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Dishonored Second Opinion

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Consider the Leviathan

Dishonored Screenshot

HIGH Ghosting Dunwall Tower in under fifteen minutes.

LOW The interminable 7th level.

WTF Sending a woman off to a life of imprisonment and rape is the positive, "low chaos" option?

In the modern petrochemical era, whaling seems like a quaint activity, confined to musty Yankee literature and modern Japanese pet-food manufacturing, yet it's really quite a disturbing concept. From anatomical studies, we know that whales have the appropriate neural equipment to not only feel pain, but also to experience real suffering on account of it. Cetaceans have exhibited both self-awareness and behaviors reminiscent of human culture. All of this suggests that the whale-oil prosperity of Dishonored's fictional city of Dunwall depends on the murder of sentient beings. Yet Dishonored has no interest in exploring this or any other interesting idea suggested by its setting or scenario.

In many respects, it's almost impossible to overpraise Dishonored. My colleague Daniel Weissenberger has laid out many of its virtues, and yet it's hardly enough. The painterly beauty of the levels and characters strikingly refutes the argument for photorealism. The level design ranges from merely good to transcendent, creating challenge and opportunity from spaces that succeed not only as fields of play but also as depictions of the places they purport to be. The Golden Cat is as entertaining to navigate as it is convincing as a representation of a brothel.

Despite all those positives, I initially found it quite difficult to interest myself in playing the game. Dishonored presents the player with a thoroughly conventional scenario that almost immediately turns the setting into window-dressing. Rather than engaging with Dunwall's stratification of wealth or economy of murder in any serious way, we get treated to a simple tale of revenge.

For the bulk of the game, the protagonist Corvo takes orders from a group of colorless, expository characters to traverse Dishonored's magnificent levels to murder people that he does not know. The dullards who are nominally on Corvo's side will supply a perfunctory justification for the killing, but in general the game supplies little reason to feel anything about the targets at all. Much the same can be said for the rest of the cast.

Dishonored Screenshot

With the lone exception of Susan Sarandon's deliciously batty Granny Rags, Dishonored contains almost no characters worth remembering, or even talking to. The greatest offender is the Outisder, an ominous spirit feared by Dunwall's citizens who grants Corvo magic powers. He manifests as a bland dude in a leather jacket voiced by a somnolescent Billy Lush. Dishonored's most dubious achievement is that it makes the Devil seem boring.

Dishonored occasionally flirts with saying something about the division of wealth, most notably in the opulence of Lady Boyle's party, and the Lord Regent's explanation for his misdeeds—which, alas, exposes the game's positively sinful use of audio logs. Any hope of following this angle, however, is undercut by the fact that the game constantly makes adversaries out of the poor.

Poor people working for the city watch or the church will attack Corvo on sight. Poor people who are thugs will attack Corvo with only slight provocation. Poor people who can't fight back will raise a hue and cry, calling for their more vicious compatriots. Poor people who are sick—the zombie-like "Weepers"—will try to murder Corvo with their vomit. Even the animals get in on the attack, as rats gnaw at Corvo and ornery clams shower him with acid.

This gives us an interesting tally.

Rich people: Evil

Religious zealots: Enemies

Poor people: Enemies

Sick people: Enemies

Animals: Enemies

If a person or creature lives within the boundaries of Dunwall, chances are it is horrible and it wants Corvo dead, so pacifism seems like a bizarre response. Dishonored, however, actually hands out a judgment in this regard, offering the player a happy ending in exchange for sparing this sea of scumbags.

Dishonored Screenshot

The less murderous path, however, feels hacked-in, almost like a last-minute addition. Abilities and buffs that specifically benefit a non-violent approach are few, and equipment and upgrades are almost entirely irrelevant to a pacifist run. On a narrative level, the non-violent options seem ad hoc, and manifest as a parade of absurdities ranging from the mild (a back-alley cutthroat spontaneously offers to take two targets off Corvo's hands without killing them) to the sickening (giving an unconscious woman to a jilted lover who promises to imprison her forever).

Even on the strategic level that Daniel found so interesting, the dichotomy seems weak. The increase in Weepers and rats poses only a minor additional challenge, even if Corvo murders his way through the game from the beginning.

Dishonored can't draw a motivation for a peaceful playthrough from its main character, either, because Corvo is a complete blank. He has no backstory of emotional significance, no adversarial relationship with most of his targets, and neither says nor can be made to say anything important through the entire duration of the game. Corvo cannot have any motivation one way or another.

Nor can the player, at least not as part of the world, because Dishonored offers no convincing point of sympathy, nor even any real point of antagonism. As striking and original as its concepts are, the world and characters become a great blandness. Only the metagame offers any kind of motivation. Pacifism and violence simply become ways to get this achievement, see that ending, explore this self-imposed challenge.

