The Greats: Dishonored (#10)
Oh hi there. Javy Gwaltney here, Associate Editor at Game Informer. Lists are fun, aren’t they? They often lead to lively conversation and heated debates. But more than anything else, they’re also an easy way to learn things about whoever is making the list. Their interests, the things they loathe, the places they come from physically and emotionally.
We recently had a list as our last cover—The top 100 RPGs of all time—and that was fun to put together with the rest of the editorial staff. However, since then I’ve been feeling the urge to create a list that’s more personal, that isn’t just a page filled with 10 blurbs. Instead, I want to make this a series that I can throw on my blog for the next ten weeks, giving each game their due in my explanation and respect for each of them. For a lot of these games, I will be talking about how they matter historically to their genre or the development of video games as a whole. However, in the end, this list is mine and is as much about my development as someone who loves video games and as a critic as it is about the history of games itself. As such, I’ll probably talk about my personal history with some of these games and the role they played in my life in order to illustrate why they matter so much to me.
I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I enjoy putting it together over the next ten weeks. A new entry will go live every Wednesday at noon CST until the series is done. Feel free to leave your disagreements and your own picks in the comments below. With all that in mind, let’s get to it with #10.
#10 Dishonored (2012)
It’s often tempting to try to boil down games to one point in order to make explaining them digestible. The problem with this is the problem with all summary: you pass over a number of elements that make whatever you’re talking about special so you can make your explanation easy to understand. To say that Mass Effect is merely Choose Your Own Star Wars or The Witcher is gaming’s answer to Game of Thrones is to do both of gaming’s greatest series a disservice. To explain what most games are “about” would take pages upon pages of analysis and explanation.
Dishonored is different. Playing Dishonored is the act of answering a single question: Who is Corvo Attano? There are a lot of answers to that question. He’s a blank slate character, ready to be molded by our actions. He’s also the bodyguard and lover of the Empress of Dunwall (a fantastical kingdom inspired by the industrial age) Jessamine, and the father of her child, Emily. His duty is to protect both of them.
Dishonored begins with him, which is to say ‘us’, failing in that pursuit. Jessamine is slain. Emily is kidnapped by men who want to use her as political bargaining chip to take over the empire. Corvo is blamed for Jasmine’s death and is sentenced to execution. However, on the eve of that fateful day, he’s visited by a secondary group claiming to be loyalists. They give Corvo the means to break out of prison and they work together to take back the throne by putting Emily’s kidnappers out of commission, and placing her on the throne as the rightful ruler of Dunwall.
Simple enough concept, right? Well there’s another twist here. In his sleep, Corvo is visited by The Outsider, a sort of boogeyman that haunts Dunwall, granting incredible powers to regular mortals like Corvo to see how they use it. And so this is where Dishonored truly begins, with us being given powers that test the limits of Corvo’s morality and let us shape him.
So again: who is Corvo Attano? Does he murder his way through Dunwall, killing civilian and foe alike, a chaotic whirlwind of bloodthirst and agony? Or does he stay his hand and seek a nonviolent solution for every occasion? Dishonored gives us a host of abilities that lets us decide the answer to these questions. If you want to chop and slash your way through the game, there are a bevy of combat skills you can pour points into. You can also learn to summon torrents of murderous rats to do your work for you or slow down time to make picking off your prey easy. If you’re playing non-lethal, you can choose to invest points into skills that let you avoid detection, like heightened mobility and the power to possess guards and animals for brief periods of time.
This setup is not new, of course. Dishonored emerged as a reawakening of the so-called immersive sim genre, a brand of games that are typically in first-person and let players play a game the way they want to, with a multitude of interlocking systems that result in a world that responds in interesting dynamic ways to the player. System Shock, Deus Ex, and Thief are the granddads of these games and it’s fitting that Dishonored was made with talent that worked on some of those titles because it feels like an almost perfect distillation of what makes the genre work. Arkane achieves this success because Dishonored is both simple and complex at the same time, much like its protagonist.
At surface level, the game is a revenge story, just like at surface level, Corvo is more player-vessel than actual character given his silence. However, the amount of depth that lies beneath both sides of the equation for anyone willing to dive into the game’s systems is immensely rewarding in both gameplay and storytelling.
I have been many different Corvo Attanos. I have kept to the shadows, tranquilizing enemies and dancing around their peripheral views, choosing to brand villains as traitors instead of kill them. I’ve also been a force of wrath, casting spells older than time itself, rending heads from necks and murdering my way to victory.
Of course, this is bit where I’m supposed to tell you that pacifism is The One True Way. The canon playthrough. The moral imperative. But the brilliant thing about Dishonored is that it takes advantage of its moral vacuum. Sure, if we play Corvo as a deadly person, the ending of the game is a bit darker, but Emily is still alive. The kingdom is once again under her control. We’re not punished with tragedy for being monstrous nor are we celebrated. The world just responds to our behavior in a fitting fashion. Perhaps it’s better that Emily is toughened by the events of the game, maybe it’s necessary for her to see her father’s cruelty so she becomes the kind of empress Dunwall needs in this dark time. Who’s to say?
Dishonored, to me, is a perfect example of a developer knowing how to give players tools, when to guide them, and when to take a step back and let that player shape the world according to their own philosophies. It stands as the most accessible and compelling game of its genre, unmatched by any of its influences or recent siblings, like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Prey. I’ve returned to Dishonored over a dozen times since its release back in 2012, scouring every level for new strategies, and creating multiple version of Corvo, each with their own underlying logic that explains their actions.
Grief-stricken man in search of vengeance? Pacifist crusader against calamity and chaos? Father concerned for the safety of his daughter? A man given over to bloodlust, becoming the monster he always was? Killer of men but protector of the innocent? Skilled assassin who takes out his targets, leaving no trace that he was ever there?
Corvo and I—we’ve have been all these people, together. And in that way, Dishonored emerges as one of the triumphs of modern storytelling in games. Arkane takes a standard-issue revenge tale, sets it in a fantastical world, and then lets the player shape how everything plays out, subtly allowing them to craft the character they inhabit. It’s a feat that takes multiple playthroughs to truly admire.
I must admit that I left Dishonored 2 a tad disappointed. Where the original perfectly balanced a simple story with complex systems-driven gameplay, the sequel went all out on complexity and ambition. It allows you to play two characters, each with their own set of abilities. It let you move across multiple, shifting landscapes, and even has some of the best modern level design in games (The Clockwork Mansion is a marvel of architecture). And yet, in spite of being so fantastic and ludicrously ambitious, Arkane gave up the original’s cleanness and focused character development, getting caught up in its own plot strands and taking more interest in its villain than either protagonist. Corvo’s lack of silence in Dishonored 2 is particularly disappointing, replacing a tantalizing vacuum with a rote series of motivations forced upon the player instead of allowing them to create Corvo’s motivations. While all of this might sound harsh, I don’t mean to slight Dishonored 2 so much as to say that there will likely never be another Dishonored game that captures the magic and balance of the original, which introduced players to a lively world and a memorable, malleable protagonist.
Who is Corvo Attano? He’s whatever tragedy I choose for him to be and in that choice lies the worth of video games, where the rules of playing and storytelling come together to form something that is inherently medium-specific and occasionally, unbelievably sublime.
Thanks for reading. See you next Wednesday to talk about #9.