Ah, Corvo Attano. I remember our first meeting like it was yesterday. He was returning home; to the bubonic city of Dunwall, and to the side of its Empress and her daughter, Emily, whose lives it was his job to protect. I remember my first few tentative steps in his boots, how his head bobbed as I steered him along. I remember the Royal Spymaster, peering down at me from atop his beaky nose, and I remember thinking how suspicious he was. Had nobody else noticed? I remember the Empress, how she seemed exactly halfway between cartoon and live-action. I remember the first of the hooded assassins teleporting into frame. Were they wearing… gas masks? No time to ponder. There was suddenly a sword in my right hand and a gun in my left, but I had no idea how to swing one or fire the other, and before I knew it the Empress was dead and Emily was gone. I remember the Spymaster’s nose bobbing back onscreen, and wondering, again, how nobody knew this guy was bad news. He promptly accused Corvo of murdering the Empress. Betrayal, I thought. Dishonour. Oh, of course. The last thing I remember is the hilt of a sword rushing towards Corvo’s face, and then nothing at all.
Corvo is the hero of Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ first-person, semi-open-world assassination game. He doesn’t speak and we never see his face, but we know he’s the hero because there’s a camera in his head and he wears a mask that looks like half a clockwork skull. Dishonored loves that mask. It adorns the box art and the title screen and the installation thumbnail. There’s even a loving, extended animation of it being removed and replaced between missions. Most people, quite justifiably I think, don’t remember Corvo. Why would they? But they remember that mask.
Me, I remember Corvo. In my hands he was the most evil man who ever lived. An interesting thing that Dishonored allows you to do is make your way through the entire game without killing anyone. Doing so changes everything, from the tone and atmosphere to the particulars of the story, from the placement of certain items to the eventual outcome. This is what I did, playing Dishonored exclusively as a teleport-y stealth adventure rather than, say, a melee brawler or a shooter, or any of a handful of other things the game’s systems allow it to become. A pacifist approach like this feels antithetical; to video games in general and to one about assassination in particular. But most missions have a specific target that must be dealt with in whatever manner you choose, and one of the solutions (the most complex, usually) is always non-lethal. Here, though, is the thread of grim irony running through these bloodless approaches: They are, almost without exception, absolutely horrifying.
By way of example, take the game’s first major target: High Overseer Campbell, an official in Dunwall’s dictatorial religious government. It is a trivial task to sneak into his office and stab him or poison him or blow him up from a nearby windowsill. But these are noisy, messy solutions to a problem that can instead be solved by knocking Campbell unconscious, carting him to a wrought-iron interrogation room, and then searing his face with a white-hot metal brand, signifying him as a heretic. If you take this option, you can encounter him later in the game, in the sewers beneath Dunwall, now a moaning, plague-ridden zombie, the symbol still seared onto his face.
There are others, such as Lady Boyle, a corrupt political financier, who you swipe from a masquerade ball and deliver, unconscious, to the arms of her obsessive stalker. He assures Corvo that she will never be heard from again. Some targets, such as the lecherous, brothel-inhabiting Pendleton twins, Corvo doesn’t even have to deal with directly. By allying himself with a local gang leader, he can assure the twins are removed, alive, from their influential parliamentary positions. It’s only after you see this quest through to its conclusion that you learn the brothers have had their heads shaved and tongues removed, before being sent, mute and anonymous, to work in their own mines.
I didn’t choose to play Dishonored this way because I’m particularly averse to video game violence. I do feel games could stand to be less violent, but then again so could most things. In reality I just wanted to unlock an achievement. I tend to have conversations about the validity of meta-rewards in gaming more often than I’d like, both with fellow gamers of my acquaintance and the part of my brain which compels me to obsess over such things – a part I don’t entirely trust or get along with. But without that compulsion there are parts of Dishonored I never would have seen, parts which I tremendously enjoyed, parts I was stunned by, and parts which have stayed with me longer than any others. If there’s a more compelling argument for the existence of achievements and trophies, I’m certainly not aware of it.
I mention this because it raises another important point: Arkane Studios evidently took great care in creating a unique, interesting and tragically beautiful world, one which they clearly wanted players to spend time carefully exploring, even though they must have known hardly anyone would see it in its entirety. Most developers would see this as a bizarre waste of time and resources, which is why most developers don’t do it. But Dishonored is published by Bethesda, one of the increasingly-few AAA companies who can afford the occasional sales catastrophe, and it boasts a creative pedigree that includes Harvey Smith, who, along with Warren Spector, developed Deus Ex.
Unlike Deus Ex, Dishonored is not a role-playing game, although Corvo does have access to a tree of unlockable and upgradeable time-and-space-bending magic powers, which are handed to him in a dream for reasons I didn’t, and still don’t, entirely understand. But like Deus Ex, it allows the player to be complicit in crafting an experience that is distinctly theirs. This is where Dishonored truly shines: in its world, its mechanics, and how the two relate to one another at the behest of the player.
Dishonored imagines an alternate history in which whale oil was never displaced by petroleum, then spices that idea with a touch of the occult and the maritime, and a smattering of tasteful aesthetic and conceptual borrowings. The game’s art director, Viktor Antonov, was responsible for Half-Life 2’s City 17, which remains a touchstone of elegant, mature production design and which, in many ways, Dunwall feels like a logical extension of. It retains the same sense of dour oppression and the teetering, stilt-legged sentry patrols, but also allows for the kind of behavioural freedom that City 17 only deviously suggested players had. I’ve played Dishonored in its entirety maybe five or six times, and each time, in each area, I discover something I had previously missed; a side quest, a secret room, a possibility. Each segues into another until you realize, eventually, that Dishonored is so elaborately designed that to poke at every nook and cranny until all its secrets had been spilled would be akin to finding out how a magic trick works. As players we only want the illusion.
