A Negative Response to Dishonored’s Reactivity

SPOILER WARNING: I discuss a lengthy portion of the game. I don’t talk particular plot points, but more how a certain approach plays out in the game. I suggest for the best experience you try a nonlethal playthrough of Dishonored before reading this article.

Arcane Studios’ stealth action game is out and while it’s one of the finest games I’ve played from the past few years, it has some problems. Most of what the game does admirably has been mentioned by any number of people who’ve made far more insightful observations about why Dishonored works, and why it’s a much better modernization of this type of game than Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Where the game breaks down for me is in the world reactivity to play action. It’s a problem faced by all games of this style. In the case of Dishonored, some of these problems stem from not so much that the world doesn’t react to the player, but how it reacts to them.

The most glaring problem, and some people may vehemently disagree with me, is that the game actively rewards nonlethal gameplay. It’s not to the extent to Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the player is given a significant XP boost for not killing people, but the player is given rewards by in game characters after the mission for finding more poetic and non-lethal means of removing their targets from their places of power.

I think this treatment of the player privileges one play style over the other unfairly exalts one kind of playstyle over another. I think that the much more powerful reward is that the player feels he or she is playing a merciful assassin, that they’re given a fantasy of being their own kind of character, not the kind of character that the developers thinks deserves the most rewards.

I think a much better way of dealing with this would have been to have the characters at The Hound Pits Pub (the home base for the player) to express sentiments about how they feel about Corvo being merciful. Some may think it admirable, others cowardly and weak. In other words, Dishonoredstill fails to capture the magic of the original Deus Ex where the relationship the characters of the world have to the player depends on the kind of person they demonstrate themselves to be out on the field.

I imagine this level of reactivity would require a lot more writing and programing for all the permutations and whether or not the player changes style mid-game, but I honestly think that this kind of reactivity is essential to make the mechanical polish of various play styles have a satisfying experiential payoff. It’s something the game does a decent job of expressing through the chaos system, but is almost completely negligent to express when it comes to the characters Corvo interacts with inbetween missions. Show us that it means something to those characters; make them soundboards for the players, not just tidbits of information to feed players inbetween stealth action sequences. The closest the game gets is heartfelt letters by the family of those Corvo spares, if he so chooses.  I get that from a developer side, it’s an easy way to implement it, but it doesn’t feel as genuine as having that characters express it themselves.

I think this also demonstrates one of the major failings of exploring Corvo’s role as an assassin: is it a good thing to spare the these targets? You can excommunicate one character from the group he leads, send two brothers to a life of hard work in their own mines, whisk away Lady Boyle into the arms of a man who professes he loves her and turn an entire city against a tyrant by leaking his dirty secret. While these certainly are forms of poetic justice, the game tends to assume these approaches are merciful, because the person involved lives.

But what kind of existence is this? It’s not as if the man you brand is going to live a happy life. He’ll live in shame the rest of his days. And you sell the two brothers into slavery, a poetic, yet sadistically cruel, form of judgement. You deliver Lady Boyle into the hands of a strange man, a man you know nothing about. For all we know she could detest this man and you make have delivered her into the hands of a man who will make her little more than his sex slave for all you know. As for leaking the tyrant’s secret, it’s likely all you’ve done is delayed his death by a few months. He’ll get due process, but that might be less merciful given you’ve turned an entire city against him, which may mean the city is just out for vengeance as much as you were to begin with.

Dishonored is a perfect setup to explore a moral quagmire where an act of assassination might be just as merciful as removing the individual from their corrupt place of power. In many cases I felt that what I had done by not killing these people was an ever worse form of revenge. In other words, I never felt merciful by not killing these people and I feel that’s a dimension of the game that never gets explored. Is there a fate worse than death? If there is, I’ve sent the victims of Dishonored to that fate.

The last key area in which world reactivity fails to come together is in the fact that the player is given supernatural powers that no one seems to notice. Sure, if a stock guard sees you possess someone or blink they’ll exclaim their disbelief, but the fact that you casually get supernatural powers that are rare, if completely unknown among the general populous suggests that you’re unique in a way that the world never quite fully accounts for.

The entity that gives you these powers, The Outsider, is a seemingly godlike being who does comment on the way you behave throughout the game, but the game never explores the inverse of this. You can blink in front of your fellow compatriots at The Hound Pits Pub and they don’t seem to notice that you’ve been imbued with supernatural powers. Nor does anyone seem to notice the strange tattoo on your hand.

I realize I’ve been super nitpicky about this game and I do so because I’m highlight how important world reactivity is to these kinds of game experiences. Dishonored does a lot to bring what is easily the most mechanically refined type of experience a player can get in this type of game, but I’ll take the clunkiness of Deus Ex if it means the game is more reactive and deeper in the way it responded to my actions. There is a lot of that in Dishonored, but it’s a game I wish went even deeper with those elements. I understand it’s the kind of abstraction that must be a nightmare to create, but I think it’s the kind of thing that need to be developed more in order to truly progress this open play style experience that Dishonored puts so much stock into bring to the player.