Playlist 2012: Dishonored

Dishonored PS3 | Arkane Studios | November

dishonored-home

This was once a great city.

Or at least there are signs of it. Across the river are what use to be people’s homes – homes that are now used to avoid thug infested alleys and a corrupt police force running the suburbs. You can even find paintings on what walls are still standing, mostly of people filling the streets of Dunwall or ships importing goods.

It’s calming though, isn’t it? I’d often climb up here for the view between missions, but every vista in Dunwall is just that: a vista. The city is actually overrun with a rat plague. Looks can be deceiving.

The cover art to Dishonored had me puzzled at first. The reviews were great, the visual direction and gameplay hooks appeared to be amazing, but the box only displayed a complicated steampunk badass that I couldn’t emotionally access. The more I played the game the more I began to appreciate it; it’s the only image we ever see of Corvo in his mask. This is the face Dunwall feared while I hunted it.

Though I wasn’t the only one donning a mask, and ruses actually play a central theme in Dishonored. So much so that someone found the time and money to put on a masquerade ball, even in the city’s current condition.

dishonored_masquerade-masksI was invited, and went as myself.
No one seemed to notice.

At first glance, Dishonored‘s story feels about as insurmountable as its cityscapes. Try as it might to stack the odds against you, it seldom forgets to silver-line the situation for you (even if it’s purely aesthetic). Personal narratives unfold with provocative visuals and naturally situated dialogue begs to be overheard, which elegantly supplies the player with meaningful information in a way that’s more empowering than expository. In addition, expert level designs guide you with thoughtful lighting techniques, while simultaneously managing to heighten the drama.

With supernatural powers and plenty of places to hide, Arkane Studios empowers your navigation of Dunwall’s socially-diverse architecture. But the combination of methods you enlist is entirely up to you. Dishonored raises each subsequent challenge and then matches it by affording the player a sense of agency most games would kill for (no pun intended).

dishonored-tallboy-walking

Just outside the walls of the masquerade you’ll find Tallboys on patrol — watchful yet drugged-up guards, armed with incendiary arrows and stilted on giant metal legs. But it’s the every-day that informs much of the game’s stylistic oil-smeared art direction.

“I noticed a guy on stilts cleaning the building façade and told Harvey (co-creative director) we could put stilts on our town crier (loud speakers replaced this guy). He agreed, and the guy instantly became a Tallboy.”-Sebastien Mitton, Art Director

Dunwall is a fascinating world to explore, but one you’re continually challenged with keeping as-is or to only make worse. At the center of it all, regardless of whatever moral alignment you assume, is a singular goal: save Emily, recently orphaned and kidnapped daughter, rightful heir of Dunwall. Although Corvo is stripped of his title, “Lord Protector”, Dishonored doesn’t take away the feeling that you’re still serving this role for the young girl.

What initially got me interesting in studying game design was concept art itself, but especially how closely it referenced traditional forms of art. Disassociate it from a videogame project, and you’d be fooled into thinking it was made on a rainy day in the streets of a 19th century London.

dishonored-solkolov-painting

Back in 1996, Super Mario 64 had us literally jumping into paintings on the wall, their oil acting as portals to worlds we could only imagine. Dishonored has a unique self-awareness of itself as a living breathing painting. Not only do paintings play a big role in the culture of Dunwall, but the game itself pretty much looks like one. The reliance on whale oil in the industrialism of the world only helps it better fit into its character.

dishonored-emily

Dishonored gives you every opportunity to kill, but never have I been so eager to eavesdrop on my enemies instead. Gossip fills the streets as much as paintings fill up abandoned homes, and you’ll notice they say something about one another if you put your imagination to it. Put your imagination to some other things, such as how you’re going to get past that gang when the roof is caved in and you’re out of sleeping darts, and you’ll find that Dishonored has more than one story worth telling.

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