I first played Arkane’s 2012 ‘immersive sim’ Dishonored about a year after its initial release at the tail end of 2013. I acquired it in a relatively gruesome two-for fifteen pounds deal at the Churchill Square Shopping Centre Game store in Brighton, along with the (frankly terrible) DmC: Devil May Cry. I experienced the first four hours of the game hunched over a tiny monitor in my first-year university dorm room — the game crashed six times. To give Dishonored its due, this was entirely the fault of my PlayStation 3, which froze up regularly (from launch, might I add) when attempting to play anything straight from the disc.
Regardless, that first experience with Dishonored soured my perception of the title for years to come. I thought the game had potential but was marred by a series of bizarre and frustrating design choices. I took particular umbrage with the fact the game seemed to encourage players to save and reload constantly until they got the perfect run, something which, in retrospect, I entirely accept as a self-imposed shackle. I also took issue with the fact that the only way to obtain the ‘good’ ending was to aim for a ‘low chaos’ run, which meant no killing, and by association, limited use of the many interesting and unique powers available to the player. You will, undoubtedly, find many similar criticisms espoused verbatim on the Twittersphere whenever Dishonored is discussed. Indeed, like many, I decided only to revisit the game after having my interest piqued by Arkane’s latest title Deathloop. Over the years, I have started Dishonored and Dishonored: Definitive Edition a grand total of four times. Today, on my latest attempt at a playthrough, I finally reached the furthest point I ever have in the game — mission three, ‘House of Pleasure’.
This is the moment where I’d absolutely love to tell you something clicked and I instantly fell in love with a game I feel like I should have loved for years, but the fact is, I’m only cautiously optimistic about Dishonored. The first mission proved something of a hurdle. This isn’t due to any sort of difficulty per se but bereft of any powers that assist with traversal, the prologue section feels limp and is not indicative of the gameplay loop you can come to expect from Dishonored. The stealth, in this opening sequence, feels a little slow and a little clumsy, which is remedied quite quickly by the introduction of the teleportation ability ‘blink’ once you reach (what seems so far to be) the hub area of the game. While this seems like a nit-pick, Dishonored’s neutered start was enough to put me off my several attempted replays. I feel the game would have benefited greatly from trusting the player a little more and allowing full mechanical and explorative freedom from the get-go, which is what the game truly excels at.
Upon reaching the first true mission of Dishonored, the game begins to show its strengths. The sectioned areas are reminiscent of the best parts of Deus Ex. They are vertically layered, dense, and cater to almost any playstyle. The actual setting and lore of the game start to fully flesh themselves out at this point as well — the ‘Distillery District’ is rife with optional books to read and conversations to overhear. The plague-filled, 19th-century magic-industrial city of Dunwall begins to creep beyond the boundaries of the game itself, giving a sense of true history and character to the game’s setting. It also helps that his area is experienced during the night, which is when Dishonored manages to look its absolute best with moody, evocative weather and lighting effects. A game I initially pegged as a 2012 kind of ugly became something quite stunning when framed within darkness.
I have also come to respect Dishonored’s dedication to its central theme, and especially how it chooses to tackle said theme through its gameplay. It is quite clear, even at this early point within the story, that Dishonored is most interested in the idea of power and what it can do to a person. Complete power corrupts completely, this much is clear when the conniving, ego-centric Spymaster takes Dunwall in his own grasp after hiring an assassin to kill the Empress. Dunwall itself is rotten, the wealthy throw lavish parties and indulge in debauchery, while the poor suffer in the throws of plague and pestilence. Everybody wants more than what they have — those in power crave more power, and those without anything tear each other apart in the vain attempt to seize some perceived, false authority. Dishonored asks the player, straight away, how they will choose to react and deal with the, seemingly, unsalvageable misery in front of them. Will you take the easy way out? Will you kill and maim and use your power to dispatch those in your way with ruthless efficiency? Or will you, purposefully, pull back the reigns and choose not to sully your blade? I initially found that these questions led to a clash of intention and design but, very slowly, they are becoming one of the game’s defining and most interesting features. Choosing not to kill certainly makes the moment-to-moment experience harder, but it also makes it a lot more interesting thematically. Through making Dunwall as realised as it is, I find myself drawn to the idea, no matter how hopeless it might seem, that the city can be saved. The non-lethal options are limited, but encourage more exploration, which in turn fuels further understanding of Dunwall as a place and the kind of people that inhabit it. Cracks of light do start to appear when you fully immerse yourself within the city. To kill is to take the easy way out, to carve out the infection with a blunt knife and absolve yourself of the moral quandary. To spare is to medicate, to take the time to treat the disease properly, and provide the rest of the body with what it truly needs. Consider me almost a decade late but I think I finally ‘get’ what Dishonored is all about.