I love love loved this game and I have so many thoughts about it. SO MANY. And now you have to listen to me ramble.
I picked it up because of the trailer at last year’s E3. Those like me who follow these types of things will probably be aware that E3 2015 featured an unheard-of amount of female protagonists in the trailers, and Dishonored 2 was one of them. I’d heard great things about this first game and the new trailer looked badass, so it went onto my list. Also you should watch the trailer because I am now SO EXCITED for this game.
Where to start? Well, the biggest flaw first: it was definitely a sausage-fest. It was 2012, so this is a bit more surprising than it would be in like 2009, but if that trailer is any indication they’ll all aboard the lady train (wow that sounded creepy). (The team has also made a point in interviews that inclusivity was on their minds for the sequel, which is cool.) That said, Emily is a great character, I appreciate that the one ‘good’ politician was the female one (though admittedly, she was assassinated to kick off the plot) and there are an even amount of male and female townies and other NPCs, it’s just that the major players are all dudes. There’s a few things in the flavor texts that make me think this was a “fictional-historical accuracy” thing.
Let’s talk about whales.
When I was a kid (and still now) I was obsessed with marine biology. I loved whales (and still do). Nonetheless, I have this recurring nightmare about whales. I’m floating in the middle of Noyac Bay, and the water is dark and rough and much deeper than it’s supposed to be, and whales keep poking their heads about the water. Humpbacks, blue whales, etc. They don’t do anything or come near me, but they’re very much there, and in their element in this treacherous water in a way I’m not, and they’re gigantic relative to me, though not bigger than they are in real life. The entire dream is just me floating there being terrified of the whales. I wake up anxious and stressed.
In stories, whales have come to represent the unattainable, but there’s a lot of things that are unattainable — whales also signify the unknown, the dangerous, and the primal. A whale is something you can’t understand, and if you reach for it, you tumble into the ocean and drown, monkey that you are. The ocean is fucking terrifying. It’s massive on a scale that’s hard to comprehend, populated by some of the largest and most dangerous creatures on the planet, and we know absolutely nothing about it. Yet we’re attracted to it, whether it’s for sustenance or science or mere curiosity. I think whales represent all of this. And while it may just be me and Herman Melville who feel this way, I think the dev’s choice of a whale motif as a symbol for the plagued city suggests that it’s a more human association.
The subtle, constant reiteration a) that the whales in question are mutated, morphed animals, twisted versions of the whales we know; b) that no one understands why whale oil and bones work and no one has the resources to dedicate to why; and c) of the Heart’s insistence that the butchering of the whales for resources signifies the End of an era… these all come together to take this symbol of the unknown and its mysteries and hang it over the city constantly. The scattered, enchanted whale bones and the eerie, luminescent whale oil are atmospheric on their own, but they carry with them this cultural symbolism of the Whale that makes them immensely more effective at communicating tone. A dying society that’s butchering mutated whales and using their bodies to fuel machines and bones to fuel religion it so much more heavy than if it had been some made-up animal, or even like elephants or something. They shouldn’t have gone after the whales, white or otherwise. The people of this society have peered into the abyss — the oceanic nothing — and are falling into it with every step they take.
And indeed, the aristocrats dance while the world burns and people are consumed by flies.
Which brings us into another one of the game’s main themes — the contempt of the rich for the poor. I really enjoyed the things the Heart had to say at the Boyle party about the aristocrats. I enjoyed the Heart in general, but we’ll get to that in a second. The discussion of the belief the rich have that their position is somehow cosmically earned, that they not just want but need to believe the poor deserve their suffering, and how they throw these parties even as the world falls apart to justify that belief was really excellent. I think the Heart’s dialogue did a good job of pinning down this specific iteration of the human need to believe that somehow, we are okay, even when everyone else is not. We won’t get sick, we won’t lose our homes, we won’t go to hell — because we’re rich, we’re religious, we’re right not wrong, etc. And of course, there’s the final reveal, which hammers in how this belief destroys in its falseness.
I should probably tell you about the plot. Your are Corvo, the official bodyguard to the Empress, and are framed for her assassination, at which point you’re broken out of jail by a resistance to the assassins and tasked with placing the Empress’ daughter, Emily, back on the throne. A godlike creature called the Outsider (who’s narrating the sequel trailer, actually) gives you supernatural abilities and a beating Heart that directs you to his artifacts as well as allows you to hear ‘secrets’ about people you point the Heart toward.
Oh, and it’s also a game. Boyfriend, after watching for a bit, said, “So this is basically Steampunk Assassin’s Creed?” And yes, that’s literally the best way to describe it. It puts more emphasis on the choice between violence and pacifism than AC — you can decide to Ezio through the game destroying everything in your path, or take a more stealth approach — but it’s essentially AC set in steampunkland. It takes my favorite parts of AC and expands them, though. I mean, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was in AC for the wall-scaling and jump missions (well, and the ancient aliens), and Dishonored is 99% wall-scaling so I was happy as a clam. Though, like I said, you also have the choice to murder your way through with wild abandon and never scale a damn thing. But the dev’s comments about the feedback they got makes me think most people, like me, were scaling the shit out of walls.
