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Dishonored: The Missteps
by Eric Schwarz on 10/28/12 11:35:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Dishonored has been one of the biggest surprises of this year for me.  Developed by Arkane Studios, of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic fame (or at least, fame in my book), and combining their penchant for first-person melee combat gameplay with Harvey Smith's Deus Ex-ian talents, I was absolutely certain I was going to find myself disappointed in the most crushing way imaginable.  After BioShock set itself up as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 but ended up being Doom with some pseudo-philosophical jargon added in, I was fully expecting the next big shooter-RPG hybrid to be a let-down.

Yet, it wasn't. Dishonored is a fantastic game, and I had a huge amount of fun playing through it over the last couple of weeks.  Broadly, it was just about everything I wanted out of a game... or at least, about as close as it could be to one not modeled from the substance of my deepest desires and dipped in chocolate.  Artistic, smartly written, with well-defined and well-explored characters, excellent level design that offers options without pigeon-holing players, and atmosphere and ambiance up to its eyeballs, it's a great accomplishment and a joy for me to play.

But, it is my nature to nitpick everything, chronically so, and so while I write a longer article discussing both what I think are the game's successes and failures in more extensive detail, I'd like to discuss what I feel are three major problems that Dishonored has, and what it could have done to improve upon them.


Dishonored takes heavily from Deus Ex, but the second big influence on the game is undoubtedly ThiefDishonored is generally far more focused on stealthy gameplay than it is on Deus Ex's more open-ended, hub exploration model, and the mission structure with objective summaries confirms this as well.  But as much as Dishonored calls itself "inspired by" Thief, the fact is that its stealth gameplay is significantly lacking compared to that title.

In terms of basic mechanics, Dishonored simply does not have as much to offer.  Although light and shadow apparently do have an influence on whether enemies can detect you as you sneak around, I found it to be an incredibly subtle distinction, as enemies were able to spot me hulking in the shadows from distances of 40-50 feet near the endgame.  There is also almost no reliable way to manipulate light and shadow in the game, which was Thief's big technical innovation in 1997... if Thief could do this with dynamic lightmaps running on antiquated technology, why can't Unreal Engine 3.x.x manage the same?  Sure, it's more a design problem than a technical one now, but even so, one would expect that after so many years improving graphics, we'd start using them more consistently to enhance gameplay as well.

Additionally, the lack of tools in stealth is a big misstep.  Thief gave players a wide variety of tools, from flash bombs, to moss arrows, to grappling hooks, to climbing gloves, to water arrows, and more.  Deus Ex didn't offer quite the same selection, but even it had the courtesy to offer non-lethal alternatives like the stun prod and gas grenades.  Dishonored, even with its Blink power that lets players teleport around the environment quickly, feels like it's missing several critical stealth tools with its paltry poison bolts for the crossbow and the ever-popular stealth takedown.  There is almost no evolution of stealth gameplay over the course of the game, which is a real shame when it's apparently the focus of the title.

Last, the way the AI is set up leaves something to be desired.  In addition to being very poor at looking just a few degrees up (the guards in Dishonored's world must play a lot of console shooters), whenever a single guard spots you, every other guard in the area will be alerted to your presence and will magically know exactly where you are.  This means that being detected always forces you into a straight-up firefight, and running away is strongly discouraged in favor of save-scumming.  Combined with the lack of progression and options in non-lethal equipment to use, it means that players rarely have any adequate escape route or options to get out of a fight other than slaughtering the alerted enemies.

Silent Protagonist

Dishonored has a silent protagonist, which many people will point to as an antiquated thing in 2012.  I don't quite agree with this perspective, simply because it assumes that a silent protagonist is a technological or budgetary limitation and not a design decision with upsides and downsides.  However, Dishonored's choice to use a silent protagonist ultimately harms its narrative delivery and the resonance of its themes and characters.

Silent protagonists are usually selected because they allow players to project onto them, serving more literally as the player avatar in the game world.  However, Dishonored has a very defined character already - Corvo Attano.  Corvo has a definite origin, upbringing, occupation, history, and past relationships with key characters in the game.  He's not some newbie punk who's working his way up from the bottom - he's one of the most important people in the empire.  With such an established character, it becomes hard for players to project themselves into the game - so the other approach of creating a character that players identify with is almost required.

In Deus Ex, JC Denton was not a great character, but rather than an avatar, he was someone the player could identify with in the third person.  I never felt like I wanted to be *me* in Deus Ex - JC was appropriate to the setting and themes of the game.  It let players learn his motivations, his history, and then make choices based on how they interpreted the character.

