Dishonored: The Distributed Disfunctional Disasters
Foreword: this will be divided into two sections: non-spoiler stuff and spoiler stuff. There will be a fair warning about the spoily writeup starting, so you can choose that as a place to stop reading if you are not down with spoilers and all. So, we’re kosher? Then let’s go.
Dishonored is certainly a heavy hitter for 2012. Journalists have praised this game as being a potential GOTY (game of the year) or at least a strong contender. It’s a completely new IP, full-scale AAA release, developed by Arkane (massive gaming industry cred), published by Bethesda (massive piles of money cred), and it’s a stealth game. And it’s awesome. Who would have guessed, eh? However, Dishonored is not without a few flaws. Because I am about to outline them, one by one, it may seem that Arkane’s production is bad. … It really isn’t. There will probably be a followup post about the stuff that Dishonored does exceptionally well (and there’s a fair number of those, methinks). But for now, let’s charge up our cyborg nits and set them to ‘pick’ mode!
The Nonspoiler problems:
To begin with, there is an enemy class in Dishonored that feels like it just didn’t live up to the premise’s potential. On paper, the Weepers seem like an amazing concept: they are regular residents of the city the game takes place in, they have caught a terminal case of a plague, which generally messes up the human body more and more as time goes by, until they can’t take any more. An aspect of that disease is bleeding from eyes and mouth; that is one reason for them being called weepers, but it is far from the main one. You see, the plague is infectious, and there is absolutely no cure whatsoever. If you contract the plague, you will slowly die. There are a few prevention medications available, but those are in very limited supply and often just not affordable for your common everyman. A whole district of the city is isolated, and confirmed plague-sufferers are transported to that district to.. well, to die. Those that aren’t sent to that district in time, and are seen in other places in the city bearing sings of the plague, are simply shot by the local authorities. Knowing all that, it’s no surprise that these weepers spend most of the time shuffling around as fast as their failing bodies permit, silently crying on account of their doom. Sounds like a grim, yet engaging premise, right?
What the game presents as weepers are effectively zombies. They are instantly aggressive towards your character, they employ only melee attacks – more specifically, they try to bite your face off -, and short of the characteristic ‘shuffling around while crying’, they don’t exhibit signs of humanity. Granted, there might be an argument about the plague damaging the victim’s mental functions as well as physical, but – true or not – that seems very much like an excuse to dehumanize the weepers. While playing, I just found it hard to feel sympathetic towards these supposedly poor, doomed souls, entirely on account of their behaviour and presentation being so very much ‘yup, mindless zombie meat’.
It’s not as if the game doesn’t reveal the intended premise. On the contrary, the lore-background is sprinkled practically everywhere, from notes and books you can read, to posters on the wall, to micro-stories expressed in the world itself via composition of elements… They are even introduced through a small objective in an early story mission, so you as a player know what’s what. And yet, it all just falls flat whenever an actual weeper shambles on-screen.
Clearly, weepers were intended to be an enemy group, by the looks of it – something to provide an alternative from the guards/overseers – and they are clearly considered humane opponents by the game; and yet they don’t exhibit humane behaviour. For one, they have no actual purpose in even attacking you. Yes, some might hate your character for not being infected. Yes, some might have gone crazy. But all of them? Just.. no. If the weepers had been diverse, with varying amounts of hostility, then their humanity would have shone through. As-is, they are little more than oversized grotesque rats.
Next, let’s talk about stealth. This game thrives on the player being stealthy. There are a ton of ways to traverse the world unseen (numerous paths and abilities that manipulate time, let you see through walls, and allow you to teleport over vast distances), and plenty of ways to kill a foe (by sword, by pistol, by crossbow, by force-push, by ratswarm, by grenade, by mine). What isn’t given in such multitudes? Dispatching an enemy in a non-lethal way. In general, you always have just two ways of getting rid of an enemy without killing them: either you sneak up to them from behind and choke them into sleep, or you shoot them with a tranquilizer dart. That’s it. There is only one choking-animation, and there really isn’t much variety in how you tranq them – there’s no difference in where the dart strikes, or how long enemies take to fall asleep.
Worse still, the game not only has vastly more lethal weaponry, but it also has a lot more upgrades regarding lethal assault. The only thing you can do to the choke mechanic is to find a rune that makes the process go faster (we are talking about fractions of a second – nothing critically gamechanging). As for the sleep darts, well, you can upgrade the crossbow itself to reload slightly faster, to shoot slightly faster, and… I think that’s it. While you can upgrade the total capacity of standard bolts (silent deadly fun for the family), there’s no way to upgrade the amount of sleeping darts you can carry. There’s a lot of upgrades to your pistol, which are useless – taser, rubber, gas-filled bullets do not exist in Dishonored’s world. You can upgrade the carrying capacity of grenades and razor-wire-traps (and their range too). Those are all lethal.