One neat thing I read was that during playtesting, QAers found tons of exploits using Corvo’s powers the devs didn’t intend, and the devs loved it, expanding them all wildly and making every level absolutely huge. The game encourages you to break it, which I loved. The first major map area is prefaced by a screen encouraging you to use every resource available to find a path, and that there were multiple ways to complete each mission. This was great, and there’s lots of replay value.
Spoilers from here on out~~
I wish Corvo was less of a self-insert. I generally don’t mind the wRPG totally-open-character thing, but I really wanted to know him better. His rise and fall is fascinating to me — it’s the exact kind of character arc I love, someone who has a dark past but isn’t a bad person and is tirelessly dedicated to those he loves. And so much happens to him! In a flash, his whole life falls apart, not just in the sense that you lose your position and become a wanted criminal, but also because of the implication that Corvo is Emily’s father and thus Jessamine’s lover. And then on top of everything else the Outsider basically strips him of his humanity, and he becomes some kind of demonic entity tasked with restoring order. I WANT TO KNOW HOW HE FEELS ABOUT ALL THESE THINGS. This setting is so goddamn ripe for fanfic. I want him to have a complete breakdown over his whole life falling to pieces and I want to see it all because I am a cruel, cruel audience. I needed things to get all Archer up in here, and I didn’t like that I was forced to keep a distance from him as a person in the interest of power fantasy.
The snippets we do get of Corvo-as-Corvo (as opposed to Corvo-as-PC) are nice. I love that he signs his name in the guestbook at the Boyle party — sarcastic mother. I love how affectionate he is with Emily, no matter how bad things get. I love that he never acts on the information he gets from the Heart, and he doesn’t seem to judge people. I just really wish there was more of C-a-C.
Speaking of Corvo and Emily, I liked the subtle way their relationship came out. I would guess that her parentage was one of those known secrets, and she seems to both understand that (she calls him by his first name) but also know who he really is, as seen via the drawing she does of him titled “DADDY.” Emily is a great character overall. I read that the devs came out of the game super fascinated by her and wanted to tell more of her story, and I don’t blame them. She’s strong, but weak in all the ways a child would be. I like that she puts on a brave front and cries at night when she thinks Callista is asleep. I like that she spends time with her dad training in martial arts and swordfighting but still knows on some level she has to learn the princessy things that let you rule, like history and manners. She really is the natural choice for protag of the sequel, and as much as I love Corvo, I’m glad the devs didn’t shy away from that.
Then there’s the Heart. I loved the Heart both for what is revealed about Corvo as well as its more meta function. First of all, using the “secrets” function to reveal tidbits about the other characters and their pasts was great. I sometimes would create saves and then run around getting myself killed trying to Heart major NPCs so I could be sure I’d heard everything before continuing. I need ALL OF THE FLAVOR TEXT. But as I said above, I also found it kind of interesting that Corvo never seemed to act on the information he got. At first this irritated me, but I actually think it ended up working. Corvo always seemed a bit detached from his world — in fact, you hear guards and former peers talk about how weird and aloof he is (which, ugh, I would totally love a prequel story about him and Jess hooking up, that would be an awesome relationship to explore — there’s so much character stuff here I want to know more about!). So it makes sense that he’d want to stay out of people’s lives. Also it’s understandable that he wouldn’t know how to explain how he knows these things. One of the missed character opportunities I wanted with the whole Outsider plot was an exploration of how it affects him to essentially be pulled into this cult that’s looked down on by high society. Everyone thinks of the Outsider religion as some kind of satan-worship and that note you find from Martin about how even though they’re spies they should still be doing church business like sussing out Outsider worship — imagine how Corvo must have felt seeing that! Of course he didn’t want to tell anyone, he’d be even more of an outcast. He’s already a foreigner, an orphan, a social climber, the feared hired muscle of royalty, and the queen’s mistress (is there a male form of this word? hmm), it’s not like he needs to add anything to his list of “reasons people are freaked out by me.”
But then there’s the meta side of it, which is that Corvo serves as kind of a player expy with the Heart. He listens in, impassionately, to people’s lives just because he’s curious and wants to hear. He never acts on the info but proceeds down the path he was going to anyway. It’s understandable that the Outsider gives it to him and it provides useful information, like tipping you off as to the Loyalists’ betrayal, but at the same time the only real path available to him is also the only one available to us. His behavior is understandable, but at the same time it serves the needs of the players. This is good writing.
Seriously spoilers ~~~ go play now and then read this paragraph ~~
One of the few story criticisms I have is that I felt the ending was a little abrupt. I did actually like the lack of a final boss battle, but I thought that — at least on the Good/True End path — there needing to be something more. I think a kind of social battle where you can convince him to give up or he attacks you would have been really cool. Something kind of like Exeunt Omens. I actually really loved that by the time you get to him he’s completely snapped and in his paranoia has killed everyone else. But that doesn’t change that it is something of an emotional letdown. I also think a wrapup scene where he and Emily meet their remaining allies in person would have helped ease into the epilogue bit. Even like 30 seconds of it.
~~~~ end spoilers ~~~
So — yes. I absolutely adored this game and I’m extra-excited for E3 next week now because I think we’ll probs get some gameplay videos and a release-date confirmation for the sequel, among other things. Really, go watch the sequel trailer! I think the last game I played I enjoyed this much, intellectually, was probably Radiant Historia, which the blog is telling me was in October of 2014. Geez, I am picky. Regardless: check it out!