When a player comes at the game this way, Dishonored truly shines, showing off the depth of its levels and the flexibility of its mechanics. It's just a shame that these motivations don't flow organically out of an emotional or intellectual engagement with its world. Arkane is content to let its concepts lay flat against the wall, and engage the player only on the level of stabbings and chokeholds.

Dishonored is the better part of a great game. And what a magnificent part! I could play with it for years, and probably will. But I will only be playing with it, poking and prodding its systems to see what happens, completely detached from its thin plot and cast of bores. Dishonored is a wonderful toy, with beautiful art and a fascinating setting, but like its protagonist, it has nothing interesting to say. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam purchase and reviewed on a Windows 7 PC equipped with an untweaked Intel i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a single Radeon 6800-HD series graphics card. Approximately 50 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 3 times).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language. All of that is true, and to it I might add that there is constant use of alcohol and tobacco, NPCs urinate on screen, one level is set in a brothel, and one target is disposed of "non-violently" by sending her off to be locked away and raped for the rest of her life. So. Not for kids.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Most spoken lines have subtitles, but they can flash off screen rapidly or become difficult to follow when multiple voice tracks are triggered simultaneously. I have seen some complaints about the readability of the subtitles, although I personally had no problem. In addition, a piano flourish sounds when you're detected, and is a much more effective warning than the visual counterpart (lightning bolts around an NPCs head) you might not see. The resulting increase in difficulty is minor unless you are attempting to ghost the levels.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Arkane Studios  
Publisher: Bethesda  
Series: Dishonored  
Genre(s): Stealth  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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A swing and a miss but I still love it.

There must be something in the way I approached Dishonored, or the way I read between the lines but I found enough characterisation and motivation for the characters to keep me interested.

One example I found particularly noteworthy, was the ambiguous nature of Pendleton's motivations. Initially he seems to be involved because it's "all a bit if a lark", he doesn't take things as seriously as the others. It's clear he stood to gain from the removal of his brothers but the depth of that is revealed when you explore his room between missions and hear of the ways in which his elder brothers tormented him as a child. Yet at the same time if you choose not to murder them he leaves you a note of thanks. He's obviously conflicted when it comes to his brothers and his role within the Loyalists.

As for Corvo himself the way in which Emily appeared to be reacting to my behaviour became a motivating factor for how I would act. This became especially relevant when the extent of their history is more explicitly hinted at. The ending strongly reminded me of BioShock 2 in the way in which the father/daughter style relationship relates to the outcome you witness.

Other characters too felt more subtly characterisation once I'd started to discover more about them. The racial prejudices faced by Sokolov for example, or Slackjaw's parentage. A lot of these were revealed by the Heart which I imagine isn't a method that appealed to, or was noticed by, everybody.

I can't defend the way in which Lady Boyle can be dealt with, I believe those methods of "non-lethal" removal we're introduced late and were meant to be morally ambiguous but that doesn't make me feel much better about that one in particular.

As for everybody else being hostile, logically it makes some degree of sense given Corvo is masked and heavily armed but that's a stretch. I've heard the argument made that the chaos system is a way to monitor how you choose to treat people you don't have any obligation to treat well and when everybody attacks you on sight the choice to exercise restrain is a valid one. It's not about whether you are a good or bad on some social-economic or political scale but rather how willing you are to use direct violence when it's in your power not to. If you only kill the mission specific targets you'll get the low chaos ending I believe. You'll also get it by not killing them even when those alternate options are often more horrific. I wish something more had been done with them though, the way they are dealt with, particularly with Lady Boyle, is problematic in the extreme.

Fair points

A lot of these are fair points, Justin. I think my response boils down to a couple of ideas.

1) The characters have no hook for further exploration. Obviously, Dishonored gives you the opportunity to look into the characters' backstory, but when I did this it was only because of completionist tendencies. That is, I grabbed audio logs and read diaries because this is the sort of game where you do that sort of thing. But I didn't do it out of a desire to learn more about any of the characters. I think it's a major failing of the game that they are so flat and lacking in personality, and that they rarely, if ever, seem to have any human moment in front of you. And the Outsider... I'm not sure there's any defense for that.

2) The game makes a failed play for class commentary. The game makes its case that the rich and powerful of Dunwall are evil and deserve punishment. Yet, the player can only progress through the game by hurting people who are poor or otherwise innocent. Max Payne 3 had this same problem. Of course, Corvo has the option to slaughter everyone at Lady Boyle's last party, but the game punishes this behavior by withholding resources (a rune), and an achievement, and the dead nobles add to the chaos meter.

3) The chaos system answers a question the rest of the game isn't asking. I think your interpretation of the system is fine. It's just that the game tells a story about rulers who harmed people (their subjects) they were obligated to treat well. I think if you've gotten to "I've no reason to treat these people well" then you've already sided with Hiram Burrows. So, how you respond to that open question is irrelevant in terms of the question the game is asking. The more interesting question of whether any action Corvo takes would create a just society in Dunwall deserving of continued existence is barely touched.

