Is there a more fundamentally frustrating videogame genre than Stealth? Practically every major videogame is built on a basic conquering principle: You are a tiny character in a big world, and you are slowly triumphing over that world, one level or mission or boss fight or multiplayer deathmatch at a time. Stealth games are different. Your goal is not to conquer the videogame’s imaginary world: It’s to become a ghost. You lurk. You linger. You crouch, constantly.
But the frustration goes even deeper than that. Stealth games deal with morality, but their morality is different from more explicit moral-decision franchises like Fable or Mass Effect. In Stealth games, you always have the option to kill people. Indeed, often times, killing people will make your life easier. Metal Gear Solid 2 introduced a Stun Gun into your inventory, and it explicitly rewarded you if you managed to make it through the entire game without killing anyone. Likewise, every level of Hitman could theoretically only end with one dead person. This puts a curious amount of moral weight on every moment of the game: If you don’t have to kill anyone, will you? What makes this decision even harder, of course, is that killing people in videogames is — to put it bluntly — pretty freaking cool. Consider this: In a typical stealth game, it’s possible to kill hundreds of people or kill no one. What does it mean for you if you don’t choose the second option?
Dishonored is a videogame which allows you to kill people in a whole assortment of fun ways. You play Corvo, a former Imperial bodyguard wrongfully accused of a capital crime, currently fighting against an evil regime as part of a resistance cell. You have access to elaborate retro-future weaponry; you can cast some choice magic spells; and, when all else fails, you can jump off a rooftop and land on a bad guy with your knife in his neck. But you don’t have to do any of that. You can sneak through an entire level without being seen, strangling guards into unconsciousness and setting them down in the corner for a nice nap. Sometimes, killing people is easy. Heck, sometimes killing people will make you vastly more powerful. Is it worth it?
I’m going abstract in this review partially because I don’t want to reveal too many of the fascinating twists in the story of Dishonored, and partially because — remarkably, for a game which initially seems like a first-person remake Assassin’s Creed combined with a steampunky riff on BioShock — Dishonored crafts a legitimately original methodology for forcing you the player to confront the repercussions of your decisions. There is no Morality Meter, no “+1 Nobility,” no red text which blares onscreen when you kill a bystander.
Instead, the changes are atmospheric. If you’re the kind of person who kills people, you’ll start to notice that the world around you is changing. Sick people walk the streets. And the rats are everywhere. (I’m not sure I’ve seen a more consistently frightening visual in any videogame this year than the rat-hordes which parade through the shadows of Dishonored, sometimes devouring a human being whole.)
Dishonored backs that system up with an invigorating array of gameplay options. The skill tree allows you to develop various magical powers: X-Ray vision, time-stopping, possession, a Nightcrawler-esque teleportation ability. Pretty much every action videogame gives you magic powers now — cheat codes have gone legit — but what sets these powers apart is that they tend to be passive, not active. They’re making you a better ghost.
As a visual experience, Dishonored is pleasantly low-key. It’s set in a world that feels a bit like Victorian England with some added layers of Jules Verne, but the meat of the game is set in realistically grimy city streets. The various social stratospheres of Dishonored‘s plague-addled city are sketched in quickly and effectively: There are bad guys in the government and bad guys on the streets, and choosing between the various factions is a constant lesser-of-two-evils decision-making process.
I wish that the makers of Dishonored had figured out a more ambitious framework: After an opening prison-escape sequence, the game settles in for a fairly standard mission structure, with interludes set at a boring hub level filled with dull characters who keep telling you how important you are. The game was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks, and as with most Bethesda games, the player character is essentially a cipher. This makes sense in relentlessly customizable franchises like Fallout and Elder Scrolls, but it feels like a missed opportunity here: If Corvo has a name, why can’t he have a voice? (This is especially notable in a year that featured the end of the Mass Effect franchise, a series that utilized thousands of pages of branching dialogue trees to allow you to create a unique character who was nevertheless voice-acted throughout.)
These are minor quibbles, and they don’t detract from the central joy of Dishonored: The moment when you finally get a tactic just right, after loading the previous checkpoint a couple dozen times. Dishonored is not a particularly huge game. Its ambitions are modest. And like everything steampunk, it comes with a built-in face-slap factor. (Oooh, epaulets! Ahhhh, top hats! Eeee, a whole society built on whale oil!) But in a videogame year crowded with decadent sequels overstuffed with vacant imagery, vaguely mish-mashing every gameplay style into one demographic-baiting mulch, Dishonored is an uncannily well-composed project that knows exactly what it’s trying to achieve and achieves it. It’s an action game which forces you to consider every action. It lets you play as a superman and then asks you to lurk in the shadows. Smart, thrilling, and unsettling, Dishonored is the best surprise of the season.
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