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about Dishonored 1 & 2

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Add & Abstract

Killing is Bad. Not killing is Good. Dishonored is about player choice, but there are two types of player choice in Dishonored:

The chaos system remembers your GOOD and BAD actions. When a certain threshold is crossed, the world switches over into a state of low or high Chaos. A single action might push you over the edge in either direction, but it will never be enough to sway the tide on its own. It is only the sum of your moment to moment gameplay decisions that changes the world and so the first type of player choice in Dishonored is accumulative.

The other type of player choice happens in menus where you can decide which of your powers you want to upgrade. Every single one of these more removed choices has a huge and immediate impact on the game, radically changing how you relate to the obstacles in the world, but they do not change the world itself. And so the second type of player choice in dishonored is abstract.

And it is the difference between abstract and accumulative player choice, that makes up the difference between Dishonored 1 and 2.

Compare Critically

I am not here to determine which of the two games is more or less “flawed”. I just want to critically compare them to better understand how they work and to, maybe, find out what they are and I will be spoiling everything in the process.

Dominant Decision

Exchanging cutscenes, voicelines and cinematics in response to player choice is expensive, but making mutually exclusive gameplay-content is extremely expensive. And so If we want to understand which type of player choice each dishonored game cares about the most, then we just have to look for the decision that has the biggest impact on gameplay.

In Dishonored 1 your moment to moment actions not only add up to GOOD or BAD ending slides, they also add up to a completely different late-game experience. The last three missions change significantly based on your chaos level and so the most important type of player choice in the frist game is accumulative. The abstract choices about powers and bonecharms will change how easy it is to be GOOD or BAD, but the most important decision, the actual player choice is made incrementally, through the moment to moment gameplay.

Dishonored 2 also uses this chaos system, but it doesn’t rely on it as much. The last level will always be exactly the same, no matter wether you have been Good or Bad . Instead, the most important choice of Dishonored 2 is abstract and it happens right in the beginning: Do you want to play as Emily or as Corvo? This single decision immediately locks you out of half the powers in the game and then, shortly afterwards, you get to decide if you even want any powers at all, creating a large amount of unique combinations of Character-powers-chaos rating for you to abstractedly player choose from.

In dishonored 1 you change the world by making a single choice over and over again. In dishonored 2 you change yourself at the click of a button, while the world remains the same.

The cost of choice

Dishonored 1, with its focus on the difference between GOOD and BAD, makes you pay a high price to be GOOD. If you want to not-kill then you have to ignore more than half of the tools that you are given. You can not shoot your pistol, you can not use crowd control, you can not drop-down-assasinate. Instead, you have to sneak, you have to slowly choke people from the shadows and you have to run away.

This is less immediate, less direct, less FUN than simply using your full arsenal, but the gratification is merely delayed. The satisfaction of stealth is just a different, slower paced, less accessible type of fun. Instead of removing every enemy in your path, you have removed yourself from their paths.

If you can not get past a stealth section, pulling out your grenades is a valid option. If the amount of enemies is too hight to face directly, you can hide and reduce them from the shadows. The decision between GOOD and BAD is not as frictionless as when you make it in a dialogue window, because it is the accumulative result of how you handle the challenges of moment to moment gameplay. Being BAD is easy, immediate fun, while being GOOD is a hard won satisfaction.

Dishonored 2, with its focus on abstract player choice, breaks this barrier between GOOD and BAD. You now have access to non-lethal melee options, more non-lethal tools and even non-lethal dropdown assasinations, meaning that you can get the immediate FUN of a videogame fight without sacrificing your status as a GOOD person.

This removal of friction makes dishonored 2 more approachable. You no longer have to restrict yourself to be GOOD and are free to experiment. Throwing and kicking enemies around is harder than just outright killing them, but it is explicitly fun, its explicitly immediate.

The satisfaction of Sneaking remains, but it now stands alone, without an ethically coded counterpart. The choice between STEALTH and ASSAULT has a much bigger Impact on the moment to moment gameplay than the choice between GOOD and BAD. In the case of dropdown takedowns, there is zero mechanical difference between lethal and nonlethal, there is no friction between the two options you have, because Dishonored 2 is committed to giving you as many player choices as possible, even if that means that you make them with a single button press.

