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Why people are playing: Dishonored
Why people are playing:  Dishonored
October 17, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 17, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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We know you're busy making games. That's why from here on out, Gamasutra will be bringing you a regular look at what passionate game fans are talking about right now, tapping the zeitgeist to look at what makes these heroic new fan favorites tick. Sometimes cultural buzz isn't just about retail units, formal market research and sales figures. This time, we take a look at Dishonored, Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks' stealth action-adventure.

In a year where many of gaming's most passionate fans seem generally bored of traditional blockbusters, Dishonored has quickly rushed to the front of consideration for 2012's favorites -- despite looking distinctly "video-gamey" at first blush.

It's a first person game where players balance melee on one hand, range and tools on the other; it's set in a hybridized fantasy-realistic world of government corruption, and deals with assassination missions amid faction war. In other words, it sounds like a lot of things people have already heard of, and as such could be expected to have a tough time mobilizing fans right now.

But more than a cursory look reveals an incredibly delicate balancing act: the familiar stuff somehow manages to be more fun than before, and refreshing ideas abound in Dishonored's thoughtfully-crafted and detail-oriented universe. The result ends up offering something for almost everyone, and a pleasantly-lacy infrastructure that allows players to make the story of Corvo, a former loyal agent falsely accused and disgraced, their own.

So what's got players buzzing when it comes to Dishonored?

Impeccable clarity. The game avoids bogging users down in dense lore or complex systems early on, instead offering a pleasingly-direct user interface that always makes sure players understand what they're doing and why. Such precise provision of imminently-necessary information lets players dive into the game's relatively complex world at the pace they're ready to receive it. This means clear direction on the game's controls and objectives at all times, unless the player chooses to switch the interface off. The result is an admirably-inviting ramp-up to mastery, so that it's nearly impossible for anyone to feel deterred or overwhelmed -- without the sense that complexity is sacrificed.

Dishonored 1.jpgAccessible stealth. Sneaking is the core mechanic of Dishonored, and the game provides generally more favorable feedback to players who master the art of stealth. Yet it encourages stealth gameplay much more intuitively than, say, the Metal Gear Solid series, which provides a relatively complex ecosystem of choice and consequence around immediate, moment-to-moment movements.

In Dishonored, one's primary concern is to stay hidden -- just a single button toggles sneaking -- and out of the enemy's line of sight. Noise, like the sound of Corvo's blade against a sonorous pipe or a tossed teacup, will attract attention, but this largely sets up strategic opportunities for the player, rather than instant penalty. It's less realistic and more forgiving, but the result is a lot more fun, alleviating the hyper-attentive stress of stealth games where every move feels like a high-stakes gamble.

Players feel powerful. On the other hand, the game doesn't force players to play it stealthy -- it's equally fun for those who are trigger-happy, since there's such a wide array of tools at one's disposal and no choice feels like a particularly-punishing compromise. A well-timed parry provides an opportunity for a brutal head-cleaving swipe, and firing lethal crossbow bolts provides a more sickening crunch than sleep bolts.

The result is pleasingly ambidextrous: Stealth players wince at the gory consequences of killing, emphasizing their secrecy, while confrontational players get the satisfaction of dealing harm to their shady aggressors.

Also contributing to a sense of power for the player is Dishonored's overall fluidity -- it just has a good feel. It's relatively hard to trundle clumsily off narrow wooden ramps or rocky ledges, smash a held bottle by some accidental collision, and apparently impossible, fortunately, to awkwardly jostle an NPC. The tech at work makes players feel like they're in delicate command of their character and his place in the world.

Of course, remarkably strong level design is no small thing: That the game tends to offer a number of intuitive paths through any given area makes Dishonored feel much less linear, and lets players feel strategic about hunting their targets and taking ownership of the play space.

Environmental details. Dishonored's world is the real star, rich with delicate strokes that make it feel incredibly lived-in, and as believable as it is fantastic. Okay, there's a strange fixation on the byproducts of whales (which are never seen, as far as I know). But the cans of potted meat, hagfish and jellied eels, skewered rat (aren't they plague-ridden?) and general dockside culture, where guardsmen idly whistle the tune of "drunken sailor" -- these all contribute subtly to a skin-crawly but nonetheless fascinating vision of Victorian London.

