I was lucky enough to be granted an enthusiast press pass to the Eurogamer Expo, at which I got to see a bunch of games on the show floor before they were even released (privelaged, I know), on top of which I attended some of the developer sessions. Perhaps most notable among these was the one for the- then upcoming, original IP Dishonored. (Tragically mispelled)
When asked what it was about Dishonored that the developer felt was most important, they stated the emphasis on 'player freedom'. It being a game which has much love for the stealth genre I immediately began comparing it to its forerunners (a little prematurely considering it wasn't even released at that point). That freedom, I felt, wouldn't stand out unless there were instances of play where that freedom was taken away from the player. Without contrast it cannot can be emphasised. A magnificent example of this was the part of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory where the player could be subdued by enemies and have all their equipment removed, only to find themselves in an interrogation room. From here they had to escape questioning, reclaim their personal effects, and resume the mission goals. This break in pacing provided context for the normal style of play, giving the player a new appreciation for the tools and agency with which they had been provided.
Luckily, as it turns out, they released this game, I played it, and Dishonored does indeed have a sequence that almost exactly mirrors that of Splinter Cell's where the player must recover their equipment, before resuming the pursuit of mission objectives. Not original no, but it still serves its purpose.
Yes, I spent 25% of my time twirling my blade in front of the god rays.
Dishonored's marketing would have you believe that this game's themes revolve around revenge, specifically your revenge on the people that killed the Empress, the woman whom it is your job to protect, as her bodyguard. While I felt this was all well and good as an overarching plotline, I was skeptical over its potency as a theme that was communicated through the moment to moment gameplay. How can you successfully evoke the emotions associated with revenge: closure, satisfaction, adrenaline, anger, when 99% of the human obstacles in the game that you encounter have not wronged the player personally? Well in this instance, Dishonored does fail, it's moment to moment gameplay loops become about something else which I will describe later. But this revenge arc did surprisingly come into play for me, just not in the way I expected.
They're probably talking about government conspiracies, making jokes about me. They must die.
In order to exact revenge, you must first be wronged. So it will come as no surprise that, throughout the course of the game, someones probably going to metaphorically stab you in the back (thus leading to the contrast of freedom when recovering equipment). I believe Dishonored intended for me to want to avenge the wrongs committed against the character's closest to the protagonist, but that's not what transpired. What was more important to me as a player was a place, rather than a person. This makes sense considering the core traversal mechanics are lovely, but the social interaction is limited, so I knew the environment intimately, the people: not so.
The Hound's Pit Pub...
...home to orange fluids and English caricatures with American accents.
Upon returning to the Hound's Pit Pub, a venue of fine beverages and homely design, I found it overrun by those working for the people who utterly betrayed me. This was a place with which I had subconsciously developed a connection. A habitat for benign characters, safety, resources, and somewhere I was relieved to return to and explore, outside of the hostile constraints of a mission. Finding it overrun by traitors was the narrative trigger it took to complete that revenge arc. Now this arc would not have been at all profound or powerful had I not be doing my utmost to remain a pacifistic and stealthy force for good. I had only killed accidentally, or when I was not presented with an alternative. Now presented with my home, crawling with the enemy, I abandoned these moral restrictions and leaped from roof to ground, bending time and flesh alike until there was just smoke and silence. And it was cathartic.
So if Dishonored isn't about the people, the characters it so desperately wants you to invest in:
Then what is it about? What did it make me feel moment to moment?
The stealth genre for me, is a genre about discipline. Its about its about resisting the obvious and graceless path in favour of the cunning and beautiful path. Often this boils down to lethal and non-lethal routes to success, but there is much nuance to be had between either extreme. The reason Dishonored was so capable of supporting this revenge arc, is because it caters so well for the player when they are undisciplined. This of course means that at any time they can break from the discipline of stealth and alter any intended narrative arc, but the foundations for it are there. You could argue that its not discipline, its just a choosing one or the other rather than resisting. But Dishonored's systems and physicality are designed in such a way that it feels so consummately compelling to just move through the world, interacting with obstacles, that to choose to avoid everything is to withhold from yourself the greatest satisfaction these systems of play can offer. You are completely over-equipped to deal with these obstacles, so to refuse to deal with them requires restraint.
The non-lethal options are pretty grim, its hard to feel good about sparing a life...
...when they meet their end at the hands of the plague, regardless.
You may have noticed that I have been describing the people in this game in a borderline psychopathic manner, with non-empathetic terms. This is because Dishonored bares it's systems on it's surface, so raw and enticing, that any narrative context is flooded by the potential agency presented to the player. The obstacles in the system are people, but they are only indirectly humanised, leaving them to be mostly presented as agents with the systems. This is where the Heart comes in. The Heart is a device that the player holds in their left hand and can locate items of worth with, this is it's primary function, but it can also speak secrets to you of the environment in which you are in, or the character at which the heart is pointed. This acts to re-humanise what were once obstacles in a system- back into people, people with backstory, and that puts the player's actions into greater and more interesting context.
"There is a history of madness in his family, he is the worst".
"They are ugly people on the inside, but are kind to each other."
"She thought it was work in a factory, it was too late by the time they arrived."
"She wished she could be out there, on the whaling ships, rather than in here."
"His family was taken by the plague, he wishes he could join them."
In my left hand, the Heart, a pulsing mechanism of truth.
This made playing the game and making these moment to moment decisions richer. But it also made me into some kind of deity, passing judgement on them as if I had the right to decide their fate just because I had the power to. Dramatically compelling: yes. Sane: probably not. People have referred to this game as a culprit of the increasing "swiss armification of games"- too many powers pandering to an uninteresting power fantasy. If this is all Dishonored is, as I think someone already pointed out: its probably not going to be done much better than this, so at least we can move on to more interesting things now, right? The player is given so many supernatural powers, but the one I used the most, and by far the most overpowered? Quicksave. I feel like the developers missed a trick with the chance to actually weave gaming's most ubiquitous super power into the fabric of the fiction. The save game system is basically already an extension of the player's time bend ability. Having it as a feature already kind of breaks the flow of the game, so I imagine overtly integrating it with the other powers would only have drawn unwanted attention to a fictional problem game designers haven't been able to solve yet: that of the save system effectively giving players access to infinite parallel time lines. Yeah, hows that for an alternative interpretation?