Back when I was still actively playing World of Warcrap, one of the games’ many inside jokes were the pandas. According to the lore, somewhere in Azeroth there existed a race of pseudo-Chinese panda bears that were mostly known for their Kung-Fu inspired martial arts. They were not a playable race, nor were they featured anywhere in the game outside of tongue-in-cheek lore references, and rare items or pets. These Panderians (as they were called) were sort of a fan favorite because of their cute, cuddly appearance and their amusing lore. Players couldn’t get enough of these damn things.
And then Blizzard made an expansion called “Mists of Pandering” which added them to the game as a playable race and took place almost entirely on their home island which served both as a low level n00b area, and high level raiding/quest hub. Personally I haven’t played the panda content but everyone I talked to was mostly disappointed with it. Why? Because as they eloquently explained to me:
fucking panda bears and shit man? Like who’se idea was this crap anyway?
Well, it was yours. The lesson here is that pandering to your main demographic is not always a winning bet. When your goal is to pander, you deliver exactly what your fans wanted, but most likely not even close to what they expected to get.
Why am I talking about WoW in a review of Dishonored? Because it was built around the same core theme as Mists... To say Dishonored is pandering to the 18-30 gamer demographic would be an understatement. The game was engineered from top to bottom to appeal to its audience. The fact that this game exists does not surprise me, but I find it baffling just how shameless it is.
Let me put it this way: this game was created by a group of enthusiastic artists and developers with a crazy idea that just might work. It was born in some boring board room when bunch of clowns from marketing pitched the idea to a CEO of Bethesda Softworks. Where did they get this idea? Demographic research of course: they scoured the internet forums to see what gamer kids are into these days, and came up with a list:
- Kids like FPS games with minimal RPG elements which offer some sort of linear progression of ass-kicking powers
- Kids absolutely love stealth assassination game play (see Hitman franchise, Assassin Creed franchise, Thief franchise, etc..)
- Kids are really into steam-punk shit, which is under-represented in mainstream games, but it is a safe genre as evidenced by phenomenally successful franchises like Bioshock)
- Zombies have never been more in than they are now (dat Walking Dead series… And also maybe the games…)
- Ninjas (and in general assassin type masked dudes) are cool
- Steam punk with nautical theme would be a really good way to work in references to memetically popular things like pirates and narwhals
- Binary moral choice systems let you put out media releases that claim your game has challenging choices and alternate endings based on player conduct.
You put all of these things in a blender, shake it, mix it and you get a game that is guaranteed to sell. This is the point where the CEO nodes sagely, considers it for a minute and says “Let’s give it to the french dudes…”.
The marketroids look at each other with a mixture of consternation and fear. On one hand, disagreeing with their boss is going to have a negative impact on all the ass-kissing quota they need to fill to get the big bonus at the end of the year. On the other hand, their brilliant idea is about to go down the drain… “But sir, the french dudes haven’t accomplished shit since Dark Messiah of Might and Magic”.
The CEO, clearly amused by the fact this display of independent thought gives him an excuse to skimp on bonuses bares his fangs, yellowed by expensive contraband cigars he smokes in his office all the time (having disabled the fire alarm against fire safety regulations) and explains:
“They made art for Buioshock 2 so they ought to have experience doing all that steam punk shit… And if they fail this, I have an excuse to fire all of them. And all of you clowns along with them”
Then he pees on them to establish pack dominance and leaves the conference room, leaving the marketroid team on the floor, in the fetal position and crying. At least this is how I imagine Akane Studios got the gig of making this game.
Granted, it could be that this is something that these guys always wanted to do. But the cynic in me suspects that they were failing so hard at their jobs that ZeniMax and Bethesda simply handed them the one project they had that just could not possibly fail as long as it got released. Based on the theme, genre and gameplay hooks this game was bound to sell even if it turned out to be awfully mediocre. And sell it did.
To be honest, the game isn’t half bad. I actually had fun playing it.
The game play was enjoyable and the controls were reasonably tight. Akane Studios did not drop any balls and delivered a game that behaved as expected. It can be easy to ruin stealth play sometimes – especially if the environments are too linear or if you try to force player into participating in set piece scripted events that interfere with player’s plans. Dishonored gets it mostly right – almost all the levels have multiple paths of approach and give the player a lot of freedom in choosing how to approach their target. It really feels a lot like Thief or Hitman games in which exploration, careful planning and exploiting the terrain is not only encouraged but rewarded. There are also not mandatory Deus Ex style boss battles, except one which is mostly justified.
