Dishonored: Performance And The Art Of Restraint

This is what I did yesterday, for sixty whole minutes.

I sat crouched in a corner. A knife in my right hand. My left hovered. Preparing to make magic happen. In a split second I launch into a 'blink' teleport. I switch rapidly into a stealth crouch and careen swiftly into a hiding place that isn't really a hiding place at all. This is terrifying. My target is a metre away from me and the only thing between us is a tiny metal box and a typewriter.

[Deep breath]

At a rough estimate, this is the 20th time I have made these precise specific moves. If the target spots me, I'll do it all over again. And again. And again. Until I get it right.

I could very easily sneak up to this target, and stab him in the throat. He wouldn't spot me. My mission would be complete, I could walk out of the room, with merry abandon, and I wouldn't have to give this chap I'm supposed to steal from a second thought.

I could do that. Or I could pick pocket him, steal the object I need, and moonwalk slickly from the scene, leaving nary a trace that I had ever been in this room. 20 plus times. Making the same precise movement. Over and over again.

Until I get it right.

———— My name is Mark Serrels and I am a right old arrogant arsehole when it comes to my video games.

It is important to me that my gameplay is beautiful. That my performance is exquisite. And video games that allow me to 'perform'; games that allow me to practice and refine a set of skills, are always my favourite. I think that's why I like Dishonored so much.

Because good stealth games, more than any other genre I'd argue, are about performance. Performance and the restraints you place upon yourself that allow that performance to become meaningful.

Video games have rules, but you don't always have to play by them. Sometimes you can subvert them and sometimes you have to create your own. Take Dishonored for example. The scene described above is typical of almost every scenario in the game. In every mission you have a choice to make: it's very easy to run headlong into any stronghold, slaughter guards, head directly to the mission marker, look your target in the eyes, shoot/stab/murder/kill the poor bastard and charge out.

It is actually very easy to do this. But why would you want to?


Dishonored is about performance. And the restraints you place upon yourself.

I have imagined an elegant solution to my problem, and it is important to me that I carry that solution out and perform it beautifully. No-one is watching me. Why do I care so much? It's because stealth is about the little stories you so desperately want to tell.

I imagine my target. I can kill him and steal his key; the key I need to get from point A to point B. This would be relatively easy, but the story is dull. Another man falls at the edge of Corvo's blade, leaving naught but a corpse and chaos in his wake. Flat, featureless, completely lacking in any kind of conflict or drama.

Here is the story I want to tell: hours after my departure, the target wonders where his key is. It isn't where he last remembers placing it. He searches his room. He checks his pocket frantically, the key isn't there. Neither is his purse full of money, which I have also stolen. He realises that I, a great sneaky bugger with incredible testicular fortitude, have infiltrated his abode, sneaked past multiple guards, stolen his key and his money... and spared his life. Because I can. Because I am superior. That's the story I want to tell. That's drama. That's performance.

But that story is only possible if I, as a player, restrain myself. If I create for myself a new set of rules to follow and execute within that framework.

Most games endlessly attempt to manufacture drama. They put you in situations that should feel dramatic, but play out more like a series of dull bangs and blasts. My story in Dishonored was only meaningful because I chose to tell it, because I shackled myself with these restraints and worked within them. My choice was important, my choices had a narrative attached to them, a narrative that I authored, executed and performed.


I'm telling this story in the past tense, but that doesn't really make sense — because I haven't really executed this delicate little story I've planned for myself. Not yet! I keep screwing it up. I need more rehearsal.

I always do something wrong. I have to take a guard out first, and that doesn't always work out as planned.


Or I forget to switch to the correct power. I teleport instead of slowing down time. Spotted. Bollocks.


Or my heartbeat speeds up frantically, my hand shakes a bit and mess up the pickpocket manoeuvre. ARGH!


But I'll get it eventually. And what a performance it'll be.


    This is exactly the way I approach most games.
    For better or worse I haven't bought Dishonoured yet, but I'm really getting tempted now.

      Me too. When I finished a mission in Dishonored and I had been spotted a few times i felt really dissapointed in my I somehow could've done the whole 40 minute long mission without being spotted once, while achieving everything I needed to. I've never done a mission perfectly but I've come close and it's so much better when you put that pressure on yourself and you pull it off. I kind of hate myself for playing like this too...I wish i could just run and gun because the mechanics are there too do it and they are fun, but I need to do it the most 'professional' way.

    This is exactly why I love dishonored. I'm hoping they do something halfway decent with the story DLC

    Have you tried Hotline Miami yet, Mark? It's a game that lends itself well to this kind of compulsion towards gaming finesse.

