The popular allure of stealth-based gameplay in recent times most likely stems from the industry’s growing interest in providing players as much freedom as possible. The foundation of modern stealth game principles stretches back years; and yet most properties founded upon sneaky game mechanics and manipulative environments fail to flow accordingly, eventually being bogged down by a player’s lack of offensive power.
The combative restraints of certain properties can feel restrictive, which can make a player feel overwhelmed, causing less an engaging experience and more of one acute to sitting and waiting for enemies to walk past before spotting you as you continue. Much frustration can occur when detected and forced to awkwardly battle enemies in Thief; hiding from the main antagonist in Clock Tower quickly becomes a chore; even more effective stealth titles like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee can become tedious when waiting in the shadows for the enemies to retreat.
Back in 2000, developer Ion Storm sought to differentiate from the genre’s norm by developing a title in which both combative and stealth options were available to the player to progress by: their highly-acclaimed Deus Ex. Fashioned as a sort of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ story, one can understand the allure behind a game which allows the player to decide how to tackle a prescribed objective head on. Incredibly innovative for its time, its legacy lives on to this day through modern renderings of its playstyle.
If the concept of player-driven choice is more illuminative of the medium’s impossibility of allowing true freedom, then Dishonored is the pinnacle of such a notion. Just as BioShock is to System Shock 2 a more accessible and all-around focused successor, Dishonored can largely be considered a modern update of Ion Storm’s groundbreaking title. Much like Deus Ex, the game methodically constructs a series of settings and vignettes, building off the premise of customizable situations with which the protagonist may tactically choose their own manner of progression. Be it through cautious stealth gameplay or murderous chaos, Bethesda effectively allow any mode of advancement to properly function as intended by the player. However, where it most largely deviates from its precursor influence lies in its technological advancement and more-approachable control scheme, both of which plague Deus Ex’s ability to stand the test of time.
The game strikes a delicate balance between the limits placed on their abilities to proceed and the tools which allow them to proceed as they wish. Upon entering Dunwall Tower to confront the Lord Regent, the player will come face to face with an assortment of security measures to overcome as well as a number of paths to navigate themselves around the defensive forces. They will come up against armed guards, patrolling sentries, laser walls, and gun turrets; but they themselves will possess their own artillery, a bevy of stealthy superpowers — as requested by levelling up the character — and a specific target to work their way towards. Every level is methodically constructed in similar fashions, providing multiple paths by which to hone the character’s skills and complete the ultimate objectives.
Now this might at first seem like the basic fundamentals of gaming: delivering challenging obstacles to overcome through the use of a limited number of supplies, forcing the player to calculate the most effective means of advancement — in a way, most games revolve around solving a puzzle. However, whereas many similar ventures too often litter their levels with critical dramatic moments, Dishonored maintains a structural concept of allowing the player to choose how they complete their mission, without promising absolute freedom in any case.
Take The Last of Us for example, a recent critical darling that promises different methods of level progression — be it through stealthily infiltrating enemy territory or violently — but too often ultimately contradicts its promotional game design in favor of delivering on its narrative goals. In one such instance, I cautiously maneuver Joel through a city block, taking out the specific number of guards without ever alerting them of my presence. Just as I choke out the final enemy, the game sends out a group of immediately confrontational patrols so Ellie can aid in shooting some down in the following cutscene. It illustrates the ‘innocence-lost’ motif in its depiction of a young girl forced to protect her protector through murderous means necessary; however, by failing to reward the player for employing a cautious approach to level progression, it negates the very standards it aims to promote.
Other games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead incorrectly promote the significance of making decisions because in the end, the preordained choices all lead to what essentially boils down to the same narrative conclusion. Dishonored instead offers player choice in regards to gameplay occurrences, and is far more interested in seeing how the player chooses to push past a laser wall blocking their path or ends the reign of a scandalous overlord — be it through banishing them from their empire, poisoning their drink, or perhaps simply stabbing them in the back. The outcome remains the same with each playthrough; but the means by which the player chooses to reach that outcome allows for a unique experience every time, allowing Dishonored to succeed as a very involving and replayable venture — especially given the abundance of separate paths which the game offers.
