I Came, I ‘Blinked’, I Missed It: Dishonored’s Dissatisfying Sneaking etc

20121129-210338.jpg Dishonored lovers, PC gamers and fans of ‘immersive sims’ like Thief and Deus Ex (no, not the last two) have an iron clad put-down to any Dis-sentors; “You are playing Dishonored wrong”. More specifically, you are playing Dishonored wrong because you lack the emergent sim-literacy needed to fully appreciate it; you, having been raised by the narrow corridors, the ‘Follow’ icons and the unambiguous “Blow This Up” mission objectives of your annual Calls to Duty. You, console gamer.

You have gorged on linear games, following superfluous mini maps, glowing mission icons, snap targeting and dispatching foes with one hit melee kills. You have grown soft and fat and are unlikely to appreciate the sprawling multifaceted ‘possibility spaces’ of Dunwall. Only a true gamer could enjoy Dishonored.

At least, that’s the impression I got from the opening of this Rock Paper Shotgun piece. And don’t get me wrong, I am somewhat ‘hip’ to what RPS has to say on the matter of Dishonored’s ‘There if you look for it’ length/value ratio. But the idea that someone fresh from a square eyed, thumb punishing Halo 4 binge is going to mistake Dishonored for their next balls-to-the-wall AAA action epic is a little elitist and a lot misguided. More importantly, it’s hard to see what’s so mind bogglingly deep about Dishonored that your average console gamer couldn’t get it.

All the same, on finishing Dishonored, I have to admit I felt like I’d missed something that other players seemed to have “got”. I felt the same way I felt after playing Hitman 2 back in the early 00s, wondering why each mission descended into a bloody, unsatisfying trudge through an environment not made for bloody, unsatisfying (or satisfying) trudges. Except, I’d made sure to play Dishonored like I have played all such games since I caught the sneaky bastard bug; sneakily.

Somehow the experience was similarly unsatisfying. I peeked round corners, blinked between streetlights and exposed vents (so many exposed vents, thank god for the Half Life 2 guy’s art direction eh?) took side missions, read letters, listened to audiologs and sought out alternate methods for disposing targets.

And it kind of sucked.

Sucked’s maybe a bit strong, but it left me severely underwhelmed. Maybe it was because I’d seen Viktor Antonov’s “Put Blue Metal In It” art style put to more eerie use in Half Life 2? Maybe I’m sick of stumbling across ‘tragic’ scenes of environmental storytelling where a couple has, like, died in each others arms because of plague or something sad? Maybe I’m done with this increasingly ridiculous obsession game designers have with audiologs (the old “I have taken to recording my every thought on this anachronistic steam powered gramophone” trick) as if that’s better than cutscenes because you can walk away from audiologs when you get bored.

The fiction just doesn’t grab me, the more pleased the writers seem with their ‘Whalepunk’ universe, the less appealing I find it. The entire world feels unfinished, like there’s another draft of the story somewhere in which the Whale-Oil/Rat Plague/Talking Heart/Outsider/Olden-times-London-with-American-Accents stuff might come together in a more satisfying way. At the moment it seems like a number of ‘cool’ ideas thrown together with a thin “Your Princess is in another Brothel” type plot that doesn’t do the best job of wrapping itself up.

The mission objectives too (outside of “Kill This Guy!”) seem like placeholders. On capturing Sokolov, I was given the choice to torture him or try to persuade him to join the Loyalists – he mumbles something like “Maybe a thing would persuade me wink wink” [citation needed] and then an objective is added: “Get Sokolov a Bribe”. Where could this hilariously vague objective possibly lead our hero? Walk outside to Piero. He tells you Sokolov likes rum. Piero has rum, would you like to buy rum? Buy rum. Return to Sokolov. Give him rum. He is your friend now. But should you trust him? (Yes.)

It was at this point I started contacting anyone I knew with the slightest interest in games to bitch about Dishonored in long-winded text messages.

In another mission – one praised for its openness by critics – Corvo visits “The Golden Cat” to assassinate the Pendleton Brothers. As with most of the game’s objectives, there’s a welcome non-lethal option that involves doing a side mission for a crime lord named Slackjaw who asks the player to torture an art dealer for his safe combination (Dishonored seems to like torture). On recovering the safe combination, I trotted back to Slackjaw, eager to find out what clever non-stabby scheme I was to become a part of, only to find out that I didn’t need to do anything. Slackjaw was going to shave their heads, cut out their tongues and put them in their own mines. “You want me to-?” No thanks buddy, but here have a bone charm and head back to the Hound Pits for some lacklustre environmental storytelling and overheard conversations. Gee whiz, thanks Dishonored.

“Dumbed Down!” was the cry when Deus Ex Human Revolution stripped back some of the original title’s complicated skill trees and systems, but Dishonored’s Runes & Bonecharm system of character progression has had a pretty easy ride from critics so far, featuring 10 powers and abilities (5 active, 5 passive) with 2 levels of upgrade each. (And is it just me, or are ‘Blink’ and ‘Stop Time’ basically the same thing? At least to the guard watching they are. Should that bother me? It feels like one is an evolution of the other anyway.) I ended the game with 14 unspent runes because I simply didn’t want to spend them on swarms of rats or blood lusts or deadly gusts of wind because they didn’t suit my play style. In Eric Swain’s recent critique of the game on Gamasutra, he notes that the game seems to be missing some of the tools that you’d expect in a stealth game, but I’d add that it offers a buttload of tools that are useless to the stealth player as well.

None of which would be a problem if the game didn’t seem to want you to be the silent wind of ‘sleepy times’. The world reacts impressively to your actions, with guard patrols, rat infestations and hoards of ‘Weepers’ all affected by your actions in previous levels – but things are objectively “better” for you as a player and for the inhabitants of the city, if you keep your blade clean. Sneakier Corvos might feel like maybe they’d have had more fun if they’d just gone around cutting people up.