Dishonored: City-Building Done Right

I’ve started playing Dishonored (only a few years late), and it’s really fucking good. Well, it’s got some bits that’re really good – we’ll talk about the other bits later. I’m still thinking about cities in games, and I knew that Dishonored would provide an interesting point of comparison, because it’s mission-based, rather than the open-world approach I’ve talked about before. The take-away point today, then, is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Spoilers ahead, but only kind of, because I haven’t finished the game. 

In some ways, Dishonored sticks to the same previously discussed principles – it just expresses them in a different way. I was talking about how Mirror’s Edge would be really great as an open-world game – as it currently stands, the levels feel too linear to me, which means that it doesn’t so much feel like a city as a corridor. You don’t get to feel the city as a city – that is, as a disparate disjointed disconnected jumble of buildings slapped all up against each other with a dash of poorly done city planning. Cities are messy and full and bursting with things that have nothing to do with you, and that’s precisely what Mirror’s Edge didn’t have. The original one, I mean – I haven’t played the new one, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it by 2020.

In some ways, the episodic nature of Dishonored might be seen as lending itself to the same criticism I’m levelling at Mirror’s Edge. However, in practice, that’s not the case. Dishonored does this thing where it releases you into a carefully curated six-block radius and tells you to go murder Person X in their home. You can head straight there, or fuck around in the six-block playground for a bit and watch life unfold. That’s where the real charm of Dishonored kicks in, to my mind. I remember creeping through the rafters above a barracks. Inside, two guards were bullying a third about his cough – there’s a plague on, dontcha know. The third guard protests his innocence slash lack of plague, right up to the point where he’s skewered by one of the others. They aren’t taking any chances: if that guy’s got the plague, the wee bastard could infect everybody else too. Better to take him out quickly.

To me, this is a classic example of city-building: it’s an event that has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t matter to your mission (excepting that there’s one less guard on patrol) – it’s just a great little vignette showing off life in the world. The most important part is, you don’t have to see that event. You can go around another way, and you’ll never know about it. That’s how cities should be. There should be a million things going on, and you shouldn’t know about nine-tenths of them.

I also really appreciated how Dishonored allows you to return to certain areas. I haven’t finished it yet, but the first and second proper missions take place in the same location. You go in once, heading to a particular building to knife somebody, and then you go in again, heading to a different building to knife somebody else. It’s a really nice way to remind us that the space exists outside of our time there – it’s not just there for one mission and then never talked about again. Instead, the area goes on changing and developing and growing without you. Sure, when you return you can see the effects of your actions, but they aren’t the only thing that’s happened. There’s other shit going on too – because you’re just one asshole, and there’s a fuckload of other assholes living in this space too.

Overall, I feel like Dishonored has a very strongly textured city. There’s a great deal of nuance and subtlety, detail, storytelling through environment and scenario – it’s probably one of my favourite video-game cities. There’s just so much going on. For that reason, it’s really disappointing to compare it with the melodramatic main plot. There’s a big plague in the city, obviously, and it turns out the Lord Regent introduced it to control the numbers of poor people. That’s… pretty one-dimensional. I mean, like, fine, okay, there’s potential there, but it’s not really a psychologically complex portrait of a man, is it? He thought there were too many poor people, so tried to kill them off with a plague that got out of hand. He’s not a human being, he’s a caricature of a Victorian villain, complete with black cape and maniacal laughter.

Probably the most interesting thing is how guilty he (supposedly) felt about the whole affair – and even that is tainted by the fact that he covers it up by murdering the fucking Empress and seizing power for himself. It’s hard to feel sorry for this asshole. Again, there’s almost potential: you can see a really gripping portrait of a man completely driven by fear, willing to climb over piles of dead bodies and major political instability just to save his own skin. Problem is, we don’t get that portrait. We just get the caricature, and then little glimmers in retrospect of what could have been.

On top of that, the whole ‘your friends betray you’ twist after you kill the Regent is fucking stupid. It would have more staying power if the trope hadn’t been done to death before. As it stands, it comes off as a hackneyed attempt to extend the game after eliminating the major villain at the end of the second act. I could be wrong, because I haven’t finished the game yet, but this is how I’m feeling at the moment. It’s also a completely illogical decision, given that we have a recording of the Lord Regent acknowledging that a) he created the plague and b) he killed the Empress to cover it up. Turn up with the Empress’s daughter, that tape, and the body of the Lord Regent, and nobody’s going to bother about Corvo. Hell, just pretend Corvo doesn’t exist for a few months, straighten out the record, and then bring him back into society.

It’s possible that I’ve missed something and there’s actually a brilliant artistic decision underpinning what might, to the casual observer, seem to be poor plot and character development. Occam’s Razor is notoriously unreliable in the face of art. That said, I think there’s a pretty simple read here. The developers made an amazing beautiful detailed wonderful city and then paired it with a turd of a plot. The plot’s not even that bad, really. It’s just in comparison to the city-building that its insufficiency shines through. I do like Dishonored, but at some points it’s like watching a ballerina dance with a pig in gumboots.

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