Retrospective: Dishonored

I actually got Prey in a bundle of games from Arkane Studios, so with that title completed, I spent the past week with Dishonored. It was very interesting to go from Prey, a game released in 2017, to Dishonored, released in 2012. I’m actually amazed by that time jump. I remember hearing a lot about Dishonored when the first game came out, and that’s now about 8 years ago! It seems like it was just last year. Anyway, the interesting thing about taking this leap of 5 years back in time between games is that it gives the impression that features are being stripped away. Of course, that’s just a result of the developers building on features they’d already established, taking advantage of their existing foundation and newer advances in technology to build a better game. Yes, I think Prey is the better game. I absolutely loved my time with it and greatly enjoyed the story, characters, and setting. But I do see how much Prey owes to Dishonored, from the basics of stealth/combat/superpowers defining divergent play styles to the presence of an evolving world divided into zones.

The highlight of Dishonored, for me, was the setting. Dunwall is an interesting city, clearly inspired by a steampunk take on nineteenth-century London. The presentation of a city, and a nation, struggling with the spread of an epidemic against the rise of a violently oppressive dictatorship certainly feels timely, as well, even as it fits naturally within a setting inspired by English history. The glimpses of a larger world, largely dominated by a scattering of islands that have submitted to the rule of an Empire based out of Dunwall, with a fabled Lost World landmass that has defied colonization across the sea, feels fresh yet familiar. We are offered a unique fantasy world, vividly portrayed through environmental narrative (clothing, technology, architecture, art, the wear and tear on the city, the contrast between the remaining wealthy enclaves and the crumbling poorer districts overrun with those infected with the plague) and the usual copious excerpts from books, essays, maps, audio logs, and so on. It is clear enough that the industrial-fantasy world of Dunwall is directly responsible for the eventual creation of the radically different, retro-futuristic world of Talos I.

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We also see the same sort of moral choices in Dishonored and Prey. The moral system of these games can be boiled down to the presence or absence of empathy. If you work to save survivors in either game, your actions are rewarded in the long run. Dishonored has a greater emphasis on sparing your opponents and finding alternative solutions to eliminating targets that avoid killing. I tend to prefer the Good story paths in games anyway (I suppose part of my escapist power fantasy is being able to make the world a better place, to make good and principled decisions even in horrible situations), but I really enjoyed how pursuing less-violent paths encouraged engaging with the game’s systems and levels more. I went out of my way to explore the map to pursue nonviolent, or at least nonlethal, approaches.

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On a related note, while I wasn’t afraid to kill in the game, I generally tried to avoid it. I actually never finished a mission without taking a life, but I definitely tried to avoid a large-scale battle. One could certainly play the game in the manner of open combat, if they were seeking a more chaotic world and darker ending. But the nonviolent approach to any situation was typically more interesting and challenging. In fact, I saved frequently, and many of my copious reloads were not because of player-character death but because I’d triggered a large fight and ended up killing a lot of guards. Finding another, better way–which sometimes just involved careful timing and generous use of the protagonist’s special powers–was almost always quite satisfying.

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The powers themselves have a firm narrative purpose for existing. Similar to Prey, they have sort of an ominous origin. Instead of being cultivated from a ravenously destructive alien species, they are given to the hero by “the Outsider,” some sort of supernatural entity who mostly seems motivated by amusement in the conflicts of mortals. A major faction in the game, the state religion, was largely organized to root out practitioners of the dark arts provided by the Outsider. The hero is simply gifted these powers that many others commit terrible rituals to obtain. While at first it’s easy to view the church’s opposition to the Outsider’s followers as nothing more than a fantastical version of the cruel witch hunts of Europe’s actual history, the apparent evilness of so many of the Outsider’s most devout disciples becomes more apparent later on. By the end of the game, I didn’t particularly care for those who followed the major religion or for those who practiced black magic, and the Outsider himself seemed bored with and disgusted by many of his own purported adherents. More than just a magic system, the powers in the game were connected with some very murky thematic waters.

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The actual plot and characters, however, were weak points. You play as the always-silent Corvo, Royal Protector to the Empress, who starts the game returning from a failed diplomatic mission to the other islands. There is no known cure for the Rat Plague infesting Dunwall, and no aid is coming. Corvo is greeted by the precocious young Emily, daughter to Empress Jessamine, and passes by several other royal advisors who prove important to the plot. Upon delivering his news to the Empress, who is clearly quite fond of him, assassins with special powers arrive to disarm Corvo and assassinate Jessamine. They abduct Emily, and Corvo is framed for regicide. Much of the game is spent dealing with one or another group of conspirators, clearing Corvo’s name, and saving Emily. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are interesting, but it’s largely conventional and reliant upon some tired tropes. Characters come and go, and the recurring ones don’t really interact enough to develop particularly memorable personalities. Still, the fun in this game is actually playing it, experimenting with the tools at your disposal and bouncing strategies off the level design and enemy AI.

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There’s certainly the opportunity for a lot of replayability. There are various collectibles in each level and challenges of remaining undetected and avoiding any kills. Then, of course, there are the different endings to the game and the smaller fluctuations to each level dictated by who lived and who died in earlier levels. It’s not the sort of thing that excites me, but there’s certainly an open invitation to return to the game again and again, down to the option to replay a level immediately after its completion as you view your final level stats. I spent a mere 15 hours making my way through the main campaign (in contrast to the 31.4 hours in Prey).

I had fun with Dishonored. I don’t know whether I’d appreciate it more or less without the context of how it was the foundation for, and was ultimately surpassed by, Prey. But it was worth the time.

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