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Why people are playing: Dishonored

Gamasutra takes a look at how a shrewd blend of best-practices and brand-new ideas is bringing Arkane Studios' and Bethesda Softworks' Dishonored to the forefront of audience conversation.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

October 17, 2012

7 Min Read

We know you're busy making games. That's why from here on out, Gamasutra will be bringing you a regular look at what passionate game fans are talking about right now, tapping the zeitgeist to look at what makes these heroic new fan favorites tick. Sometimes cultural buzz isn't just about retail units, formal market research and sales figures. This time, we take a look at Dishonored, Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks' stealth action-adventure. In a year where many of gaming's most passionate fans seem generally bored of traditional blockbusters, Dishonored has quickly rushed to the front of consideration for 2012's favorites -- despite looking distinctly "video-gamey" at first blush. It's a first person game where players balance melee on one hand, range and tools on the other; it's set in a hybridized fantasy-realistic world of government corruption, and deals with assassination missions amid faction war. In other words, it sounds like a lot of things people have already heard of, and as such could be expected to have a tough time mobilizing fans right now. But more than a cursory look reveals an incredibly delicate balancing act: the familiar stuff somehow manages to be more fun than before, and refreshing ideas abound in Dishonored's thoughtfully-crafted and detail-oriented universe. The result ends up offering something for almost everyone, and a pleasantly-lacy infrastructure that allows players to make the story of Corvo, a former loyal agent falsely accused and disgraced, their own. So what's got players buzzing when it comes to Dishonored? Impeccable clarity. The game avoids bogging users down in dense lore or complex systems early on, instead offering a pleasingly-direct user interface that always makes sure players understand what they're doing and why. Such precise provision of imminently-necessary information lets players dive into the game's relatively complex world at the pace they're ready to receive it. This means clear direction on the game's controls and objectives at all times, unless the player chooses to switch the interface off. The result is an admirably-inviting ramp-up to mastery, so that it's nearly impossible for anyone to feel deterred or overwhelmed -- without the sense that complexity is sacrificed. Dishonored 1.jpgAccessible stealth. Sneaking is the core mechanic of Dishonored, and the game provides generally more favorable feedback to players who master the art of stealth. Yet it encourages stealth gameplay much more intuitively than, say, the Metal Gear Solid series, which provides a relatively complex ecosystem of choice and consequence around immediate, moment-to-moment movements. In Dishonored, one's primary concern is to stay hidden -- just a single button toggles sneaking -- and out of the enemy's line of sight. Noise, like the sound of Corvo's blade against a sonorous pipe or a tossed teacup, will attract attention, but this largely sets up strategic opportunities for the player, rather than instant penalty. It's less realistic and more forgiving, but the result is a lot more fun, alleviating the hyper-attentive stress of stealth games where every move feels like a high-stakes gamble. Players feel powerful. On the other hand, the game doesn't force players to play it stealthy -- it's equally fun for those who are trigger-happy, since there's such a wide array of tools at one's disposal and no choice feels like a particularly-punishing compromise. A well-timed parry provides an opportunity for a brutal head-cleaving swipe, and firing lethal crossbow bolts provides a more sickening crunch than sleep bolts. The result is pleasingly ambidextrous: Stealth players wince at the gory consequences of killing, emphasizing their secrecy, while confrontational players get the satisfaction of dealing harm to their shady aggressors. Also contributing to a sense of power for the player is Dishonored's overall fluidity -- it just has a good feel. It's relatively hard to trundle clumsily off narrow wooden ramps or rocky ledges, smash a held bottle by some accidental collision, and apparently impossible, fortunately, to awkwardly jostle an NPC. The tech at work makes players feel like they're in delicate command of their character and his place in the world. Of course, remarkably strong level design is no small thing: That the game tends to offer a number of intuitive paths through any given area makes Dishonored feel much less linear, and lets players feel strategic about hunting their targets and taking ownership of the play space. Environmental details. Dishonored's world is the real star, rich with delicate strokes that make it feel incredibly lived-in, and as believable as it is fantastic. Okay, there's a strange fixation on the byproducts of whales (which are never seen, as far as I know). But the cans of potted meat, hagfish and jellied eels, skewered rat (aren't they plague-ridden?) and general dockside culture, where guardsmen idly whistle the tune of "drunken sailor" -- these all contribute subtly to a skin-crawly but nonetheless fascinating vision of Victorian London. Diary books and audio recordings shed light upon the experiences of all its world's people. Seagulls call in the distance, and dubious greenish brine is everywhere. In the game's very first opening mission, the player escapes jail into a sewer grotto where plague-ravaged corpses and attempted escapees alike are left to die. Their sad little hovels, corpse-draped, are incredibly vivid, strewn with lost coin and empty bottles. A sense of atmosphere characterizes the game. There's pervasive injustice -- and those ever-present rats, carrying a near-tangible pestilence everywhere. Dishonored 2.jpgGood artists copy, great artists steal. Dishonored has a lot in common with a few of the most popular and groundbreaking titles in recent memory: Most fans can see shades of BioShock in its resourceful gameplay, Assassin's Creed in its stealthy kills, of Half-Life 2 in the game's atmosphere of fear and oppression against which revolutionaries persist. Other comparisons abound, as like other beloved titles so many things about Dishonored make good sense. But most of the game's biggest fans seem to love these touchstones, rather than considering them over-familiar or imitative -- it seems gamers are more than pleased to reconnect with elements from beloved franchises in new contexts. It's a view of innovation that embraces not the idea of doing something totally unheard-of, but of taking what people love and re-interpreting it deftly. Fresh mechanics. Most of Dishonored's appeal sounds like solid logic: Accessible interface, nebulous but essential 'good feel', an engaging and vibrant world, touchstones to games people already adore and enjoy revisiting, creative level design. But what really seems to all but secure the game's place in a swath of year-end lists is the innovation when it comes to the game's "enhancements", powers which not only offer players an unprecedented degree of customization and control over their gameplay, but which also imagine and allow abilities not generally seen before. For example, the ability to "blink" lets players teleport short distances at quick, satisfying speeds; it feels essential to optimal stealth gameplay, but it also is purely joyful to play with. More than one Dishonored fan I've spoken to compared the sense of freedom of movement to what they hoped Mirror's Edge would have always provided. Fairly early in the game, Dishonored also gives players a mechanical human heart to carry: not only is this an object that acts as a guide to power-ups, but it's a virtual Rosetta stone for the many who are taken in with the game's world of Dunwall and its outlying lands. As an alternative to the standard written or audio-diary lore, which Dishonored does offer aplenty, the heart can be asked to communicate information about any of the game's characters or areas, in a fascinatingly-intimate fashion that offers a new spin on the old "drop notebooks everywhere" tack of informing players about the nature and history of the places they're in and who's in there with them. Dishonored's warm critical reception and fan appeal show that tried and true approaches don't always have to result in something that feels well-trod, when attention to detail and strategic innovation are applied to great lengths in just the right areas.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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