Playing through the game, it feels like from a story perspective, it wants you to stay on the non-lethal path. Your actions result in either a low chaos or high chaos ranking. More dead bodies and kills in general leads to more rats that spread more plague that causes more weepers and more ruined cityscape to be present. It also reflects on your character and other story-important characters. Low chaos, achieved with making as little kills as possible, is obviously the opposite – the city remains (somewhat) more safe and clean. From the gameplay perspective, though, it feels like lethal assassinations are heavily favoured. There’s the variety I already talked about, there’s the more rewarding feedback you get from lethal kills (they are generally more flashy, spectacular, and also faster), and they are much safer (nobody can tell a dead body to wake up). Additionally, it is, for some reason, very easy for unconscious/sleeping enemies to just die. Jump on them in the wrong way, they die. Throw them too far, or in water, they die. Slash or explode something near them, they die. Have the game perform a physics glitch on them (making them clip through the world, or fall through something, or repeatedly knock against a wall), they die. Have rats eat them, they die. Nearly all that is logical, yes, but also all that means it is an absolute pain to carry and carefully place the bodies in such a way that they are definitely safe.
It’s not even that the non-lethal approach is favoured by the magic abilities your character gets. Some are beneficial to both lethal and non-lethal characters (blink, dark vision, possession, slow time, health/agility upgrades), and some are uniquely useful for lethal-focused characters (rat swarm summon, body evaporation on death). To compare with another modern AAA-level stealth game, consider Deux Ex: Human Revolution. That had multiple non-lethal weapons (tranq rifle, stun gun, nonlethal Jensenarms, P.E.P.S. Gun, stun grenades) and a roughly equal amount of deadly weaponry. Roughly equal upgradeablity for both kinds. Multiple animations for melee nonlethal takedowns. It feels like DX:HR is far more disposed towards stealthy players than Dishonored is, even though Dishonored has more story-justification, and a lot more story-incentive for your character not going all psycho-butcher on everybody.
That’s the problem with non-lethal takedowns. If you care about the story, you probably will want to stay very much nonlethal. If you care about having fun, delving into upgrade mechanics, and trying out various different approaches to problems, you have to go with lethal assassinations/kills. Otherwise, you will spend the entire game (at least a good 10 hours of awesomeness) doing the same thing over and over and over. Choke, choke, dart, dart, choke, choke, dart, dart, reload, choke, reload, give up and stab somebody in the neck.
While we are on the subject of stealth stuff, another nit I have to pick with Dishonored is the stealth-feedback. For instance, there are a few upgrades that reduce your character’s footstep sound. Well, great, but how far does the sound travel? How loud is the default footstep, and how much is it decreased by each upgrade rank? This is information that’s really not communicated by the game. Admittedly, the second rank of a particular ability (dark vision) supposedly lets you visualize the footstep sound… I haven’t really noticed it, though. If it is so small as to not appear in your screen while you are just walking/sneaking around, well, what’s the point of the thing in the first place?
More to the point, though, there is no actual audio-feedback as to the loudness of your footsteps. Unless you like to spend all your in-game time looking at black and amber-shaded black, seeing next to nothing of the actual world (if you have played Batman: Arkham Asylum mainly in detective mode, you know exactly how that feels), the footsteps of your character appears to be a non-present mechanic. Maybe it affects detection.. maybe. There’s no way to tell.
Another stealth-feedback problem is the vagueness of cover. There is no “sticky cover” in this game; had I not played DX:HR, I’d say that that’s a good thing. Now – I am not fully sure, because the Deus Ex prequel really did nail the cover system down well, making it feel seamless and giving good representation of whether your character is hidden or not. Dishonored.. does not do that. There is a “lean” system in place, allowing your character to crawl up to a wall and lean sideways to peek around it. Ideally, this lets your body stay hidden while you still see what happens in the world. Except there’s no real sense of how “large” your body is, especially due to the odd-feeling arc of leaning, so while hiding behind smaller objects (cylinders of rope, for instance), it’s hard to say if the “you” that enemies would see is too far to one side or the other or just right.
Furthermore, some cover-places have visual holes and gaps in their geometry. And the game is fairly random about making them count, from what I’ve experienced. Sometimes, enemies would see through a small gap, and sometimes, seemingly large holes are still considered parts of valid cover. It’s just… odd.