Dishonored attempts involved conversations featuring the player, but Corvo never utters a word, so in addition to just being a bit weird when more extensive dialogue sequences occur, it's very difficult to get a sense for his true motivations, his relationships with other characters, his personality.  Additionally, many sequences feel like they move too quickly because of the lack of dialogue on his part, and some plot holes could have easily been filled in if Corvo could simply ask questions and direct the discussion himself.

Character Progression

I think that Deus Ex's tri-tier character progression system of weapons and equipment, skill points, and augmentations was a work of genius.  Each one of these systems grew and developed over the course of the game, each had unique qualities which were rarely redundant with the others, they were all rewarded through different kinds of gameplay and exploration, and most importantly, they offered opportunities each for all kinds of play-styles, not just one or two.  Sniper?  There are augmentations, weapons, mods and skills for that, just as there are for a demolitions expert, a melee assassin, and more.

Dishonored tries to do similar, but is far less successful due to poor pacing and a lack of options.  Bone charms are effectively equippable passive perks found by exploring the environment, and give small bonuses such as extra health or quieter movement.  However, they are distributed randomly around the game world, so their capabilities had to be fairly generic and limited, since a player could get any of them at any time.  It also makes planning character "builds" for replays difficult.

Runes, meanwhile, are currency used to unlock new occult powers and more substantial passive upgrades, similar to augmentations in the original Deus Ex.  However, the lack of significant upgrade tiers for individual powers, and the relatively low number of them, means that players will have purchased almost all the powers they need only one or two missions into the game.  Additionally, the ability to buy any power at any time means that it was impossible for the level designers to create really interesting, exclusive challenges and solutions - sure, you can sneak in through a drain by possessing a fish, or summon a rat swarm to devour your enemies, but why bother when you can just use an equally-effective grenade, or the deviously powerful "walk through front door" ability?  There's always a fool-proof solution, and it's usually easier than the one requiring you use a power anyway.

Last, weapons, while open to upgrades, are quite limited.  There is a distinct lack of guns and other toys throughout the game, especially for stealthy players, and while I appreciate the attempts to make limited equipment feel more valuable, the fact is that there is very little "heavy artillery" for more action-oriented players.  Blueprints can be found and bought throughout the game, but all these do is upgrade the ammo capacity and effectiveness of your weapons in a completely linear way - there are no trade-offs to make.  And, like the powers, weapons really don't get more interesting or varied as the game goes on, leading to a feeling of stagnation around halfway through.  Again, it's nice to see an action game that doesn't thrust a minigun and bazooka in your hands, but played as a shooter, Dishonored doesn't get very far because, like the stealth aspect, it has significantly less to offer players than its inspirations.

Closing Thoughts

As I've said, I still enjoyed Dishonored quite a lot, and I'll be discussing its successes and failures in more detail in a follow-up.  It's also worth noting that not all of these is an example of "bad design" - but rather, they're things that I personally believe are inferior to what could have been.  I really do have to wonder at the justification regarding some of these decisions - did it come down to time and budget, or ease of development, or a more conscious choice to limit the player's capabilities to encourage other elements of gameplay?

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Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Ok, now you're just making me want to try out Thief and Deus Ex.

Eric Schwarz
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You really, really need to. :p

Joe McGinn
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Never read an article I disagreed with more on the internet. Not a valid point to be found.

Rad Smyk
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I cannot agree on a few points you are making.

Following comment contains a bit of Dishonored's lore and story, be aware of that.

IMO the use of a silent protagonist is just a great idea. Corvo's backstory is not that important - we know only a few things about him, and they are rather neglegible through most of the story - we don't know his behaviours and attitude, only a few trivial things. The fact that he is silent enables player (at least me and a few friends) to really project myself on Corvo. I would be very disappointed if he had a voice or made any actions. Lack of connections to other characters is understandable - through most of the game he is totally masked, and people who know his identity are limited to Loyalists - from which only Pendleton knew him before, and as he mentions, it was a shallow thing. Thuis enables the player to build up his own connections with the world.

