Dishonored: World-Building at Its Finest
The cold rain patters down on your hood, slick with oil and grimy with the soot of industry. In the distance, you can see the sparking of poorly-kept power transformers, new technology that’s not quite understood. Below you, a guard passes, the golden mask he wears turning his expression to one of rage and disgust. He doesn’t see you, he can’t see you. The eldritch powers you’ve been given from a dark and inscrutable god ensure your safety as you stalk the streets of Dunwall.
Ahead lies your target, a monolithic slab of steel and concrete dominating the surrounding buildings with the arrogance that comes with unchecked power. But tonight, you have the power; tonight you will slip inside, the blade in the dark, and kill one of the men that had sought to use you wrongly.
The guard is directly beneath you now, standing proudly, ignorant of the death that waits above him. Drawing your blade, you leap from your vantage and begin to fall…
* * *
Dishonored is a game of contradictions. At first glance, you’d see a sandbox game, one with large maps where you can go anywhere and do anything. To look at the promotional material, you’d see a simple revenge story with no frills, subplots, or serious world-building. If you’d played a demo, you might find the gameplay fun, but not exceptionally deep or engrossing.
And on all three of the counts, you’d be wrong.
Arkane Studios’ strongest IP to date is best described as a caricature (in the best possible way) of the Victorian period, blended with a steampunk aesthetic, and tied together with a healthy dose of black magic and occultism.
In short, it’s a world that I would love to live in. So, it should come as no surprise to any of you that it is also one of my favorite series of all time. The general ambiance Arkane created is one that scratches a very particular itch.
When I booted up the first game back in 2012, I was immediately enthralled by the world Arcane had created. Something about the “just off center” nature of the character models and architecture kept my attention in a way that I hadn’t experienced since BioShock.
Then the story began to unfurl around me, and I started to understand what Arkane had done in creating this game.
As you may have guessed by now, I’m all about story; it’s the primary reason why I play video games, let alone pick the ones I do. However, with Dishonored, I loved it for everything but the story.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent enough tale of betrayal and revenge with a few twists and turns to keep the player involved, but on the whole, it’s nothing particularly special.
The brilliance of this game lies is the in the world around you.
In an era where the sandbox (massive games where you can spend hours literally walking from one side of the map to the other, i.e. Skyrim, The Division, and Grand Theft Auto) is king, Arkane Studios presented us with curated areas, filled to the brim with scripted events and little details that fully inform world the player has been thrust into.
As an example, there is a recurring character named Granny Rags. At first glance, she seems to be nothing more than an eccentric old woman, trapped in a city ravaged by plague. Fallen from grace and social status, she lives in the decaying remains of her once opulent home.
While you’re more than welcome to pass her by in a single-minded pursuit of your objective, you can also stay a while. As you help her, and talk to her, you start to unravel the mystery of her past and learn a little more about what happened to her.
Where once you saw a kindly spinster, Granny Rags becomes a vicious witch, worshipping the same enigmatic god that granted you your power.
Dishonored is replete with these types of stories; stories that invest you in the world at large.
In moving around this world, you’re aided by a selection of powers and abilities that can turn you into a whirlwind of death and gore, or can allow you to quietly pick your way through the broken streets. While these abilities are simple enough to use and master on their own, they can be combined in ways that make for truly cinematic moments.
Arkane went all in on the “play-your-way” formula with this game, setting the player loose on a city that’s ill-prepared for what you bring to the table.
No matter how you decide to prosecute your campaign of vengeance, the effects are felt in the world around you.
The plague-bearing rats will swell in number with every life you take, the city will grow more decrepit with every coin you steal. You hold the fate of the world in the palm of your hand, and the game never lets you forget it.
Though Dishonored sold well enough to warrant a series of DLCs (Downloadable Content) in the form of story expansions and arcade-style event packs, as well as a sequel (one I fully intend to make a post on), it has always been something of a dark horse, never garnering the respect I feel it deserved.
Arkane Studios knew what they were doing when they created Dishonored, pushing all the right buttons and painting all the right pictures. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a game that deserves your time, should you wish to give it.