Diary books and audio recordings shed light upon the experiences of all its world's people. Seagulls call in the distance, and dubious greenish brine is everywhere.

In the game's very first opening mission, the player escapes jail into a sewer grotto where plague-ravaged corpses and attempted escapees alike are left to die. Their sad little hovels, corpse-draped, are incredibly vivid, strewn with lost coin and empty bottles. A sense of atmosphere characterizes the game. There's pervasive injustice -- and those ever-present rats, carrying a near-tangible pestilence everywhere.

Dishonored 2.jpgGood artists copy, great artists steal. Dishonored has a lot in common with a few of the most popular and groundbreaking titles in recent memory: Most fans can see shades of BioShock in its resourceful gameplay, Assassin's Creed in its stealthy kills, of Half-Life 2 in the game's atmosphere of fear and oppression against which revolutionaries persist. Other comparisons abound, as like other beloved titles so many things about Dishonored make good sense.

But most of the game's biggest fans seem to love these touchstones, rather than considering them over-familiar or imitative -- it seems gamers are more than pleased to reconnect with elements from beloved franchises in new contexts. It's a view of innovation that embraces not the idea of doing something totally unheard-of, but of taking what people love and re-interpreting it deftly.

Fresh mechanics. Most of Dishonored's appeal sounds like solid logic: Accessible interface, nebulous but essential 'good feel', an engaging and vibrant world, touchstones to games people already adore and enjoy revisiting, creative level design.

But what really seems to all but secure the game's place in a swath of year-end lists is the innovation when it comes to the game's "enhancements", powers which not only offer players an unprecedented degree of customization and control over their gameplay, but which also imagine and allow abilities not generally seen before.

For example, the ability to "blink" lets players teleport short distances at quick, satisfying speeds; it feels essential to optimal stealth gameplay, but it also is purely joyful to play with. More than one Dishonored fan I've spoken to compared the sense of freedom of movement to what they hoped Mirror's Edge would have always provided.

Fairly early in the game, Dishonored also gives players a mechanical human heart to carry: not only is this an object that acts as a guide to power-ups, but it's a virtual Rosetta stone for the many who are taken in with the game's world of Dunwall and its outlying lands.

As an alternative to the standard written or audio-diary lore, which Dishonored does offer aplenty, the heart can be asked to communicate information about any of the game's characters or areas, in a fascinatingly-intimate fashion that offers a new spin on the old "drop notebooks everywhere" tack of informing players about the nature and history of the places they're in and who's in there with them.

Dishonored's warm critical reception and fan appeal show that tried and true approaches don't always have to result in something that feels well-trod, when attention to detail and strategic innovation are applied to great lengths in just the right areas.


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Comments


jin choung
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i just really enjoy choking the s@#$ out of people and then tossing their unconscious meat sacks around the level. never woulda figured... it's soooo satisfying.

also, the game plays well ignoring stealth. i tried to play the game stealthily and felt very stifled and the game felt punishingly hard... but once i slipped off those bonds, all of a sudden, the game opened up where i was choking and stabbing mofos with gleeful abandon.

i haven't quite reached the highs of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eqOMI8_txw but i'm hopeful.

Vincent Hyne
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I derived my enjoyment from not touching anyone.

Not even to choke them.

Just passing by everyone and everything and completing goals.

Johnathon Swift
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Playing stealth is punishingly easy if you know how to use blink. I just completed one of the next to last missions, no alarms and no kills, in 15 minutes using blink and sleep darts on the first try.

It really could have been harder.

Vincent Hyne
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Yeah, unfortunately playing on Very Hard does nothing for the difficulty if you're doing a 0,0,0,0 run, which I did.

It was still fun as hell though.

Rob Wright
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I'm very much looking forward to playing this one, but the thing that's pulling me toward the game isn't the stealth action or the graphics but the steampunk-ish world of the game. The same thing drew me to BioShock -- I was much more interested in Rapture and the story that eminated from the game's environment than the actual telekinesis powers (be honest: how many people really used the Insect Swarm on a regular basis?).

Christopher Parthemos
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I took a bee-centric build through the game on Hard. I used the bees mostly as a distraction to mow people down with the weapons.

