Game * Arkane Studios SA * Magic Victorian Dystopia * 2016
It took me a while to get around to this game, which is surprising only because I enjoyed the first one so much. Part of the problem is, of course, writing this blog. I intended to go back to the first game in order to write about it, but it turns out my aversion to replaying games is as strong as ever. I don’t know why that is, considering I re-read books all the time. But when I booted up the first Dishonored I got a mission in and went, “eh, I remember all this” and put it down. In retrospect I should have played through it the opposite of how I went about it the first time and just murdered every motherfucker in the game. Instead I moved on. Anyway, here we are with the sequel, which is… fine. I recall the first game garnishing mixed impressions, with most people seeming to enjoy it with reservations. I liked it all the way. I loved the world especially, but I also like games which encourage me to poke along and not necessarily murder everyone I see.
Dishonored 2 doesn’t fiddle too much with the formula of the first game. It takes place about fifteen years after the events of the first game. In case you forgot (or just didn’t play it), that first game put you in the role of a shadowy assassin named Corvo. In the beginning of that game, the Empress gets shived in her own gazebo, and you spend the rest of the game sneaking through the magical, steam-punky, Victorian dystopia of Dunwall in an effort to avenge her death and protect her (and Corvo’s) daughter, and set things back to rights. Fifteen years later, Corvo’s daughter Emily succeeds her mother to the throne, and she’s basically been a child/adolescent ruler for that entire time. And she kind of sucks at it. This game begins with a royal procession welcoming a powerful Duke to the capital. This dude rolls in with a bunch of sick robots and a lady named Delilah, who promptly uses her weird dark magic to instigate a coup. She claims to be Emily’s aunt, and the rightful heir to the throne. At this point you can choose your protagonist and play as either Emily or Corvo. I chose Emily because of course I did.
The overall structure of Dishonored 2 is pretty much the same as the first game, which is great if you enjoyed the stealth action of the first game and is probably not for you if you didn’t. The chaos mechanic is the same as well. Essentially, the more people you kill the more chaotic the world becomes, and the darker the ending. Because I am an insufferable goody-goody, I did my best not to kill anyone. This, of course, means that the dope foldable sword I carry around everywhere is basically useless. Instead I spent the entire game lurking around and choking dudes out. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome. There’s fun to be had playing this way – many of the encounters turn into puzzles with a good deal of trial-and-error – but after a while you come up with tactics that work, and the game doesn’t do much to challenge you to mix it up. As you progress, you open up magic powers, which draws upon “The Void” and “The Outsider,” which are the supernatural element of the game’s world and story. These are fun, even if they’re not terribly imaginative. I dunno. It’s fine.
The more I think about my time with this game, the more I realized that it disappointed me. I’m forced to wonder if I’m losing interest in the “immersive sim” as a genre, since I played Prey not too long ago and came away with the same feeling of “eh, that was fine.” Compared to my experience with the first Dishonored, the world in particular felt a little more sterile than the first go-round, and I just can’t be sure why that is. I love everything about the set-up here. The entire aesthetic is gloomy, 19th century London, but with magic. It’s super weird and cool that the entire society runs on whale oil, which is a fascinating twist on how cheap, easy to exploit energy changes civilization. Dishonored 2 changes location from Dunwall to a city called Karnaca, and while it’s an extension of the world we already know, for some reason it just falls flat. Further, the new characters we meet just aren’t particularly engaging. Okay, I need to figure out why I’m lukewarm on this game. Spoilers ahoy.
As Emily, once you escape your usurpers in the palace, you make your way to a boat. This boat belongs to a lady named Megan, and maybe I missed something, but there doesn’t seem to be a terribly compelling reason for her to help you out. I wonder if these limited character interactions are due to me playing as Emily, who as a young, isolated ruler wouldn’t exactly have the worldly experience of her father. As the story moves along, you meet an assortment of weirdos who you may or may not kill. I didn’t, and so some of these folks end up on your boat. At some point, you can stumble across Megan’s tragic backstory. By the end of the game she confesses to you that she helped kill your mother. After that revelation, I was just sitting there like, “okay, cool.” The narrative leading up to this moment simply never emphasized the relationship between Emily and, well, anyone at all. So when Megan makes her big confession, Emily is acting like she cares but as a player I’m left wondering why I should care.
What I usually enjoy about immersive sims is, well, the immersion. I actually like creeping around and poking around people’s houses and rifling through their shit. But that stuff is only fun if you’re finding compelling things when you do so. In the first game, I quite enjoyed myself because I was discovering this weird, fascinating world. This time, the tidbits I was finding were for whatever reason less interesting. Most of the thirty-plus hours I spent with this game was crawling around figuring out how to best avoid detection and murder. Probably the most outwardly frustrating part of the game is how little feedback you get in this instance. There were three or four missions that after spending three or more hours dinking around being stealthy, I would finish only to be told by the stat screen that whoopsies, you killed a person. I did? You think I might have noticed that! Seriously, if you’re going to encourage me to be non-lethal, it should be obvious when I fail. Gah.
I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed myself more if I had gone loud. Just say fuck it, ignore the chaos system and stop worrying about getting the “good” ending, and run around murking fools in broad daylight. In my playthrough, it often felt like I was spending the majority of my time creeping around disheveled apartments looking through cabinets rather than engaging with the world. There’s also the strong possibility that the environments in this game just aren’t as good as the first set. By the end of the game, I was straying away from optional objectives in an effort to just get on with it already. That’s not a great sign. There comes a point where the practical rewards for scouring the environments – the bone charms and the runes and the ammunition – become largely irrelevant. If you’re going non-lethal, a good third of the powers are totally useless, so you end up with more skill points than you need. By the end, I was just bopping through as quickly as possible (which is still pretty slowly if you’re trying not to kill anyone) to finish the story and get my good ending.
The main theme of Dishonored 2 is that of governance. It’s clear that at the beginning of the game, Emily is a bad ruler. It’s the 19th century and the form of government is your basic monarchy, supported by an aristocratic hierarchy of various dukes and whatnot. There’s a bureaucracy in place, but I don’t recall a mention of a Parliament or anything like that, so it seems like Emily is the de facto final word about policy. She’s a rich teenager, and so the actual act of governance isn’t terribly interesting to her. She’s spent most of the previous fifteen years fucking off and letting the bureaucracy do its thing, and as a result some shady shit has been going down. Over the course of the game, Emily gets up close and personal with the consequences of her indifference. If you’re not a murder-machine, by the end of the game Emily has her revelation, which is her resolution to become a benevolent, engaged ruler. Hooray. Of course, she’s still the unquestioned, absolute ruler of all the land, so that hasn’t changed. And that’s part of the problem. Emily never questions the fundamental problems with her society, and so even in the good ending I’m left feeling like, well great, good for the status quo I guess. Like the rest of the game, my reaction is basically the same. I dunno. It’s fine.