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Postmortem: The Level Design of Dishonored Series

Such diversity of finishing a mission is the essence of level design, mainly supported by four points: stereoscopic structure, touchable possibility, fabulous dynamics and world building.

Sicheng Hu

October 2, 2017

4 Min Read


In general views, Dishonored has classic chapter-based linear levels while inside a level there are open-world style gameplays using player empowerment: the goal is fixed, but you can achieve it by various methods. Such diversity of finishing a mission is the essence of level design, mainly supported by four points: stereoscopic structure, touchable possibilities, fabulous dynamics and world building. Moreover, they are intimately combined with player’s formidable skills.

Stereoscopic structure

Unlike Dark Souls using exaggerated long elevator or ladder to connect different sections, levels of Dishonored are more sophisticated, reasonable and stereoscopic. With powerful vertical-moving abilities, levels in Dishonored take advantages of three-dimensional space in a higher degree: there are always some hidden paths lead to object other than the explicit one, like a tunnel for fishes or rats (player can possess in any creature to move), using ceiling lamps as platforms observing from above, etc. Whereas in Dark Souls, you can jump a gap but can never climb over even the lowest wall. Therefore, the experience is relatively flat and loose despite the existence of spectacular scenes as well as impacting visions, and levels of Dishonored are more logical and immersive.

Touchable possibilities

It is the tightly connected skills and environments that make Dishonored so impressive, reminding me of Portal: one simple ability (portal gun) combine with tricky devices along with matching layouts that burst into great puzzles, yet Dishonored has done more: more creative skills and more realistic levels. The player is not a tester in a mystery lab solving apparent mechanical testing programs, but a superpower assassin wandering around a fantasy city.

Games always bluff their vast possibilities of gameplay. However, most of them mainly concentrate on theoretical, numerical possibilities like matching gears and allocating attributes; the only difference is damage figures. While in Dishonored, it is based on the association of fanciful level design and multifariousness of skill selection (you can even beat the game without using any skills). The variety here is more touchable and perceivable, has little to do with numerical growth; you can insta-kill any boss with a proper method waiting for players to find out.

Fabulous dynamics

Random generation is popular among Rogue-like games, and it’s a more convenient way to avoid boring and repetition. Dishonored has applied this method to safe combinations, text puzzle and even a random object among triple sisters. But you can never build an impressive level on a larger scale only by sheer random generation.

There are two dynamic levels in Dishonored that strike me profoundly: one is a clockwork mansion that can change its structure by triggering levers; another is an ability-restricted level where you can shift between two timelines freely, everything you did in the past timeline will affect something in the present one. These new dynamics elements increase the information density of this game, offering brand-new methods of gameplay and much fun.

The chaos system should also be mentioned. According to player’s playstyle: mercy or ruthless, the level will change its atmosphere and enemy distribution. Players can feel that their choices do have some impact on this world, and the point is, the choice is not presented as talking options for a player to select; it emerges from players’ actions naturally without a pause, which is the best way for interactive narrative.

And there are some neat details that cascade the whole game: for example, if you branded an overseer leader in the beginning, then you will find him banished, wandering in the ruin of a later level.

World building

The walking area of a single level is not broad, yet through complex layout and environment setting in addition to multiple progressive routines, it still provides a substantial experience and a feeling of a vast integral world. There are many stories and critical clues concealed in NPC’s conversation, audiotapes, books, and letters, even in the whisper of a mechanical heart.

Though there is no seamless connection between these levels, the placement of each joint is natural, and the interrelation of the long-range scenery in each level keeps much imagination for players to fill the blank. When you hear the brief from an old man on a skiff, you watch yourself passing through areas that you actually can’t go in, and you feel you are living in this world. Even though you can only explore some parts of it, you can always watch the distant mountains.


Owing to all of these features, Dishonored presents us a real sense of a believable steampunk world with immersive experience inside.

Stealth and assault elements offer a meaningful choice for players, combined with the sophisticated level design; great fun emerges naturally. With such frank revenge story and the blending of luxurious mansions and desolate ruins, the aesthetical feeling is beautiful and unique.

A brilliant, intricate game reminds me of Rubik's Cube, a masterpiece of all time.

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