Juan Fdez. de Simón
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What I really like about Dishonored are its traversal mechanics and how they empower the player to take advantage of the verticality in the levels. It's refreshing to play a stealth game where navigation feels fast, fluid, and fun.

Maria Jayne
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It's a good game, currently playing through it now, it is very reminiscent of the Thief games to me. Unfortunately I think the right mouse button is going, I'm having a hell of a time holding it down to aim the warp ability, I thought it was by design but I think the button is just releasing on it's own. :(

Joe McGinn
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Yeah that sounds like a hardware issue, Maria ... playing on console so not direct comparison, but the "use power" button definitely does not fire by itself when held down.

If you haven't already discovered the joys of a gaming mouse, get yourself a Razor (or same-tech "tt eSports" mouse for less money). Best money you will ever, ever spend.

Maria Jayne
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I'm currently using a logitech G500, which is a gaming mouse, I guess I've just been very "clicky" with it this past year!

I was looking at the G700 as a replacement, not sure how I feel about Razer products, they look ok but I've never tried one.

Ashley Blacquiere
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Meta comment: Great idea for a new regular feature, but I feel that it reads a lot like a review and less like a report on the zeitgeist. It'd be great if in future editions we could see a 'soundbite round-up' (like 'Your Industry, Your Words') from forum posts, or wherever your data is coming from.

Tont Voles
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I'm loving the 'greatest hits of stealth' aspect. First proper mission felt very Deus Ex, with in-level sub-missions found by exploration, a bit of burglary and a long, chin-scratching ending to cover off all the 'good' possibilities.

Other missions felt much more Splinter Cell-esque, especially in traversing streets to get to mission locales.

The Lady Boyle party feels much more Hitman (the Embassy party in Hitman 2, in fact).

I can't wait to find about DLC and extended content. There's so much potential in the design it would be crime to not put out pack after pack, even if it amounted to new missions in the original maps.

Ron Dippold
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I did my first playthrough as a violent killer, since I figured that would be easiest. You just kill anyone who gets in your way, take the ultraviolence skills. I snuck where I could, and took guards out with backstabs or headshots, but at the drop of a hat the gloves came off. This also gets you the chaos ending.

Now on the second playthrough I know where everything is, and my skills are much better, and I'm able to ghost the levels. If there's anything that makes you feel more badass than killing everyone on the level it's nobody on the level even knowing you were there.

Either playstyle is very fluid and feels 'right'. The violence method is much faster, because it's much easier to explore when you just kill everyone. Sneaky/no-kill is much more satisfying for me personally, though.

With minimum spoilers, the game does end satisfyingly with a complete (and obvious) arc, but there is still a lot left unexplained about the world - hopefully that means we'll be revisiting it!

Juan Fdez. de Simón
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Stabbing dudes in the neck is cool and all that but to me playing like a pure stealth game was much more rewarding.

I did a ghost, clean hands, only blink playthrough and it was the most fun I've had with a stealth game in ages.

Lyon Medina
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I think personally that another factor that is not stressed enough to me is the key delay of Bioshock: Infinite.

Dishonored would still be a great game mind you, but if Bioshock would have stayed in par with its initial release date there would have been a much more crowded advertising market.

A much more higher up hill battle if you will.

With Bioshock delayed and no other real AAA title within its launch window of the month of OCT. Dishonored just had everything going for it in release window as well.

Just adding that when you launch is just as important as the product you launch.

Marvin Papin
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I think in the same way, people are lacking of good games and this "first" (~Borderlands 2~) touch will show what player want as a AAA and not classic hack'n slash or shooters.

Lyon Medina
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"this "first" (~Borderlands 2~) touch will show what player want as a AAA and not classic hack'n slash or shooters."

Do you mean BL2 is that? or Dishonored? Sorry just a little confused.

Marvin Papin
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I see Dishonored as the first big AAA of the year (i consider the period from march to march) that is really expected by players. Even if Borderlands 2 is in the same case, i think that with the other big released of the end of the year, the unsustainable waiting of something to play for players had increased the sells.

before that first(s) touch, players tends to find anything through digital market in particular or independent games. Consider the game you and your friends played for the lasts 10 month compared to those 2 years ago during the same period.

