After the last article I figured that gender politics aside, there was still plenty left unsaid about Dishonored. No matter how much caulking (heh) I do, it’s always pretty drafty with SPOILERS in here, so grab a toasty mug of something and join me!
Like a dominatrix, Dishonored loves to reward and punish, often arbitrarily. Marketed as both a stealth and an action game, weapons, buffs and powers favor the deadly. Little can be bought or redeemed by a stealthy, noble Corvo that aids him in lowering detection or humanely incapacitating opponents.
I have to be honest: this poverty of stealth-based options mystifies me. Blueprints and upgrades abound for adding extra ammo capacity for lethal bullets and darts, but no such option, however challenging to obtain, exists for the narcotic-filled sleep darts. The Whirlwind power, pretty essential for dealing with swarms of plague-afflicted rats, becomes lethal to humans at the second upgrade, removing it as an option for any player with aspirations to the ‘Clean Hands’ achievement.
Of all the weaponry found in the game, only one—the aforementioned sleep darts—is unequivocally non-lethal. Razor traps, swords, bullets, combat darts, incendiary darts—all will kill and add to the tally that determines Corvo’s ‘Chaos Level’ at the end of every mission. Even grenades, rare as they are, are of the explosive variety, with no ‘sleeping gas’ option that would neutralize clutches of guards—or provide an interesting, desperate challenge to Corvo as he struggles to hide several unconscious guards before even one stray, snoring body is discovered.
The hacking trigger can be used by a pacifist Corvo, albeit with extreme caution. It’s harmless when deactivating an alarm but deadly on everything else, as pylons and watchtowers once tripped become literal death machines, electrocuting and gunning down everything but him. After one such accidental bloodbath outside The Golden Cat (I’m sorry! Let me send wreaths to the widows! Or money! Or plague medicine!) I always went straight for the whale oil canisters, unplugging the weapons outright rather than rewiring them.
It bothered me how much I had to reload previous saves to roleplay my Corvo high-mindedly through a mission. Similarly, a violent playthrough ensured a more wretched outcome, so any satisfaction derived from the bloody and righteous dispatch of all of Corvo’s betrayers ended up as cold comfort in an already bleak universe. I’m not quite sure what Arkane intends with these endings, or the bizarre restrictions in the play styles that lead to them.
Everything in Dishonored feels dense and byzantine—everything, ironically, except the architecture. I wanted to be awestruck, entranced, surprised, as I so often am from alternate-world action games. But many interiors felt conventional, down to the furniture and carefully-strewn detritus. Up close, some textures were embarrassingly lo-res. At times, I found myself pausing, waiting expectantly for a more detailed surface to pop-in. When none came, I moved on, removed just a bit more from complete immersion in Dunwall.
Yet while many of the buildings feel last-generation, the flourishes and decor from graffiti to paintings, almost seem borrowed from the next. There’s a clear sophistication, an overriding urbanity in the howling, hopeless messages and gorgeously-rendered canvases, which reinforces Dunwall very much as an empire of inevitable unsustainability, overly-dependent on an exhaustible resource. It’s Coruscant for another time and place, and appears to be just as jaded, listless and corrupt.
Which brings me to my final issue (for now) with Dishonored: I can’t find one single reason why the whole damn place shouldn’t burn to the ground.
And in one-and-a-half endings, it does. A vengeful, bloodied Corvo either abandons the islands entirely following the deaths of those closest to him, leaving the city to consume itself, or a ten-year-old girl inherits a literal shithole of a country, with all the greed and intrigue that entails. Years later, it’s not implied that the young Empress is ever able to make things somewhat right, but rather just that she merely hangs on, grimly, until it’s time for her to relinquish the throne to a descendent.
It’s a world where, in the best ending possible, experimentation on unwilling human subjects is sanctioned, even encouraged. (See Piero and Sokolov’s final tableau.) Where clear exploitation of a powerful-but-finite energy source continues, the lingering effects of which we can only speculate—at least until a sequel. It’s a universe where the player simply never really gets a good sense of what the world was like *before*, before the plague, before whale oil, back when Dunwall just was, giving the player a chance to understand the hopes and aspirations of her people. Dozens of hours in, and I still can’t figure out what Dunwall wants, except perhaps to survive at all costs. And too often, that sole motivator is the hallmark of “the bad guys” in a narrative. Or a virus.
So I still don’t know what to do with Dishonored.
After two articles where I’ve basically crapped all over this release, I should tell you I really, really, really wanted to love this game. And there are parts of it where I absolutely do. The Outsider and Overseer levels are both pensive and startling, in equal measure. The books, notes and diaries give a loredork like me hours of additional entertainment and speculation. Even standard eavesdropping on anyone and everyone in this world adds a delight I call As Dunwall Turns, leaving me to wonder if that guard ever will get a date with his partner’s sister, or if that thug will get a full ration of medicine tonight. ‘Teleport-to-Stealth-Choke’ is my new favorite gameplay combo; possibly of all time.
And perhaps, it’s because of these amazing elements that I’ve criticized as much as I did. This IP could be so, so Great. It’s close. It’s really close. And maybe only time, tweaking, and a sequel will determine its justified glory or ironic dishonor.