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Spatial and Social Realism in 'Dishonored'
by Scott Juster on 12/16/12 02:01:00 pm   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.


A quiet conversation between two characters.Calling a video game “realistic” could mean any number of things.  Sometimes, it’s about graphical verisimilitude: does that virtual character look like a real human being?  Other times, it’s about how something feels: does swinging this Wii remote remind me of swinging a tennis racket?  Games like Sim City try to tackle a more mathematical version of realism: does building a city with good roads help the economy?

The point is that video games have a variety of ways of representing our world, thus allowing even the most fantastical games to resemble aspects of daily life.  Dishonored does this, despite the fact that it’s a game in which you can warp through thin air and commune with a supernatural deity.  Getting to know Dishonored’s world and the people that call it home felt very much like moving to a new town and meeting the neighbors.

Dense, detailed environments

Dishonored‘s main city, Dunwall, feels like a real place to me because it’s full of stuff.  Whether it’s trash in the gutters, food in the pantries, or keys in the guard houses, the world feels inhabited.  Posters on the city walls advertise places that you can choose to visit.  Chests and cupboards can be opened.  Their contents taken or discarded.

Your ability to manipulate and interact with objects makes it all more than basic set dressing.  Scrounging around in a vacant building often yields abandoned treasure.  Empty bottles can be ignored as litter or picked up and used to distract a guard.  If you’re clumsy, you can knock into tools and metal barriers, thereby drawing attention to yourself.

Just as is the case in the real world, things rarely exist for no reason.  An open window signifies that you can climb into a building.  A bundle of wires will inevitably lead to something interesting, even if it’s not crucial to the task at hand.  The nice thing about video games is that they allow you to indulge yourself in these environments.  Try following a bundle of cables around an office building or rummaging through a restaurant’s closet and you’ll likely have to explain yourself to the police.  Dishonored gives you the satisfaction of being able to pursue your latent curiosity.

Less traveled paths

In a similar vein, Dishonored gives you the option to step off the rails and explore its geography the way that a pedestrian would explore a real city.

For example, my town has numerous pedestrian walkways that act as shortcuts for navigating the town.  These paths are subtle and strange.  Some cut in between private properties and take the form of steps cut into the steep hills.  They’re on the map, but it’s extremely easy to simply drive past on the main roads without noticing that they exist. 

In many games, you never get a chance to step out of the metaphorical car.  You’re given a critical path, it’s marked by clear waypoints, and you can only deviate slightly to the left and to the right as you progress down a relatively narrow (albeit visually beautiful) tunnel.  Early on in Dishonored, I made the decision to disable quest markers, and it was as if I had taken off a pair of blinders.  Suddenly, every building was a bridge, every hole in the wall a potential shortcut, every alley a potentially game-altering fork in the road.  Instead of following a series of glowing arrows, I was constructing a mental blueprint of the town.

It wasn’t simply an academic exercise either.  Getting to know how the streets connected, learning the difference between what looked like a shortcut and what actually was a shortcut, and memorizing landmarks had a huge impact on how I navigated the city.  Just as a local knows which streets to avoid during rush hour, I knew which paths to take during guard patrols.  The experience went beyond simply completing an objective, I learned a system and created personalized routines based on my knowledge of the world.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one going about his daily routine in Dishonored.  As is the case with many games, Dunwall and its various buildings are full of non-player characters.  The difference is that almost all of them have detailed personal histories.

Ever notice how traffic jams are always full of faceless jerks and how the person who can’t find their wallet when they’re in line in the grocery store is usually some random idiot?  It’s easy to stay detached when you don’t know anything about a person.  Things get trickier when you learn their history and hear about their personal circumstances.  Suddenly that NPC becomes a person, capable of evoking any number of emotions.

One of Dishonored‘s most fantastical items, the magic Heart, ended up giving the game a strong sense of realism for me.  Point it at an NPC and suddenly that mass of polygons has a family, is pursuing a goal, or is trying to dig their way out of poverty.  Of course, other characters are revealed to be thieving, murdering, informants.  The fact that such care was put into the back stories of such insignificant characters made the world feel more alive than almost any other video game world I’ve explored.

