Arkane’s Dishonored has you assume the role of Corvo Attano, the royal protector to the Empress of Dunwall. When she is assassinated, and her daughter is kidnapped, the men that masterminded the operation usurp the empire and frame you for her murder. With help from a group of Empress loyalists, you manage to escape the murder sentence and are shortly granted access to a bunch of strange magical powers by the mysterious Outsider. Revenge is yours for the taking.
Now, video game revenge arcs might well be a tad stale at this point, but Dishonored puts a refreshing spin on the trope by emphasising the role of player agency. Being an Immersive Sim, your options for how you approach your targets are multitudinous. If you’re going in for maximum death and destruction, you have access to several different weapons and gadgets as well as a bunch of powers, such as the ability to possess enemies or swarm them with rats. Opt for the more stealthy route, and you can choke your enemies into unconsciousness, or avoid them altogether with the ability to slow and stop time as well as a short range teleport called ‘blink’. This arsenal of tools and powers are warmly accommodated by the game’s sprawling levels, which strongly adhere to the play your own way philosophy of the genre. Whether you’re sneaking about and blinking your way past highly trained sentries in the flooded district or swarming the opulent corridors in the office of the High Overseer with flesh eating rats, the path of progression is yours to choose.
Each of Dishonored’s nine levels is a richly simulated, vertically stacked slice of a world, often sprinkled with lore and dialogue, as well as fully fledged subplots, that ultimately leave you immersed in a steampunk dystopia come to life. Interactivity becomes a conversation, as tidbits of information that you may or may not choose to acknowledge greatly alter how your objective can be achieved. The situations that arise from this conversation between simple mechanics and rich simulation can lead to some highly emergent outcomes. If a solution seems plausible, the game will respond appropriately. Consequently, the way that you choose to interact with the world and proceed with your journey has severe ramifications, both on a level by level basis and across the game as a whole. Play lethally, and be prepared to have your powers put to the test as levels swarm with guards, and also watch as your nasty work causes the city to descend into utter chaos across the course of the game. Take the stealthy non-lethal option, however, and things play out very differently, as Dunwall is restored to order and your main targets are dealt a hand of hard-boiled poetic justice.
Simply put, Poetic justice refers to a strikingly appropriate reward or punishment for a fictional character, usually a ‘fitting retribution’ by which a villain is ruined by some process of his own making. My favourite example of this in Dishonored is seen in the third level, entitled ‘The House of Pleasure’. This mission sees you hunting down the Pendleton twins, two despicably corrupt members of the usurping government, who garner their great wealth from a mine in which the workers tend to vanish. They’re spending their time at a brothel, The Golden Cat, where they’ve locked away the heir to the empress (Emily) as they delight in salacious acts with the prostitutes.
While there is nothing to stop you from going in all guns blazing, another route soon presents itself. You are told that the swindling rogue leader of the Bottle Street Gang, Slackjaw, has heard of your intentions, and wishes to make a deal with you. Head to the distillery where the gang resides (and presumably gets its name), and you can hear him out. He promises to get rid of the Pendletons quietly, so long as you procure the code to an art collector’s safe from the collector himself, who is currently in the brothel delighting in some kinky shock treatment. Take Slackjaw’s deal, and the level becomes much longer, as you’re forced to infiltrate the brothel not once, but twice; first for the code, second to rescue Emily. It’s no easy feat, but in return for this extra work, and indeed the meticulous non-violent approach that it requires, you are ultimately rewarded in a very satisfying fashion. You discover that Slackjaw isn’t simply planning on killing the Pendleton brothers quitely, oh no. Instead he’s going to shave their heads, cut out their tongues, and send them to work in the same dangerous mines from which they have procured their wealth, to the same fate that they have forced upon so many others. The Pendletons are ruined by the process of their own making. It’s a simple but effective solution to the question of how to tell a revenge story in which nobody dies at the hands of the protagonist, and a principle of storytelling that Arkane strongly adheres to throughout the entirety of the game.
And that, to me, is why Dishonored stands out amongst its peers in the immersive sim genre. Similar games such as the recent Deus Ex titles tend to reward the player with extra experience points or an achievement of some kind for their hard work in sticking to a non-violent playstyle. With Dishonored Arkane manages to instead reward such a playstyle with satisfying narrative consequences and genuine moral comeuppances, culminating in an experience that is all the more satisfying for it.