I’m sure we will achieve photo-realism one day, but it’s a race I’m not very interested in. (The most interesting bit is whether we can figure out a way around the insane amount of manual detail work required.) It’s rare to be impressed by graphics anymore – even great graphics come as expected these days. When you start to consider games’ relationship to film, things become worrisome. Our biggest budgets are thrown into an effort to emulate film as best as we can, when we are still far from photo-real. Following this curve, returns are diminishing every year as we get closer to photo-real and still merely attempt to do what film has been doing since the advent of color film. Ever since we could capture moving pictures of what’s in front of the camera, movie creators have been thinking about how to stand out from everybody else capturing what’s in front of a camera. For a while it was enough to think of new things to put in front of the camera, and new faces, and scandals and spectacle. But soon they started to think if they could make the visuals more interesting. And while they got a little side-tracked with the advent of high definition and the return of 3D, movies are still very much about establishing their own visual language, quite separate from the reality that’s there as a benefit of the medium. (Big budget movies have the same issue as big budget games, though – playing it too safe to create anything worth any consideration beyond the moment. Orange and teal, set-formula trailers and posters and a very limited cast of accepted faces – none of it is a benefit.)
Dishonored is a relatively big budget first-person game that takes a lot of risks, but the biggest chance it takes is arguably its art. Stepping into it, you’re not looking at an emulation of a photograph. You’ve stepped into a piece of concept art, exactly the expensive, high-end stuff you see covering the printed art books of big budget games. Except for once, that glorious vision built on the merits and goals of visuals alone has not been diluted by a later, conflicting desire to emulate life. Looking at a wall in Dishonored, you’re not looking at a photograph of a wall, palette-shifted to the game’s color tone, you’re looking at a painting of a wall. The same goes with faces and water and skies and wherever you care to look. Every image you frame in-game feels like it was built as a fixed camera point showcasing a beautiful, standout location in the game – except they’re all that good. The level of art direction in this game is so phenomenal, it makes you stop in awe in every corner.
Even though the team has surely known they’ve created something that stands out and is beautiful and effective on every level, they must have had some uncertainty about how it’s going to be received. Because it sure doesn’t look like Call Of Duty or any movie.
The art is not the only risk here. The mental barrier to entry is quite high as the game’s marketing doesn’t really explain what’s going on. There’s an intimidating masked man with a knife, and the title. Some sort of alternative to Assassin’s Creed, then? And indeed it is. Dishonored is a game about being a man capable of assassination, but given the freedom to go about it however he chooses to, including the very real option of not actually killing anyone. Where with most games this comes down to a binary choice, Dishonored builds that core conflict into all of its systems. You’re not encouraged to go either way. Killing tends to be somewhat easier and not killing isn’t really rewarded in any concrete way. There exists a lot of gray between the extremes of not killing anyone and being a murderous bastard, feared by all. Your supposedly more merciful choices carry their own consequences – an early example left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been the more humane, kinder option to just kill them, considering the fate awaiting the men I spared. I was left with clean hands, but not a clean conscience. In terms of storytelling via the player’s own actions, this is unparalleled stuff.
Not that the actual gameplay falls short in any way. You’re given a lot of tools and avenues to approach and explore. Where I was left frustrated by the neatly boxed systems of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, here they’re all bouncing happily off each other, creating a believable illusion of a living world. It feels like your choices matter. You own your solution to any situation in the game – it’s not picking one of three choices the game designers have offered you.
It also feels fresh. What you’re doing is a high-speed version of Thief, essentially, skulking in shadows and waiting for your moment to strike unseen, except you’re now given the tools to move very quickly from shadow to shadow and scale tall walls. Nobody has done that Thief experience in a long time and it feels as new as it once did. The new Thief has a lot to match if it hopes to one-up Dishonored in its own game.
A game designer colleague described Dishonored to me as a great game, an honest game. I agree in the sense that Dishonored knows it’s a game, not a story. You’re introduced to all of your tools very quickly and given enough motivation to go on your business. The game’s opening scene, up until the prison escape, is easily my favorite game opening ever. Arkane takes a bit of a gamble, risking losing you in terms of what’s commonly accepted from big budget games, but it all works out like any modern TV drama does: the audience left wondering, wanting to know more is a very powerful tool.
There is actually quite a lot of exposition, but none of it feels forced. I’m genuinely curious to learn more. The secret is that while there’s exposition, you doubt everyone’s word and always get the sense you’re not being told the whole story. Nobody tells you how you should feel. Dishonored knows to leave more out than what it lays out. All of it serves to create a world much bigger than what’s on the screen. If you tell us everything, you can be sure that most of us won’t care. It can never be as interesting as what we imagine.
This would’ve been my game of the year if I had played it last year. The confidence with which Arkane makes a whole out of gameplay, storytelling and new, exciting visuals is intimidating. This feels like the next leap forward from the original Bioshock, a similar game in many ways. I am very excited to see what Arkane does next, hoping dearly it isn’t a sequel.