Within every profession, there are people who take their job seriously. It doesn’t matter what the job is. You’ll find pastry chefs who are as intense about creampuffs as jet pilots are about flight safety. It comes with devoting your time to something – anything. If you live your life immersed in a particular study or work, its ins and outs become the contours of your world.
Being a part-time video game essayist may not be as important to the world as being a heart surgeon, but I’ve done it enough to take some aspects of the work very seriously. One thing I’ve come to believe is that the medium of electronic gaming is growing into something more nuanced and more complex… but I believe that that progression is fragile. It’s still possible the form will become stagnant, mired in the comforting stupidity of mindless shooters and trite heroes. So I’ve come to see plotlines in video games as a kind of rubric for determining whether a game is earnestly working toward advancing the medium. Without the superior storytelling that has defined my favorite games of this generation, I couldn’t see a game as outstanding. In fact, I felt like games lauded for their “playability” alone were regressive, letting the medium slide back instead of climb forward.
With the hum and crack of a crossbow being fired, Dishonored knocked me off my high horse. Playing it is like hearing some well-worn classical piano piece with the sickest imaginable drumbeat and bassline laid on top – and, despite the fact that at first you roll your eyes, you find yourself tapping your foot and smiling. It’s a mash-up of my favorite FPS-RPG hybrids, and though its plot doesn’t quite live up to the storylines of its forebears, it proves incontrovertibly that plot isn’t always a necessary ingredient when all you’re looking to do is have a great time.
It isn’t that Dishonored has no plot. It has a downright serviceable plot. The setting is the industrial port city of Dunwall, a grungy steampunk (or, in this case, whale-oil-punk) sort of place. You play as Corvo Attano, a one-man Praetorian Guard for the royal family of a land beset by plague and social unrest. After a sudden coup, you are framed, imprisoned and slated for death. With the help of forces both political and supernatural, you are freed and set to work pulling down the people who wronged you in their pursuit of power.
Things move along briskly, and it all makes sense within the world that the game has set up. But it does feel fairly rote. Events occur quickly, and the motivations behind the actions of the major characters are usually pretty direct (even if the plot does get a little twisty down the road). There’s no space for the long interactive discourses of Deus Ex: Human Revolution or the gorgeous character development of even the supporting cast of BioShock. The voice acting (including a turn by Susan Sarandon as a character named “Old Granny Rags”) is fine, but not groundbreaking.
Normally, as I remarked above, these shortcomings would be enough for me to give the game a middling score and move on. I usually fall for games that build elaborate, complicated stories that I can feel like a part of. Dishonored’s storyline is too shopworn to leave me with any lasting emotions about the characters.
But the thrill of Dishonored lives not in why Corvo does the things he does, but in the variety of ways he can do those things and the fluidity and inertia with which he goes about doing them. And this thrill is so pure and well-earned that it rockets the game into a very high level of consideration.
Firstly, Corvo just moves with considerable grace. You can leap, dash, mantle, slide and creep with great affinity, and there are agility upgrades available that can turn Corvo into essentially a supernatural gymnast. Using your short-range teleport ability in concert with your regular movement is always a good option for negotiating your surroundings, and the rush of a very intuitive movement system makes traversing the rooftops of Dunwall a pleasure of its own.
Combat is as well-designed. You can equip an ever-present short sword and one other ranged weapon or magical power. Nearly every spell is great fun, but even just plain swordplay is superbly designed. The finishing moves avoid the impulse to stop the action and gloat – they are nasty, efficient, and satisfying. And, if you get tired of all that parry-thrust, you can always pull an Indiana Jones and shoot your foe with a pistol or crossbow. Nonlethal options are readily made available to you, though you’ll need to be stealthy at times to do a full pacifist run.
And if you are inclined to play stealthily, the game offers incentives to do so. There are multiple narrative branches based on your “chaos level,” and one way to create a less violent city is to do less killing and more sneaking. You can do the more traditional route of ducking behind cover and staying in the shadows, but Dishonored also allows you other ways of being discreet. You can stop time and stroll by enemies, possess the body of a fish and swim by unseen, or quietly disarm electrical traps to get into places declared off-limits.
If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s that of “options,” and you’re absolutely right. Even though Dishonored’s plot allows for different outcomes, it feels straightforward – but gameplay is the opposite. That is, even when a mission objective feels straightforward, there are usually myriad ways to get to it, depending on what mood you’re in or what your version of Corvo happens to be good at. While the plotline is rough prose, the action of the game is pure poetry.
Above all, in this game exploration is your constant, unstated objective, and different power-ups hidden around the game’s environments give you reason to visit new places and solve the recurring question of “I wonder if I can get over there?” The game’s atmosphere is another compelling reason to travel off the beaten path – Dunwall is a dark city within which it’s a joy to run amok.
And really the takeaway from all this is that Dishonored allows you, with great artfulness, to run gleefully amok. From now on I’ll remember that sometimes that’s enough to make a truly great game – if not quite a transcendent one.
Dishonored is a headline title in its genre
This review based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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