Totally Not a Review: Dishonored

Sometimes it’s the middle impression that counts.

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We always hear that first impressions are all-important, that a date or an interview can be decided in the first initial moments that the two parties meet, those precious few seconds you have to metaphysically connect with the other person, where success or failure depends on an arcane alchemy of body language and eye contact and whether or not you forgot  you were actually wearing a Thundercats t-shirt.

That is, of course, complete bullshit.  Well, the t-shirt thing is probably irreversible, but the other stuff, when dealing with other, rational human beings, can be corrected.  Provided the person at the other end isn’t a racist or some other variety of crazy, chances are you’re going to be judged on your value as a person, or your competence.  Or failing that, your ability to lie convincingly.

In media, first impressions are different, mainly because they’re often wrong.  Take Prometheus, for example.  Judged by it’s first moments, Prometheus would be a 2001-like tale of humankind grappling with an ancient and unknowable alien civilization and the unsettling knowledge that mankind is but an indistinct mote to the greater intelligences of our galaxy.  Then an hour later Logan Marshall-Green has thrown away his spacesuit’s helmet while alien parasites are swimming in his eyeballs and he’s unable to correlate these two events.

Games are unique in that their first impressions are actually important, and they almost always lie.  You have half an hour, maybe, before the reviewer turns on the game or worse, some NeoGAF resident reveals to the world that the game you spent 18 months of your life and sanity to is actually the literal resurrection of Hitler.

So that brings us to Dishonored, a game who’s first impressions actually start well before you place the disc in the drive.  Through a combination of marketing, PR, word of mouth--things well beyond developer Arkane Studio’s own control-- our first impressions of Dishonored were that it was a combination of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s stylish stealth with the storytelling sensibilities of Bioshock and and the steampunk setting of Thief.  A heady mixture to be sure, and absolutely, 100% totally unsustainable.

But for that first half hour Dishonored actually pulls it off.  Mostly.  Arkane Studios has created a rich and beautiful world in the city of Dunwall, the setting for Dishonored.  Epic Games likes to talk about the Destroyed Beauty of it’s Gears of War series, but Dunwall actually exemplifies this ideal by giving us a corrupt and ruined beauty.  Dunwall is besieged, although not by an army outside the gates, but rather a ruinous contagious disease that has crippled the island city-state and isolated it from the rest of the world.  

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The playable character, Corvo, has just returned from a failed diplomatic mission on behalf of his Empress in an attempt to find relief for his city.  This is relayed in the opening sequence as Corvo is escorted back to his city, guards and townsfolk speaking of Corvo’s exploits as both diplomat and the Empress’ man-at-arms in hushed, reverent tones.  While this sequence is only barely interactive-- at one point you can play hide-and-go-seek with the Empress’ daughter and only heir Emily-- it is still remarkably effective at both setting up the world and Corvo’s relationship with the Empress and Emily.  

It is this first impression that works so well, that makes it clear the Arkane Studios wants you to fall in love with their creation.  Your character is a combination of Jack Bauer and James Bond and Harry Kissinger, the Most Competent Man in the World, a refreshing change from the everyman soldier that game studios usually try to portray their superhumanly skilled protagonists as.  Things fall to hell in short order as the Empress is murdered before Corvo’s very eyes, Emily is kidnapped and he’s left holding the bag.  The first playable of the game works incredibly well as well, setting up a scenario cut right from the fabric of Looking Glass’ legendary Thief series as Corvo works his way out of his prison cell and onto his quest for revenge.

But then that first impression fades and the unsettling truth starts to dawn-- something is very wrong with Dishonored.  


Grating Expectations

Simply put, following the prison break Corvo stops being driven by revenge and becomes a hired goon.  Corvo immediately hooks up with a resistance movement who’s treachery later in the game is comically telegraphed, and instead of giving the player any agency at all over the storyline, Corvo starts taking missions.  And by “taking missions” I mean “Corvo is inserted into a map and starts following objective waypoints”.

Usually I don’t pay a lot of attention to the story in a video game, unless it’s something like The Walking Dead, where the game is little more than a scaffold for the story to take place within.  

Normally I’m willing to ignore a disconnect between game concept and game reality.  Dishonored is a stealth action game, and I’m far more interested in game mechanics than I am game story.

But that becomes difficult when so much of Dishonored’s promise hinges on that concept.  We were sold upon Corvo being a badass single-minded instrument of wrath.  Just look at ads for the game:  Corvo is lurking outside a window, several stories up, knife in hand, awaiting the decadent and corrupt target within to turn his back just long enough so you can strike-- the ultimate tool of player agency.  

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With the tag line “Revenge Solves Everything” we’re lead to believe that Corvo is taking charge of his own fate.  Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not like Corvo is putting together the pieces of the conspiracy that killed his Empress and destroyed his name.  No, you’re just killing targets because a guy in the hub world told you to kill that target.  There’s side missions, but they’re largely inconsequential and as is too common in games nowadays they just lead to more currency that you wind up with a surplus of anyway.