Getting to know people changed the way I treated them.  A guard who was simply working to support his sick family earned a sleep dart rather instead of my blade.  Knowing that the officious school teacher was one of two remaining members of her family made me more understanding of her serious nature.  Learning that one of the citizens made a living by blackmailing his neighbors inspired me to dole out some vigilante justice.  Some people were oblivious to Corvo’s world and just struggling to get through life’s daily challenges.  All of it fostered a rare sense of empathy with these virtual strangers.  Getting to know them changed the way I treated them in a similar way that empathy alters real world relationships.

Dishonored plays fast and loose with certain realistic qualities.  The laws of physics have large loopholes, and you never seem to get sick after eating food you find on the ground.  However, when it comes to creating environments and the people living in said places, much of the game rings true to life.  The wealth of detail in Dishonored‘s world and the organic way in which you explore it mimic the way that you learn about a new place.  The people you meet are strangers, but once you hear their personal histories, it’s hard not to let your opinions inform your behavior towards them.

All this means that, despite the abundance of magical rats and the ability to see through walls, Dishonored manages to feel surprisingly realistic.

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Nice post. One comment re: the heart. It's a very elegant device employed by the designers to provide exposition at the player's wish. I understand what you mean by saying that suddenly the NPCs transformed from being simple 3D models to being actual people with their own worries and goals. Yet this is only fictional, none of it is actually simulated. They are still life-less 3D models walking about following their shared AI routines (walking along a given path, react to the player when in the cone of vision, eventually attack the player or ring the alarm). The heart is just a trick; it is there to nudge the player towards imagining all these details of the fiction that the writers create, but that the development team couldn't possible realize within the game. There are many similar tricks used in others games, such as ghost sequences or audio logs in System Shock 2, or readable books in Elder Scrolls games. I'm not trying to play down the heart though, it is incredibly effective if one looks at the ratio of effort to develop this feature vs the value it brings to the game. It greatly adds to the enjoyment and immersiveness of the world. But sometimes it is these things that make me yearn for more simulation to support the fiction of game worlds.

Gregory Fuller
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I loved the heart, up until I discovered that the heart just straight-up lies to you. For one, every guard is the exact same as any other guard, and if you use your heart often enough you'll hear the same exposition about each and every one, which makes the whole thing a lot more special. The biggest issue though is when I pointed the heart at a specific named character and the heart told me that she would be brutally mauled and left for dead the next day (on her day off, no less!), but the next two days came and went and this character went about her daily business without event.

Luis Guimaraes
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If only you receive a mission to kill her the next day, that'd be something...

Seth S Scott
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I love how you explain the significance of the back-stories of the NPC characters in this game (via the heart). This game did so much for me (and others) in terms of pure stealth action but most people glaze over the smaller things like that. There were moments in this game where I got lost in the city, I would see an air duct and think "oh, where can that get me?" and then proceed to try and reach it for 5 minutes. I love the options that Dishonored gives the player and it creates a world that draws the player in completely. I am currently on my second (non-lethal) play-through and it is just as good, maybe better, then my first.

Ron Dippold
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I loved Dishonored and the world, but I have to say if there was one thing that would vastly improve the game it would be about 10x more incidental dialogue lines. I realize that's a horrible content creation burden. But 'Think you'll get your own squad after what happened last night?' is the game's 'arrow to the knee' and was the single biggest thing that reduced characters to dolls for me when it happened.

Maria Jayne
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I remember a moment in Dishonored where I encountered a captured civilian who was being experimented upon by being give a dose of the plague to see how it developed under observation by a scientist working on a cure.

Listening to his notes and then hearing his comments to her that it would all be over soon and she will "leave her cell in the morning", while not saying she would be leaving it the morning after her corpse was removed, felt really powerful to me. I immediately wanted to kill the scientist and help the woman.

I ended up freeing the woman from the cell, I wanted to kill her, to end her suffering before she died from the developing plague. Unfortunately I couldn't, because it was my first play through and I was going for the "kill nobody" goody goody route of achievements.

A touching moment that had a real emotional dilemma behind it for me, shame it was ruined by the looming threat of achievement failure, pretty much making my decision for me. Achievements...not always a good thing.

Luis Guimaraes
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Never a good thing.