Onto a different issue type, well, there’s a minor problem with missions in general, I’d say. The game is heavily structured into 9 different missions that you can replay individually or as part of a full playthrough. And yet, while playing through the game in what could be called “story mode”, I found it difficult to tell where exactly a mission starts, how long it goes on for, and what locations it encompasses. Now, yes, there is a “mission end” screen that displays relevant stats – number of enemies killed, objects found, coins collected, and so on. But the missions themselves seem to seamlessly flow into each other, and can take place in anywhere from 1 to 4 entirely different world-spaces (the Flooded District mission is a good example of just that). This is not a game-breaking problem by any means, of course, it’s just that it makes it somewhat problematic to discuss the game, on a mission-basis, with other people. Also, the game is centred around a hub – a worn-out pub where you are hiding for most of the time. And yet, that pub location seems to subtly change between missions, and collectibles are re-distributed in it when you return. Also, any kills/detections/alarms in that area count against/towards your overall kill score. So, is that a part of missions? It’s not clear… Some would probably say no – especially from a narrative viewpoint-, some would say yes due to gameplay mechanics.
A more pressing issue, at least for the non-lethal players, is that there is literally no way to tell how many enemies you have killed during a current mission. The only time you see that statistic is at the very end of it, on the stat screen. As I mentioned before, unconscious enemies are extremely finicky, and could turn to “dead” in countless ways that could not even be your fault at all. And if you are going for a complete no-kills playthrough, well, knowing when something you left behind has randomly died would be very helpful, because the missions are really long – an hour and a bit being a reasonable minimum run-through time, I’d say. Reaching the end of what felt and seemed like a perfect play only to see “enemies killed: 1” and having to restart the entire thing is not a nice feeling at all (especially when it is a crazy-long mission; again, Flooded District).
Oh, and a small addendum to no-kills mission plays: there’s at least one documented bug where a non-lethal approach to a specific situation (second-to-last mission) still makes the game mark a ‘killed enemy’ state somewhere in its code bowels. Worse still, this is not even reflected in the mission-complete stats screen. That will happily say “0 enemies killed” and give a tick for “No kills”, but internally the game thinks that you have killed at least once. If you are going for a no-kills achievement, well, that’s useful to keep in mind.
Okay. That’s it for the non-spoilery stuff that Dishonored could have done without. As a whole, the game is pretty great, and though these problems are somewhat noticeable, they do not spoil the whole impression, I’d say. If you want a great modern stealth game, this is very much for you. It’s just that, well, it’s not a flawless diamond. It’s not a diamond in the rough either, though: there’s a lot of polish and shininess involved. It’s somewhere in-between, in the weird place of almost-perfection if you ignore a few things and squint a bit.
Now we will talk about the spoiler problems. These unfortunately need referencing of specific, ‘big’ story elements to talk about. If you don’t want to be spoiled, well, I really don’t know how to comfort you – there’s literally no way to stop reading this. This is your destiny and your doom, to be spoiled on Dishonored. You poor, poor thing. Let’s get it over with as painlessly as possible, shall we?
The Spoilerific resonance cascade:
Before telling you what I feel are genuine problems in Dishonored’s story, there’s an aspect that’s often criticised, it seems, that I don’t think should be called a problem. Namely, the implication that Corvo is the young future-empress’s father, and that the heart you are given by the Outsider is Jessamine’s heart. Those things have been called ‘obvious’ and ‘telegraphed’, and cited as examples of poor story quality. I’d like to ask the following: what makes you think those two were even intended as a surprise/revelation/hidden twist? Seriously, yes, it is absolutely true that those things are obvious and telegraphed. Why wouldn’t they be? They are merely facts that apply to your character, and they are what should, ideally, motivate you as a player to actually give a damn about the first few story missions. It’s not as if these are hidden in the first place: the empress’s voice both in-person and from-heart is the same, the way she talks about the world and high-profile targets makes it very explicit. The role of Corvo in Emily’s and Jessamine’s life is also very plain from the opening narration before the title screen even appears. And, just like any characteristic applied to a character, it is all there, but it’s not rubbed into the player’s face, with big letters saying “omg, Emily is your daughter!! The heart is Jessamine!!”. That would be ridiculous. And yet, because of the absence of such frivolity, it seems that a fair number of players assume that those facts are somehow big twists that fell flat. They are not twists, they are not secrets. They are obvious character-establishing fragments that are in plain sight, but not brandishing themselves. And, frankly, I’d say that that’s just fine. Sure, it is a little bit cliche-tastic – that’s a valid complaint. Deriding a supposed twist where there wasn’t meant to be one, though? Yeah.. might want to cut down on that, folks.
Now, onto actual issues. Obviously, dealing with story and narrative, these will be more subjective than the previous ones (though that would be hard to achieve already: I’m all about supersubjectivity).
First-off, how about that old biddy, Granny Rags? She’s a major part of the primary sub-plot of the game: the battle between her and Slackjaw for control of, er, Dunwall’s underground/illegal life? And also she is apparently an age-old magic witch-crone that has a whole leviathan (aka whale) right above her shack. And she can only be killed by tossing a glorified phylactery into a furnace. And she is sort of really evil, it turns out.
