I had a strange relationship with the original Dishonored. The game left me feeling empty and indifferent. There weren’t any huge problems with it. Sure, I had a small list of nitpicks. (The intro was too perfunctory to set up the drama, the outsider was BORING, and powers were designed so that having fun was at odds with what the player wanted to be doing within the story.) But I don’t think any of those problems were great sins. It was basically fine. I was never able to articulate why the game left me feeling cold, which is annoying since that’s my job.
Technically, I should love this series. A 451 style game? That’s my jam. Victorian steampunk with a splash of magic? I love that so much I wrote a novel in that style. Colorful art style that doesn’t aim for phtorealism? I’d been harping about the need for more of that for almost a decade. Silent protagonist? I’m like, one of the last people on Earth that’s still into those.
The voice acting was stellarAside from the outsider, which I’ve always blamed on the director more than the performer., the environments looked great, and the gameplay was varied. It’s like an entire development studio got together and spent a couple of years specifically tailoring a game to my particular tastes, and when it came out I said, “Meh. It’s alright I guess.” And then I went back to playing Borderlands 2 or Saints Row 3 or whatever. I felt like an asshole for not loving this game, and I couldn’t even explain why I was so apathetic.
But here we are. The sequel is out. I love the gameplay, but I’m still not into the world or the story. I still don’t love it the way my personal tastes might suggest I ought to. I’m going to take a crack at figuring out why that is, but first let’s talk about…
For the record: I’ve played through this game six times. The first as Emily, making whatever choices felt convenient and sensible. (This seems to be the intended experience.) The second as Corvo, killing everyone for no reason like a maniac. (Kind of hilariously stupid.) The third as Corvo again, but this time not killing anyone at all. (More frustrating than fun.) Then I tried New Game+. (Kind of toothless. A lot of stuff doesn’t carry over to the new game.) Then I tried a no powers run. (Felt like a really strange shooter.) And finally, I did a collect-everything-while-reading-the-wiki run. (Ugh. This wasn’t as fun as it should have been, for reasons I’ll gripe about below.)
The original Dishonored suffered from the problem where using the fun powers was the path to the bad ending, and getting the good ending required playing in a very boring way. Playing loud and deadly was more interesting and varied than painstakingly sneaking around and only using one or two abilities. People defended this along thematic lines saying the game was trying to “tempt you” into playing loud. That works as a justification, but I think stuff like that works much better in the context of a short contained experience and less so when you’re talking about a 12 hour game. Somewhere around hour three you’ve gotten the point and you’re still not having a good time. Moreover, “doing the right thing is hard” isn’t exactly a profound revelation.
While we can’t know the author’s intent, I don’t think the dichotomy between “immediate fun” and “satisfying payoff” was at all intentional. I favor the more mundane explanation that the team spent their development resources making sure the empowering and lethal mechanics worked well, and the slow-paced stealth systems wound up a little short-changed as a result. That’s not a horrible sin or anything. In fact, that’s the smart way to allocate things. You know the publisher wants an action game and you know marketing is going to focus on the most showy elements of the experience when selling the game. Willing or not, every player will find themselves in a fight at some point, but not every player will have the patience to sneak around and use the quickload when things go wrong.
Dishonored 2 balances this out, to the point where I think lethal vs. nonlethal is now an aesthetic choice rather than a practical one. Players trying to deal with guards in a merciful way have lots of powers to work with and lots of options to choose from. If you find yourself “tempted” to shank someone it’s probably because they’re an evil character and you want to hurt them, not because you’re bored and frustrated with this particular room.
You’ve got varied powers, varied enemies, varied kinds of obstacles, varied AI behaviors, and lots of emergent behaviors between all of them. If you’re just slinking around in the medium-light handing out free naps then you might not realize how complex this game can get. Even on my fifth trip through the game, I was still finding new behaviors and interactions.
Levels are larger and offer more variety than last time around. It might not reach the lofty heights of the original Deus Ex, but it’s an impressive step in the right direction. If it wasn’t for Prey 2017, this would be the most open and non-linear FPSPlease, let’s not haggle over the definition of First-Person Shooter. I know the genre boundaries are a mess, but that’s not my fault. in years. The new Deus Ex games have a habit of using chokepoints to make sure you trigger their pre-rendered cutscenes, but Dishonored 2 is happy to give you lots of freedom to move around, even if it means you might miss out on content.
The art style is even stronger this time around. Last time I felt like a few of the characters looked a bit too similar, but here every major character is distinct and striking.
The designers have put an amazing amount of work into establishing and maintaining visual continuity and verisimilitude. Sure, these are videogame levels with deliberately crafted pathways for the player to traverse, but the game is designed to feel like a living place. Level transitions aren’t magic teleporters that shift you to a new skybox. The skyline maintains distinct landmarks so you can always tell where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. From the deck of the Dreadful Wale you can look out over the coastline and see the locations you’ll be visiting during the course of the game.
The game keeps track of stuff like “people killed” and “times you were noticed”, and it recognizes these at the end of a level. Sometimes your foes will change behavior based on these, with perfect stealth leading to your foes letting their guard down. There’s even a few achievements keyed to these things.
Which makes it baffling that you can’t check your stats during the level. You’ll play a level for two hours, painstakingly sneaking past every guard. Then you get to the end and the game claims you were spotted. Where did I mess up? Does it count when a non-combatant sees you? Was it that time someone “saw” me at the same moment I ran them through? Oh well. I guess I’ll replay the entire two hours, no knowing what I did wrong or how to prevent it happening again.
