Dishonored and the Art of Indirect Storytelling

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I’ve finally gotten a chance to play through the full experience of Dishonored this week, after having previewed it repeatedly. It’s one of the cooler games I’ve gotten a chance to experience this year — safe to say I enjoyed it thoroughly. I put all the thoughts I had on it into a review.

Something at which Dishonored excels is its storytelling, but it’s weird because storytelling is also one of its weakest points. When the game sets you down and has characters yammer away at you, explaining everything that’s going on and giving you no further ability to interact with them, it’s actually kind of boring. While the characters come to be pretty round and interesting later in the game, those info-dumps of exposition can really break up the flow of the game.

The moments of direct interaction of many characters can be somewhat weak (although there are some great ones, especially with Emily, the game’s only child). But then, most of Dishonored is spent in the shadows or on rooftops, slinking through vents and staying out of sight. It’s during these moments that the real story of Dishonored leaps to life — it’s derived of little bits of background, from journal notes and overheard conversations.

These are the moments that Dishonored shows you how deeply and intricately its world has been crafted. There are numerous locations throughout the game at which you can stumble on a strange bit of circumstances. In one mostly abandoned apartment I discovered in the plague-ridden steampunk city of Dunwall, a crazed man attacked me for seemingly no reason. I put him down with a dart packed with sleep-inducing chemicals, then investigated the room. A body lay on the floor nearby, flies collected about its face. A journal lying on the dirty floor explained what had happened — the man I’d found had discovered a strange charm made of bone (a Rune of magical power, which the game allows you to use), and it had slowly driven him insane. The dead body was his cousin, whom the man had slain.

There are tons of these points throughout the game. Later, I learned that the various trained attack hounds I’d seen in the service of religious warrior-clerics were raised in another part of the city. The dog breeders grew attached to the hounds when they were young, only to have them taken away when they reached a certain age — or discarded, it seemed, if they weren’t mean enough. The quick story related was one in which the breeder had encountered a hound he’d recognized, and their momentary, heartfelt reunion.

Some of the coolest stories that games tell are the ones that happen around you, rather than to you. It’s one of the cooler things about games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — I had a similar experience in that game, in which I found a small hut along a river, and was promptly attacked by a huge bear. After a fight for my life, I wandered into the hunt, where I found the remains of its owner. The person subsisted there by fishing, and it seemed that eventually, the fish attracted the huge bear. With no one else around, the man fell victim to the predator, only to be discovered later.

Dishonored is a great game and worth checking out, especially because of the huge, breathing world it creates. And it’s an interesting study of game storytelling, because two brands of that storytelling coexist beside one another. You can see one work extremely well, and the other not so much at times, but both suggest a progression toward video games discovering their own unique voice for telling the stories they encompass and create.

Published by Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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  1. As gorgeous and interesting as Dishonored looks, and as much as I want to end up loving it, I’m skeptical. I’ve been disappointed too many times. For instance, I was beyond psyched for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I even pre-ordered it. And although Deus Ex was by no means a bad game, it wasn’t nearly what I was hoping for and the ending left me with a bad taste in my mouth—ditto for Mass Effect 3. And from what I’ve read from other reviewers, is that the main plot for Dishonored is underwhelming. So I’ve been following the advice of one of my coworkers at DISH and I’ve sworn off buying any games until I’ve rented them first, which has of course, saved me from buying a number of games, and saved me a good deal of money. Dishonored is already in my Blockbuster @Home queue so I’ll get to play it soon; it won’t be on the 9th, but that’s okay, I’m still pretty busy with Borderlands 2 anyway. I’m truly hoping though, that Dishonored will live up to the considerable hype and after renting it, I’ll still want to buy it for additionally play-throughs.

  2. I can definitely recommend Dishonored, but the main plot is underwhelming. I think it’s a function of the nature of the game — the characters exist to provide you with assassination targets, and really, there’s never been an especially deep revenge story. Dishonored does well with what it has, though, for sure. In the early going, you meet all the characters on your side and they tend to just talk at you about exposition. Later, when you’ve established yourself as one of them, they become deeper characters. But you still have to divine those character traits through peripheral things, like journal entries and audio logs. As you do that, you start to see who they are when they’re not putting on the mask they use to talk to you, their righteous hitman, and it becomes apparent that they may even be afraid of you. That doesn’t stop them from putting you into some awkward situations, however, with zero warning. I’d like to talk about it deeper but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you; suffice to say, there is a lot of good writing and good story in the game, it’s just sometimes hampered by delivery and the requirements of the video game part of Dishonored.

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