the artistry and psychology of gaming




T. S. Eliot once said that immature poets imitate while mature poets steal. Of course, as in everything he said and did, the great poet and sage was being playful while making a very important point. What he meant was that the mature poets internalize the tradition they have dealt with and make it their own. Going by Eliot’s definition, Dishonored is a mature game, because although it is not shy to steal from its predecessors, it is ultimately an extremely unique experience. If you press me to say which specific features are the innovations of the game, I would be unable to answer, because there are no specific innovations. But the freshness of the experience of the game lies in the mixture, in the synthesis when they all come together. That makes Dishonored a very hard game to review because the experience is not tangible enough to be simply explained.

The game can be called a predecessor to Deus Ex, or the steampunk Deus Ex. Like that game, there is the dualism of stealth and combat, as you are free to explore the game and have almost endless possibilities on how you decide to finish your missions. The duality of lethal and pacifist ways of gaming is also there. A pacifist run is possible, and each assassination target can be neutralized in a non-lethal way. Of course you can also kill every last living soul, either by stealth or with a ruckus. Again, just like Deus Ex, the game actively encourages stealthy non-lethal approach. Not only you are rewarded and encouraged, but the game quite explicitly states that the less people you kill the less rats and weepers you face (plague victims) and the outcome of the game would be less dark.

Equally the game can be considered a steampunk Bioshock. Like that game you assume the role of a faceless hero in first person who never talks out loud, and carries a sword in one hand and a magic power or secondary weapon in the other. Although in Bioshock you are not stuck with a sword as your primary weapon, the dynamism is clearly inspired by that game.

Can we call it a steampunk Arkham Asylum? Like that game you are a superhero with unimaginable agility who strikes from shadows and wears a mask which inspires fear in his enemies. Like Batman, you have a special vision which shows your enemy, their field of vision, and illuminates the items you can interact with. And the philosophy behind the game is similar to Batman’s, if you go for the non-lethal way you are noble and the lethal way makes you as bad as you enemy.

But none of those epithets, as appealing as they may be to lazy journalism, do not describe Dishonored. Dishonored is Dishonored and it is the steampunk version of no game. Because ultimately, no other game has had all these features at the same time. The game is stealth and combat and magic and Batman- and much more, also social commentary and deep meaning, also with a doze of cosmic nihilism. It’s a cocktail that works. It’s a cocktail you should try.

Let’s take a look at the game in detail:


Your power wheels, the things the game leaves in your disposal to play it.

Basically, you are an assassin and you are left in the field to finish the mission as you please. You can go about murdering anyone in action sequences or you can kill them or knock them out sneakily. You always have a sword in your right hand. You can use it to attack or kill stealthily. Also you have a mask which enables you to zoom in or zoom out.

In your left hand you can either have a secondary weapon or a supernatural power. The weapons include a pistol, a bow with three types of arrows (lethal, nonlethal, and explosive), and a grenade. These are clearly not meant for the quiet approach. The ammo is really really scarce, and you will find them all useless, unless you aim and shoot very carefully. Normally (without upgrading them) your weapons hold up to ten bullets/arrows, and the enemies leave only one or at most two left. So if you prefer the action way to finish the game, better work on you aiming! But honestly, if you choose the action route, you are a very boring person and I don’t want to date you, because all the fun is using magic and stealth.

You must collect runes to the Outsider (a figure which blends God and Devil) to unlock interesting powers. You can also upgrade them with said runes. The powers are these:

