Dishonoured: A struggle snuggle in the night
Updated: Jul 20
I love stealth games as I am sure most you, dear readers know. This is partly because of my shy nature, my social anxiety and my love of cool dark vantage points to watch people without them knowing. But most importantly, it is because I love feeling smart when outwitting a competent AI. Not to mention enjoying the sense of pride and accomplishment one gets by solving the puzzle that is the level. Dishonoured combines everything I love about the Stealth genre and does them all to near perfection. I love this game.
Corvo Attano, bodyguard and secret lover to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin is framed for her assassination. Now Corvo is fighting to clear his name and restore his daughter (Emily Kaldwin) to the throne. Corvo Attano teams up with fellow conspirators to slowly take apart the Lord Regent’s tyrannical reign, one assassination at a time. I love the story, abrupt ending aside I think it is brilliantly well paced. As each member of the Lord Regent’s support base is removed, the subsequent mission becomes more difficult, as the Lord Regent becomes increasingly terrified of Corvo. This marries both escalation of story and gameplay. The stakes gradually rise along with the difficulty and the situation.
Children in narrative media tend to fall into two different extremes. Either you will have the brat, a kid so whiny and shrill that you loath the game for forcing you to rescue the pest (please see Ashley from RE4 for that). Or they are the bland perfect angel, so perfect and so wholesome that the child could be replaced with a briefcase filled with Dr Seuss books. Emily is the rare exception to this rule. She is well reserved and respectful to the adults who are trying to save her. Hell she helps Corvo escape upon supposedly being rescued.
But she is not just a bucket of sunshine, she does have a mischievous and rebellious streak in her. She loves to tease her teachers and often disobeys the servants. Arkane were able to create a character that is likeable enough as to where the player is motivated, while avoiding the trap of making Emily perfect. Emily Kaldwin is a rarity among children, in that she is an interesting and genuinely likeable character while still being a child.
Corvo: Moral ambiguity
Corvo is a silent protagonist, a character type that my opinion has been changing recently. You see, at first I dismissed silent protagonists due to them being bland slates, boring and uninvolving. Personally I still believe this to an extent but I don’t think it applies to every silent protagonist. I discussed in my Bloodborne article how the Hunter’s appetent indifference to the world around him creates a very interesting character. Corvo is similar in this regard, in each mission you have to choose if you want to dispose of your target lethally or non-lethally. The former basically ends with a knife in the throat (or a dozen rats).
The latter is often more tricky but helps contribute to the good ending. However is it really fair to condemn a snobbish aristocrat to a lifetime of implied sex slavery? Is it really fair to drive the Overseer into poverty and zombie undeath? These sorts of scenarios made me wonder as to how moral Corvo really is. In fact, shiving /rat feeding the target instead of letting them live, might be the more moral thing to do. But in doing so you make everything significantly worse, the player might find themselves wondering what is truly good and moral. It signifies the blurred line between what is practical and moral in the gray world of Dunwall.
The rhythm of the city
Every mission keeps score of how many people are killed throughout. These include citizens, guards and assassinations targets. A low chaos rank sees Corvo keeping the kills to a minimum or zero. A high chaos ranking sees you murder everything in sight. Not only does a high chaos rank cause the game to become considerably more difficult (more guards and zombies). But it contributes to the further decay of Dunwall. The increase in bodies sees a higher density of rats which helps spread infections. In comparison to the other titles of the time (Telltale Games in particular) where binary good or bad choices are clearly marked, Dishonoured merges gameplay with world building to great effect. The choices are committed by the player are on the players own terms. Rewarding their stealth skills or showing them the consequences of mass murder, without judgement.
(Minors spoilers incoming )
The final mission involves Corov rescuing Emily one final time. After you strangle the target (he has killed the other betrayers off screen). You unlock the door to Emily’s prison cell and the game ends. I wish that there was a little bit more of a climax to the final boss. Instead of sneaking up on him while talking to the fireplace and snuggling him into dream time, maybe Corvo had to navigate a hostage situation. He could try to save Emily before the boss kills her. Just something more than the same tactic I have used against most of the guards. It doesn’t hurt the game badly (it’s not Nazi scientist level). But it left me with a profound sense of anti-climax. I found myself thinking that it was rushing through the “they all lived happily ever after” ending without completely earning it.
Dishonoured is a stealth game at heart. You know the drill, sneak around hazards to reach particular goals. Getting spotted results in difficult situations that either end up in death or negative grades. Not to mention vast open environments to play around in. All of these are pretty damn excellent for the most part and I am going to be examining them in detail.