I feel like I must have gone over this before, but just in case you don’t remember a paragraph from some months old article:  I have two major metrics by which I judge if a game is great or not.  One:  If while I’m playing it I lose passage of time and am willing to put off food, bodily functions and minor distractions such as city-destroying superstorms, and Two:  when not playing that game, all I can really think of is how long it’ll be until I can get back to playing again.

Dishonored’s first three or four missions following the jailbreak say six hours total, maybe a third of the entire game, failed these metrics, badly.  Indeed, shortly after completing the game’s fourth mission, where you are tasked with extracting an evil scientist from his laboratory and bring him back to your HQ, presumably so he can do his Evil Scientist schtick for your masters instead, I decided my time was better spent finishing up the last half of Borderlands 2.


Apples, Micheal Jordan, Bioshock, Oranges, Dishonored, and LeBron James

This was wildly unfair of me.

Here’s the thing.  Despite Dishonored’s faulty premise, lack of agency and frankly misleading PR, its mechanics and gameplay and level design-- the things we all come to expect out of a stealth game-- were rock solid.  The levels were intricate, well-designed and riddled with secret passages, and not the sort of Deus Ex: Human Revolution secret passages which were little more than blatantly placed crawlspaces.  Dishonored’s secret passages take the form of opened door transoms, absurdly sturdy hanging light fixtures and tall bookcases, areas designed to be exploited by the game’s signature short-range teleportation mechanic.  Sneaking up behind and incapacitating targets is deeply rewarding, and Corvo is given a wealth of imaginative and inventive tools to escape from any situation.  

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There is a great game within Dishonored, and the game is unfairly victim to expectations beyond its control.  Sure, I was sold on the concept of Corvo as a whirlwind of vengeance, something akin to Liam Neeson’s character in Taken combined with the ability to summon vast armies of bloodthirsty rats at a whim.  But the expectations placed upon it were entirely of our own making.  
No, it’s not as stylish as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, even though the level design is far superior.  No, the storytelling and atmosphere isn’t on the same level as Bioshock.  And it doesn’t really have the same atmosphere nor player agency as a Thief game.  But in reality, no game could have met those expectations.  If any game did, we’d stumble over ourselves to hand it Game of the Year accolades.  Personally I’d name it Game of The Forever and dedicate a shrine to its name.  But that game is never going to happen, and it’s unfair to penalize Dishonored for living up to impossible expectations.

So with great trepidation I resumed playing Dishonored, and for whatever reason-- perhaps it was the break with the game or an actual qualitative improvement in the game itself-- Dishonored began to click.  The mission immediately following the Evil Scientist extraction tasked Corvo with infiltrating a high society ball, a celebration for socialites and monied elite who revelled in hedonistic decadence while the city itself quite literally crumbled about them.  Instead of sneaking around and murdering his way from waypoint to waypoint, Corvo instead had to acquire an invitation (or find a way to crash the ball uninvited), question revellers, find clues, put together bits of story until you finally found your target and could dispose of her however you wished.  This scenario would not be out of place in a James Bond movie.  At last, Dishonored was coming into its own.

Dishonored is one of those rare games where the developers chose not to cram the best four hours of content into the first six hours of the game.  Instead, it builds.  The (again, comically telegraphed) betrayal comes and Corvo is finally allowed to seek his retribution, at long last you’re allowed to make your own choices as to who becomes a victim of your wrath.

And then it happened.  I stopped thinking about other games.  I stopped browsing the internet for election news, or the impending superstorm that was about to destroy much of Manhattan, or the constant tragedy that is the Carolina Panthers 2012 football season.  I cared about this game, I cared about it to the point that I got headaches from lack of food, I cared about it to the point that I earned disapproval from family members for not calling my mom on the eve of my imminent doom, I cared about the game to the point that I really wasn’t concerned that I had recently purchased twelve cans of tuna and no can opener and the stores were boarded up.  Somewhat belatedly, Dishonored met my two metrics of game greatness

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Recently I’ve added in a third metric:  A game is usually great if I don’t want the game itself to end.  I looted every nook and cranny of Skyrim in a vain attempt to keep the plot from moving forward; in the case of Deus Ex Human Revolution I finished the game and then immediately restarted.  Twice.  When Dishonored wrapped up some 3 days later, I immediately started replaying the missions in an attempt to get the no-detection, no-kill achievements.  It wasn’t even a question.  In fact it is very difficult for me to write this very article as I want to get back into the game ASAP and play through the next mission, involving what I intend to be an undetected infiltration of a heavily armed cathouse.

Once shorn of its failed premise and disappointing plot, the mechanics and design of Dishonored are nothing short of brilliant.  Once I got past the idea that this game was not Deus Ex Human Revolution meets Bioshock, I began to notice the subtle touches of game design genius that abound within.  Brilliantly conceived crawlspaces and cleverly hidden ledges that let you skip from area to area effortlessly, hidden areas that would have been entire levels of their own right in other games, NPC interactions and plot points that simply cannot be comprehended on a single play-through, hours of content that I never knew existed.  The true brilliance of Dishonored does not become apparent until you are intimately familiar with the game itself.

