Dishonored: constrained freedom and the evil fish

By Brenna Hillier
12 September 2012 09:04 GMT

Dishonored hands its players a huge amount of freedom on the one hand, and on the other, a set of tight contraints. This combination – and a zealous fish – nearly killed Brenna Hillier.

Arkane’s Dishonored

Dishonored is an all-new IP set in a steampunk-style fantasy world.

A first-person action title with a heavy emphasis on stealth. Although assassination missions are conducted in closed environments, it allows for multiple approaches, reminiscent of open-world titles.

Arkane’s third game after Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic; it also lent a hand with BioShock 2.

The developer has offices in Lyon, France and Austin, Texas. It was acquired by Zenimax in 2010; shared design philosophies seem to make it an appropriate stable mate for Bethesda.

Dishonored has been compared to Deus Ex, Thief, BioShock, Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls and Far Cry, to name just a few.

Executive producer Julien Roby has a list of credits which reads like a love letter to exactly the kind of game Dishonored is – sandboxy, flexible, unforgivingly difficult. It turns out this is entirely appropriate, given his industry origin story.

“The first time I contacted Arkane was because I read an article about them doing a game that was kind of in the legacy of Ultima Underworld, which was one of my all-time favourites,” he told me at a Dishonored preview event.

“I wrote to them to see if they were looking for someone to help or whatever, and that was where I started to work, with them, in 2001. I pretty much went there because of the kind of game they wanted to make.”

Roby’s making the kind of game he himself likes to play. Apologising for the “corporate and scary” Bethesda reference he said the game he has played the most in recent months is Fallout: New Vegas, and also gave a nod to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

The two titles appear on a list of perhaps a dozen which are brought out and dusted off every time someone tries to explain what kind of game Dishonored it, something which is both an honour and a burden for Arkane and Bethesda.

“It’s a little stressful, because these kind of games are cult classics, so trying to live up to the same expectation is pretty difficult,” Roby said.

“It’s easy to message. At the same time, it’s games that are pretty old and that not a lot of players know about. Like when we talk about Thief – a lot of hardcore gamers know about it but compared to the size of the market, that’s not a lot of players.

“It’s a lot about trying to let the player know about what you can do in the game, and how it compares to other games. A lot of the time, it is compared to Assassin’s Creed, just because there’s an assassin in the game – even though the two games are really different; they’re not doing the same thing at all.”

The word “hardcore” is another touchpoint for writers attempting to communicate Dishonored’s core experience – it’s unforgiving. After a diet of rival stealth titles, I was shocked during my playthrough to discover the guards didn’t immediately forget my character’s existence when I moved between internal and external environments. Once you begin a mission, you’ll have access to a limited number of health and mana potions rather than regenerating pools – if you stuff up early on, you’ll probably just have to reload.

This level of consequence and emphasis on commitment to plans of action is unusual, but something Roby feels is coming back into fashion.

“You can see it with Dark Souls – and even Skyrim. When you play Skyrim it’s not a casual game at all,” he said.

“It’s a game where you have to invest hundreds of hours to get the most of it. It’s a pretty hardcore RPG. It’s kind of cool that this kind of game is successful in terms of both critics and sales.”

Having put about 60 hours into a stealth and bow Skyrim build – “reloading every time someone detected me” – Roby is comfortable with the constraint of picking a progression path and sticking to the tactics it favours.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for creative problem solving, though; the sandbox nature of Dishonored is deservedly front and centre. One Arkane staffer invented a kind of remote bomb – summon a swarm of rats, stick a grenade to one, possess that one, run it towards a guard and eject before the explosive detonates. It’s fiddly, but worth the effort just for sheer cool factor.

This combination isn’t something the team had in mind when designing the component abilities; it’s a natural consequence of players thinking about how they work and synergise. Roby said creative and skilled action players will be able to perform some amazing stunts, like freezing time, teleporting towards a stilt walker, and then assassinating the pilot. It takes skill as well as brains; all of the press attending the demo tried this, and we managed it just once.

I asked if Roby had ever been really surprised by something a player had done, and was gratified to learn that I was the first to assassinate Lady Boyle by means of stuffing her unconscious body in a fireplace. It perfectly highlights the flexibility of Dishonored’s premise that even after touring this demo extensively, it can still surprise its own developer.

Stay out of the water
From the look on Roby’s face during my first attempt on Lady Boyle’s life, I suspect I may have achieved another world first: falling in the canal and being killed by a fish within seconds of picking up the control pad, an excellent introduction to Dishonored’s unrelenting assault on my confidence.

Corvo can’t swing his blade while swimming, making the fish immune to melee and therefore one of Dishonored’s most powerful enemies. Roby didn’t argue with my assertion in this regard, but did suggest I use Wind Blast or Possess, or throw a grenade at my scaly foe. Which I did, repeatedly – enacting vengeance.

“They are all evil fish,” Roby confirmed in response to my piscine obsession. “You can find fish in cans. You can actually eat the eggs of the fish – you can find some in the water.”

This gave me immense satisfaction. Dishonored may have shamed me by battering me to death with a fish, but it also gave me the tools to revenge myself through violent acts on my attacker’s children. That’s not a narrative Arkane wrote; it’s something I made up with the freedom and constraints the game invited me to enjoy. I’ll remember it a lot longer than the kill-the-baddie plots of corridor shooters.

Dishonored releases on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the US on October 9 and elsewhere by October 12.

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