Last year I replayed through all of the Bioshock games, and while that was mostly a good time, it left me wanting more by the end of it. Especially after the still artistically stunning but deeply flawed and paired back Infinite. I wanted more in the style of the earlier games, and something I hadn’t played before. So my attention turned to Dishonored. Or at least it did eventually. It took a long time to properly jump in to this game as I was unsure if I really wanted to. I knew that it wasn’t really exactly like Bioshock, being more on the stealth side of immersive sims, and I had actually played a bit of the opening hours years ago but lost interest at the time. But this time I eventually stuck with it and managed to see it through.
For those who may not know, Dishonored casts you in the role of Corvo, the bodyguard of the Empress of a vast empire at the height of an industrial revolution. In the opening moments you fail in your duty, as the Empress is killed by mysterious assassins with supernatural abilities, who kidnap the princess Emily, and frame you for the deed. With help from a mysterious godlike character called The Outsider, you are given your own magical powers to help you in your task of getting revenge on the Royal Spymaster, who orchestrated this attack to take control of the empire, declaring himself the Lord Regent. Teaming up with a group of loyalists who wish to see Emily regain her place on the throne, you sneak and stab your way through the labyrinthine capital city of Dunwall taking out targets close to the Lord Regent in order to undermine his power and eventually take him out as well. And to make things just that bit more interesting, this all happens in the midst of a rat plague sweeping the city.
Pictured: sneak; imminent stab
The game makes a good first impression, with a really solid opening few hours that do a great job of world-building, showing how thoroughly this setting has been fleshed out through all the incidental details you notice around levels. The design of those levels too is initially impressive, with their multi-layered complexity and size. It quickly reminded me of the modern Deus Ex games (Human Revolution in particular for proximity) in how similar it was in many ways. Once that thought popped in to my mind, it was impossible to ignore. And unfortunately when comparing the two, I found that Dishonored simply couldn’t stand up against it.
One of the biggest things that stands out are those levels. While at first both games seem similarly ambitious, Dishonored is actually quite a bit more linear. It separates levels in to distinct compartmentalised chunks, which usually only have you going through them in a single direction, even if there might be a number of different exits. Deus Ex on the other hand often gives you multiple directions to approach an objective from, so you are given different angles of attack, allowing for more variety in play style and a better sense that the area you are moving through is a sprawling location with lots of secret nooks and crannies to scope out, instead of Dishonored’s more restrictive stealth gauntlet. This also encourages exploration more in Deus Ex, as it rarely feels like a waste to look everywhere you can, while in Dishonored going out of your way to do something non-critical can sometimes feel like unwanted backtracking.
Deus Ex also has large urban hub areas for you to explore between the main story levels, while the closest thing Dishonored has in comparison is the Hound Pits Pub that you return to between every chapter. Deus Ex’s hub levels are fantastic, as they are probably the highlight of its non-linear level design. They pack in many smaller levels together that connect to the larger hub very organically, making them feel like much more of a cohesive world. They also give you a chance to see the world going on around you outside of what you are up to, giving it a much better sense of lived-in verisimilitude. Meanwhile the Hound Pits Pub is little more than a small, isolated couple of buildings where you are briefed and debriefed about missions by the few characters that exist there. It feels unconnected to the wider world the game takes place in, and there isn’t much to do, even in the way of interacting with other characters.
The Hound Pits Pub felt like it wanted to be more than it was
In a similar vein, Deus Ex has a superior sense of atmosphere to it. The larger hub levels are a part of it, as it lets you explore the world of the game outside of areas that are purely to do with your main mission, but also in terms of audio design. While Dishonored does an adequate job at this, it’s missing that extra level that Deus Ex has. It has a lot of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds effects and music that sells the idea that this world is more than just a picture on a screen, and it has a tone and mood to it that envelopes you that Dishonored doesn’t quite manage. Which is a shame, because I can see this setting being very capable of doing that. One of my early thoughts about the game’s world was how it was reminiscent of Bioshock Infinite, with a more bleak industrial tone to it. For all of Infinite’s issues, the way it uses incredibly strong soundscapes to sell its world is still top tier. Dishonored could have achieved something similar if it paid the same attention to audio.
To focus more on Dishonored on its own though, another issue I had was I often felt like I wasn’t getting enough information about the state of my surroundings, which meant getting spotted often seemed unfair, resulting in a lot of save-loading. I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to stealth games, nor am I particularly good at them. I don’t try to ghost everything, and as long as I feel like my mistake was my own, I’ll have no problem rolling with it. Too frequently in Dishonored that wasn’t the case. The lack of any kind of map contributed to this issue, but I can see why the developers would have not wanted to include one, to make you pay more attention to what is going on as you see it in front of you, rather than always staring down at a mini-map. But in my case it left me without crucial information. Surely there must be a way to give some sort of middle ground. But even the ability to see nearby enemies through walls didn’t reach that.
