So, I just finished Dishonored, and I must confess to feeling a little disappointed. So much so that I’m driven to write about it. (Some minor spoilers below.)
But, I should probably start off by saying there is a lot that is great about this game. The characters are interesting, the setting is novel, the level and world design gives you a lot of freedom, and the art direction is unique (even if a few textures are awful). The running and jumping mechanics work flawlessly – very important in a game like this – and the interface is responsive. In fact, it’s only all those positive aspects that make the problems visible. By setting the quality bar so high, it’s hard not to notice the areas where it’s not been reached. So what follows is mostly negative not because the game is mostly negative but because the positives are well covered elsewhere.
Hide or Seek
Arguably the biggest problem Dishonored has is also one of its biggest attractions, namely the ability to choose whether to play it stealthily, violently, or some mixture of the two. A similar style exists in games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or the Splinter Cell series and works well when executed effectively. For both play styles to make sense they need to be broadly in balance, so that you feel it’s an active choice you make for yourself (or for your character) rather than a passive choice that you make by virtue of one route being significantly harder than the other. Unfortunately the two sides never feel quite in balance in Dishonored. My first run-in with the problem was in the first proper mission. One of the hardest areas in the entire game for me was mere seconds into the first mission proper when I faced three opponents in one room which has to be traversed. Opting for complete stealth, I tried many ways to get through the room undetected without attacking anyone, and failed about ten times in succession. Perhaps I was mistaken to assume such a manoeuvre was practical, so instead I moved to a compromise approach of non-lethally attacking people in a certain order, and after several failed attempts there I managed to pull that off. (It helps if you realise you can move while choking people, incidentally.) But what I learned with each failure was that once I was discovered and forced into violence, it became much easier, and foes tended to die easily. Perhaps this was a deliberate commentary of some sort – but to me, it immediately felt like a stealth game where I was being punished for playing stealthily.
Luckily, things didn’t stay that bad, and I don’t think there was ever another time I had to contend with three enemies in such an enclosed area with so few resources available. But I never felt like the stealth worked well. Rather than opt to give you tools that directly measure your own visibility (as in Thief or Splinter Cell) which you can learn from while navigating the world, the feedback comes from visual indicators on the characters who see you, plus an audio cue. I can understand that having a magical way of knowing how visible you are is not something every game wants, but it’s been replaced with another equally non-diegetic indicator, one which only shows up when you are failing. Because of this, it seems like it’s neither providing sufficient feedback to master the mechanic nor attempting to be a realistic in-game behaviour and hence ends up being a frustrating exercise in trial-and-error. And when you are spotted, enemies converge upon you very quickly, making escape difficult. This makes the violent playthroughs somewhat more challenging at the expense of making stealth feel very binary – you’re either undetected or you’re surrounded. My experience ended up a lot like Chris Kohler’s, where most attempts at stealth fail and either you reload or you give up on playing it that way, because standing your ground and killing your foes is so much easier. I’m not a good player by any means – I completed Dishonored on a stealthy run at the Hard difficulty level in a leisurely 40 hours whereas most will manage it in half to a quarter of that time – but few games made me feel like a bad player as much as this one did, and considering I pretty much live off stealth/action hybrids, that’s unfortunate for the likes of me.
There are a few other problems with the implementation of stealth and non-lethal methods:
- Aggressive characters get a variety of different explosives and weapons, while pacifist characters pretty much just have one. On top of that there aren’t many tools for distraction or manipulating the environment in any way. This pretty much reduces a non-lethal character’s decision making process in most cases to picking one of your two methods of knocking someone out, or going around them. (Some suggestions for extra non-lethal features could include limited invisibility, more extinguishable light sources, a ‘whistle’ command as in Splinter Cell, noise-making crossbow bolts, stun or knockout grenades, smoke grenades…)
- Related to the last point, the economy was out of balance for stealthy characters. You’re likely to end up with thousands of unspent coins and ten or more unused runes because most of the weapons, two of the powers, and the majority of the enhancements are irrelevant if you’re not killing people.
- Enemies can spot hidden bodies – but the engine arbitrarily removes bodies from the map! When I first spotted this, I assumed it was a bug. A few minutes searching the internet and I discover that it’s an optimisation. But you can’t just optimise out bits of gameplay. Hiding the bodies is a traditional part of stealth games, and Dishonored theoretically makes this more interesting by varying your opponent’s patrol routes, apparently to cover areas that you may have ‘removed’ someone from. On at least one occasion, I panicked because I saw a guard walking towards where I’d left one of his incapacitated colleagues earlier, and rushed to attempt to intercept him before he made the discovery – only to find out that the body was no longer there to be discovered. That was really immersion breaking for me.
- Shadows – do they hide you? Do they not? I’ve read the note that pops up during loading screens but that’s not the same as seeing the system work in practice. At close range, they certainly don’t, and at long range, it seems to be down to luck as to whether you’re spotted or not. And if you’re stood above someone then they’ll probably never spot you at all, whether you’re in light or shade. I don’t feel this mechanic was usable in a practical way.
