The man slumps awkwardly against the knee-high rubble, high atop the roofs of the abandoned slums. I approach slowly. He’s no longer a threat, but then, maybe he is: now a simpering pile of gore and broken bones, this man was once the most notorious assassin the city of Dunwall had ever known. I keep my crossbow trained just above his groin as he begins to monologue. About being payed to kill by some rich person one year, only to turn around and kill that very same person the next. About how much, and how little, he’s ever actually accomplished. About how something broke inside of him when he took my family from me. He’s dying, and he knows I know it, and he’s begging for his life. That he might slip quietly out of the city, one last time, never to be seen again, to live out the remainder of his cursed life and die in what way seems best to him.
I stand here at the edge of the roof, upon the brink of all that came before this moment, and all that will come after. I think of everything this man has taken from the people of this city. Of what he took from Emily, and what he might have taken had the terms of his contract been different. Of the life Jessamine and I might have had, if only this or that. I imagine him, repentant in his old age, sweeping the dust through the door of a cabin somewhere, admiring the sunset as the smell of roast hagfish rises through open windows on a cool summer evening. It’s such a nice idea, one that I could never dream of for myself.
He seems to know my mind, a flicker of relief passing across his face as I loose my bolt into his belly and blink away, never looking back.
By the time I’ve reached Dishonored’s conclusion, I’ve lost count of how many bodies I’ve left in my wake. I hadn’t intended this. For the first third of the game, I was resolute in finding non-lethal solutions to the problems I was presented with. Early targets for assassination – soulless men who deserved to answer for their crimes, not to be released from responsibility into oblivion – these I spared from my blade, finding alternate punishments that would give them time to reflect on the countless lives they’d ruined. I’d made it my mission to bring real, tangible justice to the streets of Dunwall, not the plague of rats and hordes of walking dead that I ended up foisting upon the city. Of course, Dishonored’s greatest selling point is the way it allows players to deal with each challenge as they see fit, and I could lie and say there was some moment in the events of the game that caused me to realize the follies of clemency, turning me into the merciless killer I’d ultimately become. What actually changed the way I carried my story through to such a dark conclusion was, in fact, something much less organic: it was the artifice behind the game’s so-called freedom of choice, which reared its head during one of my favorite missions in the game and, in many ways, ruined the whole thing for me.
The stage was a decadent costume party at the estate of a wealthy member of the aristocracy, resplendent with hot air balloons and fireworks that lit up the night; my mark, the woman whose wealth allowed the current, corrupt regime to remain in power. As had become my routine at this point, I sought out a non-lethal solution to the problem of the woman’s existence, and found it in the form of a lover who offered to spirit her away from Dunwall forever, if only I’d spare her life. After agreeing to facilitate the escape and talking her into it, I began to lead her to the agreed upon meeting point. Halfway along the way, I took a ten-second detour, tempted by a safe I ultimately couldn’t unlock; when I returned to the woman to see her safely away and complete the mission, she muttered a complaint in my general direction, then walked past me as if I wasn’t even there, returning to the party. No problem, I figured, I’d just talk to her again, reminding her that the alternative was much less romantic. For the next several minutes, I tried to convince her, but to no avail: an on-screen prompt repeatedly informed me that she was “busy”, despite the fact that all she was doing was staring at a wall. O…kay? After several reloads of recent saves and detours I’d hoped would trick the game into fixing her broken AI routines, I was left with only one possible solution for completing the mission: I had to kill her. It was as easy to pull off as the handful of deaths I’d accidentally caused earlier in the game, though every guard and guest at the party inexplicably knew what I’d done despite nobody having seen her corpse, so I was forced to run quickly to the exit I’d discovered behind a wine cellar. Amidst the chaos, one person was seemingly oblivious to it all: the woman’s lover, waiting quietly at his little boat, ready to whisk her away to another life. I wanted to tell him that she was dead, that he’d better disappear before he became a suspect in the murder, but of course he just stood there, as lifeless as his lover was in the final moments before I’d killed her, and it was at this point that I realized how shackled the game’s designers were to the limits of today’s technology. The curtain drawn, the wizard revealed as the shriveled old man he truly was, I stabbed the man in the back and made my escape.
This, and other moments where mission critical characters failed to register my presence due to deliberate choices I’d made, pulled me out of what was otherwise a truly excellent experience. Dishonored’s unique visuals are among the very best of this generation, owing as much to Viktor Antonov’s work on Half-Life 2 as they do to impressionist painting and 17th-century industrial design. The music and sound design effectively convey the oppression and hopelessness of a city rotting under the heels of its corrupt leading class, and the voice cast, which includes the likes of Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Carrie Fisher and John Slattery, somehow manages to avoid the “hey, look, it’s Hollywood!” syndrome that so many games have fallen to when festooned with a similar caliber of talent. And the gameplay itself, which hearkens back to turn-of-century PC classics Deus Ex and Thief: The Dark Project by giving players a ton of interesting tools – some mechanical, some magical – for completing its relatively limited bucket of tasks, is a refreshing change of pace compared to the majority of modern first-person games, which, let’s be honest, have become all but indistinguishable from one another.
But at the same time, not a lot has changed in the 14 years between Thief and Dishonored. And though you can’t necessarily fault the game’s designers for failing to deliver on their own lofty vision of total player freedom, you can be disappointed when that vision fails to gel. Dishonored is very good at presenting the illusion of immersion and player freedom – when it’s not breaking that illusion and stripping all choice from the player. Unfortunately, that happens with some regularity, and it just goes to show that we are a long, long ways off from seeing a game that truly lives up to the promise of player freedom that designers have been promising from the outset of this industry.
Dishonored is a great game: an original IP with interesting, highly repayable missions, a fun story, and excellent visual and audio design to sell the whole thing. But it also reinforces a problem that’s become more and more obvious the harder developers try to overcome it: despite how powerful your character might be, despite how deeply you might have attuned yourself to a game’s rules and systems, you are still beholden to them. And perhaps that’s never going to change. Perhaps you’ll never be able to break the rules; perhaps artificial intelligence will never be able to react realistically when you do. Until then, Dishonored stands as great inspiration to the next generation of game designers, who will no doubt still be tackling this problem for decades to come.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Dishonored was based on an Xbox 360 final retail copy, which was provided to us by the publisher shortly after the game’s release.