Dishonored

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.

Dishonored

Dishonored

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:

  1. Kids like FPS games with minimal RPG elements which offer some sort of linear progression of ass-kicking powers
  2. Kids absolutely love stealth assassination game play (see Hitman franchise, Assassin Creed franchise, Thief franchise, etc..)
  3. 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)
  4. Zombies have never been more in than they are now (dat Walking Dead series… And also maybe the games…)
  5. Ninjas (and in general assassin type masked dudes) are cool
  6. Steam punk with nautical theme would be a really good way to work in references to memetically popular things like pirates and narwhals
  7. 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.

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7 Responses to Dishonored

  1. Karthik AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Wow, my experience with Dishonored cannot have been more different.

    First off:
    “It was born in some boring board room when bunch of clowns from marketing pitched the idea to a CEO of Bethesda Softworks.”
    This game was actually pitched to Bethesda by Smith and Colantonio from Arkane.

    A lot of great movies and games are basically remixes of styles and elements from older ones. I thought Dishonored took this weird mix of nautical, steampunk and fantasy motifs and made it all seamless. In fact, none of the things you asserted make this a pandering game (the powers, RPG elements, the steampunk, zombies, ninjas) were things I cared for or particularly enjoyed in this game.
    I loved it because it had pitch perfect worldbuilding, and Dunwall (and by extension the isles and Pandyssia) were about as well realized as in a competent fantasy novel, that I then got to run around in. Barring Thief (kinda), Dishonored is the first post-fantasy world in games, where magic was commonplace a few centuries ago but now ostracized and pushed to the fringes of society by the engine of industrialization. The current empire is built on the ruins of an ancient outsider-worshipping civilization. There was this sense of mystery and despair pervading the game that so few games even attempt. The last game I played that felt this well-realized and mysterious was Half-Life 2. I reckon Dishonored “shows” about as much through its dialog and some environmental storytelling as Half-Life 2 did, but it “tells” a lot more through found documents and the Heart (more on this below). It built a fantastic image of its world in my head, and there was basically no way it could have done this if it restricted itself to “showing”, an inherently budget-limited task. When the telling is this fantastic, I can’t complain!

    But seriously, pandering? Can you imagine a boardroom that agreed to let Arkane build levels four-fifths of which players would never see because they hopped on a ledge and ran across all the way to their objective? Dishonored breaks many, many rules of game design that publishers usually enforce. It does not spoon-feed you any answers: many players will never discover the origins of the plague, or whose Heart it really is, or Granny Rags’ story. The game refused to pad out its length and made many, many level sections completely optional. Player freedom in this game is basically unprecedented since the days of Looking Glass. The only boss fight was optional, too. Developers (and publishers) usually crap themselves if they think chunks of the game they spent man-months building will be ignored by the player; Arkane was confident enough to allow the player to choose their own experience. Heck, just the fact that it was a new IP makes it a wonder that it was made. I can’t imagine for a second that the whalepunk setting was an easy sell to Bethesda. It might be a natural confluence of themes for us, but I don’t doubt for a second it’s too weird for publishers, who always prefer the familiar.

    The problems I had with it (and I had plenty) are mostly orthogonal to the ones you point out. The stealth mechanics were opaque, unclear and felt inconsistent. Most powers were win buttons. Many small elements of the game’s design, like Corvo’s mask, were completely pointless eye candy. The gameplay was often iffy because it takes time to swap out powers/weapons, ruling out quick maneuvers. The only common gripe is the poor character writing, especially with Emily functioning primarily as a barometer for your chaos rating. The dialog and delivery are gratingly hackneyed. Corvo (and the player) never seemed to have a connection with any of the characters. In fact, I thought the main plot was rather poorly handled, not serviceable. After rescuing Emily, Corvo had no reason to stick around and do anything the Loyalists asked him to. That awful plot twist was telegraphed from a mile away if you were reading the Loyalists’ journals, and this was the only part of the game I thought insulted my intelligence. Also, like you said, the G-Man outsider subplot had zero payoff, which was a giant disappointment.

    The other common nitpick about the game is the idea that “It wants to be played a certain way (lethal, with full use of your powers), but then the game punishes you for it.” I find that this tells me more about the player than it does about Dishonored. Whether by accident or design, the non-lethal route is necessarily more constricting than the mass-murdering psychopath playstyle. This makes sense. Unlike Thief, playing non-lethally in a power-fantasy is about holding back, staying your blade. Corvo is tempted by the opportunity to cut a swath of blood straight to his mark, the player is tempted in turn to experiment with all their cool powers. Playing non-lethally is very much about resisting this temptation, and (if you’re invested in the story) Corvo’s responsibility to Dunwall. Again, this is something few games even attempt, and it probably backfired a bit: Instead of incentivizing stealthy play (the objective of this by Arkane’s admission), they ended up punishing violent play. And I do agree that more non-lethal options would have been welcome.

