In an industry that has become increasingly reserved and cautious when funding new ideas — instead preferring the safe approach of releasing sequels of already established franchises — I can’t help but show enthusiasm at playing a new release that doesn’t have a number in its name. Thankfully, Bethesda took a gamble with Arkane Studios’ relatively unknown status and decided to back them to my, and no doubt thousands of others, delight because the end result was a tale of betrayal, conspiracy, and retribution set against the backdrop of a Victorian-era, Steampunk-inspired world.
Arkane’s Dishonored has an atmosphere and world that feel like they are dripping with personality at times — probably due in part to the vivid art style and non-gimmicky, refined stealth mechanics that protagonist Corvo Attano has at his disposal that serve as the main strengths of the title. I really, really want to include Dishonored’s story as a facet of the game that makes it great, and up until the concluding chapters of Corvo’s quest for revenge, I was soaking up as much of Dunwall city that I could.
By no means does Dishonored have a bad story, but Arkane has (somewhat understandably, considering the tried-and-true method) gone down the frequently beaten path of what has increasingly started to border on cliche. The droves of audio logs and books littered around the plague-infested city add an endless amount of back story to Corvo’s world, but just like other games that now utilize these indirect methods of storytelling, it eventually starts to detract from the actual gameplay. Of course, all of this literature and dialogue is optional, but I still can’t help but feel that within the context of immersion, stopping to read a short novel while carrying the incapacitated captain of a private army over your shoulders is jarring. Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls series is probably the biggest culprit of all, sprinkling the worlds they create with lore heavy tomes that — while satisfying die-hard fans of the series — alienates players who want to know the history of the game world but find the method of delivery bland and intrusive.
Audio logs suffer from a similar problem, too; having to remain stationary to listen to a disembodied voice only serves to break the players rhythm within the world of the game. Even when the player is able to move while lending an ear, other diegetic sounds drown out any attempt at some easy listening, anyway. If audio aids are to remain, they desperately need to have context within the game’s world, such as descriptive dialogue that give cues to the player.
With the release of BioShock in 2007 being arguably responsible for popularizing many of the conventions now found in the first-person role-playing game and the genre as a whole, I find myself rather amused that narrative devices that many people (myself included) lauded six years ago for their innovative nature are now almost detested due to their overuse. But, one overused plot device that, above all others, needs to be phased out of existence: the plot “twist.” BioShock’s almost legendary ace in the hole, revealing the Atlas/Fontaine deception and the immortal words of “Would you kindly?” are now regarded as one of the greatest video game moments of all time. The subversion of player expectation is what made the standard narrative twist so memorable.
Sadly, now that publishers and developers alike value narrative quality more than ever, the same formula has been grossly overused. None have been abused as much as the utterly predictable “twist,” and Dishonored is simply the most recent example. I wanted Corvo’s loyalist rescuers to be with him until the bitter end of his journey, but as the plot advanced toward its conclusion, I came to the realization that the royal protector was destined to be stabbed in the back for a second time. Arguably, Arkane’s intentions from the early stages of development were always to have Corvo’s saviors become the same politically corrupt tyrants he was trying to depose, but the abruptness of how events unfolded still made me inclined to think that Arkane sacrificed a strong conclusion for extended gameplay.
Ultimately, the finale feels like a deception for the wrong reasons and consequently reaffirms my own opinion that narrative presentation has become largely formulaic. Perhaps certain conventions would be more believable if protagonists weren’t portrayed as such gullible and trusting conduits for the player, but that raises an entirely new issue that deserves more attention. All I know is that if I was Corvo, I would find it hard to trust my own two hands in a world that seems to abuse me at every turn.