Critical Distance is proud to present its newest Critical Compilation, spotlighting Arkane Studios’ 2012 stealth action game Dishonored and its sequels, curated by Heather Dowling. Heather is a screenwriter at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. When she’s not working on TV scripts, she’s writing either for or about video games. Her Twitter handle is @TheIndomitableH.
2020 marked two decades since Arkane Studios, a Lyon- and Austin-based video games studio, was founded, and two years since they announced that their popular series, Dishonored, is resting for now. After two sequels and two DLC games, revisiting the original Dishonored and the criticism that emerged both at the time of its release and since makes for interesting reading.
It is a game that invites multiple playthroughs, one reason being for its art design. Arkane’s art director, Viktor Antonov, opted for stylized and abstract visuals rather than boring photorealism. The decision seemingly paid off, saving Dishonored from looking aged well beyond its 2012 release date and drawing praise from Joe Spagnoli in his review for The Boar: “It doesn’t hurt that Dishonored is a timelessly pretty game.”
The IGN YouTube review (autocaptions) echoes this sentiment, calling the game: “Stylish”, “staggeringly pretty”, and “like an oil painting in motion”.
Another, perhaps more notable, reason behind Dishonored’s replayability value is the flexibility of playstyle afforded in its design. It’s a game built to be played multiple ways, and the critical response to that is worth sharing right off the bat.
Where exactly Dishonored stands in the history of “play your way” video games is up for debate. If you believe Game Coping’s YouTube review (autocaptions), it’s one of the first to claim the term. If you believe Eurogamer’s Vikki Blake, it comes early in the history but is “by no means the originator of the ‘play your own way’ premise…”
The flexibility inherent to Dishonored also makes it a funny (hag)fish to nail down. The original game is filed away under the action adventure genre, although later instalments have been listed as FPS, Assassin, Supernatural and Stealth games, without really changing the formula. Adam Biessener for Game Informer describes its chimeric qualities best; how expectations, even when it came to what genre the game was, were “unshackled”:
It’s a game about assassination where you don’t have to kill anyone. It’s a game about infiltration where you can set up traps and slaughter the entire garrison of an aristocrat’s mansion rather than sneak in. It’s a game about brutal violence where you can slip in and out of a fortified barracks with nobody ever knowing you were there.
How a player chooses to engage with the game informed what kind of game it was. It’s interesting to see Blake describe how the game’s “elasticity” equated to there being “no one ‘correct’ way to do anything in this world”. In his interview with Julie Le Baron for Vice, Antonov seemed to disagree with this assertion and explained the narrative necessity for some preferred playstyle: “If we did something completely free, the narrator would have disappeared and it wouldn’t be interesting. We still have to tell a story.”
The requirement for some developer-imposed restrictions on gameplay comes from the game’s need to take a moral and thematic stance in the narrative. There is a balance of embedded, designer-proscribed narrative that tells a thematically-coherent story, and emergent, player-driven narrative, which is guided by the players own sense of ethics and playstyle preference. The critical reaction to the game’s morality, or “Chaos” system, is mixed. Rick Lane’s approach for PCGamer is to reframe the expectations that come with the “play your way” tag.
The Dishonored games are often described as being about choice, but it might be more fitting to say they are about judgement. (…) This notion of judgement is most evident in the assassination targets (…) who can be dispatched via lethal or nonlethal methods.
How Dishonored presents its themes, and the conclusions it wishes players to draw from the narrative surrounding revenge, violence and power, lies predominantly in its worldbuilding. This includes storytelling through level design and core game mechanics, rather than simply the dialogue or narrative. In her academic article, Heidi Rautalahti praised the thematic consistency of these disparate game elements and their ability to prompt the player into engaging with the narrative and moral questions posed by the game:
The player may self-reflect, while playing, if revenge is the gameplay option of choice, or is a more altruistic, non-lethal path possible?
When it comes to level design and the environmental storytelling contained therewithin, it’s pretty much agreed that Dishonored knows what it’s doing. Daniel Alexander for The Gamer said it best: “The games of Dishonored are known as much for their incredible level design as they are for their gameplay and stories.”
The spatial and ethical freedom in the level design reflects Arkane’s central ethos, and in a GDC talk Steve Lee, a Level Designer, touted the importance of holistic level design: an approach that values consistency and self-evidence in design. The Le Baron Vice interview supported this.
“One of our level designers thinks it would be completely unacceptable to show a field that the player couldn’t reach.”