Mechanically, there is really nothing wrong with the game. The game play is rewarding, rather polished and there are surprisingly little bugs compared to some other stuff I have played recently. Perhaps the only criticism I could give here is that if really feels like a huge power trip – especially when you go the lethal route and slit throats instead of putting people in sleeper holds. The game gives you a teeny bit of push back as per the “moral choice” system and you get a worse ending – but for the most part the mechanics encourage you to go hog-wild killing people in imaginative ways. Then again, this is the sort of thing one has to expect from stealth assassin type game. They are supposed to be these power trips. It’s part of their charm.
The moral system is half baked and stupid, but then again this is nothing new. There are very few games that offer players choices that matter. Most systems like this are binary: you get a Lawful Good option and Chaotic Stupid option. In most games this usually boils down to choices like “help the old woman across the street” or “kill the old woman’s dog, and steal her purse” with nothing in between. Dishonored distills it it down even further. Your two options are usually “kill a dude” and “ruin a dude’s life”… Which, to be honest is slightly less contrived than anything else they could come up with. What irked me about it was that you could never do both.
Whenever the game gives you an option to “dispose” of someone by ruining their reputation, blackmailing or sabotaging their plans, executing it usually removes your target from the level making them un-killable even though you are sill free to roam searching for collectibles and such. On the other hand if you kill someone, and complete the reputation-ruining the game will completely ignore it in subsequent conversations. The whole moral choice system seems forced and tacked on.
The plot is serviceable, but it feels safe. It never oversteps any boundaries, and it manages not to insult the players intelligence most of the times but it really doesn’t really tell a compelling story. Most of the “moral choices” you make are fairly meaningless since you neither know nor care about your targets, and you never see them again either way. Most of the characters are one dimensional or barely have any characterization at all. None of them are completely awful or cringe inducing mind you – they are just… Safe and unremarkable.
This especially goes for the little princes you meet in the opening scene, and then spend most of the game trying to rescue. You spend barely 3 minutes with her until she gets kidnapped and then your motivation is supposed to be to save her. You are told that your character and the empress had this existing, tight relationship and trust. You are told you were a father figure to the little princess and your character cares deeply about her well being. You are told your character is motivated by revenge. But the game never gives you a chance to form these emotional bonds yourself. You are told they exist, but that’s not enough. The cardinal rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”. Dishonored likes to tell you stuff, because telling is faster. A lot of exposition is done trough info-dump conversations or found documents.
There is a “big twist” near the end of the game that was probably supposed to be a bit of an unpleasant surprise. But I wasn’t even slightly outraged or annoyed. My exact thoughts as the twist unfolded were “oh, cool, I thought this was the end but I guess I get few more quests now”. Which I guess just goes to show that I actually cared more about the game-play than about the characters. From a technical perspective, there is nothing wrong with that. But when you set out to make a game that claims to be about relationships, betrayals and moral choices and your players don’t give a shit about any of the characters you have mostly failed as a storyteller.
There is also the Outside subplot, that features some sort of supernatural demigod figure that grants your superpowers and makes comments about your conduct. Unfortunately it goes absolutely fucking nowhere – at least in the lethal play-through I did. I kept waiting for a payoff of that sub-story but nothing happened. Here is this ghastly supernatural, all powerful specter that appears to me in visions to tell me it is watching me closely and then… It just continues watching and does nothing. I guess he was just a spooky magic spell dispenser and nothing else after all.
Let me summarize this game in a few words: it is safe, pandering and unremarkable but actually rather fun. The story is uninspired and the plot is linear, and mostly contrived and predictable. The game-play makes up for most of the flaws – it is fun and enjoyable, but once again, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before. What this game is, is a collection of old and tried elements that have been proven to work in other games. And as such it delivers a surprising amount of fun, even if said fun is rehashed. If you like stealth assassination game play and you wouldn’t mind playing a game set in a funky steam punk setting with zombies then you will likely enjoy this title. Just go in with your expectations set to low.
If you happen to be in the game’s target demographic, you will probably enjoy it at least on some level, because it was designed to hit all the sweet spots both thematically and game play wise. But while it is aimed squarely at all the right pleasure centers in your brain, it doesn’t do much to stimulate them. It is like a song that hits all the right notes, but it does not produce a catchy melody. As soon as the music stops playing it fades from your memory.
You know what is the worst part? The fact that the game is so unexceptional only heightens your awareness of how socially engineered it really is. As you play it you sort of stumble onto things that you know were meant to appeal to you. That meant to be winks at the audience. At times this reflection is so strong that it takes you out of the game, ruins the immersion and puts you in a sort of meta-commentary mode where you just notice things rather than experience them.
Dishonored is exactly the game we seem to have wanted based on our purchasing decisions, and your digital footprint on the internet. But as it usually happens with shameless pandering of this magnitude, the depth of experience and meaning were sacrificed in lieu of broad demographic appeal.