By Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)
Videogames, by & large, are all about the fulfilment of power fantasies; be the conquering hero, acquire the biggest gun, wield absolute power, save the world, get the girl. You’re given all these awesome abilities & weapons, and an appropriate playground in which to use them, with no remorse whatsoever. However, not many games are willing to say “now we’re giving you these weapons, and these deadly special abilities, BUT, use them too much & you’ll be sorry”. Dishonored is one such game, and depending on your moral compass, the game takes on a distinctly different tack. So with a sequel on the horizon I look back on a game that dares to test your character.
First off, some house-keeping, as I write this I have only completed the “good” path (I’m nice like that), the result of a mostly steathy playthrough, with a low body-count. I do aim to complete the game again, letting loose with all my abilities & weapons, slaying all before me in a whirlwind of brutal retribution, and that may form the basis of a future post. It’s entirely possible to complete the game without killing anyone, earning the aptly named “clean hands” achievement/trophy. This however requires a patience and cunning that I sorely lack, at least on the evidence of the first playthrough, so a few ne’er-do-wells will have to be sacrificed.
Dishonored takes place in the fictional city of Dunwall, a pseudo-industrial revolution period world powered by refined whale oil, and invites comparisons with Half-Life 2’s City 17 as one of the most well realised virtual hell-holes (no coincidence, the two share a designer), and it’s stepping into this world that first tugs on the players sensibilities, and asks the question “what kind of hero are you going to be?”
Once the game begins proper, players find Dunwall in a state of near ruin, plague spread by rats runs rampant in the streets, leaving whole districts quarantined and abandoned, the poor denied expensive potions by a rich, decadent ruling elite. Why bother to spare anyone in this hell, right?
Well for Corvo, the player character, it’s this decision that will drastically alter his path to justice, or vengeance if you prefer. The games moral options are thus; more bodies in the streets will increase the city’s rat population, spreading more disease, filling the levels with “weepers”, latter stage plague victims that are essentially zombies, Showing restraint & mercy will limit the spread of the plague, although this means that guard patrols will be better manned.
This double-edged sword is at the heart of Dishonored, and is best represented by the range of
abilities and tools Corvo has at his disposal. An encounter with a godlike entity called the “Outsider” (Think Half-Life’s G-Man) gifts Corvo magical abilities, the first, a short range teleport, is a stealthy dream, meaning Corvo can slip past, or closer too, enemies, but an altogether deadlier repertoire can be obtained; slain foes can be reduced to ash, Corvo can enter a “blood rage”, unlocking violent melee moves, and scores of enemies can be thrown aside (or off of very high things). Similarly Corvo can obtain Pistols, silent crossbows and trip mines, all powerful, but deadly, and if you choose to save Dunwall rather than damn it, use of these abilites must be curtailed. No matter how great the temptation, an alternative solution is required.
Handy then that Corvo has an equally impressive array of non lethal equipment as his beck and call, the crossbow can be loaded with sleeping darts (although these are tightly rationed), animals can be possessed to allow safe passage through small gaps and time can be stopped to allow Corvo time to slip by unnoticed. The danger of these however is that their uses are limited (a single time stop can nearly drain Corvo’s magic meter), so patience is required to find just the perfect window of opportunity, but why wait when you can just slice & shoot your way around, huh? Because that’s not the behaviour of a hero now, is it?
The object of every level is to find, and neutralise a set of targets, and here we have one of Dishonored’s trump cards re. morality, these aren’t nice people, they framed you for murder, sullied your reputation and kidnapped your young ward, Emily, heir to the throne of Dunwall. Now nobody would argue that these people probably deserve to suffer, and die by your hand, but be careful when fighting monsters, lest you become one. The easiest option is the same as in the Hitman games, walk up to the target, killing any & all opposition, gut the target where they stand & fight your way out, stepping over the corpses of 100s of guards, and that’s fine if you’re the Punisher, but if you want to be able to look Emily in the face with a clear(ish) conscience, a little finesse is in order.
Every level has an alternate, non-lethal method of removing the target, be it stealing valuables for a crime boss in exchange for a favour, or helping someone spirit their (admittedly evil) beau away. These methods are supremely satisfying, but do require that extra bit of legwork, and when you’ve spent hours jumping through hoops for street thugs you do start to wonder if it’s worth it, especially as the game doesn’t signpost if these side missions will help you in any way, they could end up being a massive wild goose chase.
“To truly test a man’s character, give him power.” is a paraphrase of Abraham Lincoln and it can perfectly illustrate my feelings on Dishonored, you’re given all these amazing instruments of death and mayhem, but use them too much and you risk damning everyone around you, unless you simply don’t care about anyone else, and vengeance is all you’re after….
It’s rare for a game to make me feel for the henchman I’ve just stabbed, but Dishonored manages it, knowing every death is avoidable, knowing it’s my own ineptitude or impatience that means there’s a corpse at my feet (and a trip back to the last checkpoint) really does leave a lasting impression, more so than the “murder is okay ’cause we’re the good guys” morality of Assassins Creed. I came at Dishonored with a clear gameplan to be the best Corvo I could be, and for the most part, I succeeded, except for you Henchman number 549, sorry fellah, wrong place, wrong time you understand? No hard feelings, okay?
“Of all the souls I’ve ever met, his was the most…. human.”