In a climate that sees few publishers take risks on concepts and themes that sit outside the apparent norm of tightly controlled action shooters, Dishonored was a wonderful experience. It sought to revive the long dormant concept of the immersive sim by providing the player with actual, meaningful choice in how they approach the problems at hand. Furthermore, it did this in the context of a stealth game, another genre that has been relatively ignored as of late.
Dishonored’s other triumph comes in the form of its world building. The city of Dunwall, in which the game is primarily set, is visually stunning: a decaying, almost Dickensian collage of industrial revolution-producing chimneys and machinery augmenting the grand classicism of early 1900s London. Its background characters perfect the contrast between the rich and the poor, ranging from poverty and plague stricken denizens to the decadent absurdity of the upper class.
The strength of Dishonored’s story does not stem from its main plot. For all intents and purposes, the plot is fairly inane and predictable, proving itself to merely provide context to frame gameplay conventions and mechanics. To be fair though, this is almost admirable. While games like Call of Duty and Far Cry 3, for the most part, wrap a game around what the developers perceive to be a story worth telling, Dishonored does the opposite and is all the better for it.
However, one tenant of Dishonored’s story is worth mentioning, and it ties into what was mentioned earlier: the world. Dunwall is visually rich, and as a result, is a character unto itself. Owing to its free-form gameplay, Dishonored promotes the benefits of extensive exploration. It provides significant advantages in revealing more detail about the world and its history. The game is littered with collectible objects, including books and letters that can be read at the player’s leisure. Details like posters, company logos and observable scripted sequences reveal so much more about the city’s downfall and background intentions than force-fed cut-scenes could.
There is a scene early on in the game that exemplifies this. From a distance, the player can observe a group of city guards tossing corpses from a dock into a boat below. Even at a distance, it’s clear that their attitude towards this particularly gruesome activity is caviler. Sneaking closer allows you to listen in on their conversation, which reveals details about the plague, as well as highlights the substantial separation between the government and its people. There is no respect or formality for the people who have lost their lives to the plague: they are simply a mechanical burden, one that is yet to be automated, and something that is perceived to be the fault of the people themselves, not the government.
This is the mark of a successful story in a game. There is nothing overly memorable about Dishonored’s main plot, but the indelible impression that the world and its minor characters imprints on the gamer is far likely to stand together with its enjoyable gameplay mechanics as the reasons for playing the game in the first place. It demonstrates that story in games does not have to be obtuse, nor does it necessarily need to follow the conventions of film, but can instead be fluid and entirely driven by how little or how much a player decides to do.
Dishonored was one of the better games of last year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay it presented. However, I can’t help but think that Dishonored’s formula would work even better in a more open world.
Firstly, Dishonored’s gameplay puts a large emphasis on exploration and discovery. You can find shortcut paths, alternate methods to complete missions, discover interesting back story and intel, find useful items, and so on. It’s easy to see how these mechanics would be expanded in breadth and depth if the game was set in an open world.
Most missions in the game can be accomplished at least two different ways, usually more. By having a larger world, it would allow the number of available choices to multiply, adding a huge amount of variety to the game. I love the idea of discovering disconnected bits information all around a game world, only to be able to connect the dots like a big logic puzzle and unveil some sort of hidden treasure. Dishonored has the makings of this already, but it is usually isolated to each game level. Expanding this mechanic to take advantage of a large, open world is the next logical step.
Quite a few of the missions are built to support a non-linear type of playthrough. One of my favourite missions in the game was the masked party, where you must discover the identity of your target among the party members. This mission has so much potential to expand into a series of side-quests, each one progressively getting more difficult to figure out. If I don’t have at least two pages of notes by the final mission, it’s not difficult enough!
Logic puzzles are all well and good, but there’s potential for the stealth side of things as well. Infiltrating buildings, sneaking around guards, finding hidden paths – Dishonored already does pretty much everything. Adding an open world to these mechanics simply expands what’s already there. Most of the game levels have good height variation – there are sewers, streets, and rooftops. Integrating these components into a larger world would allow for some very interesting traversal routes through the world, especially using the game’s teleporting ‘Blink’ ability.
The choice and morality system also has potential for expanding, as well. From what I can gather, the choices only affect minor parts of the final mission and ending cutscene. This can and should be expanded to play a larger and more important role in an open world game. It could limit your skill progression, the areas you can access, events that happen throughout the game, affect the people who ally with you, and much more. I haven’t seen many games do a choice system that wasn’t completely trivial – and while Dishonored does it a bit better than, say, the ending choice of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it still has a long way to go if it wants to make the morality decisions a meaningful part of the gameplay.
If I was to criticise anything about Dishonored, one thing I would bring up is that it’s too linear for the game it is trying to be – or rather, for the game it could potentially be. While it certainly follows a similar story progression and side-mission structure to games of old (e.g. Deus Ex), it has potential to break past that and move into something even better. It could be less linear, reward exploration even more, integrate more puzzle elements, include more side-missions, and expand on the choice and morality system. In my mind, that would be a winning combination.