Finally, there are some UFOs like the unfinished swan, that i could describe as big independent expected game, but for 3h 13€... that to much for many and they prefer to pay 60€ for 15h because the lifetime increase the experience about storytelling. A longer story like half life (so not particularly with cinematic) give the player a largely better experience, think zelda... But there's good features well used and keep you enjoy the game until the end. Players will not accept it as well as if it would have been a 15h AAA. (this is my own opinion but i base myself on how players see the game, if limbo would have been a AAA it would have been a way more known than it is actually because except professionals and well informed gamers, not much people know it.)

So much to say that players wants a big AAA with a good lifetime, liberty of action and gameplay. That year as been really poor and i hope it will change.

Lyon Medina
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That makes much more sense to me. Thank you Marvin.

Marvin Papin
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In an era of "designs re-use" find new fresh stuff, finally get something that appeal the player after a long hollow period of games that players think "not really valuable" is welcome.

The main thing that make the players really enjoy the game is liberty. Like Bioshock by example, you choose the way you wanna play. Bioshock has been design to let the player organize himself : teach him that if he trigger that or if he enter this kind of zone, he must prepare himself. Push this button and you'll see many enemies arrive -> then you put traps and defend has you like / go upstairs, left or right and use a specific weapon and techniques. You make YOUR choices and can prepare the way you play.

But many blockbusters are loved thanks to this particular aspect of design : Hitman, Splinter Cell (1,2, 3), far cry, the elder scrolls, gta. That can come with open world, gameplay possibilities or stealth. I think, it's one of the most sure design direction (moreover really flexible with prototyping and independent gameplay features).

With Dishonored, we get a new license, a new game to put in the tooth.

Lyon Medina
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Smaller innovations can drive sales as well. Just having the ability of having matchmaking (that works well) in games can drive sales. For me having the ability of customization in Dynasty Warriors made me buy the game and several iterations afterwards, ha-ha, as guilty pleasures those games are.

Marvin Papin
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Of course but those little innovations are currently to much rare or blended into the mass of the overall current gameplay.

For many games matchmaking could be interesting but for that times there's too many games where it'has just been added because most players do not want to buy a game at release date but instead used because they think they do not worth the price. For Max Payne 3, even if the campaign is really cool, the multiplayer remain a gadget plagued by the "unlock capacities system" like cod.

Andrew Witt
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Enjoyable game, but way too short and I was hoping for something a bit more open world. The other nations detailed in the lore leave a lot of room for new palces to go in DLC or sequels. Although I really prefer they not sequel this franchise to death.

Jason Lee
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Funny you say that. I haven't gotten to it yet (XCOM is giving me my dose of cruel dead humanity) but it is definitely next on my list. However, I've been reading about how the game can be incredibly short or incredibly long, depending how you play it.

Alec Meer from RPS talks about how he spent 20 hours in the game so far, and that while it could be beaten in 6-8 hours, there's a lot of exploration and off-the-beaten path secrets that aren't so secret. I think this is a point that I didn't see get mentioned but also really plays into the idea that this is a game that can be played in many different ways and despite the structure will give a lot of different experiences for many different players.


Article for reference:
http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/10/08/dishonored-length/

Andrew Witt
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I mean open world more like the Elder Scrolls or recent Fallout games. I see there being three ways to play Dishonored: all stealth, all killing or a mix of the two. There's some variety to how you complete a mission based on what paths you take in the environment, what powers you use, who you kill and/or don't kill and whether you go with the lethal or optional non-lethal method of completing the main objective. This certainly does lead to some different experiences among playstyles.

I would have preferred a more open world game environment where you could explore the city more and take on objectives in the order you wanted to with perhaps some instances where you have to choose between one mission or another to change up the narrative a bit. Have some areas that could not be explored until you unlocked a certain power you could use to get access the area.

I was just hoping for something other than the 'base area to mission area back to base area' formula of the game progression. Might just be me, but I feel this game would have been more fun in a Batman: Arkham City kind of gameworld even. Still, I am enjoying the game and it is a really great mix of Bioshock, Thief and Half-Life 2.

Steven Ulakovich
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It is going to be a damn shame if this title does not sell well. Compact, ten hour, single player experiences are such a dying breed.

I enjoyed it immensely. It is such a nice breath of fresh air in the AAA field of titles, and is easily one of my favorite games of the year.

Joe McGinn
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Good article on a great game, nice analysis Leigh.


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