Adding to that replayability value is the game’s integration of the hub world. While not a standard hub setting, The Hounds Pit acts as a home of sorts for protagonist Corvo: neutral, separated from the levels, and an area to stock up on supplies before tackling the subsequent mission. And as opposed to other games’ hub areas, The Hound Pits is constantly transforming in subtle particulars, however not the much of a truly compelling extent. Certain characters can be found inhabiting different areas of the map depending on the player’s progress, and some new faces are introduced relative to their involvement in the latest mission. While this certainly alludes to the impact Corvo’s actions have on the world around him, the variations come off as too vague despite the emphasis placed on player involvement. I was hoping to learn more about Piero and his involvement with the Loyalists or quell more information regarding Dunwall’s history from the officers in charge — though the bevy of manuscripts littered around the environments more than make up for this.
One of the more fascinating concepts behind Dishonored’s overall conceptual design is its innovative attempts at exploring the great impact an individual’s decisions can have on the process of history. A great emphasis is placed on the ability to complete the game without ever spilling blood. Though it fails to substantially reward the player for however they choose to complete the given objectives, the concept itself can hang over one’s head with drastic consequences and moral weight. Does one take murderous actions towards ending the reign of a tyrant, or do they spare his Life towards the advocation of ameliorating the rampant plague which has stricken the city?
The more in-game deaths means more sickness-spreading rats, culminating in a far more dire conclusion to the narrative; thus placing a true impact on player decision, if not necessarily the most complex influence, but an influence nonetheless. It gives players a reason to methodically plot their subsequent actions, breathing purpose into the sophisticated level design. Despite the lack of significant item reward for nonviolent progression, the presentation of a less-dilapidated world is often enough to incite more thought-provoking gameplay.
While it promotes cautious progression through its moral theorizing, playing the quiet thief can occasionally prove tiring. I found myself constantly saving and then having to reload my most recent saved data because I’d alerted a guard or failed to successfully choke out an enemy (which can become quite tedious and frustrating given how long the save/load times are). This wouldn’t be an issue if the load/save times weren’t so slow, but sitting through the loading screen so often quickly becomes a test of player patience — one far less intuitive than waiting for enemies to turn around while creeping behind them in the shadows.
The overarching narrative can be familiar and predictable, the characters’ motivations and definitions vague or one-dimensional, the cutscenes a slog to sit through; but these narrative issues can be forgiven for the game’s emphasis on providing as intricate a gameplay experience as possible. The overall product feels a breath of fresh air in a current industry that seems fixed upon presentation over substance.
The levels primarily feel curtailed, depending on how the player chooses to complete the objective; however exploration is constantly rewarding and the multiple goal-oriented paths effectively provide plenty of replay-value. The Outsider is an uninteresting major character (he’s too often highlighted despite being presented as a cryptic figure), but his presence often involves intriguing speculation into Corvo and the player’s motivations. There is a surprisingly lack of powerups given how crucial they are to navigating the various paths towards the main objective; yet an abundance of superpowers could easily cause Corvo to seem overpowered, whereas the final product heeds a pivotal balance to his abilities.
Enemy AI can seem silly, notably for their routine of walking around staring at miscellaneous items to give the player a chance to sneak up and strike; as well as their inane banal dismissal of danger after Corvo successfully evades their onset. But their placement and patrolling engagements feel exquisitely natural as opposed to other stealth games with similar conventions, a further example of just how marvelously crafted the environments are. In many ways, Dishonored feels like an intensely-focused dissection of modern game level design; a vivisection of standard tropes and pathways to follow, all culminating within limited open spaces, under the motivations of delivering an accessible setting to allow the player to run wild with power and intellectual contemplation. It’s a ‘thinking-man’s game,’ to some degree; and by promoting judicious development, it succeeds as a challenging and rewarding product.
Essentially, Dishonored boils down to a flawed masterpiece, its weaknesses a direct consequence of its heightened gameplay ambitions. In regards to the video game medium, this accounts for a truly important masterwork, a blueprint for what could eventually flesh out into a near-perfect experience. For its accomplishments — in regards to providing approachable decision-making, complexly-woven level constructs, and endlessly-replayable missions and their easy accessibility — Dishonored is a significant title, worthy of countless hours of moral questioning, cautious developmental intrigue, and thorough excavation of level design.