Luckily, Dishonored, like many of the best video games, understands that the illusion must exist at the intersection of believable reality and fantastical possibility. The Hound Pitts pub, for example, where Corvo returns between missions, is a fascinating place; bright, colourful and detailed, but decayed by the passage of time and the ravages of Dunwall’s rat-borne plague. In most ways it feels like no pub you’ve ever visited. In others you can see how much of a conscious effort has been put into making the layout sensible, with beer barrels just off the bar, places upstairs for the staff to live, and more extravagant, personalised living areas for the high-ranking, mission-giving members of the resistance. It’s fully open and explorable (mostly) from the moment you arrive, and every recognisable detail is either an anchor to moor you to parts of the world you understand, or a hook to pull you further into those you don’t.
Conceptually, Dishonored’s world and its story are excellent. Both are crafted with care and seriousness; both are built atop large and small-scale threats, short and long-term goals; both feature characters worth caring about, in political plots and conspiracies which are inherently interesting; and both incorporate magic, or at least a version of it, but helpfully provide justifications for why it cannot be a solution to every problem. Steps have evidently been taken to elevate the worldbuilding and storytelling above that of an average video game, and the sharp writing is delivered by an unusually-strong voiceover cast. In practice, though, there are, in my mind, two major issues which prevent Dishonored’s story from ascending to the heights it aspires to. The first is that while Dishonored is ostensibly a narrative game, its design is not story-centric. The second is that certain aspects of the game’s fiction (though one in particular) are handled so poorly and uninterestingly that they conspire to undermine the entire experience.
Dishonored’s missions are reminiscent of the Hitman games in that they give the player a large, open space, multiple objectives, several finely-balanced tools with which to accomplish those objectives, and free reign over how and when to approach them. These missions are almost exclusively fantastic, but while they’re occurring the narrative surrounding them hangs in stasis. When each mission ends, Corvo returns to the Hound Pitts pub, where several lovingly-rendered automatons explain the story to him. These characters will occasionally move around the pub’s various areas, but they never leave the island on which it resides. You get the sense that they’re doing very little other than standing here inertly and waiting for you to overthrow the government on their behalf. This isn’t so much a problem with Dishonored specifically as it is with video game storytelling in general, but it’s undeniably a problem that Dishonored has. In missions, worldbuilding is largely confined to readable books and journals which are scattered liberally around the game-world. These are illogically-placed, wonkily-written, and contain very little actionable information. I’m not fundamentally against lore, or reading, but I’m against reading lore when I’m sneaking through an apartment building full of assassins. This is, again, a problem not specific to Dishonored. But it’s particularly egregious here because of how much exposition is buried in journals and not delivered by the fully-voiced characters. Corvo, despite being silent, has a quasi-dialogue-wheel with which he can, usually, confirm whether or not he wants to leave a given area. It doesn’t strike me as much of a stretch to expand this into asking a question or two of his cohorts. Someone wrote the backstory for these characters, and then buried it in books. Why not in the script?
Then again, when you look at certain portions of the story, you start to understand why they didn’t bother fleshing them out. The character of the Outsider is, by far, the least interesting and most obnoxious component of Dishonored’s fiction. The guy is a trickster god who appears in dreams and grants supernatural abilities, yet everything about him, from his appearance to his voice to his dialogue, is astoundingly dull. It’s as though Arkane wanted an excuse to give the player magical powers, and invented the Outsider on a lunch break just to allow for it. His stated goals make no sense. There’s no underlying sinister motive behind his granting Corvo powers; it’s just a thing that happens, almost on a whim. Every moment involving The Outsider feels stapled onto the story after-the-fact, and it isn’t just that his connection is tenuous (at best), but that it feels in service of the player’s demands rather than the narrative’s. This, I suppose, is not the worst problem a video game can have. But it’s anathema to a story. Those who like their stories in mediums other than video games will not be troubled by this. Those who think of video game storytelling as a ripe, new-ish expressive frontier will be, and profoundly. It is not only what prevents Dishonored – an otherwise truly excellent game – from becoming something deeper, stranger and more significant than play, but it’s symptomatic of how video games as a form, in some ways, may never become that.
I love video games. I don’t make my living with cynical ranting, I don’t lament the fall of gaming’s Golden Age, I don’t believe micro-transactions or downloadable content or annualization is killing the industry, and I don’t believe video games are immature or juvenile or pointless. I think video games are better now than they have ever been, and I think to suggest otherwise is to profess ignorance. But video games have a problem telling stories. Some are better at it than others, but none, I don’t think, do it as well as they could. To many people, sometimes even to me, this is not important. But to others, very often me, it is. There are many things video games do better than other mediums, many things that only video games can do. How ironic, then, that those things are what allow games to tell stories in a way that is entirely unique, and that games so often choose not to. We’re working on it. It’s happening. But it takes time and effort and voices, I suppose like mine, to point out when we’re veering off-course. Dishonored could have been a corrective, and it wasn’t. Yet I’m glad it exists, thanks to another of gaming’s inherent advantages. A video game doesn’t need a great story to still be a great game.
Imagine, though, if it was both.