A foggy, labyrinthine city, with a river running right through the middle like an artery. It had been teetering on the brink of collapse for months, but after the assassination of its benevolent ruler, is now in total freefall. The city has been decimated by the plague, looking almost post-apocalyptic. Enormous swarms of murderous rats run through the streets, devouring people where they stand. Religious fanaticism has never been more intense, even as the cultists they hunt grow ever more obsessive and deranged. All-out warfare has emerged among the various factions of the city’s criminal underworld. The wealthy of the city remain cordoned-off in safe areas, pretending that things are as they have always been, even as rats scurry in their mansions.
And above it all, the rooftops of the city are stalked by a man in a skeletal, ghostly mask, empowered by a trickster god, exacting his revenge from the powerful people who wronged him and ruined his life.
This is Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ immersive sim masterpiece, which turned ten this October. Everything about Dishonored seems straightforward on the surface. A wronged man getting his revenge on the people who destroyed his life. First-person action-adventure gameplay in the vein of Bioshock. A steam-punkish ersatz London as the backdrop.
But on closer inspection, every aspect of Dishonored is deeper than it might initially appear. The straightforward revenge story is actually about power and deconstructs the revenge story. The gameplay goes out of its way to provide the player an array of options to accomplish their goals. And the setting is one of the strangest, most distinctive and memorable in fiction. I really love Dishonored, and on the eve of its 10th anniversary, I want to revisit this game and highlight what makes it so iconic and important.
Dishonored’s plot is functional, and serves as a reason for Corvo to be in the places he is, and to work with the setting and gameplay to make the thematic statements that it does, and affords these stronger elements the space they need to shine.
Dishonored opens with the playable character Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress returning to her at Dunwall after a long mission away. A plague is ravaging the city, and Corvo was sent to the other nations of the Empire to seek aid and to end the naval blockade imposed on Dunwall. The mission hasn’t gone well, and things only get much, much worse when Empress Jessamine is murdered right in front of Corvo, and her daughter Emily is abducted. Corvo is immediately accused of the murder by Jessamine’s Obviously Evil spymaster and is arrested.
After six months of torture, Corvo is due to be executed. But on the day before his execution, Corvo is slipped a key to his prison cell. He breaks out of prison, escapes into the sewers and joins up with the Loyalists, a group of people dedicated to restoring Emily, the rightful Empress to the throne. They’re led by Admiral Farley Havelock, an ex-navy man, and aided by Treavor Pendleton, a weaselly nobleman and sly Teague Martin, a high ranking official in the state’s religious order, the Abbey of the Everyman. They want Emily on the throne solely because she’s the rightful heir, and no other reason whatsoever, I promise.
Corvo is subsequently empowered by the Outsider, a trickster god who bestows his mark upon a select few each generation, basically to see what they’re going to do with their cool new powers.
Even though Corvo was a bodyguard by profession, they want to use him as an assassin, eliminating key targets of the new regime, allowing the Loyalists to take over their positions. This conveniently allows Corvo to pursue his own goals of locating Emily and getting revenge. Things go pretty well. Emily is safely located and the Loyalists’ political enemies are dropping like flies. Things reach a climax when Corvo goes back to Dunwall Tower and neutralizes the spymaster who orchestrated Jessamine’s assassination, reinstating Emily as Empress and allowing Havelock to take over as Lord Regent since Emily’s still a kid. Mission accomplished, right? So, what’s next for Corvo?
Well, next, the Loyalists start tying up loose ends, the biggest of which is apparently Corvo. There’s a botched poisoning that Corvo survives, although he is presumed dead and finds himself in the Flooded District, the area in Dunwall worst-hit by the plague and the stomping ground of Daud, the assassin who killed Jessamine and fellow recipient of the Outsider’s mark. After a thematically loaded confrontation with Daud (no matter how you play it, there’s mountains of significance attached to each action), Corvo fights his way through the ruins of the city back to the Loyalists’ base, only to find most of the faithful servants murdered, and the main Loyalists holed up with Emily at the large lighthouse in the middle of the river where it meets the sea.