Did I get all the collectible paintings? Get to the end of the mission to find out. Did I miss any blueprints? Get to the end of the mission to find out. A guard blundered into a bloodfly nest and died while looking for me – is that death going to count against me? Get to the end of the mission to find out. I destroyed a robot, does that count as a “kill”? Get to the end of the mission to find out. I saw the “you’ve been spotted” icon but did not hear the audio cue (or vice versa) and I’d like to know if I was actually spotted. Get to the end of the mission to find out.
And so on.
There are countless ambiguities, edge-cases, emergent situations, and cascading effects, so it’s inexcusable that such important information is withheld until the mission is complete. The only way to avoid the disappointment of needing to re-do a mission is to quickload the game whenever you’re in doubtAnd even then I’ve had problems where the game blamed me for deaths I never saw.. The problem is that quickload takes about 10 seconds. Earlier this year, Prey had instant quickload. Lots of other games do too.
I really enjoyed hunting for paintings. And I mean actually hunting for them, not just reading the wiki. The problem is, I’d like to know when I’ve got them all so I know when to stop looking. But the way it’s designed, Dishonored 2 has the three-hit-combo of:
OCD goals + ambiguous / delayed feedback + flow-breaking load times
This is a source of much annoyance and frustration. Giving the player feedback during the mission would alleviate this mess, and make it more fun to chase after some of the collect-a-thon goals.
Also – and I realize this comes off as incredibly petty – I have no idea why all the menus are designed with every single option in a different font, but it drives me crazy. If this is some reference to the in-game chaos system then I guess I’m just too dense to appreciate this melding of narrative themes and interface typography. It just looks goofy to me. (And it sort of stands out, since everything else looks so good.)
Why Don’t I Feel Anything?
As with the first game, we’ve got a story with plotting, betrayals, and strange alliances. You can kill or spare your enemies. You can dig for the truth or you can just do what’s expedient. Characters are reactive to both choices and behavior. Old characters return, new characters are introduced, and the world of Dishonored feels larger and more complicated than ever.
And like the first game, I didn’t really connect with any of it on a narrative level. I don’t really feel strongly towards the bad guy, I don’t feel invested in the good guys, and very few of the characters interested me.
It’s not like this story suffers from the problems I’m usually whining about. I didn’t notice any glaring plot holes. None of the contrivances yanked me out of the story. Everyone had coherent motivation and all of the important characters had their motivations revealed in dialog rather than dumped into audiologs and lore books. The pacing of the story is solid and none of the missions felt like filler. On paper, this looks like something I should love.
The only serious flaw is the hurried opening. The game has barely established a status quo before everything gets upended, which means the villain’s big act of treachery doesn’t feel particularly revenge-worthy. She takes away a kingdom I know nothing about, kills servants and friends I’ve never met, imprisons allies I’ve barely spoken to, and destroys a reputation I have no reason to care about. This is fine in your typical broad-strokes revenge story, but Dishonored 2 is trying to do something a little more nuanced and a little more sophisticated. In a story with this much intrigue, you probably shouldn’t cut corners on the setup.
My advice for this game is the same as my advice for the first game:
Give the player an immediate problem to worry about. Give them a goal, and let them spend the first mission trying to achieve that goal. Have friends help them out. Show how valued and respected the player character is. Show the stakes of their struggle. Then just before they achieve their goal, THAT’S when the villain strikes. Snatch their victory away, kill or imprison those allies, and take away their status and power. Let us take control of the character before they’re wronged, so we in the audience feel the wrong rather than simply observe it.
The way the game is designed now, it’s like having the inciting incident happen during the opening credits of a movie. It feels too hurried. Empress Emily loses the throne, and then the story leaves notes and clues around the environment hinting at her life as an empress and what she cared about.
(An example of this done better is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you play through an entire mission and meet your allies before the inciting incident happens that sends you down the road to world-saving super-soldierdom. I’m not saying the story of Human Revolution is better than Dishonored 2, I’m just saying it does better at establishing the world before the action begins.)
Given how both Dishonored games begin with a rushed and perfunctory opening, and given how obviously important the world and the story is to the designer, I have to wonder if this isn’t an example of publisher meddling. Maybe the writer wanted a slower opening, but was forced to bow to AAA blockbuster conventions. I don’t know.
Despite my grumbling, an over-rushed opening isn’t a great sin and I can think of other games that recovered from it. It’s not a serious enough flaw to fully explain why I have so little investment in this story and this world. It’s the biggest flaw I can point to, but it doesn’t really explain why Dishonored 1 isn’t in my list of beloved classics and it doesn’t explain why I didn’t start to care about the story of Dishonored 2 until it was nearly over.
Regardless, the gameplay here is really strong. Stealth feels good. Combat feels good. The puzzles are interesting. The powers are wonderfully varied and inventive. Assuming you’re not inexplicably numb to the story the way I am, then I highly recommend it. And even if you are, I cautiously recommend it.
 Aside from the outsider, which I’ve always blamed on the director more than the performer.
 Please, let’s not haggle over the definition of First-Person Shooter. I know the genre boundaries are a mess, but that’s not my fault.
 And even then I’ve had problems where the game blamed me for deaths I never saw.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
A video discussing Megatexture technology. Why we needed it, what it was supposed to do, and why it maybe didn't totally work.
Dead or Alive 5 Last Round
I'm not surprised a fighting game has an absurd story. I just can't figure out why they bothered with the story at all.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Truth About Piracy
What are publishers doing to fight piracy and why is it all wrong?