Also, about the weaponry - I agree that there is a lack of non-lethal weapons, but "heavy artillery" is pretty much present, if you want. Sticky grenades and fire bolts are extremely powerful (and also a bit frightening, as for me) and useful, just like razor traps - of course if you know how and when to place them. Also powers like Whirlwind (esp. level 2) or Rat Swarm are very destructive.
I had a feeling that game has a lot more of lethal weaponry and a visible lack of non-lethal to say one important thing - it is easier to kill. And in fact it is - on Normal I managed to go through the guards like a hot knife through the butter. But on the other hand, killing is discouraged by whole Chaos system. So there is a point that the harder way (through lack of means) is rewarded, and this is perfectly logical for me (but yeah, a few stealthier weapons would be great!). And, there is one trade-off in weapons - mentioned Sticky Grenades are a completely different weapon than normal grenade, which can be a disadvantage for some.

About the other things - I couldn't agree more, great entry! :)

Kain Shin
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"Developed by Arkane Studios, of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic fame (or at least, fame in my book), and combining their penchant for first-person melee combat gameplay with Harvey Smith's Deus Ex-ian talents, I was absolutely certain I was going to find myself disappointed in the most crushing way imaginable."

Most crushing way imaginable? Wow! That sounds very heavy!

Eric Schwarz
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I am all about the metal.

Ramon Carroll
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I can't help but agree with you about the whole silent protagonist thing. I don't mind silent protagonists in games, when it works. In my opinion, it just didn't work in Dishonored. Having Corvo not say a word in the game is akin to having John Marston (Red Dead Redemption) be silent the entire game. It didn't fit with the story. Having some dialogue choices would have really enhanced the story and allowed additional ways for the player to investigate the world's background.

As far as the game's character progression paths go, you have to admit that its ridiculously difficult to balance the game so that there are no single optimal strategies. It appeared that what Arkane went for was to allow certain paths/choices to just be more difficult, because it presents an additional challenge for players that may want to try that route. Right now, there is an entire movement of players that are trying to achieve the ghost/clean hands achievement, which means complete non-detection (get there, complete the mission, and escape with nobody ever knowing you were there) and no deaths. Its much harder than just beefing up your offensive equipment and powers and then slaughtering everyone (which is also satisfying in its own right, as it has that whole Count of Monte Cristo feel to it (unrelenting vengeance).

Bart Stewart
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To varying degrees, I think these are fair objections.

I give Arkane some leeway on the lack of Thief-like environment-modification abilities. While I'd have enjoyed those, Arkane were apparently going for a design that would allow players to switch fluidly between stealth and combat play. Emphasizing environment-modding abilities for stealthy play would, I guess, have taken away too much from combat-play development. Again, while I personally wish the stealth mechanics had been more of the active Thief variety, I'm not quite ready to conclude (for myself) that Dishonored's approach was wrong.

On Corvo as silent protagonist, I think I'm with the critics. But I put that down to what seems to have been a design choice that Dishonored would be an action game like Rage, not an action-RPG like Mass Effect. The decision to exclude action-through-dialogue (in which Dishonored breaks from Deus Ex) makes going with the silent protagonist less problematic.

Finally, on the character advancement elements, I agree pretty strongly -- the pacing and powers felt off. For a stealthy game, the significant majority of the gear options were combat-specific. Of the numerous bone charms, only about seven felt even marginally useful. And even the mildest completionist will find all the runes he really needs by mid-game. These things didn't seriously disrupt my enjoyment of Dishonored because most of the fun was in assessing and accomplishing the great variety of environmental/guard challenges, not in using gear or accumulating/enhancing skills. At worst, they're a missed opportunity.

That's not unimportant; those things prevent Dishonored from being enshrined in the pantheon of great games alongside System Shock, Thief, and Deus Ex. (In my book, anyway.) But Dishonored is still a superb game -- it offers gameplay that you just can't get from 90% of the other games out there, and does a pretty good job of it.

I just wonder what it might have been had it been designed from the ground up as a PC original.

Eric Schwarz
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My concern isn't that Dishonored's approach was "wrong" - it's that I simply don't think the developers did enough with what they had. You can chalk that up to the direction they wanted to take the game, with more fluid stealth and combat transitions, but to me, all I see is a poor man's Thief (or a rich man's Deus Ex, take your pick). Granted, the strength in level design really does elevate the game far beyond its base mechanics, and I can't praise that aspect of it enough.

Harlan Sumgui
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Excellent article. I would be disappointed if Dishonored's limited and dull stealth mechanics were taken by the game buying public as the pinnacle of stealth gaming.

Robert Tsao
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Excellent article, Eric. Have you played Mark of the Ninja? It'd be interesting to see what your thoughts are on that game contrasted with Dishonored's stealthy shortcomings.