The way the final level plays out depends on Corvo’s actions throughout the game, but the Loyalists are dealt with, one way or another, and everyone surviving either lives happily ever after or doesn’t.
When I first played Dishonored in 2013, I was honestly pretty underwhelmed by the plot. It’s not terrible, but it’s also nothing to write home about, filled with predictable twists and turns, an arguably unsatisfying ending depending on which one you get, and the game isn’t particularly bothered by this. However, while I do think Dishonored has flaws (and we’ll get to them, don’t worry), I wouldn’t count the simplistic plot as one of them. Dishonored’s plot is functional, and serves as a reason for Corvo to be in the places he is, and to work with the setting and gameplay to make the thematic statements that it does, and affords these stronger elements the space they need to shine.
All the attention to detail paid to the visuals, atmosphere and worldbuilding means that Dunwall is pretty solidly a character in its own right. It’s a city in which society is in the process of collapsing and there is not even the slightest hint that things might get better.
Dishonored is set in Dunwall, a city that is visually reminiscent of 1700s London at first glance. But, as with everything else about this game, there’s a lot more going on. For example, the opening scene alone makes it clear that Dunwall is only one city in a wider world. Jessamine is Empress of the Isles, and reading the books found in-game will inform you of the other nations within her realm. These countries are fantasy analogues of European countries and have their own messy histories, the inclusion of which serves no other purpose than to flesh out the world of Dishonored, and add to the sense of immersion that the gameplay provides.
Dishonored isn’t a straightforward recreation of a post-medieval society, though. One of the most interesting aspects of Dishonored’s worldbuilding is that in this universe instead of steam powering an era of inventions, it was whale oil that served this purpose. Whales in Dishonored are strongly implied to have supernatural properties, and the oil harnessed from them powers a variety of steampunk devices, most of which serve to make skulking around very difficult. When games are set in the distant past in a European-ish type country, the time period almost always tends to be medieval. Dishonored’s Industrial-era setting feels fresh, unique and different even now, especially given the effort put into realizing what a world like this might actually feel like to live in.
The steampunk Industrial-age setting is further emphasized by the game’s unique art style. Rather than going for realism, Dishonored’s art style resembles oil paintings. The art style makes you feel like you’ve been transported into a Renaissance-era painting hanging in a museum, and heightens the sense of the time period the game takes place in. The exaggerated, caricature-ish style used for the characters in the game sets it apart as well, conveying the strangeness of the setting.
The influence of whale oil in Dunwall’s visuals corresponds neatly with the influence of visual design director Viktor Antonov, previously best known for the visual design of Half Life 2’s City 17. In Dishonored, many of City 17’s dark, angular, metallic structures are present and contrast starkly with the classic architecture of the rest of the city. It immediately signals to players how out of place these other structures are, and conveys that they’re more recent than the normal buildings. It also serves to make the visuals of Dishonored strange, otherworldly and hostile.
All the attention to detail paid to the visuals, atmosphere and worldbuilding means that Dunwall is pretty solidly a character in its own right. It’s a city in which society is in the process of collapsing and there is not even the slightest hint that things might get better. Yet, even though this sense of a city being in freefall is always at the forefront, the atmosphere of Dishonored isn’t one of frenzy and chaos, but understated melancholy. The moment-to-moment gameplay, especially if you opt for a stealthy approach, is mostly quiet moments of solitude, eavesdropping on patrolling guards bemoaning the ills that plague (double pun!) the city, all soundtracked by a gorgeous ambient soundtrack excellent composed by the late Daniel Licht. This restrained, quietly sad ambience does a lot to lend the city and the people that inhabit it a great amount of depth that the writing barely has to get into now that the atmosphere’s done its job for it. Dunwall is a broken city inhabited by broken people, and the breathtaking amount of effort Arkane put into making it feel like a real place really paid off. The atmosphere and visuals of Dunwall are memorable and resonate emotionally in a way that very few fictional locations do.
The game is extremely responsive to your actions. Arkane went out of their way to design a gameplay system with consistent rules, and accounted for the various ways these powers would interact with each other.
