, too.
John: I barely used it. Just for rats occasionally.
Alec: Because you, er, come out of them backwards, so you steer them to cover, exit then choke, unseen. So it was perfect for dealing with situations where three guards where close together. You'd pilot one away from the scene. I also used it to get through walls of light then deactivate them from the other side.
John: Ho boy - I just played it for a moment as we talk, and saw guards spawning in on a staircase. Now I hate the game.
Adam: There should be a bit where you can move a guard from his buddies and one of them follows him, thinking it is time for their regular romantic tryst. Then Corvo pops out of the back of his head.
Jim: Random fish anecdote: I was non-lethalling the Golden Cat level yesterday, and I choked out the courtesan who is outside. Unfortunately she toppled over the wall and into the water, where she was eaten by fish. I was all :(
Alec: Hah. yeah, occassionally my exploring would unleash swarms of rats from a locked room. That happened in the doctor's house on the first level, and they proceeded to eat sleeping men I'd left around the place. [Note - I've since been told apparently this can't happen, so I guess those dudes might have been dead somehow or I am mad. Either way, I reloaded and tried that section again, as wanted non-lethal. - Alec] Horrifying.
Jim: Yeah, the rats are monstrous. But they add so much life to the world. Always something scurrying underfoot.
Adam: Yeah, I have to admit, before I played it I didn't really GET the rat thing.
Alec: One thing I hate the game for is those River Krust things - these poison-spitting plants in the later levels, that seem to detect stealth and pummel you with deadly bile from great ranges. They seemed to be in there Just Because
Jim: Yeah, they're rubbish.
John: It is the law that every game has to have one stupid, pointless enemy that spoils things. It's not their fault.
Alec: Just to make things harder for a stealth player without any satisfying pay off. Fortunately they can be killed without it affecting the non-lethal rating. Plants aren't people.
Adam: At least there's no actual Bonehoard.
Jim: Does anyone have a favourite level yet?
Alec: I actually really like the penultimate one, the flooded district, with the teleporting guards everywhere and the boss assassin.
John: I think the masked ball was a favourite moment.
Adam: I like the bridge.
John: But the bridge was definitely the highlight for playing the game properly.
Alec: It's not the most thematically interesting - that's the ball - but it felt like the most open environment, and the wonderful looming of the drowned streets below.
Jim: Boss assassin bit was really good yeah, but I think the ball stood out, if just for the giant jellies
John: We should stress for fearful readers, you mean the boss of the assassins, rather than the game having a boss enemy. Which it does not.
Alec: Yes, there are no boss fights
Adam: IF it has bosses they are buildings.
Alec: Well, there is one, but it is an optional side-quest you may never see. The bosses are the levels, comparable to the tentacle beast in Half-Life.Accessing new rooms and spaces without being caught.
Jim: Boss assassin is a boss fight, surely?
Alec: I wouldn't know! I took all his stuff and got out there without him ever knowing
John: I didn't kill him, so no boss fight there.
Adam: He is the closest thing to another superhero. IF that's not too spoilery.
Jim: Oh interesting there's the chance for a big fight and then a morale decision if you go for him.
Alec: And that's what excites me - whole new aspects of the game I haven't seen, even if they're not necessarily to my tastes.
John: Shall we acknowledge that the very, very end was a bit plops in its delivery?
Jim: The entire last level was rubbish. No crescendo, no great challenge. Very low key thing, I thought. (Although I should be stressed that there are at least two different ending levels, which play out differently, depending on your actions in the earlier parts of the game.))
Alec: It wasn't the strongest, but on my part it felt very valedictory - like, I'd earned this, I'd beaten everything, now I got my lap of honour. And stealthing around that towering, long level was satisfying.
Adam: I thought it was weak but not entirely rubbish. I wonder how different it would be for you people and your non-killing ways.
Jim: I think I killed one guard on the way in, cos I couldn't get past him. But it was easier than a bunch of the previous level.
Alec: It made a certain sense, in that the city had very little left by that point.
Jim: It makes more sense for a game to end up a bang rather than a sigh, surely?
Alec: There's even a mention in the mission clues on one of the later levels that the guards are massively reduced now.
Jim: I'd imagined some surprise, but there was nothing.
Alec: Oh yeah, I'm not saying this was the best way, just that it's logical if nothing else, but would we have preferred DXHR-style mandatory boss fights?
Jim: Who wouldn't?! Everyone loved those.
Alec: It could have spammed Tallboys, but then how's that interesting for stealthers.
Jim: The tallboys barely featured, did they?
John: It's not about a boss fight. It's about having the ending either be special because it's the most elaborate challenge, or because it's a pile of awesome story. This is neither.
[Discussion descends into complicated spoiler-heavy comparisons of plot deviations.]
Alec: Blink will be interesting for speed runs. Though I noticed there are invisible ceilings on the highest buildings
John: Yes - I wish all rooftops had been accessible, rather than there being an arbitrary height restriction.
Alec: Presumably to stop people getting all the way to the top then jumping/falling/teleporting beyond the level boundaries. But it's annoying that they went for invisible ceilings, as it meant I kept trying then failing to get higher rather than already knowing where I could and couldn't go.
Jim: Let's do some concluding remarks, shall we? Is everyone as jubilant as I am that we finally have this game? It is surely the game that our DX/System Shock/Thief heritage promised us?
Alec: It's definitely pretty damned close to it. It's got this additional purpose of being a true blockbuster which means it isn't as unflinchingly inward-looking as Thief, but I'm ok with that. In this instance, I'm happy to have some great spectacle at the expense of a couple more systems.
Adam: I'm thrilled to bits. I was beginning to think everyone had forgotten how to do this sort of thing so well.
Jim: Single player game of the year?
Alec: I'm not ready to choose between this and XCOM yet. I expect to be playing XCOM for a long time to come, especially if mods surface.
John: I'm sure XCOM is really boring and rubbish, so this stands out for me.
Alec: There's also FTL... but action game of the year for sure
Adam: I'll stand by Crusader Kings 2 because nothing could bore John more. Dishonored is my favourite action game for a good few years.
Alec: The thing about Dishonored for me is how much it feels right.
Jim: Agreed. It overflows with master craftsmanship. Beautifully made. It's a luxury construct.
John: It's a stunning spectacle of a game. It's a game-game too - it embraces what only gaming can deliver, and cares so much about delivering it.
Adam: It is an important game too, which sounds so bloody pulpit-thumping, but it really is.
Jim: So we're recommending people buy it?
Alec: I never felt confused or uncomfortable, it immediately made sense, tapping into things and skills I knew well but without simply repeating them. People should buy it
Jim: If they don't, then I will be sad. (For them.)
John: Man! We forgot to mention how much fun blowing out the candles is!
Dishonored is out now in the US, and on the 12th in Europe.