The success of the designers in creating an engaging, innovative and explorable mini-world for each mission stretched across the breadth of their games and is reflected in the critical response. YouTuber Chadunda complimented both Dishonored 2 and Dishonored on its achievements in this respect (manual captions):
From Lady Boyle’s Last Party and The Flooded District in the first game to Crack in the Slab and The Edge of the World, the team at Arkane has only gotten better and better.
The second game’s mission The Clockwork Mansion drew praise from Chadunda, Purposeless Rabbitholes and Daniel Alexander of The Gamer, with the latter drawing up a listicle of the best levels across the entire series. Each mission provides something different – even when you’re revisiting the same location – and there’s a level of detail and care put into the levels and environments that encourage exploration… and then consumption of the myriad expositional texts and devices waiting to be found. There is the sense that there is always something left to be found, caught by Vikki Blake in her review for Eurogamer:
Dishonored delivers some of the most remarkable level design we’ve ever seen, as well as some of the most versatile. It taught me the value of the open window as well as a hidden doorway and instilled a thirst for exploration that I’ve not been able to shake since. Secreted throughout Dunwall are deliciously layered environments that excel at visual storytelling, and though I frequently lament I don’t have enough time for The Next Big Game and everything else I need (read: want) to play, I find myself returning to life within these dank city walls with dizzying regularity… and still, many years later, every playthrough is distinct from the last.
It makes sense. In his interview with Vice, Antonov discussed Arkane’s intentions with the level design and the approach to the world of the game: “Subjectively, I would like the players to end the game with memories of Dunwall as if they had visited a real city that they found very exciting and intense. I want it to leave them with memories of lights, noises, fear, and beauty they could never have in life, anywhere in the world.”
Architecture: Storytelling Shorthand
Environmental storytelling in Dishonored ranges from pointed graffiti to the actual walls its painted on. The use of architecture as a narrative tool is the focus of an academic article by Anthony Zonaga and Marcus Carter, who detail how players can learn about the world and society of Dishonored through the real-world connotations attached to certain architectural styles:
Where world-building is successful, game architecture will be an embodiment of the morals and values of the fictional people who inhabit it.
Here, they are referencing an intertextual allusion to Nazism through the use of “early-1930s Modernist architecture evocative of the rise of nationalism” in the design of Coldridge Prison and The Office of the High Overseer – two locations in the game.
Architecture features prominently in how the narrative of the game unfolds and how players traverse the environment. (…) The moral decisions made by the player throughout the game’s narrative – influenced by their perceptions of the gameworld conveyed through the game’s various world-building techniques – can influence how the game ends: the player is afforded the opportunity to influence the future of Dunwall through their choices.
Architecture in Dishonored works to shape the player’s ethical agency through their interactions and observations in Dunwall by providing motivation (or deterrence, depending on their moral code) to redeem the city and save the lives of the citizens of Dunwall.
Now, ‘game mechanics’ can refer to a few different things, so for the sake of clarification we’ll be looking at critique surrounding the lethal versus non-lethal approaches to targets and the use of the supernatural power system and items in the pursuit of revenge and/or judgement.
There is a level of symbiosis between game mechanics and other game elements, including level design, that has drawn praise from critics, including Game Coping. His YouTube video (autocaptions) provides a thorough analysis of a single mission and how its architected to compliment every playstyle allowed by the different power and power-combinations available to the player.
Game mechanics like the power system and the dichotomy between stealth and bluster aside, there are also more supplementary items available as storytelling devices. Rick Lane opted to use the supernatural item ‘The Heart of a Living Thing’ to inform his playstyle. In revealing the secrets of the NPCs, it provided a way for him to decide whether to kill or spare them and pushed him to question whether that’s even a choice he should make.
It’s interesting how the Heart’s stories tug and pull at my own sense of ethics. (…) It just makes you much more aware of how broad and deep Dishonored’s mechanics go.
A significant theme in Dishonored is power, and how those who have it wield it to cause violence against the powerless. This particular thematic question of whether power always corrupts is told more plainly through characterisation.
Story and Characterisation – The Good
When viewed from the angle that all character is in service of theme, Dishonored is at least consistent. In two articles written for PCGamer Hazel Monforton underlines how character informs theme and vice-versa. The first of these views the character of the Outsider through this lens:
How power employs, perpetuates, and quells violence within a community are questions we have explored throughout our history. (…) The Dishonored series is a complex exploration of these themes, and the Outsider is the thematic touchstone who grants us the means to access the game’s content and provides the backdrop necessary to contextualise the choices we make. He gives gifts to the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the blamed. (…) [The Outsider] wants to see power used justly rather than vengefully. Your violence only cements his cynicism.”
