So yeah. Dishonored. Good game. I like it. But it could have been better.
If, for some reason, you’ve never heard of this game before, a quick synopsis: Dishonored is set in the fictional, London-esque city of Dunwall, capital of the Empire of the Isles, which is currently in the grip of a terrible plague. The player character, Corvo, was the bodyguard of Empress Jessamine until he was framed for her murder and the kidnapping of her daughter, Emily. He eventually escapes prison with the aid of the “Loyalists” and is tasked with killing the traitor who took over after the empress was killed, the Lord Regent, and his allies.
From my perspective, the interesting part of the game, from a design perspective, is the morality system. Actions that cause deaths and otherwise undermine order are “High Chaos” while non-lethal methods are “Low Chaos.” Chaos accumulates, and the higher the Chaos level, the more enemies of all types spawn: more guards, more rat swarms, and more “Weepers,” which are basically zombies. Interestingly, the Weepers count as human targets, so if you want to keep your chaos low, you’ll have to avoid them or render them unconscious instead of killing them. In a very interesting twist, even your main targets can be dealt with non-lethally, making it entirely possible to play the whole game without killing a single person. Directly, anyway; just because your action is technically non-lethal, doesn’t mean that your target won’t die as a consequence.
The gameplay is fun, and you gain various supernatural powers to aid you in your quest for revenge (or whatever). Certain powers are naturally lethal, so you won’t be able to use them much in a Low Chaos run; others are much more versatile, like Blink (a short-range pseudo-teleport) and Dark Vision (see targets through walls, and the upgrade lets you see collectable items and other interesting items through walls as well).
Full disclosure: I was playing on Easy difficulty. I thought it would facilitate me getting further through the game. And it probably would have… except it mainly affects combat, and I find stealth much more fun. The couple times I got impatient and started slaughtering everything just for fun, it was in fact extremely easy. But yeah, in retrospect, I may as well have left the difficulty higher, especially since I kept reloading to keep my kill count at zero.
It was fun, though. 😛
Alright, if you are interested in avoiding spoilers, check out here. I’m going to talk about story stuff, ‘k? ‘K.
***Spoilers below this point***
Well, I say spoilers, but in actuality I’m not that interested in the narrative arc of the story itself. I mean, it’s kinda neat how the Low Chaos/High Chaos plays out during the story, but mostly it ends up determining your ending, just like your average morality system. I mean sure, the ending is a lot more grim if you end up slaughtering your way through the game, but… well, let’s face it. Even if you leave every single person you encounter alive, Dunwall is still pretty horrible.
Here’s the giant elephant in the room: the whales. (Yeah, that was a bad joke that seemed better in my head. Moving on.)
You see, Dunwall, and the Empire as a whole, is in a very rich industrial age, but that industrialization is very much dependant on “whale oil,” which is harvested from actual living whales. (Certain books in the game lovingly describe how the whales are literally flayed alive. Gross.) This is problematic for three reasons, the first being how squicky it is to run all your machines off the bodily fluids of a living creature. Then, setting aside the moral aspect, they will eventually run out of whales, since they are obviously killing them at a rate faster than the whales can reproduce. (There is actually a book in the game whose author ridicules another for bringing up that very point. Meta.) At which point, their society will collapse, or whatever happens when all the lights go out, I guess.
Which conveniently segues into the third, creepiest problem. You see, one of the things told to Corvo by the disembodied heart of his former lover, Empress Jessamine (Ok, I suppose that’s a legitimate spoiler), is that “When the last leviathan is gone, darkness will fall.” On the face of it, that seems to connect to my second reason, but when I heard the line for the first time, I immediately connected it to a line she said in the Void (the place where the Outsider, who gave you your supernatural powers, resides): “Someday this place will devour all the lights in the sky.”
In other words, if they kill all the whales, it might cause the universe to fall into the Void. Food for thought, eh?
Well, I’m probably overthinking it, but you have to admit, the whales of Dishonored are creepy looking. If you told me that they were supernatural creatures linked to the Void, I would believe you.
So that’s the part of the story I find compelling, namely the setting itself, and the troubling implications of the way their society works. As for the actual plot… well, it isn’t bad. Certainly serviceable to the gameplay. But I can’t help but feel that they made a serious misstep when they made Corvo a silent protagonist.
You see, a silent protagonist works in some settings. For instance, Gordon Freeman of Half-life fame is much beloved… for some reason. Don’t ask me why.
Actually, a better example would probably be Link. In all the (real) Legend of Zelda games, Link never speaks, at most giving text responses to other people’s lines. But since they are third person, Link’s personality can still come through from his movements and actions, and in later games, his actual expressions. (He’s an expressive guy, really. 😉 )
Contrast Corvo, who has his Empress (also his lover) killed in front of him, and his probably-daughter kidnapped; it’s supposed to be the emotional basis for the game, but it’s impossible to tell what Corvo thinks about the whole matter, since you can’t see him, and he never speaks. Is he enraged? In despair? Indifferent? Who knows?
Yeah, I understand that it is supposed to let you project yourself into the character, but frankly, I can’t connect with that at all. For me, there is nothing less immersive than having my own character be a cypher to me. Contrast Aloy from Horizon, who has a character, emotions, and a recognizable motivation (ah, there it is, the requisite Horizon Zero Dawn comparison). I found it much easier to connect with Aloy than with Corvo.
Fortunately, Arkane must have realized that this was a problem, because Corvo gets a voice in Dishonored 2. Welcome to the final mystery, Jindosh. 😉
***End Spoilery part***
So yeah, that’s my take on the game: fun gameplay, very interesting setting, though seriously grim, and a serviceable story that is undercut by the MC’s lack of distinguishable emotion. Will I be playing through the whole thing? Well, yes, eventually; but it doesn’t have the power to grip me that Horizon did, so it’s being pushed well down the queue. I can’t say I’m not disappointed, especially since 2 looked so cool, but… well, I’ve got plenty of games to catch up on. I’ll get there eventually. Probably play it on high difficulty, too, since I intend to do a corpse-free run anyway… 😛
Oh, I will mention one final thought before I go. I wasn’t actually able to determine the amount of time between when the Empress was murdered and when Corvo escaped from prison. When I did a little research for this article, I learned that it was supposed to be about six months, which is… fine, I guess. But I noticed, when I examined the inventory screen, that the coinage of Dunwall was stamped with the visage of the Lord Regent. In other words, every coin in the city bearing the image of the Empress was replaced in six months time. It was less annoying than when I initially thought that it had only been a few weeks, but… seriously? Replacing all the coins so they had your face was your number one priority, Burrows? For some reason, that really annoyed me. 😐
Next week, I will be examining a game which I hope will have a stronger narrative than this one. Look forward to Rise of the Tomb Raider, the second game featuring the rebooted Lara Croft, aka the one I like better. 😀