One more related aspect bothers me, namely the concept of there being ‘high chaos’ and ‘low chaos’ playthroughs, broadly corresponding to the lethal and non-lethal approaches respectively. While it is suggested that your choice makes a significant difference during play – eg.”fewer rats and weepers” as the loading screens say – it doesn’t feel like something tangible you can actually observe without having a second play through to compare against. It seems like some of the content was designed to accommodate significant differences between a high chaos and a low chaos playthrough, but diluting content in this way is risky. In particular the last mission was spectacularly anticlimactic with little to do for the last half, several bits of the building completely unused, perhaps playing a more valuable part in the high chaos version. But the result is that the whole final mission can be almost accidentally completed in under 5 minutes. By all reports it’s a totally different experience when you play it the ‘other’ way, but when fewer than half the players are likely to finish it once never mind twice, it seems a dubious decision to make a second playthrough better at the expense of the first.
One more comment on the gameplay and the choices available to me. On at least two occasions I was seemingly expected to make my way past a certain obstacle, only for there to be a completely unguarded route around it. On the first occasion a helpful tutorial window even showed the routes for me, and the second occasion later in the game made it seem like a concession to making it easier to get into an area. These choices felt a bit patronising, as if aimed at someone more accustomed to playing linear shooters who might consider themselves a genius for finding an alternative route, and who needed a prod to even consider that there may be some alternatives. Still, there was a good degree of freedom in the levels which was welcome.
Tell Me A Story
The other major problem I had was with the narrative. The setting had so much potential, with a cast of interesting characters, so the story takes a prominent role and I expected a satisfying resolution at the end of the story with loose ends tied up. But Dishonored left many aspects unexplained, the result being a situation reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the audience being left with more questions than answers. Surely these gaps must have been noticed, so why did they make it to the final product? A charitable explanation might be that the team started out intending to create a huge ‘Order vs Chaos’ mythos, much like Thief‘s Hammerite/Pagan dichotomy, but ended up having to significantly strip back this aspect when short on time. A more cynical view might be that these issues were deliberately left open and were intended to be dealt with in a sequel – but while that may sound great to the bean-counters, it’s not a great way to treat your fans.
Issues with the plot include:
- Your character gets supernatural abilities. Nothing else in the rest of the game really justifies or explains this. In pure gameplay terms they work well – but the narrative never makes a compelling case either for their existence in general or for you to have them.
- The person who bestows the supernatural abilities upon you also seems to have no relation to the rest of the game’s events and only a tenuous connection to its setting. Maybe the intent was to show homage to Deus Ex by adding a literal deus ex machina situation to the game! If so, well played, but it’s a bit too ‘meta’ for the typical player. The name of the character raises interesting parallels with your own character’s status, and I thought this would form part of the plot later on – but either this is just a coincidence, or it simply never got elaborated upon.
- At more than one point you face another faction of characters with abilities similar to yours. The lack of explanation for their motivation could be glossed over if taken at face value. The lack of explanation for their powers cannot be dismissed so easily.
- You get given a mystical object that yields valuable information about characters and environments. This is a lovely touch and quite a unique item for a game – yet again, largely unexplained. (It also lets you work out the solitary plot twist some way ahead of time, incidentally.) Robert Yang has his own theories on this device but I don’t feel the implication is as strong as he suggests, especially given the missed opportunity to make that association at the point where you acquire it. And even if you do accept that the game effectively tells you what it is, you never get told why it is.
- It’s hinted that your character has a certain type of relationship with one of the other characters. This is referred to a couple of times but doesn’t seem to get expanded upon either.
- You can end up in a duel with someone with virtually no warning beforehand and little in the way of explanation afterwards. It also makes little sense that the person who sends you to a duel would risk your life over such a matter at that important stage.
- There’s a recurring character who appears to exist for no reason other than to add a bit of flavour. This would be great if not for the nagging feeling that the time spent on that character could have been spent on some of the above issues.
None of these issues are a problem during play because you assume that all may be revealed at the end. But when you reach the end and little has been explained, it leaves you feeling dissatisfied and lacking a real sense of resolution. And I think that’s a real problem with a game that places such weight on narrative, through cut-scenes, audio logs, expositionary dialogue with other characters, and so on. It’s an interesting example of how gameplay that works perfectly well without narrative changes when you add it, colouring your perception of the whole game for better or worse, becoming the lens through which you observe the game system.
Revenge Solves Everything™
As usual, a sequel could address these issues. Dishonored sold deservedly well, and Bethesda are already throwing around the distasteful business terms such as ‘a new franchise‘ to imply that sequels are coming. Perhaps when played as a series the narrative will make a lot more sense, addressing the loose ends and doing a better job of giving players a satisfactory resolution. And it wouldn’t be too hard to beef up the stealth aspect of the game too by throwing in extra powers and perhaps paying a little more attention to sound and lighting factors and how players can manipulate them. I just hope that the fact that Dishonored succeeded despite the problems above doesn’t mean no attempt will be made to address them.