    The chaos system was far better implemented than morality meters in any game I’ve played. (It was neither half-baked nor stupid, for one.) I’m not sure, but it looks like you’ve confused the chaos/morality system with the lethal/non-lethal methods of dispatching your targets. There’s basically no connection between them. The chaos meter simply keeps track of how many people you kill and has nothing to do with who they are and whether they’re innocent or deserved it. It’s a simulation parameter, not a judgmental mallet. I killed all the assassination targets and many guards with no repercussions. Disposing of too many guards causes the plague to spread unchecked and harsher measures by the city watch in the later levels. Fundamentally, the chaos system works because the consequence is not a slider moving up on a blue/red meter, it’s a marked change in the city itself and in the rest of the game. If you had a high chaos playthrough, try playing non-lethally to see what I mean. The levels (and even some objectives towards the end) are completely different. Heck, this is the kind of choice/consequence mechanic we ask for games in all the time, the kind that makes the world feel less like a sterile theme park ride. The archetypes of “lawful good” and “chaotic stupid” are not relevant because the chaos system is not a roleplaying mechanic.

    I’m also guessing you did not use the Heart on people much. This alone made a big difference when it comes to the worldbuilding and characters. It adds depth to every character you use it on–in a fairly superficial but important way. For example, Caldwell bridge is just another obstacle between you and your target until the heart remarks: “I smell bones in the pylons, blood beneath the stone blocks. Men died building this structure.” This instantly adds a sense of history and character to your location in the world. The Heart has mysteries of its own, and much has been written about its simple but brilliant design.

    For the most part, Dishonored respects its players’ intelligence, freedom and agency. The level design was exemplary; Dunwall’s districts were real spaces, not videogame obstacle courses. The game is exceptional, but perhaps not on the metrics that matter the most to you. In a parallel universe, where FPS designers learnt their lessons from Deus Ex and Thief and not Half-Life, where immersive sims are cranked out like Call Of Duty sequels, Dishonored (with all its flaws) might have been an average, forgettable entry in a long list. In our universe, with ham-fisted, force-fed narratives and asphyxiating control over the player’s experience, I found Dishonored to be something more than just a fresh entry into the halls of Looking Glass Studio’s creative outputs. It basically brought back the immersive sim genre into the limelight, something Deus Ex: HR neither tried nor succeeded in doing.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Karthik:

    Wow, this is an excellent rebuttal! I should get (or write) like a featured comment plugin or something. You bring up some good points here.

    I agree that the world-building was good. I really enjoyed the setting. I think it was very well put together, and quite original, even if I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I like it because I’m the exact demographic they clocked this thing for. But perhaps you are right – this might not have been a easy pitch.

    Thanks for clarifying the chaos rating thing. I did quite a few questionable things during my play through which is probably why I got the ending I got. I mean, I couldn’t kill granny rags. She’s just a poor old lady who gives me runes to buff my powers all the time – of course I had to help her make some soup. Wouldn’t want her to go hungry. :P

    And yeah, after a few levels I completely forgot that you could click on things with the heart to get lore. So I probably missed quite a bit.

    Your comment actually makes me want to replay it on non-lethal and try to find more books (I’m pretty sure I skipped quite a few towards the end of the game cause I was like “no more whaling stories, time to kill dudes!”).

    Btw, whose heart was it? I never found out!

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  3. Sameer NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I thought Dishonored was a highly enjoyable foray into this well crafted world. Having taken the stealth approach myself I found the ending particularly satisfying when seeing one of the panels with both scientists…

    The level design is praiseworthy like Karthik said; many players will probably never see all the routes and back alley pathways that lead to runes or little tidbits of information about the world. One could go about finishing this game in a few hours but the fact that they allow for us to roam around at great length really speaks to their intentions to have the player achieve their goals in any way he/she deems fit. Being someone who really enjoys the free-roaming I couldn’t be more satisfied with the level design. The brothel, the dinner party and the bridge especially stand out with a graphical style to match their grandeur.

    In my playthrough I didn’t kill anyone. I couldn’t bring myself to fill people just doing their jobs and often I found the non-lethal way of dealing with quest targets a much more fitting punishment. Sure it can get ridiculous at times if you’re being discovered and have to dispatch of every guard running in the room with sleeper darts.

    I would have liked it if the AI would be a bit more conscious of your actions. For instance disabling guard towers or walls of light should provoke a reaction by the guards and they should attempt to repair them.

    Indeed using the heart will give you plenty of backstory on the characters, for me at least, enough to like and dislike them. At least some of the characters are well fleshed out (did you catch Piero being a perv XD ?). Of course the twist is seen coming a while before it actually happens if only because the design of the “pub of operations”.

    All in all I highly recommend this game to anyone. Best game I played in 2012. But then again I played Far Cry 3 in 2012 so perhaps that’s not saying much.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Sameer:

    Yeah, I must agree – the level design was top notch. I really liked the brothel and the dinner party. It felt very Hitman, and I happen to be very fond of Hitman franchise and style of game play.