The gameplay in Dishonored is all about choice. Dishonored goes out of its way to give you a choice of powers, approaches, and options to accomplish your goal. As in the Bioshock games, you can choose between an array of supernatural powers and weapons. The supernatural powers range from utilitarian (a short teleport, the ability to see through walls, and stopping time) to offensive (possess people, summon a swarm of plague rats to devour your enemies). The weapons are functionally less flashy in comparison, encompassing short swords, pistols and crossbows. Their slightly lackluster functionality is offset by their lovingly-detailed designs, and animations, especially the foldable saber that the Loyalists give Corvo.
The weapons and powers also interact with each other in ways that you’d think wouldn’t be possible. Let’s say a guard fires a bullet at you. In the instant that he does this, you could stop time, possess the guard, walk him into the path of the bullet he’s just fired, let go of him, unfreeze time and watch him get shot by his own bullet. The rules and systems in the gameplay are so rigorously and thoughtfully implemented, that there is huge scope for emergent gameplay. Powers, actions, level design and the NPCs react in such a huge variety of combinations, that different levels can play out vastly differently.
This high standard of immersion and reactivity extends to how you traverse the level. Levels in Dishonored are like a sandboxes. The game always gives you multiple ways to accomplish your goal, and multiple routes to get around the area. Some of these routes only be accessible if you have invested in certain powers. For example, you can use the Possession power to possess a rat and slip into an air vent to reach parts of a building you’d normally have to get past a dozen guards to reach. There are normally tradeoffs associated with each approach that can incentivize one over the other. Rooftop routes are generally safer and stealthier, but you may then miss out on valuable items you’d have been able to snag in riskier, heavily-patrolled routes. The game allows you to use as many or as few powers as you like. Aside from a single instance where you cannot progress without using Blink, you can play the rest of the game without using any of the Outsider’s powers.
The game is extremely responsive to your actions. Arkane went out of their way to design a gameplay system with consistent rules, and accounted for the various ways these powers would interact with each other. It makes the moment-to-moment gameplay of Dishonored engaging and tense. It also makes Dishonored highly replayable, to experiment with different approaches, powers, and to explore out-of-the-way areas.
It feels like a dark fairy tale, where you play as the horrifying spectre that everyone is terrified of.
The Chaos System
The game also gives you the freedom to kill or not kill as many people as you like. You can think of gameplay styles in Dishonored as quadrants along two axes – stealth/not stealthy and pacifist/murderous, something that Dishonored 2 visualizes completely. Your level of violence has a significant effect on the game’s world and ending. Dishonored’s version of a morality system is called chaos. The more people you kill, the higher the chaos. High chaos versions of levels are different – there’s more security, more death, scripted sequences in levels have darker outcomes and your conspirators’ dialogue is darker and more cynical, especially Emily. There are in-game explanations for all of this. The more people you kill, the more bodies there are for the plague rats to feed on, multiply and spread the plague even more. And that’s on top of the general misery and fear caused by a killer in a creepy mask murdering ungodly amounts of people in an area. Emily looks up to Corvo as a parental figure, and is seemingly picking up on his violence and ruthlessness.
Chaos can be thought of as the mindset that Corvo adopts through the events of the game. Each mode has its own thematic significance. High Chaos is a traditional revenge power fantasy, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time winning the supernatural powers lottery and giving his wretched world exactly what it deserves. It feels like a dark fairy tale, where you play as the horrifying spectre that everyone is terrified of. But the Low Chaos route is another kind of power fantasy too. It’s the fantasy of having the moral caliber to do the right thing, even though you have immense power over people that have wronged you, and hurting them would be extremely easy.
The game makes it pretty clear that it prefers Low Chaos to High Chaos. Initially, the Low Chaos route seems tougher and more inconvenient, since you have limited resources and stealth often denies you the chance to acquire more. However, as the game progresses, and you acquire more upgrades, abilities, items, and knowledge of how to play the game, High Chaos starts becoming the tougher route. There are more patrolling guards, more rat swarms to avoid, more obstacles – which will either incentivize you to start becoming more stealthy, or force you to double down on the violent route which is going to take more time, effort and resources. The Low Chaos ending of the game is optimistic and hopeful, while the High Chaos ending is bleak, and if you’re really, really murderous, Emily actually dies. Through the game, the Outsider gives you little speeches, and he tends to be much more fascinated in a Low Chaos Corvo than a High Chaos one. The game really isn’t subtle about which route you’re meant to take.
