Dishonored was one of the RPGs I was really interested in this year. The stealth action, alternate reality fueled by whale oil, and fusion of magic and gadgetry were all things in the “plus” column for me. I played through the game fairly quickly, taking what I figure is the typical approach most people took when they played through their first time:
First two stages – “Sneak, sneak, sneak past all the guardsmen… OH THEY SAW ME AAAAAH…” followed by repeated hacking and slashing.
Everything else – Dark Vision + Blink + Sleep Darts = Cruising to a Low Chaos ending
I was under no compulsion to get the “Clean Hands” achievement by avoiding killing anyone, but I did take the time to remove all my targets with their nonlethal methods. Some are definitely questionable, like the twins having their tongues cut out and thrown into their own mines, or the Lady Boyle being kidnapped by the infatuated noble and taken away so she will “One day learn to love me…”
My final feelings at the end, though, were ultimately of dissatisfaction with the game’s disjointed storytelling. Not the story itself, nor the world it was set in… just the way it was presented in the game.
There’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes in Dunwall, and a lot of rich lore baked into the Dishonored world. Instead of experiencing it, though, the player typically comes across it by reading the many books and journals scattered about. On the one hand, it means those who want more lore (like me) will go out of their way to look for it, but on the other it breaks a fundamental rule:
“Show, don’t tell.”
Dishonored’s debut trailer, which was posted way back in April, did a better job of presenting the world and Corvo’s place in it than most of the resulting video game did. It showed a conversation between Corvo and the Outsider while Corvo was in jail, presenting the Outsider in a very creepy, “deal with the Devil” way, which fit the setting and situation perfectly. Instead of getting that in the game, though, Corvo bumps into the Outsider during a dream and he simply becomes a vehicle for using magic in the game. It’s a much less satisfying use and explanation of an otherwise major part of the story.
The Whaler assassins and their leader, Daud, were also one area I just wasn’t clear on during my playthrough. I found his journals and other books, which seemed to indicate the assassins got their distinctive garb from the whaling workers who used to occupy the Flooded District, and found out Daud also possessed supernatural abilities granted by the Outsider that he could somewhat grant to his followers. If you choose to fight him directly, it was one of the many interesting lore twists that emerge. Since I went the stealth route and stole his pouch and key, however, I wouldn’t have known about his connection to the Outsider, except for the fact that he caught me and I ended up fighting him before loading an old save.
The transitions between levels also give you a primer on the story with a small paragraph of text explaining what you’re there to do. The debut trailer, by comparison, does a much better job presenting the harsh, authoritarian world of Dunwall and the players in it, setting the scene more aptly than any intro text could. Looking back, it really feels like there should have been a short cutscene leading into each chapter that didn’t make it into the game in time, and instead developer Arkane Studios was forced to add in the text to compensate.
One thing I liked, though, was the Heart the Outsider gives to Corvos that allows him to hear secrets about people and places in the game. If I did a second playthrough, it would be to use the Heart on everything I could think of, including all the assassination targets. Each use reveals another small secret, or part of a larger one, until the Heart begins repeating its lines again. Since it takes the place of a gadget or magic power, though, it can often be forgotten in the rush to get to your objective and complete the mission, and it doesn’t solve some of the larger storytelling issues I had with the game. When I discovered whose heart it actually was (never confirmed, but reinforced by the fact that the same actress does both of their voices), it was easily one of my favorite story moments in the entire game.
There is also some good storytelling being done outside the game, though, in a three-part webisode called “The Tales From Dunwall.” Beautifully drawn and animated, these stories do a far better job filling in some of the gaps about the world and motivations of the people in it than much of the game. Piero’s story about the crafting of Corvo’s mask is especially interesting, and I highly recommend watching them if you’ve finished the game.
I think I should be very clear on this: I liked the story of Dishonored, I really did, I just think it wasn’t told as well inside the game as it could have been. If the same effort had been applied to the game itself game as are exhibited in the out-of-the-game tie ins, I think Bethesda and Arkane could have taken Dishonored beyond the very good stealth action game it turned out to be.
This originally was posted over at my Tumblr, The Gentleman Gamer, so be sure to follow me there for more writing goodness!