If you’re reading this then you’re probably not a sports fan, but a few of you are and I consider myself something of a sports dilettante.  It is remarkable to me how similar sports fans and game fans are to one another.  One of the ways we are a lot alike is how sports fans are constantly comparing players (in our case, games) to one another, without really letting that player define his or her own niche.

For years basketball fans were incensed that LeBron James was not in fact The Next Michael Jordan (Basketball fans are constantly searching for The Next Michael Jordan without admitting that MJ was himself a psychotic, destructive jerk that you probably don’t want a carbon copy of.  I say this as a lifelong Chapel Hill fanboy, where MJ graduated from:  To Wit: Fuck Duke) without realizing that this was unfair to LeBron.  LeBron was something different, something never seen before.  It took LeBron most of his career to shake that stigma and to this day he’s hounded by the comparisons despite his own brilliance as a basketball player, as if he were somehow less of a player because of a seeming refusal to pattern himself after a past star.

Now, I’m not saying Dishonored is on the same level with modern games as LBJ is to modern basketball players, as that would be insane, but for my argument, they’re similar.  I came into Dishonored expecting it to be something the game clearly had no intention of being despite it’s art style and genre, and that expectation made it impossible for me to judge Dishonored fairly. past its (outstanding) first impressions.


The Fine Art of Playing Games Wrong

At its core, Dishonored is designed to be broken.  The levels are meant to offer a vast amount of freedom in their traversal, and Corvo’s abilities are designed to exploit those pathways as the player sees fit.  As a result, The brilliance of Dishonored’s level design comes at a high cost:  There is virtually no disincentive to play Dishonored as sloppily as possible, reach your objective in mere minutes, murder that target amid a room full of guards and then dash to freedom.  

In theory there is a “chaos” system involved where Dishonored becomes more difficult the more bodies and alerts you leave in your wake, and the more carelessly you play the worse your ending will be.  In practice however, you’d have to go out of your way to kill enough people to trigger the bad ending, and the entire point of the game’s traversal system is to allow you to avoid the extra rats and guards the chaos system spawns in the first place.

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You sort of have to make a pact with Dishonored to get the most out of it, a vow not to invalidate the spirit in which the developers crafted the experience.  But it is a delicate balance:  There is no real way to know if you’re sequence breaking or not, there is no way to tell if the path you’ve found was a meticulously planned out shortcut programmed into the game or if you’re actually missing vast swaths of the game proper.  

I’m not sure if there was a way to prevent this and still keep the spirit of Dishonored intact.  The downside is that there will be a lot of people who will plow through Dishonored in 4 or 5 hours and feel very cheated in the process, and they’d probably be justified in feeling that way.  Dishonored is one of those games where it’s very possible to play it wrong simply because there is no right way of playing it. I turned off objective markers and had a fine time exploring as many of the nuances of the game as I could, but you have to go out of your way to turn off options to get that same experience.  For most-- especially given that the consequences for playing “badly” are so deeply hidden-- these nuances will be lost.

Dishonored is a brave rejection of the sort of narrative, strictly linear storytelling performed in Uncharted 2 (or, as I like to call it “Every Single Game Announced So Far For 2013”) that herds players from area to area, carefully hiding how little real input they have over their gaming experience.  In a very real way this sort of design actively harms games like Dishonored.  We have become accustomed to games being roller coaster rides.  When a game like Dishonored comes along and gives us a toybox to play with we simply don’t know how to react properly anymore.


Wrath Deferred

There are other minor mechanics quibbles that are annoying, but not severe and only stand out because the rest of the gameplay is so well crafted.  The targeting system for the game’s teleport mechanic is untrustworthy, but it’s easy enough to work around.  As with virtually every stealth game ever made you have to accept some head-scratching guard behavior.  By far the biggest gameplay issue is one of audio:  For some insane reason there are background audio events that overwhelm every other sound in the game, including environmental and speech elements that you sometimes badly need to hear,and there’s no way to turn down these specific elements.

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As I said, very minor.  Arkane has crafted a rock-solid gaming experience, even if they blatantly mislead us in the process.  If you are able to overcome Dishonored’s very real, bitterly disappointing narrative failings it is a fantastic video game, and one you need to play.  Not the year’s best probably (and only really in the conversation because 2012 has turned out to be such a depressingly weak year), but it’s brilliance in level design and the wealth of options at your disposal demand your attention.  

We wanted Dishonored to combine the atmosphere of Thief with the storytelling of Bioshock and the gameplay of Deus Ex.  But that’s not fair to either Dishonored or its creators.  No one could have produced that game.  The failed promise of its own plot aside, what Dishonored does should be cherished and enjoyed.  In the vernacular of basketball fans, it is an original prototype.