    Oh, and yeah – I loved the bit at the end where the two scientists were holed up behind the force field discussing science. I was so glad I didn’t feed Beardo McRasputin (or whatever his name was) to the rats! Totally worth it.

    Also: I played stealth but I still killed ALL the guards. It was like an OCD twitch.

    “Hey, there is a guard there I still haven’t killed: BLINK, STAB, DUST! Wait… That was a civilian… Oh well, fuck it – I’m not reloading.”

    The boatman was pretty upset with me by the end of the game. He dropped me at the final mission, but he did warn the loyalist with a flare. I tried to blink-stab him for that but the game wouldn’t let me. :P

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  5. nicopico FRANCE Google Chrome Linux says:

    @ Luke Maciak: the theory is that it is the empress heart. Given both have the same voice actress, that seems quite plausible ;-)

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  6. Sameer NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Ah so you got the high chaos ending. Saw that boatman on YT. I tought that was a real dick move! Seriously what an asshole.

    The heart belonging to the empress is highly likely. I believe she says specific things if ou point the heart at the leader of the Whalers (Daud).

    Spoilers for the low chaos ending:

    In the low chaos ending there is one panel in the final cinematic showing you that sparing weepers is worth it because Piero and Sokolov find them a cure :)

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  7. Karthik AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    “I did quite a few questionable things during my play through which is probably why I got the ending I got. I mean, I couldn’t kill granny rags.”

    Again, the game (and it’s chaos/morality system) does not care who you kill. It has no internal metric of good and evil deeds. In fact, killing granny rags pushes you no closer to higher chaos than killing Slackjaw does. So if you got the high chaos ending, it was not because of the questionable nature of your deeds–it’s because, by the game’s logic, you killed too many people (especially the city watch) over the course of the entire game, causing the plague quarantine measures to fail and the plague to spread unchecked through Dunwall.

    The game does mess this up, because ostensibly, killing weepers should help contain the plague/chaos, but it has the opposite effect. In any case the game has no developer calibrated inbuilt moral compass.

    “I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I like it because I’m the exact demographic they clocked this thing for.

    You know, I think we have this notion backwards. This, not focus tested blandness, is probably what happened. The “grab-bag setting”, as PA put it, did indeed rankle some people’s chains, while others found it pretty amazing. I was in the latter camp, but from talking to people about it I’m beginning to see why they’d have a contrary opinion.

    Shamus Young also wrote that he bounced off of Dishonored, for reasons similar to the ones you give. Campster made similar comments on Youtube. Basically, the complete absence of three dimensional characters (except Daud), weak motivations, and of a plot that you feel you have no stake in. I thought about this then (and now again) and about why I came to love the game despite a pretty weak, incredulous main plot and characters, and I chalked it up to the gameplay and superior world-building. Or at least, a level of care in crafting their world and lore that lies well above the norm for videogame franchises. But I think there is also a different, more valid reason.

    It’s the old issue of expectations. From the game’s promotional media, or perhaps due to an internal predisposition, many people expected an emotional story with themes of revenge and betrayal, especially after the opening chapter (if they went in blind).

    But at its heart (pun unintended), Dishonored is a game about pure, unrestrained design. Immersive sims are often this way. Deus Ex had great science fiction ideas for a videogame of its time but some conspiracy theory gobbledygook for a story. The Thief series was similar, great minimalist world-building but no real character arc for Garrett (or anyone else). The characters no doubt evolved from the needs of the design, and not the other way around. So Emily is your chaos meter, Samuel is your conscience, the conspirators are one from each center of power in Dunwall, Piero is an upgrade dispenser, and the domestic help fill out The Hounds Pub because it’s too bare. This philosophy, that design is paramount, applies equally well to the powers, of which there are very few compared to say, Deus Ex:HR. The levels are designed around your powers, and vice-versa, and adding more powers would be introducing one too many terms into a carefully balanced equation.

    I didn’t know anything about the game except the steampunk setting and that Harvey Smith worked on it (he was a designer on Deus Ex). So my expectations were more or less aligned with what the game provides. Heck, I spent ten minutes jumping off and on the boat and playing with the drawbridge in the game’s opening segment, just because opening segments are usually rigid, cutscene heavy affairs and Dishonored was happy to let me bunny hop my way across Dunwall Tower.

    In fact, the game delighted me especially because I wasn’t expecting a well-crafted, believable fantasy world with interesting lore.

    The Heart: Yeah, it’s the empress. But like the outsider sub-plot, nothing comes of this revelation. If you pay attention to it(her), Piero’s diary and Granny Rags’ stories, you can figure this out early in the game. Using the heart on your assassination targets eventually confirms this, and gives you some additional context to the events of the game. But on the whole, it’s still a mystery how or why that happened or if there was any point to this plot detail at all.

    Something about this game seems to make me invoke the wall-of-text spell. I think I should stop now.

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