4) These problems could be solved if Corvo were a character. He isn't, though, so he can't verbally spar with the Admiral and Treavor in a way that reveals some of their actual character, or converse with Sokolov about their shared experience as minorities. He can't argue that his actions towards the poor serve a greater purpose. He can't recast the kill/KO question in a more interesting light - his conspirators never ask why he isn't leaving more bodies behind. His silence is a major weight on the game, and an unnecessary one. Adam Jensen, for instance, was a fully-realized character of sufficient depth that I could usually find something in him to justify the way I was playing. I think this is a way that Dishonored follows BioShock's example to its detriment.

Different readings.

Hmm...

I agree that at face value most of the characters have little of interest to them. I didn't actually like Granny Rags as a character even when I knew more about her but I think that's a matter of taste. I sought out additional information because it was there to be found, though after reading a few pieces I got the sense there was more to these people than they were showing on the surface and so actively looked for information about specific people. This led to an increased use of the Heart for example. With regards to The Outsider, his portrayal never bothered me. I come to the conclusion that the way he appeared to Corvo was merely the form he had opted to take, being as it was superficially similar to the way Corvo is portrayed. Later it was hinted that his true form is some manner of sea creature, which seemed to validate my initial conclusions.

You say that the player "can only progress through the game by hurting people who are poor or otherwise innocent" which I think is where we disagree, the only people you need to harm are your targets, those who have abused their power and betrayed their obligation. This is what I saw was the message behind the Chaos system. If you wilfully harm the poor and innocent with abandon then the state of Dunwall declines, acting with restrain and not abusing your power is what results in low chaos and eventually, potentially, a cure for the plague. This is also reflected by the behaviour of Emily.

What I meant by people you have "no obligation to" is that these people will try to kill you regardless of any action on your part. Either through a desire to cause you harm or simply through fear, the citizens of Dunwall and the City Watch will attack on sight. It's within Corvo's power to not meet that violence with violence and it's the idea of the value of restrain that I think is the game's message. As you mention a lot of the powers and tools are of little benefit to a player focused on low chaos, and I think that's telling. Corvo has all these tools, all this potential for destruction and he\you can chose not to use it. The chaos system rewards that decision to limit yourself.

That I didn't share your other problems might be why Corvo's silence bothered me little. The comparison to Adam Jensen is interesting as, much like with JC Denton before him, I found the characterisation of Jenson frustrating. This is a character with an explicit history with other characters within the world yet the game did nothing to explain the specifics of that history. Jensen would comment on events with a knowledge of them that was never granted me as the player, it created a disconnect I found hard to reconcile. I had a conversation with a former colleague, Haas, and it was only during that conversation that I was offered any insight into what actually happened in Mexico town despite that being a supposedly defining moment in Jensen's past.

Is "not killing" the same as "not harming"?

I think part of our disagreement stems from what we view as harm. You seem to see knocking the guards out or killing them as a difference in kind. I see it as a difference in degree. Choking someone to unconsciousness is not so very far from choking them to death, as a physical matter, and while Corvo is restraining himself from lethal force, he is still hurting people.

That said, I think the idea of restraint is an interesting one, and Rowan Kaiser's article on this angle is a great read. The thing is, I don't feel like the idea shows up anywhere except in the player's head. The mechanics may argue for that theme, but the world doesn't give it any real context, which may be how we ended up learning about chaos in loading-screen text.

Like most modern games it

Like most modern games it goes through the motions but once you get skin deep it turns into a lump of pretty but boring gray goo.

The AI was not toned down for console players it would have been great IMO.

I had a more fun time with Dues ex 2:IW 0-o

My thoughts exactly!

I was having the same thoughts when going through Dishonored. The world looks so nice and has so many interesting ideas, but absolutely none of them are explored in any meaningful manner. Pushed from mission to mission by shallow stock-characters I was more often than not wondering why I should show restraint with my powers. I mainly did it because I was aiming for a "low chaos" playthrough, but there was no in-game motivation for doing so. Most powers favor the guns-blazing-approach and almost everything that wasn't a building was hostile. It reminded me more on Bioshock than anything else, including the feeling that this game could have been so much more, but turned out to be bare bones.

Also, for a game that makes such a fuzz about freedom how to approach problems it was oddly restricting. For example: why can't I hold a crossbow in my hand while equipping a power in the other? No, I have to hold a knife in my right at all times in case an apple attacks me that needs to be peeled or something. Why can't I use some coins to distract guards? Why is there no social option for anything? Why no option to disguise as one of the masked Overseers? The stealth-options are pretty limited. The non-lethal "low chaos" options of how to get rid of people are pretty contrived and some plain awful. Especially the Boyle-bit.

All that and not mention of the AI?

All of that nit picking on the games better designs but nothing on the atrocious AI?

For me the characters and settings are fine its not great but at least what you can expect from an average game. The AI is so bad its game breaking bad.

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