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Question Club: What’s the right way to play Dishonored 2?

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Answer Club: whichever way you want

Dishonored 2 contains shades of many other games, like Thief, Deus Ex, and BioShock. But the steampunk-y stealth role-playing series has a unique appeal. In its second installment, you take the role of either Empress Emily Kaldwin or her bodyguard and father Corvo Attano, fighting or sneaking your way through a revenge mission against a confederacy of nobles, scientists, and reality-warping witches.

Maybe it’s the bevy of supernatural powers that make my colleague Casey Newton and I so fond of Dishonored 2. Maybe it’s the endless number of ways to dispose of (or avoid) your enemies. Or maybe it’s just the mysterious pull of the Void. Whatever the answer, we took some time to ponder the biggest questions about how — and why — we played.

Pick two: Emily or Corvo, high or low chaos. Why?

Adi: Emily, low chaos, although I just finished a Corvo run, too. I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over the two-protagonist setup in Dishonored, because I’m ambivalent of it. On one hand, it feels like part of a general lack of confidence in female game protagonists. We’ve got lots of specifically male game protagonists and games that let you pick a gendered self-insert avatar, but unique female characters seem to end up shoved into DLC or put in compromises like Dishonored 2 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, where you’re given the option of more or less ignoring them. We get developer interviews that are all about how Emily’s the center of the game — which seems genuinely true — but we’re reassured that, if we’d prefer it, this can still be a story about yet another growly video game dude.

On the other hand, the basic design really clicks for me. I like the idea of having one character with the “classic” deck of Dishonored abilities and another with an experimental bent, and I find Corvo pretty endearing as grizzled game dads go. That said, I would love a new-game-plus option that let me mix and match powers independent of character, because picking between Bend Time and Domino is super tough.

Casey: Emily, medium chaos. “Medium chaos” is my euphemism for “bad stealth player.” I sneak around, try never to kill anyone, and am inevitably caught anyway, at which point I just block my enemy’s sword thrusts until I can choke them out. I love the idea of stealth but ultimately lack the patience for it.

I decided to play Emily on my first playthrough for the novelty, and I really enjoy her set of powers. Domino in particular opens up some incredible possibilities. On the flip side, I really do miss Corvo’s Bend Time ability — getting that one back is one of the main reasons I intend to play the game through again.

Do you feel pressured by the game, or even by game-loving friends, to play non-lethal and stealth?

Casey: Absolutely. The game flashes a dialogue box at you early on letting you know that the more people you kill, the more annoying bloodflies you’ll find in the world. And there’s a strong suggestion that, as in the original, mass murder will lead to a worse ending for your royal subjects. But the main way you feel the pressure is in the gameplay: nearly all of the magic powers are designed to help you avoid direct conflict. And direct conflict is the norm in AAA gaming, so Dishonored 2 feels as refreshing in that respect as its predecessor. (Although it does feel like enemies have gotten much better at spotting you this time around.)

Adi: Yeah, I want to say it feels unnatural how quickly people see you, but lots of them are literal witches, so maybe it works! As I wrote in my review, I like that Dishonored 2 doesn’t make your character’s decisions feel like literal ethical judgments of you, the player. But it’s very, very good at making you feel like killing is lazy, unless you’re doing some kind of time-stopping, grenade-throwing murder extravaganza. I’m not really into that, so the nagging has proven effective at getting me to explore using my powers in increasingly overcharged ways. “Yeah I could sneak along this wall to another building, but maybe they’d spot me! I’d better upgrade Blink so I can teleport halfway there, stop time, and warp over to the other side from mid-air.”

One of the things I remember strongly from Dishonored was that the nonlethal options seemed extremely morally ambiguous — like the “elimination” that involved handing a noblewoman over to her stalker. I didn’t get that feeling quite as much from Dishonored 2, where at least one non-lethal goal gives the mission a straight-up happy ending. But I still like the “only murder is bad” morality, because it feels like the kind of legalistic precept you’d totally find in The Outsider’s weird folk religion. Forget humanist ethics, you just have to keep away from the one thing that seems to mess with reality in a nasty way.

What is the threshold for you to reload a save? Being spotted? Killing an enemy? Or do you live a life without regrets — and reloads?

Casey: I play Dishonored 2 in a state of extreme anxiety about being spotted, and save my game roughly every 60 seconds when I’m navigating the trickier parts. I don’t always mind being spotted by an enemy or two, assuming I can choke them out without dying. But I will reload if being spotted disrupts my elaborate plans. This happened to me a lot in the conservatory, where dispatching the witches takes a lot of nimble skulking around. I kept getting detected, and so I did a lot of reloading.

Adi: I tried to power through my first run without too much reloading, and Emily has a surprising number of good non-lethal assault options. That meant a bunch of extended standoffs with these hapless guards who just wanted the creepy lady to get down off that ledge already, and who were presumably very sad when I turned into a shadow beast and scared them unconscious.

With Corvo, I tried to go full stealth, which meant a lot of quicksaves. I don’t feel too bad about it, because a lot of the reloads were trial-and-error with different power sets. I am extremely proud of the bone charm I got by stopping time, dropping behind a gravehound skull, and blinking up to a chandelier before it could materialize. And that’s really what Dishonored is all about to me: generating these unique little stories based on your powers.

What was the most satisfying way you eliminated a target?

Casey: It’s difficult to overstate how much fun you can have with Domino. Chaining three witches together and taking them out with a single sleep dart, for example, is a reliably good time. But my favorite elimination so far has been Kirin Jindosh: I threw a sticky grenade at a clockwork soldier, and the explosion knocked Jindosh unconscious. From there I was able to teleport him down to the lab and strap him into the electric chair.

Adi: The Clockwork Mansion is amazing if you never pull the first lever, spend the whole level sneaking through the side passages, and take Jindosh out with a sleep dart before he ever realizes you’re there. It is particularly amazing if you hobbled through your first playthrough listening to him berate you like some prosthetic-hand-pipe-smoking Andrew Ryan. I don’t think there are many Dishonored characters more delightfully hateable than Jindosh. Especially because I practically ended up rooting for Delilah, the Big Bad — she’s one of those villains whose master plan is objectively cooler than anything the heroes do. I know I’m not alone in wanting an expansion story where you play as her.

What do you want in a Dishonored 3, if you want one at all?

Adi: I’m going to punt this question a little and say that I’m hoping Arkane does as much with Dishonored 2 DLC as it did with the original Dishonored, where you got entire mini-games with new powers, starring side characters from the main story. There’s a natural expansion that could be done with a non-lethally-eliminated Delilah, or with any number of characters during the 15 years between the two games.

Then we can get a Dishonored 3 where a villain kills Emily’s lover and kidnaps her son and frames Emily, and everyone accepts this explanation immediately yet again. Maybe because they’re actually just pretty sick of colonial monarchy, but too polite to mention it.

Casey: Tempting though it may be to stage another palace intrigue, I think it’s time for Dishonored to spend more time exploring the mysterious Void. At one point in Dishonored 2 we’re told it’s not a place, though we experience it as one. And it’s overseen — maybe? — by the Outsider, the enigmatic figure who bestows you with powers and offers cryptic clues about the world.

I’d love to see Dishonored 3 build on the world it creates inside Aramis Stilton’s mansion, where the Void has begun “leaking” into the present tense and scrambled time and magic. Perhaps Delilah has managed to return and reinstate her autocratic rule — and you, playing as the Outsider, must unscramble the dark world she has created and return the Void to whence it came.