As much as I love this game, I have my own criticisms of it.
This open preference for the Low Chaos route has led to criticisms of the game from some people – arguments that go “Why give us these cool powers if you’re going to shame us for using them?”. Personally, I don’t agree with these criticisms. Firstly, as I said in the previous section, Low Chaos is a power fantasy of its own, just like High Chaos. Secondly, I think the explanations for why the world is bleaker in High Chaos make sense from an in-game perspective. It doesn’t feel arbitrary.
This isn’t to say that I think Dishonored is without flaws. As much as I love this game, I have my own criticisms of it.
One of these is related to the Chaos system as well. The final level of the game is dramatically different depending on Corvo’s chaos level at that point. The High Chaos version takes place in stormy weather, the area is crawling with security, and you get to witness first-hand the Loyalists at their unhinged best, turning on each other, and you can intervene if you want. The confrontation between Martin and Pendleton in particular has a number of resolutions depending on your actions. It all culminates at the very top of the tower, with Havelock threatening to throw Emily over the edge. It’s moody, atmospheric, climactic and suitably appropriate to the bloodthirsty, violent person this version of Corvo is.
The Low Chaos version by contrast, takes place in broad daylight, on a beautiful sunny day. Nobody seems to be expecting you at all, and Havelock has already killed Martin and Pendleton by poisoning them during a meal. One vastly subdued confrontation with him that you can end whenever you want, and that’s it. Corvo is reunited with Emily, and the credits roll. Needless to say, this version feels much less satisfying and climactic, and it’s a frustrating capper to what was up until that point an excellent atmosphere, and interesting characters working together to tell a good story. It’s especially a shame since the Low Chaos route is the canonical version of events of the game, the ‘ideal’ way to play. The Loyalists are very compelling characters, and it feels like a loss to not see the conclusions of their arcs first-hand in the Low Chaos route.
Dishonored is a revenge fantasy, a twisted fairy tale and a morality play all at once.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was easy to make comparisons between real-world situations and incidents in the game - the more vulnerable sections of society bearing the brunt of the negative impact, governmental authorities both unable and unwilling to help, the upper crust of society partying in their bubbles while simultaneously pretending that everything is fine and also that they are as badly affected as everyone else. The pandemic validated much of the social commentary in Dishonored, because now we all had incontrovertible evidence of the accuracy of how a plague situation would play out. But I think that’s only a small part of why Dishonored holds up.
Dishonored is fundamentally a game about power, and specifically about powerful people abusing their power, but I don’t think of Dishonored as a game with a ‘central message’ or moral. The game does position the Low Chaos route as the ‘right’ option, the better option, but I think the game ultimately asks you to draw your own conclusions about the corrupting nature of power. What would you do if you were suddenly in a position of power over your peers? If these peers had wronged you, would it be wrong for you to take revenge? Is it noble to not use these powers at all, even if doing so would make things better for everyone in the long run? What if you had your back to the wall and didn’t have the luxury of deliberating about all this? Dishonored asks you these questions and outside of extremes (not hurting anyone is noble, calling on giant swarms of plague rats to devour destitute survivors of the plague is wrong) doesn’t give you straight answers.
Dishonored is a revenge fantasy, a twisted fairy tale and a morality play all at once. Its questions about the nature of power only land as hard as they do thanks to how immersive it is. Its commitment to immersion comes through in its detailed setting, open-ended level design and a gameplay system which affords the player a staggering amount of choice. With Dishonored, Arkane revitalized the immersive sim genre, and created a new benchmark for these games in the 2010s and onwards. Dishonored is a game that I have a great deal of personal attachment too, and it’s been a part of my life for almost ten years. So while I am not writing from a strictly objective mindset, I do believe that Dishonored is a modern classic in video games.
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