It just felt a bit too forced and unnecessary to me. Yeah, the game obviously had to have some sort of mystical/magical thing going, to justify the nifty abilities that the player gets to use. But a whole storyline steeped in medieval magic? It just didn’t feel right, to me. How is it that she isn’t widely recognized and feared by everyone instantly? Slackjaw mentions that as a kid, he was afraid of Granny Rags, as were all other children he knew. Now he’s a grown-up dude, and there is still a Granny Rags around, same old biddy still alive and kicking. How does that not set off alarm bells? Also, given her involvement in the city’s life, how are the overseers and the city guards not aware of her?
Then there is the whole Granny-rat-plague connection. The story makes it very plain that she’s not the cause of the plague; the plague is from the rats imported by the high lord Baddy McBadguy Evilton the First. And yet, Miss Rags seems to have strong ties to the rats in general, and the plague as well (consider, her base of operations, with the lovely dead-whale decoration, is smack in the middle of the flooded district, which is where all plague-cases are carted off to; coincidence or what?). It just didn’t seem like it meshed well together. And, you could take out the entirety of her missions and presence without tripping up the main story whatsoever. It just seems like she and her entire shtick is to provide a stronger involvement of the supernatural, in an attempt to mirror the more scarier aspects of the Thief games.
Okay, that aside, there’s yet another magic-related personality that feels out-of-place. Of course, I mean the Outsider, the seeming source of all magic in the game (he gives the magic powers to the player, and other magically-capable characters are all related to him as well). He was probably intended as a mysterious figure, but there’s something about the execution that just feels flat. Possibly, the lines and voice-acting. I know that he is voiced by some supposed big-name voice-actor, but it just doesn’t come across at all; the delivery is flat, monotone and unengaging, and the actual things that his character is allowed to speak seem to give away exactly nothing of himself.
His role in the story just seems to serve as a personified McGuffin at first, and an exposition dump later. In each mission, there is a shrine devoted to him; finding that shrine and taking the rune makes the Outsider appear and deliver monologue neatly recapping what the player has done in the mission, and what the choices still left are. It just felt shallow, I suppose.
To finish off, well, there’s the somewhat infamous betrayal section. The part where it seems like things are going as well as they can, and then the loyalists poison your drink. The entire thing is off because of two aspects: in-universe reason, and presentation of the event.
As far as reason goes, it’s a partially justified thing that simply falls flat in making sense. You are poisoned, and everyone beyond the boatman, Pendleton, Martin and Havelock is shot (or not everyone, depending on whether it is a high or low chaos situation), because the three core loyalists were afraid of retribution for what they have done. But… wait. All that they have done was to ensure that the rightful empress returns to her throne. The people taken out by Corvo are the ones that killed the old empress. Before the betrayal, all the loyalists are allegedly a happy bunch of acquaintances, if not friends, and seem to cooperate well with Emily, meaning that when she recovers her throne, they would be just fine. But no, instead they poison the one person Emily is looking up to and trusts, re-kidnap her and lock her up in a lighthouse along with themselves. … Whaaaa? How does any of that make any sense?
The other issue, as mentioned before, is with the presentation. You walk in the bar, after killing the lord Evil Von Devil, everyone claps, and Havelock hands you a drink to toast to Emily’s health along with the rest of the loyalists. This alone is, frankly, an indicator that would trip off a lot of warning signals to people familiar with tropes. But to further compound the problem, there is constantly an “unsettling” cello underscore playing – very noticeably – that would make the most thickheaded person realize that, hey, something is not right. And yet, there is no way to make Corvo stop drinking – not even as an attempt to inquire about anything. Nope, our hero takes a big swig in a situation where the player is most assuredly thinking waaaaitwaitwaitWAIT NOOO. Dishonored is a game all about immersion – so why is such a critical story moment designed to separate the player’s and the character’s actions, thoughts, feelings to such an extent?
Well, that’s it. There’s probably more nitpicks that could be said about Dishonored – maybe you have a few that I haven’t even noticed, who knows – but for me, that’s about it. The rest of the game is awesome, and I really do recommend you to play it. Even if it’s not the best game of 2012, it really is one of the best. Frankly, it’s one of the really-good games of this time in general, along with Half-Life 2, Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Skyrim, Borderlands. Some of you might not like some of those games listed there (I know I don’t), but it should give an indication of just how ‘big’, how influential Dishonored is for modern gaming. Somewhat ironic, given that it is also an amazingly short game even by modern standards. Yeah, it has problems. Everything has problems, when it comes down to nitpicking. Dishonored is a game that rises above those problems and achieves greatness. You owe it to yourself to play it. At least twice.
~X2Eliah is sad about the game not looking all that good in still screenshots. Some of the visual magic is lost in the process. Oh, yeah: Dishonoured, dangit!