Heads up, friends: spoilers for the original Dishonored (but no major spoilers for Dishonored 2) lie ahead.
Dishonored 2 has been out for almost two months now and in that time received a great deal of (earned) praise for its gameplay systems, story, and dark world. However, one quality of the game I’ve noticed not get its due is developer Arkane’s decision to let you choose to play as either Corvo, the protagonist from the original Dishonored, or his daughter, Empress Emily Kaldwin. And so I wanted to spend some words talking about why I think letting players have that choice between these characters isn’t just a “oh neat” but instead a brilliant design decision that feels like an integral evolution of the series’ choice-oriented design. But to get there, we need to talk about how and why the original Dishonored works so well. Let’s dive into it.
It’s probably best to think about games that hinge on choice, like Dishonored and Mass Effect, in terms of constants and variables. In the original Dishonored, there are a series of events that the player cannot change at all. Empress Jessamine will always die by Daud’s hand. Corvo will be framed for the assassination. He will escape from prison and be given powers by The Outsider, “a figure from myth who is neither good nor evil.” It’s understandable why these things cannot be changed: they’re part of the setup. However, everything else that the player’s choices affect are the variables and what makes Dishonored so special is that it has a lot of meaningful variables in such a tiny space.
Consider Mass Effect, probably the end-all “Your Choices Matter” game series, right? Among those three games are around 90 hours’ worth of choices that Bioware has to convince you matter within its grand, interactive sci-fi opera. Dishonored works a smaller but potent bit of that same magic within 12 hours because the variables allow us to choose who Corvo Attano is and who he is shaped not by Telltale-style conversation wheel prompts but instead our continual interactions with the world he inhabits.
A couple of years ago I wrote about why I believe Dishonored is the best Batman game ever made for Paste and while you may disagree with me on that premise, I still believe that framing Dishonored and Corvo in the context of Batman makes sense. You play a vigilante, armed with all sorts of nifty gadgets, who chooses to enforce his own brand of justice against a group of villains who have overtaken the city of Dunwall. As I said in that piece:
Dunwall, like Gotham, is a diseased city and you can either help cure it or make it more sickly depending on your actions. If you play Corvo as someone who values all human life, the game becomes incredibly difficult. You’ll probably find yourself backed into a corner by foes a lot, armed to the teeth with all sorts of nasty, tempting devices that you’ve picked up along the way, and you’ll have to make a choice: flee and hide, try to take them out with tranquilizer bolts or—to hell with it all—kill every single last one of them. A pacifist playthrough of Dishonored forces you to confront your own power and your responsibility of it in nearly every situation.
Do you slaughter the four men guarding this post with your crossbow from a distance? Or maybe try to sneak by? What about tranquilizing them and hiding them in a dumpster? There is a tangible cost to aggression. Killing will result in the world becoming a darker place, with plague rats showing up at every turn, and a bleak ending for the game. Whereas minimizing how many people you hurt will result in a happier, if not particularly joyful, ending. This is the standard morality system that a lot of games abide by, showering you with gifts and praise when you’re decent, slapping you on the wrist when you’re an *sshole. However, because that reward or punishment ties directly into how you constantly handle situations throughout the game it meshes well with the rest of the game and whatever ending you get feels like you earned it.
This is what makes Dishonored so special: its variables feel organic with the rest of the game’s design in a way that just usually isn’t the case with the vast majority of games, especially those emerging from the AAA sphere. It’s a game that uses its interactivity in a sophisticated manner by encouraging its players to court their own power and their responsibility of it.
So what why is Dishonored 2 special? Head on over to page 2 to read why.