For some reason my post on suffering got an unusual amount of attention and possibly some new readers.  Now I’ll send them all away again by talking about video games.

I’m in the middle of Dishonored 2. Alert readers may recall that I wasn’t sure I liked Dishonored at first, but the DLC won me over. Spoiler: the new game is great. It’s much like Mass Effect 2: adding to what works, quietly removing what doesn’t.

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Basic gameplay: Can you arrange bodies more artfully than the developers?

You play as either Corvo Attano (as in the first game), or as Empress Emily.  I’m playing as Emily, of course, because Corvo? You’re fired. You had one job, Corvo– you are Royal Protector to the Empress– and you’ve fucked it up twice. In the first few minutes of the game, Corvo completely fails to notice an empire-wide conspiracy, sees his charge captured, and gets turned to stone. I expect I’ll rescue him eventually, but really, thanks Dad.

The gameplay is basically that of the first game: you get a target and a small but richly detailed mini-world to find them in. You carefully sneak around, inching forward or teleporting to useful perches, and then curse and reload because one of the frigging guards saw you.

You can fight everyone if you want, which will give you a High Chaos walkthrough– which in turn makes the game world a little nastier. You’ll get more bloodfly infestations, and in general people are more murderous.  E.g. there’s a scene where an officer talks to a woman who’s been stealing for her; in low chaos they are lovers, and in high chaos the officer pushes her off a building. How exactly this is caused by Emily choosing to choke rather than kill guards in another district isn’t quite explained, but it does appeal to our moral intuitions. (It’s very Confucian: the morality of the ruler wafts out to become that of the populace.) However, here and in Deus Ex, I’ve had a lot more fun sneaking and finding all the lore and runes than in combat, so for me it’s Low Chaos all the way.

You get special powers from the Outsider. Intriguingly, you can reject them. Kudos to anyone who can play the game without the teleport; I don’t think I could. The first mission, before you get your powers, can be quite frustrating.

Now, I think the Arkham games are the perfect stealth games, and that’s largely because Batman has so many options. And if you get into a bad situation, you don’t reach for the reload button, you reach for a gargoyle.  Dishonored 2 doesn’t give you the same range of options, though it does move in that direction. E.g. if discovered, Emily can leave a magic clone behind and escape in shadow form. (However, this takes a lot of mana, and mana potions are kind of rare, so I just hit reload.)

More interesting is Domino, which lets you magically link 2 (and later 3 or 4) victims. What happens to one will happen to the others. Most prosaically, you can choke or sleep-dart one, taking them all out. In High Chaos you have more entertaining options– e.g. link that officer to the civilian she is pushing off a building, and she’ll die too.

(Emily’s teleport is technically different from Corvo’s, but you use it exactly the same way.)

The Empire is a pretty fucked-up place. You have the frequent assassinations and coups, the sadistic whale-draining, the rat plague, the trigger-happy guards, the lethal checkpoints,  the witches, and now you have enormous flies that make the rats look cute, a tyrannical duke, clockwork killing machines, and exploitation of the workers. And you’re playing the person who is supposedly in charge of all this. The game occasionally confronts the paradox– e.g. Emily comments to someone that while the workers suffer, the Duke is eating from fine silver, and she’s reminded that she ate from fine silver in Dunwall Tower too. And there’s a story that tells us that Emily’s mother wasn’t exactly a saint.

Maybe this is addressed later, but it does still seem that Emily gets off too easy. She’s 25, which is young, but monarchy is a rough game– if you don’t know what’s going on in your empire by that age, and aren’t pulling the strings, it’s you that’s the puppet.

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The game’s biggest showcase is surely the Clockwork Mansion, created by mad scientist Jindosh Kirin. It can be reconfigured, you see: clockwork turns your bathroom into a study, or your music room into an electric death room. It puts the punk into steampunk.  (Though the Empire is permeated by magic, Jindosh seems to be a tech only guy. His transitions have a pleasing mechanical slowness, as if they were controlled by a punch card somewhere.)

This is absolutely cool, and yet doesn’t quite succeed as level design, because it confuses the player. It’s not at all clear how you are supposed to attack this thing. I had to consult a walkthrough, which mentions among other things that any given room only has two configurations. You also have to defeat a clockwork soldier, and these have been designed so you can’t really defeat them with stealth, which is a little annoying. On the other hand they don’t count as kills, so the most effective way to deal with them is to blow off their heads.

I departed from the walkthrough, simply in that I wandered into a part of the mansion and there he was.  I immediately sleep-darted him.  That left two clockwork soldiers to deal with. I think I blew up the head of one, which made him kill the other.  I’m not sure, it was kind of chaotic. (If you’ve played that level, you’ll love this video on 80 ways to kill Jindosh.)

The next level offers you an interesting choice. To get into the next culprit’s mansion, you need to solve a hard riddle. The district is divided between Overseers (zealous anti-Outsider clerics) and a street gang, and each will help you if you deliver to them the body of the enemy’s leader. Or you can skip all that by solving the riddle! Which is what I did. It’s not that hard, though it probably helps to think like a programmer. Anyway, I could have gone right on to the mansion if I liked, but I scoured the district anyway, so I could get the runes and bonecharms.

I wonder if the studio brought in Anita Sarkeesian for a talk or something, because they’ve reduced the already low levels of sexualization. Emily is a very stylish assassin but not particularly sexy:

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Nice eyes,though

Plus there are no brothel levels, and the gangs and guards now include women.

I like the fact that the protagonists are voiced. The old Valve idea was that we can identify more with a silent protagonist (plus, it was cheaper), but I think that’s wrong: a silent character seems dissociated. If they have no reaction to what’s going on, why should we?

I said the sequel was better, but it’s mostly a bunch of smallish things:

  • The choice of protagonists, and giving them a voice.
  • Emily’s new powers.
  • There are more powers available for stealth. (In the first game it felt like most of them were intended for combat.)
  • The levels are not much larger, but they feel packed with things to find and people to choke.
  • Neat ideas like the Clockwork Mansion; apparently there’s some time travel stuff coming up.
  • Marketplaces in each level, so you are not restricted to five sleep darts per map.
  • They evidently had more money for voice acting… the guards are a lot less repetitive.
  • More civilians around– Dunwall felt dead, Karnaca feels much more alive.
  • Minor, but a satisfying change: Corvo in the first game is just told what to do. Emily (like Daud in the DLC) gets clues but seems to make her own decisions.

It plays well on my PC, but it better– I bought the damn thing a month ago just to be ready for Dishonored 2, which simply laughed at the specs of my old machine.

One thing they didn’t change, and this is just fine: it’s still very linear. “Open world” is a big thing these days, but it’s really hard to do well. The Saints Row and Bethesda games are the models, I think. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst moved to an open world design, and I think it’s too overwhelming. Dishonored 2 takes a different approach: you may only be exploring a few blocks at a time, but they are exquisitely arranged and detailed.

(My only plea for Dishonored 3: please, do not start with Corvo failing to do his job again. The title is a brand by now; you don’t have to make it describe the plot.)