As a narrative tool it is interesting, as the character acts as an in-world commentator of the player’s decisions. “We are invited to view the violence that maintains the hierarchies of Dunwall (…) and either take part or walk away. And the Outsider, a victim of this violence which preys on the weak and the dispossessed, looks on in surprise when we choose a gentler path.
Monforton provides a similar analysis of Dishonored 2, identifying the villain as the shadow of the protagonist in that they pursue personal revenge over much-needed widespread social change, thereby perpetuating the “cycle of violence and desire which led to her deprivation.”
Story and Characterisation – The Bad
Okay, so is there more to character than embodying theme? Critics would say… probably yes. In his review of the most recent, and possibly final, Dishonored game: Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, Riley MacLeod identifies Dishonored’s clear strengths… and weaknesses: “Despite its evocative setting and rich lore, plot has always lagged behind Dishonored’s level design.”
They go on to say that in its efforts to keep itself “a blank slate for players’ creativity” Dishonored’s characters suffer. This point was also echoed in Heather Alexandra’s lookback at the original in her review of Dishonored 2 for Kotaku: “Dishonored established a strong if unrefined take on first person stealth in 2012. (…) It lacked character but had strong core gameplay.”
Labelled “unenthusiastic”, the poor acting quality carried over into its sequel, as Arthur Gies in his Polygon review notes: “The voice acting in Dishonored 2 is, once again, often really, really bad, especially with two of its Hollywood leads (Rosario Dawson and Vincent D’Onofrio).”
One dissenting voice came from Chris Watters for Gamespot, who, while admitting that despite embodying “familiar archetypes”, Dishonored had an “excellent voice cast (…) and stylish character design.”
Setting and Characterisation – Good or Bad
There has been criticism levelled at Dishonored for its portrayal of women and minorities within the steampunk Victorian-inspired setting of Dunwall. Writing for Tor, Liz Bourke discusses the issues with Dishonored in terms of its presentation of female and non-white characters – the latter being that, considering Dunwall is a port city and the heart of an empire, it’s not particularly ethnically diverse. When it comes to women, “the decisions of men move the game’s narrative arc.”
An alternative interpretation, referenced in Bourke’s article itself, is Becky Chambers’ review for The Mary Sue: “Dishonored, in every respect, is a game about what happens out of plain sight.”
The game is populated with female characters who, when a player engages in exploration like the game wants, are revealed as being both complex and well-aware of the limitations placed on them by their society because of their sex. Chambers continues:
The fact that the game points out inequality shows that it’s not complicit in it. It wants you to think about it. It wants you to know that such things aren’t right. In this particular case, I felt that it served the story well.
A similar point is made by Monforton in reference to the presentation of race. The protagonist is foreign to Dunwall and that is viewed as a negative attribute by the social elite who paint him as a criminal. When exploring the world, “reading ‘The Outsider walks among us’ (…) We can’t know that it doesn’t refer to us.”
Another essay by Meagham Ingram highlights ways in which Dishonored went against the ethical restrictions expected in Victoria-influenced media when it came to female sexuality: “[Sexuality] is not strictly policed as modern viewers expect of Victorian-themed texts.” The lineage of the Empress, whose female heir was born out of wedlock, is not illegitimized or stigmatized as it likely would have been in the actual Victorian times. “It inverts a Victorian paternal tradition of inheritance and legitimacy by writing out the importance of the father and rewriting the importance of the mother as taking precedence.”
Ingram does, however, agree with Bourke and Chambers and cedes that the society of Dishonored’s Dunwall is overwhelmingly patriarchal.
In Dishonored the disparate elements of a video game – story, character, game mechanics, level design – come together to form a clear and cohesive whole, guided predominantly by theme. It is an “integrated whole” according to Anthony Zonaga and Marcus Carter. Vikki Blake agrees:
Taken individually, Dishonored‘s unique art style, brooding setpieces, engaging story, and innovative design are enticing enough. Woven together, however, Arkane delivers one of the most distinctive, engrossing titles I’ve played in years.
Whatever Arkane chooses to do, or not do, with Dishonored, it’s clear that it remains a fixture in games consciousness, and a series with potential to continue in any number of directions.
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Disclosure: Riley MacLeod is a former contributor to Critical Distance.
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