  • Blink – allows you to teleport a short distance and remain hidden in the process. You can use it to discover very interesting passages on rooftops ans such, and to cross the field without even meeting an enemy.
  • Dark Vision – shows enemies and their field of vision through walls. It’s exactly like Batman’s detective mode in Arkham Asylum. If you follow the stealth route you will be using this more than any other ability.
  • Devouring Swarm – summons a pack of rats to devour your enemies, or to destroy their corpses. You can use in the action mode or use it a distraction in the stealth mode.
  • Possession – take control of animals and people for a short duration. You can use it to reach places you couldn’t reach, like behind the lock doors and security checkpoints, or – and this is not the prescribed use in the game- to take your enemies to a hidden place and finish them off. An awesome ability.
  • Bend Time – slows down time to a near stop so you can make a quick get away. It is mostly used for escaping after getting caught, or in the action mode to enable you to easily slash your enemies down. In the stealth mode I have used it to get away from the machines that ruthlessly shoot.
  • Windblast – small gust of wind that knocks enemies back and can break down some doors. Something like Fus Roh Duh in Skyrim. It’s usually a useless power because the important doors are unbreakable anyway and it’s too loud, used only in action mode. It can be fun though, if you use it to blow the enemies from the edges into their fall.
  • Vitality – increases your overall health and the speed of its regeneration.
  • Blood Thirsty – allows the use of adrenaline to take out targets with brutal fatalities. For those of you who like bloody messes. I loved this.
  • Agility – allows the user to jump great distances and sprint faster. Very useful when combined with Bink in order to travel shortcuts and such.
  • Shadow Kill – turns enemies to ash when killed. You won’t have to bother with hiding the bodies anymore.
  • The Heart – A very creepy thing which makes this game a masterpiece. It leads you to the runes (used for unlocking and upgrading powers) and wood charms (which give you a slight edge in different things). But also, it has a great thematic importance because it whispers secrets in your ears. It gives backstory to all the locations and characters. She is very pessimistic, dark and misanthropic, and shows you how dark the personality of all characters are.

You now have an idea of how the game can be played, freedom and these powers. The game can either be too easy or too difficult, and that depends if you can discover the best way to go around the mission and how to use your powers. This game requires to be learned, and it’s very challenging. At the same time it is extremely rewarding, because you really do feel like a superhero assassin which strikes from the shadows and instills fear in everyone. It is one of the best gameplays every created.

The Story

A rune which enables to upgrade, and the heart which whispers secrets to your ears.

The game is also a masterpiece when it comes to its story. I am not inclined to write about it now, because I have to replay the game many more times and think about it a lot. The plot seems simple at the first glance. The story takes place in a fictional city which is set in a steampunk atmosphere, and it is ravished by a very lethal plague. You are the Empress’s bodyguard. She is killed and you are framed for her murder, and now you have to kill (or knock out) your way to the top, and save her daughter along the way. Seems simple and cliche, no? No.

You are not really free to change the main event of the story, but your actions can have a deep impact anyway on how dark it is. You could be a vengeful soul who cares for nothing but revenge and loses his soul to the darkness. Play it like this. I know there is no correct way to play it but this way the game becomes so dark it’s fascinating, and it becomes much more interpretive. Of course you can also be Batman who never kills anyone and all he cares for is justice.

Apart from that there are layers of meaning to the game. The plague, the Outsider, the Heart, they all have symbolic significance. The game is a social commentary because it meticulously constructs a fictional but authentic society with all its ills, it is a political commentary on the nature of power and also it is a deeply philosophic game because it deals with human nature, the problem of evil, chaos in the nature of the world, and the dark aspects of the universe as a whole. You suddenly discover that insignificant details mean much more. Therefore, I believe this game should analyzed carefully, and that would be out of the scope of this review. Hopefully I will do so one day.

Technical Issues

The Empress whose death started everything

The graphics is great. The most important thing is that they completely create the dark steampunk atmosphere of the game. Everything look the way it should and the artistic aspects of the design are great. The locations are dark, infested, and scary. We know that the city once prospered as an industrial metropolis but now because of the plague and wars it has fell into ruin. These two aspects are completely illuminated in the game. People look alive and believable. Their design completely brings them to life. The graphics does what it should do perfectly.

Voice acting is done superbly. The game boasts of a great celebrity cast which includes Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Carrie Fisher, and Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Madsen, Lena Headey, and April Stewart. All of them without a single exception have nailed the job, and this game is one of the best games when it comes to voice acting. The music doesn’t draw too much attention, while builging the mood, so it’s great.

The game is long enough, but it begs to be replayed. You should replay it so you can follow all the possible routs, lethal and nonlethal or action and stealth. But you should also replay it to discover new symbols and meanings in every playthrough. This game shines, it exceeds expectation, and it is one of the best games I have played. I might change my mind, but I am fairly sure that now I have my choice for the best game of 2012.

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