The function of friction & the exctasy of emergence

In Dishonored 1 you have to make one choice over and over again, but it will always cost you, not just in the moment to moment gameplay, but also in the long term.

In it’s high chaos version, the last levels of the game will not only be darker in tone, but also harder in gameplay. There are more weepers, more guards, more betrayals, more drama. The high chaos ending follows a traditional power curve and ends with an exciting setpiece. But the ending slides, environmental storytelling and general vibe tell you that you have reached the BAD ending. Dishonored 1 is actively judging you for using the tools that you were given.

Being GOOD, on the other hand, will lead to a better world and a strange, unusual payoff. The later levels become decidedly easier, as your enemies become complacent or betray each other. Instead of a big cinematic sequence you get an anticlimax. Drama and death is reserved for the BAD players. Just like with stealth, getting the good ending of Dishonored 1 is less FUN, but it is extremely satisfying.

You can not have your cake and eat it to. You have to choose between immediate enjoyment and delayed gratification. You have to make an actual decision.

But It is this friction that makes it easy to get stuck in one specific playstyle forever. The potentially lethal systems and abilities of Dishonored 1 can be used in extremely interesting ways, but the games harsh judgement of BAD players actively discourages experimentation. Killing is BAD and so you are tempted to reload again and again, constantly wiping the slate clean of any potentially interesting emergent situations. In the same way, for some people, stealth is just too boring. They want to have fun and so they have to kill and so they can never be GOOD.

And it is exactly this calcification of playstyles that Dishonored 2 is attacking with its lower cost of choice.

By frontloading it’s most important decisions, Dishonored 2 is explicitly inviting you to replay in a different style not only once, but multiple times with different starting parameters. You have a lot more options to choose from in the moment to moment gameplay and you get judged less for enjoying yourself. The last mission will always be the same, no matter if you have been GOOD or BAD and so you can make your choices without loosing out on any content.

Once you embrace the chanche to accidentally kill someone, once you stop to reload, once you just let the systems run their course they will produce truly unique, strange and interesting situations. This is also true for the first game, but here, in the sequel, the sheer amount of possible options, as well as the increased level size and reduced judgement for killing, leads to a incredibly rich and free sandbox experience that managed to break me out of my routine playstyle and enabled me to enjoy the experimentation.

Dramatic Dunwall

Because while Dishonored 1 runs on friction, Dishonored 2 runs on emergence And where Dishonored 2 is open and free, Dishonored 1 is linear and claustrophobic. It is full of narrow streets and cramped staircases, full of dead ends and small alleys and this compact, restrictive enviornment lends itself to the deliberate pacing of a cinematic experience, presenting climbeable vistas with precise framing and a sense for drama.

Dunwall is a city of light and dark, of rich and poor, of plague and parties, it is a city of GOOD and BAD, a place as full of contrasts as one would expect from all the theatre spotlights that have been left lying around.

Some of the characters that step onto this stage are equally dramatic. Daud is the murderer, the BAD assasin who killed the empress. You play Corvo, the bodyguard, the protector of life, who now gets to decide if he wants to become like Daud or not. But when you finally meet the assasin, he himself has made the choice to change and asks for his life, while you, having changed yourself, might be unwilling to fulfill his request.

But where Daud can be forgiven, Dishonored 1 is often much less successful in engaging with it’s reductive moral system. To be GOOD you have to sneak and to not-kill, but most of the non-lethal takedowns are extremely cruel. These ironic reversal happen off-screen, in our imaginations, where they become much more brutal than any good clean videogame death could ever hope to be. Lady Boyle’s “crime” is of a sexual nature and so her punishement is as well, but as long as you dont KILL the game thinks you are GOOD, even if you really aren’t. In the same way, Pietro is not punished for peeking on Callista, he is only ridiculed for getting caught, for being bad at stealth, because Dishonored 1 unquestioningly believes in it’s own ludonarrative setup.

In these cases this unreflected dedication spills over into crude sexism, but for the most part it just creates a dense, responsive and dramatic gameplay experience. You have been betrayed and now you need to rescue Emily and take revenge. After you get betrayed again, you rescue Emily and take revenge again, but this time you climb from the lowest, plague ridden sewer to the highest hideout of the powerful in a single, breathless day.

It is this compact coherence, this dramatic arc, that, together with the long term reactivity, makes dishonored 1 such an immensely replayable game.