Dancing on the rooftops
Dishonoured is similar to the Thief series in terms of map design, vast open levels that offer multiple ways of getting from A to B. Exploration is encouraged as the player has to find their skill upgrades in each level (runes) and passive buffs (Bone charms). Exploring also helps the player understand the level layout (as there is no map). None of this is particularly new. But what helps Dishonoured stand out is Corvo’s blink ability (a short range teleport). This opens up the world even more, allowing for a more dynamic approach to solving problems. You can sneak past guards completely by zapping across the ledges and roof tops.
It makes the world feel more open ended and speeds up with is otherwise a very slow paced genre. The blink ability interacts with the level design in how it can be used to overcome obstacles. For example, the player can blink to zap up the stairs before the guards can spot Corvo. If the player was chose to creep up the old fashioned way, they would get spotted. Another example would be the player using the environment to reach hard to get places. The environments are a puzzle that the player needs to solve instead just forming a backdrop for sneaking.
The powers of the void
Corvo’s powers are limited in amount (about five totals) but have high utility in execution. The possession skill allows you to possess people (temporarily naturally) and rats. The latter allows you to explore holes that you otherwise might not be able to get to (opening the map further). The former allows for some easy struggle snuggles as you can make them walk to your preferred location. Along with the mandatory Xray vision in stealth games, Dishonoured’s skills don’t remove challenge but rather serve to enhance gameplay. They create more options for approaching the problem, and more encouragement to explore literal nooks and crannies.
The stealth is pretty damn great, that is all I can really say. Dishonoured utilises all three main environmental obstacles central to stealth, namely the use of sound, lighting and movement patterns. I do want to however look at a certain type of stealth found in a particular level. I would like to talk about the fifth mission “Lady Boyle's Last Party”. Here Corvo has to infiltrate a masquerade ball and figure out which of three woman he has to assassinate (lethally or non- lethally). Here you can’t sneak around in the traditional sense. Instead you have to blend in as a member of the party; you cannot use your void powers nor have your weapon out because you will alarm people.
In order to gain information, you have to listen into conversation, talk to the three possible targets in order to pick up clues. To be successful, you have to blend into the party, become another unassuming masked man in a sea of masked men and women. You have to watch for moments to sneak away, become invisible in the crowd. This twist on stealth is very interesting but sadly short lived once you are able to leave the crowd and trespass upstairs. There it returns to normal stealth based gameplay, as you try to find the sufficient evidence to isolate Lady Boyle. I wish that the entirety of that level was based around social deception and analysing information gathered from party goers. It is done well but rather disappointedly unable to achieve full potential.
Live or let die?
I went for a low chaos run, simply because I am a nice guy who doesn’t enjoy killing people (that is until I play Doom 2016) . So I tried to avoid conflict whenever possible. This in turn creates a rather interesting difficulty curve. Cause it is perfectly easy to stab someone in the neck, no one will find the body (once you get a certain upgrade that turns dead bodies to ash). You never have to worry about bumping into an awake guard on the way out. However high chaos missions increase the number of rats and Weepers (zombies) on each map. This means that if you continue to indiscriminately murder, the world becomes increasingly hostile.
Both zombies and rat swarms can disrupt your plans and kill you very fast. A high chaos game is supposedly easier early on before seeing a sharper difficulty curve later. The non lethal approach is more difficult as a whole but remains fairly consistent in terms of its difficulty (that is rats and zombies are minimal to nonexistent). Dishonoured offers different strategies different advantages and disadvantages, rewarding and punishing the player without preventing them from continuing the game. It doesn’t force the player down one particular path but adapts the difficulty to suit the player’s performance.
Art style and graphics:
Please keep in mind that this is a 2012 game with 2012 era graphics. The textures will be flat and blurry because that was what Arkane had to work with. However Dishonoured’s unique, rather cartoonish character designs (in the vein of a vengeful caricature artist) have aged rather well. Dunwall is a brilliantly well realised dystopia, a grand city nearing total destruction thanks to the plague. The rats swarms are skin crawling to see and experience, an ever present personification lurking death. I love the detailed diesel punk setting of Dunwall, it’s a subgenre of science fiction we don’t see that often. Arkane is able to offer something unique and memorable to video games with Dishonoured.
Some minor AI path finding issues, some moderate slowly down when loading some larger maps. But otherwise, performance is quite solid around the board.
For the vast majority of my playtime with Dishonoured, I was experiencing a flawless product. The story, the visuals, the atmosphere and the gameplay was damn near perfect. Hell, if it were not oppressively dark sections (in terms of lighting) and the slightly anti climatic final mission. I would have considered it to be perfect. But the product itself is wonderful in spite of itself minor short comings.