It’s not hard to talk about some of 2016’s biggest video games, even ones that are primarily shooting galleries, in terms that sound mature and universal. Watch Dogs 2 is a satire on Silicon Valley. Mafia 3 is an examination of racism. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is about transhumanism and conspiracy politics.
It’s difficult for me to describe Dishonored or its sequel, which was released a couple of weeks ago, this way. Dishonored 2 isn’t allegorical or self-critiquing. It’s not a knowing pastiche of a well-loved genre, or a subtle character study. It’s a game about a young empress or her grizzled father getting revenge on an immortal witch in order to restore a fantasy steampunk monarchy, using supernatural powers granted by an emo folk deity. And yet the game has a very specific, rare kind of maturity: a commitment to pitch-perfect, solidly crafted melodrama.
Yes, you get magic powers from an emo folk deity
Dishonored 2 is a classic example of the “immersive sim” — a genre where detailed worldbuilding and consistent mechanics give players many paths to every goal. In this case, the mechanics include swordfighting, guns and crossbows, stealth, and an array of special abilities like stopping time and shapeshifting. It’s set in a quasi-Victorian world called the Empire of the Isles, ruled by the young empress Emily Kaldwin with the help of her father and bodyguard Corvo Attano, protagonist of the first Dishonored.
Dishonored 2 takes place 15 years after the original game, whose conflicts were wrapped up neatly enough that remembering them isn’t really necessary. Emily is deposed in the first few minutes by a vengeful, dramatically glam witch named Delilah Copperspoon, apparently a long-lost relative. Depending on the player’s choice, either Emily or Corvo will escape the palace, while the other is turned to stone. Whoever you pick must reach the island of Serkonos, where Delilah’s co-conspirators can be found and systematically eliminated — either killed or somehow rendered harmless.
Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 zeroes in on what makes its genre fun: unfettered mobility, an array of special equipment, and endless opportunities for snooping around lovingly and meticulously designed levels. Emily and Corvo have a different set of powers, but their core abilities are both forms of teleportation, which means that almost any part of the world — including rooftops, elevator shafts, and light fixtures — is reachable. As in most sequels, the world is bigger in Dishonored 2, but it’s still not an open-world game; every section is discrete, polished, and only visited once.
‘Dishonored’ is full of spaces that are complex without feeling overtly like game puzzles
Dishonored developer Arkane is masterful at designing spaces that are complex without feeling overtly engineered, and at threading together satisfying gameplay moments with little bits of narrative. It’s often clear when something like an awning or open window has been placed for your convenience, but the architecture has an internal logic that makes it feel like a world, not just a game level. Part of progressing is just figuring out how each piece connects, so you can flit around the hostile environment undetected.
The game has its frustrating moments. Among other things, enemies sometimes possess that annoying AI combination of preternatural perception and strange obliviousness — one moment they’ll spot you from across an alley at some super-oblique angle and raise the alarm, the next they’ve gotten stuck on a stray piece of wood. The PC version of the game is plagued by technical issues for some people, although I’ve done fine with it. But none of Dishonored 2’s problems diminish how clever the game makes you feel when you’ve found the perfect way around some obstacle.
The game’s solid base creates room to throw in a couple of gorgeous, ambitious design experiments. The first is a clockwork mansion where rooms move at the pull of levers, guarded by birdlike mechanical soldiers. Depending on how you play, it can be painfully difficult, but it’s the apex of Dishonored level design — a piece of interlocking architecture just disorienting enough that mastering it feels meaningful. The second is a rotting estate where time is permeable, and your character can shift between past and present at will, with some decisions permanently changing the level. It’s intricate but totally intuitive, a brilliant variation on the game’s central design.
‘Dishonored’ takes itself seriously, but as a piece of melodrama
The glue that holds everything together, though, is Dishonored 2’s fiction. Faced with telling a story in a world where half the characters are random cannon fodder, action games often retreat into jokey absurdism or cynical meta-commentaries, or attempt serious stories that are undercut by their mechanics. But Dishonored 2 has a kind of cool, professional earnestness to it. It’s deliberately larger-than-life in a way that accommodates either sneaking nonlethally through levels or killing everyone you meet, using overheard conversations, pilfered notes, and the odd impassioned monologue to deepen the overall texture. Its political commentary is tightly self-contained, mapping out a broad Dickensian struggle over social class and religion within the Empire. The message isn’t capital-R Relevant, but it creates meaningful stakes within the world.
As with the first Dishonored, it’s irksome to see Dishonored 2’s voice acting undercut this competence. It features good actors (including Rosario Dawson and Vincent D’Onofrio) giving surprisingly lifeless performances, and the overall voice cast that seems strangely uncomfortable with dialogue. Characters like Corvo, played by veteran voice actor Stephen Russell, can mutter exposition to themselves perfectly well, but sound stilted and clumsy when they’re put into a conversation.
Even so, the game works because it doesn’t ask you to personally fall in love with characters, or pretend to literally grapple over realistic moral decisions, unless you want to. It lays out a series of storytelling options and asks which one you find most interesting. If you want to experience the darkest timeline, or play with guns and knives and swarms of devouring rats, you can go for the “high chaos” side of its binary moral system. If you want happy endings and the feeling of finessing your way through situations, look for “low chaos” options that don’t involve killing. In Dishonored 2, storytelling is as much of a system as any of your powers or weapons, and it’s expressed as much with architecture as with words.
Perhaps above anything else, Dishonored feels like a series that respects its own work. It takes itself seriously without being dour, and earns players’ attention by creating a place that’s simply fun to wander around for hours on end. It proves that a certain kind of escapism can be smart, clever, and confident — often more so than games that grasp at issues they can’t properly work through, like the muddled Mankind Divided. Dishonored 2 doesn’t have anything to prove, and that’s exactly why it works.