Coded clockwork

Dishonored 2 wants to be even more replayable. Not only does it frontload it’s most impactful decisions, it also heavily increases the amount of options you have by simply growing in size. The streets of Karnaka are broad, the staircases are wide, the plazas are huge and the buildings are tall. The levels are larger, more spacious and more interconnected, with less dead ends and more possible routes, with almost infinite ways to reach your goal.

The Jindosh lock is a lot like Dishonored 2. It is a randomised puzzle, abstractedly assembled out of a lot of predefined options. It’s solution always looks different and there are many, many different ways to get to that solution, but once you have opened the lock it will always lead to the same place.

There are no twists or turns in the story, you just get closer and closer to Delilah until you detrone her. In a general move away from the ironic cruelty of the first game, most non-lethal takedowns are now restorative, simply resetting the character to how they where before they became BAD. Instead of following a dramatic arc, the levels are compartmentalised and each have their own distinct feature, their unique selling poin. As always, it are the houses of Stilton and Jindosh that stand out.

The Crack in the Slab allows you to experience the long term reactivity of the chaos system on fast forward. If you kill Stilton then the world becomes worse and Megan looses her arm, but if you are GOOD, then the world will become better in the blink of an eye, significantly speeding up the delayed response of the first games larger arc. Instead of an accumulative gameplay decision, the status of the benevolent boss is the only factor in the long term outcome, because Dishonored 2 wants you to have as many choices as possible NOW, in the moment to moment gameplay.

The game is so focused on it’s immediate reactivity that in the Jindosh mansion it accidentally becomes explicit about it’s existance as a videogame. You pull a lever and the walls move, configuring themselves into a new position in reaction to your input. This is just how videogames look through the eyes of a level designer. You enter a room and the cutscene begins. You open a door and the enemies spawn, you pull a lever and the world changes. The Jindosh mansion just makes this diegetic and explicit.

The clockwork soldiers are literal walking, talking statemachines, their debugging voicelines are almost parodies of how NPCs actually work in games. The human guards probably use the same underlying AI code, but they are alive, Killing them has to be BAD, while the robots have never lived and are free game.

Where the special enemies of Dishonored 1 keep you from using your powers and counter your height advantage, the clockwork soldiers do not restrict you. Instead they have more options themselves. They can jump and walk and run and shoot and fight and overheat and they can be hacked and confused and beheaded and to explain all of their game states, they have to be machines, they have to be explicitly artificial, they have to reveal that they are running on coded clockwork.

Im and Sim

Dishonored 1 is a spiritual successor of the older immersive sims. These games were deliberate attempts to get away from gun-only-gameplay and in doing so they entered strange, uncharted territory where actions took ages, where inventories were based on drag and drop and where you had a specific key-item you need to select if you wanted to open a door.

This kind of interface friction has been scrubbed from Dishonroed 1 with its all powerful contextual E button, but the spirit remains. Instead or asking you to immerse yourself into experimental control schemes, dishonored 1 asks you to immerse yourself into the logic of the chaos system.

If you are BAD, you will get the exciting ending, if you are GOOD you will get an anti-climax. From the perspective of a modern videogame this is strange and weird, but it is exactly this friction, this unwillingness to always please every player that defines Dishonored 1.

Dishonored 2 removes that friction and replaces it with so many player choices. Making the hard decision between GOOD and BAD is now merely one of many tasty options at the choice buffet. This truly modern game is not interested in making you believe in its fantasies, it wants you to enjoy its gameplay, it wants you to replay the scenario for days, with the variables replaced, and to facilitate that, it needs to be as smooth as possible.

Arkanes other Immersive Sims are also all moving into this less judgemental and more emergent direction. They are becoming less linear and more explicit about their status as simulations, turning into a collection of interactive systems that can all talk to each other but that dont have a lot to say, allowing you to enjoy them for what they are, instead of confronting you with what they want to represent.

While my personal preference has probably been shining through, I did not write this text to determine which Dishonored is “genius” and which is “garbage”. I just wanted to compare the two games, to better understand how they work and to find out what they are. Now i can finally say that:

Thank you for watching reading.

Thanks to Felix, Fynn, Mer, Klipo and the people from the Arkane Discord for help with the script and Clovelt for invaluable audio magic!

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