Next I have to mention the Lady Boyle chapter, so now we are entering spoiler territory, although on this section it will mostly be content spoilers. For a part of the game that I heard such positive things about beforehand, this was a real let-down. The premise is that you are tasked with eliminating the aristocrat Lady Boyle during a masquerade ball. With everyone wearing masks, you are able to mingle with the guests in plain sight. The catch is that there are actually three Lady Boyles, all in disguise. You have to work out which Boyle is which, and which one is your real target. So it sets up what looks to be an interesting twist on the stealth formula, where your challenge is to track down clues and connect the dots, rather than sneaking around and striking from the shadows. The problem is that the game almost immediately undercuts itself as soon as you get in to the party. A characters walks up to you and just tells you which Boyle is which. Then after a while of walking around and exploring, another character comes up to you and tells you which Boyle is your real target, as they are presenting you with the non-lethal option to beat the chapter. There’s no need to look for clues or work anything out yourself. On the contrary, what clues you can gather seem to contradict the answer you are given, with no explanation for why that is the case. And then on top of that, you are only given a single chance to speak with each Boyle, in order to lure your target away from the party. There is no warning for this whatsoever, and makes no sense in context. So in practice it’s much harder to work around the obtuse logic the game is running on than it is to actually achieve the task as it is given.
At least it provided some impressive decor
Later on in the game there was another big moment that was poorly handled, with the reveal of who was actually responsible for the assassination of the Empress. While the twist a little before that where the loyalists you're working with betray you to throw you under the bus was somewhat interesting, the game fails to bring any decent closure on finding out the identity of the real assassin. Or at least it didn't for me. The man responsible, Daud, is a bounty hunter who leads a team within a large oil company, which you can learn from reading through various bits of lore scattered around the level. While you can overhear a little moment where he confesses he regrets what he did, you never confront him. You never speak to him, and his existence doesn't really tie in to anything else significant in the game. The company he works for only ever gets mentioned in flavour text, and it's never explained why he or his team have supernatural powers like you. The powers themselves do imply a connection to The Outsider, but it's never brought up anywhere. I did stealth past him and not attack though, thinking that might result in him showing up in a bigger role later, but it never happens. I have read this Daud character shows up in future Dishonored content, so maybe it gets covered there, but here it was just a whole bunch of disappointing nothing.
The ending too is rather anticlimactic. In the last chapter, you infiltrate the stronghold of your former allies to foil their plot at seizing power for themselves, and save Emily from captivity. Much like with Daud, there is no big confrontation with these characters, or at least there didn’t seem to be from how I played it. And then when you free Emily from the room she is being held in, there is an abrupt and jarring cut that instantly takes you to a post-hoc epilogue scene narrated by The Outsider, taking place in an abstract void, that glosses over many details, feeling rather rushed. It punctuates the end of the game by dropping the ball yet again on the very last chance it has to make good on its story.
This game does make me think about some of my repeated issues with stealth games in general as well. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the genre, these are things that frequently stand out to me when I do give them a look. First, there’s the way they attempt to strike a balance in how much information they give to the player, and I almost never come across one that seems to nail it in a way I can get on with. If you give the player too little information, then the game becomes too hard and frustrating; feeling unfair, like you’re being penalised for things that you couldn’t have reasonably been able to know about. Too much, and it becomes too easy and boring, as well as hurting its own sense of believability, by covering the screen with lots of arbitrary and non-diegetic UI elements. Although I will say Deus Ex gets away with this one to a degree because of its hi-tech sci-fi setting. Secondly, I find there’s a kind of central logic to stealth games that discourages you from interacting with their systems. Usually the goal of these games is to get through a level avoiding contact with any enemy or hazard. So if you do, you've either already failed on some level because you've been spotted, or you're wasting valuable and limited resources that could be better used somewhere else. It ends up pushing the player towards using the simplest and most boring method for everything, and any time anything more exciting happens, it's a punishment that makes you feel like you're doing it wrong. While that may raise some hairs of a hardcore stealth fan, these are problems that I definitely felt Dishonored fell afoul of.
Not as useful a mechanic as it seems
In a related sense, it also makes me ponder on the immersive sim genre. While I find the idea of these games really appealing on a conceptual level, in practice my relationship with them is inconsistent at best. A big part of it is that I think there’s much more room in the genre than has been explored. Usually what you're getting with games like this is basically a stealth RPG. But they don't have to be that. And in fact, we have already seen how it doesn't have to be. These games are supposed to be about creating an interactive world where various different systems can bounce off each other to create options for players to approach problems in creative ways. Usually it seems the systems these games choose are stealth related. Except for the game that I mentioned right at the start of this blog; Bioshock. Some might argue that game doesn't qualify as this genre, but I think it at least shows a different direction it could explore. Making systems that lend themselves to open combat, rather than avoiding it. You can still have the sprawling level design and great world-building, and different tools to solve problems. But make those tools and problems something other than "get through unseen". We can even take this further in other directions too. The alternative doesn't even have to be combat, as much as I think that would still be very enjoyable.
But back to Dishonored, I’m afraid I have to conclude that it was rather disappointing. Although a lot of it does come down to its nature as a stealth game, being a genre I don’t tend to enjoy. There were some aspects that I can give credit for being well crafted, but the overall experience was still one that I didn’t gel with. I don’t want to rule out the idea of ever playing the DLC or sequel, but with me also not getting on with Prey, for many of the same reasons, I’m now two for two on Arkane games that I don’t like. I don’t see that trend turning around any time soon.