“Dishonored” wears its influences on its sleeve – “Deus Ex”, “Thief”, “System Shock” – but through its curious and compelling worldbuilding, gameplay, and aesthetic, manages to feel like something new, creative, and fully-formed right out of the gate.
[Note: This review contains no spoilers.]
The game takes place in the city of Dunwall, a Dickensian “oilpunk”/”whalepunk” industrial London, and the city is in many ways the most compelling character of the game. Certainly, there’s more colour and life to it than the human characters, which are by and large, disappointingly one-note (maddeningly, the few interesting character relationships are the ones left almost entirely to suggestion and implication, rather than being portrayed outright).
The city oozes with character, with environmental storytelling befitting the Bethesda name the game was published under, although the game itself was developed by Arkane Studios. Countless micro-stories can be found suggested in environmental placement and arrangement, as well as in recordings, journals, and the player character using a magical “heart” to read the minds of non-player characters (the stories this gameplay mechanic produces are drawn from a random pool, which takes away some of the magic when you hear the same ones said for different characters, but are enjoyable and occasionally quite powerful nonetheless). The history and lore of the world, and of Dunwall, are compelling, particulary the whale/oil aesthetic. It’s all excellently realised by the truly fantastic visual direction of the game. There must be some extraordinarily talented artists at Arkane Studios, and they did tremendous work here.
Game director Harvey Smith has spoken about applying the principle of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Unity of Effect” concept – the idea that every single element of a story should cohesively contribute to a singular emotional impact – to the structure of the series (that is, “Dishonored”, “Dishonored 2”, and any possible future entries). Smith was also the lead designer for “Deus Ex”, the original 2000 genre-defining masterwork, where a similar mindset was applied, and it really pays off in all these games he’s worked on. There’s none of the bloat of completely open sandboxes that one might find in games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or Bethesda RPGs.
Instead, with a mission-based structure, the game is separated into unique levels/worldstages with their own goals and environments. Each mission is certainly dense, and packed full of information, but it’s all singularly focused and cohesive; there’s no sprawl. It’s effectively appropriating Poe’s idea of a short story being a stronger way to tell a unified story into a video game; the game becoming a short story collection, each mission a short story unto itself.
The gameplay itself is very well-refined. The player has access to all manner of creative and unique powers and gameplay functions, and the game accounts for countless unique ways to apply them. The worldstate of the game reacts to how you apply the powers to – if you play very violently and chaotically, killing many in the process, the plague infesting the city will spread further because of how you’re causing so many corpses to be littered around the place. This will lead to further amounts of rats and the like in later missions, increase the number of guards around, and lead to characters having different opinions of you, the player character, Corvo. Likewise, playing in a “low chaos” style, mostly stealthily and avoiding killing many people, will see less plague, less guards, and characters reacting quite differently to how they would to Corvo in a “high chaos” playthrough.
The ultimate ending of the game differs substantially based upon these cumulative gameplay choices. It’s interesting to ponder – low chaos playthroughs result in less guards, thus the stealth actually gets easier as you progress, but high chaos playthroughs result in more guards, meaning the combat gets harder as you progress. Is this what players of those alternative styles generally desire? I’m not totally sure, and am generally one more interested in the story, worldbuilding, and aesthetics of a game rather than strictly the mechanisms of the gameplay, but I think the way the different reactivity to the different playstyles may not necessarily be what those certain players desire.
The game gets so much right – the worldbuilding, the aesthetics (the music and the art direction are fantastic), the gameplay – but it does not fire on all cylinders, unfortuinately. The story is rote, and the characters dull. Quite a shame, considering there are a lot of legitimate talents amongst the voice cast, including Lena Headey, John Slattery, Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fisher, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jon Curry, and many others. Those actors are saddled with very thin characters and don’t transcend their meagre roles. Brad Dourif, Michael Madsen, and Billy Lush are the three actors that do manage to do noticeably fine work in the game, through a combination of slightly better writing for their characters, and just powering through with effective performances.
Michael Madsen’s character takes the role of the protagonist in the two post-game story DLCs (“The Knife of Dunwall” and “The Brigmore Witches”), taking over the main game’s silent protagonist’s (a convention I hate, and one that didn’t carry over for the sequel) role. These DLCs take place during the story of the main game; they’re a sidequel. The story of the DLCs is immediately so much more compelling, not because of the writing itself necessarily, but because there’s an actual proper character driving it. Even better that that character himself is being driven by a strong vocal performance.
The game isn’t perfect. For all its triumphs in aesthetics, worldbuilding, and gameplay, the story is painfully thin, the characters generally too dull to even be ciphers, and I’m unsure if the reactivity of the game to player actions works as well as it could. Nonetheless, for those few things it does wrong, it does so much right, and is overall a fantastic game. I give it four tanks of whale oil, and a bone charm.