The first time I played Deus Ex it changed my mind. It didn’t just change the way that I thought about video games and their design; it changed how I approached and explored solutions to difficult problems. It wasn’t as if critical thinking had eluded me until 2000 but rather it had eluded my approach to solving the simple situations that video games had thrown at me over the years. When given the option between violence and humanitarian stealth I’d always chosen brute force for the sheer intensity and moment-to-moment challenges that came with atmospheric cues and tried-and-true positioning to solve problems. Replaying that first level of Deus Ex over and over meant that I could speed run it, I could explore every section, I could sequence skip, I could learn AI patterns and predict responses. It was the first game I played that rewarded cunning and observation as well as power fantasy spree murdering.
Although I owned Dishonored on PS3 for years before buying it on PS4 I had been consciously avoiding it out of fear of disappointment. Arkane Studios has a lineage that should have convinced me to buy in and get messy right away but reviews of the game overly emphasized the difference between no kill playthroughs (‘low chaos’) and downplayed the combat options and the consequences for killing (‘high chaos’). Remember this was in the era of Journey and other such immersive games where video game journalism fawned over indie storytelling ventures egregiously. I absolutely regret taking stock in the words of others and becoming intimidated by Dishonored’s reputation because I missed out on the conversation concerning one of the best immersive simulation stealth/action games I’ve ever played.
The definitive edition’s centerpiece is of course the original game running at a very clean resolution and perfect frame-rate. The story of Corvo Attano, bodyguard turned assassin, is simple yet engrossing as the silent protagonist’s journey is relatively short and progresses using a mission-based linear structure. Much like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided after it, the game uses transit from a location to location to break up the gameplay into missions. Each mission has a set number of collectibles and optional tasks that affect the plot as it unfolds; the placement of the collectibles are genius as they’re often difficult to obtain without forcing the player to work around altercations, explore extensively, and solve minor platforming puzzles. Unlike modern Deus Ex iterations, where killing or being discovered was a binary decisions that often gated rewards, my ‘high chaos’ playthrough of the game never hindered my ability to explore sections of each intricately designed level.
I absolutely went on a killing spree the first time I played this game. I slashed and blinked and decapitated with reckless abandon. Yes, I felt bad about it by the time I reached my assassination targets. Each target has a non-lethal option and I surprised myself in that after choosing to be a murderer I chose the non-lethal option for every target besides the very satisfying ‘Kill Martin & Pendleton’ goal of the final mission. In sparing complex characters like Daud and horrible opportunists like Slackjaw I created my own strange narrative where the world was full of expendable victims but the power players, the elite, were worth moral consideration. I felt this, coupled with the ‘high chaos’ ending, created a more interesting narrative than the ‘low chaos’ plot changes which had me questioning the Outsider’s influence more than the main antagonists.
In many ways Dishonored is the careful tweaking of Thief‘s level design and a less binary feeling version of Deus Ex series’ moral decisions. Though you might feel compelled to play through the game twice to see the low (good) and high (bad) chaos effects on plot and character development, it isn’t such a requirement to enjoy the game. I preferred my high chaos playthrough because combat is incredibly fun and the powers you’re given are a sort of steroidal version of darker Vigor powers from Bioshock: Infinite with the amazing addition of the Blink power which adds the most incredible options for both stealth traversal and combat.
Because I spared Daud in the story transitioning into the amazing ‘Knife of Dunwall‘ and ‘The Brigmore Witches‘ DLC actually made a ton of sense as I took control of him. Seeking redemption for killing and Empress Kaldwin was a goal I could easily get behind. Daud has a very different set of powers than Corvo and it was initially very difficult to adjust to his abilities and play style after so many hours as Corvo. I loved having a sort of alternate lens to the story of Dishonored and while my high chaos actions lead to a different end for Daud, playing as him offered some of the best moments and challenges of an already amazing game. Having the full definitive edition with both DLC included absolutely makes buying this game as a collection worth it. I was very satisfied with the base game but again, some of the best parts of Dishonored happen from Daud’s perspective.
I am obsessed with this game even after playing through it twice and still feel like I’ll come back to it again, unlike Mankind Divided. I can only hope the Thief reboot, and Dishonored 2 live up to the grand expectations this game has given as I bump them up in my backlog. Here’s hoping Arkane Studios continues to create this style of game well into the future.