    Good article Mark, like you, I want to be engrossed in a game such as this. I still have yet to buy it, damn student funds...

      I tried. It just seemed lacking. Which was disappointing. I guess Hitman will be my next hope.

    Nice piece and it shows to me why Trials and Mark of the Ninja have also been games you have enjoyed this year.

    This article highlights why I play games (sometimes).
    What an elegant way to discuss a little passion for a great game designed well.
    Try again.

    "My name is Mark Serrels and I am a right old arrogant arsehole."

    Good on you for acknowledging it...

    I've played through the game three times now in three different ways, which is a rarity for me who rarely plays a game more than once. I'd like to go for a fourth but the non skipable story sections make it a bit of a pain (those boat rides in particular really start to drag on after you've seen them once).

    Ah, I remember that... took me quite a while to pull it off. And that imaginary scenario is the precise reason I wanted to do it that way. Good luck, Mark!

    Hah, I played Deus EX: HR the same way, easily took me ten times as long to complete as it would have normally.
    Tempted to do the same for Dishonored but worry I will burn out on it halfway through and never play it again.

    This is kind of similar to something I've found myself doing in games recently. Although with me it's not so much about the performance as challenge, I think.

    Resident Evil: Revelations - Raid Mode. There's a shop where you can spend the points you earn to but new weapons, additional secondary items, expand your ammo limits, etc. I specifically avoided purchasing any of them, feeling like it would just water down the challenge set for each of the stages.

    House of the Dead: Overkill. I only ever play it with my handcannon shells, 1:1 mapping and cursor disabled. Pushing a cursor around the screen to click the things you want to die is boring. I also find it distracting. I also also saw the shotgun as kind of a cheat mode, since you just need to aim in the general area and fire. My save file is still "incomplete" because I haven't bought the shotgun yet (earning the Buy Everything bonus), keeping the "proof" that I beat the game with just the pistols and my own sense of accuracy.

    I'm sure there are other recent examples that aren't coming to mind, it feels like a lot of games throw in ways to actually make it easier as you progress, which kind of feels like it betrays what the game set out to do in the first place.

    Everyone tells me this is how to really enjoy games like this and Deus Ex HR or any of the MGS games. But I just can't bring myself to spend that much time deliberating over something that in essence is halting my further digesting of the story, world etc. But at least I recognise that this is my loss. I know (of) the deep seated satisfaction my friends have from completing a game like DE:HR without a single kill to their name. But it's one I'll likely never experience myself.

    if your talking about daud posses some one and steal his pouch that way

      Evidently you didn't read the article properly: "I have imagined an elegant solution to my problem, and it is important to me that I carry that solution out and perform it beautifully." The point is not your solution or some ready-made GameFAQs cheat, but the chance to tell Mark's story for Mark's sake.

    One thing (amongst many other things) that stopped me from being able to immerse myself in dishonored was the random spawning guards. Id had a whole scene scoped out, execute my move, slip up - but that should be fine I'd enjoy having to think on my feet to quickly solve the situation I just caused...oh but suddenly here's 4 guys that have spawned out of thin air, there goes my cool little scene. To enjoy a stealth game you need to be able to trust it.

      That's a great point, and a perfect way of putting it: to enjoy a stealth game you need to be able to trust it. I love it.

      I get where you're coming from, but once I realised something to that affect was happening I actually appreciated it adding some more tension back in to the process. Is it confirmed that those were spawning guards? I played no powers, no kills, no alerts on hard and there were definitely a finite number of guards. I thought it might have been that patrol patterns were being adjusted to account for missing guards I'd knocked out because they would notice when their mates weren't at their posts.

        Thanks mark :)

        Yeah I just tried to imagine that guards were 'pouring in' from doors and places I couldn't open or know about if I alerted them and therefore the consequences of being seen were higher and use that as incentive to stay stealthy.

        Had a look on youtube, this is a particular harsh example!
        haha :)

          Damn, well there you go then. They never spawned right in front of me, it was always after I'd dragged a body off to hide it and come back. Seems kind of an odd design choice, especially when there must still be a limited number of spawns. I took forever to play through looking for every book etc. and eventually they don't came back. If I had to guess I'd say there was only ever a 2nd spawning of guards and it wasn't always happening but maybe it's based on the chaos level.

            Yeah I can't say I ever saw it that bad either, it was always when I had been spotted and then out of somewhere with no entry points there was suddenly a bunch of guards when I spun around. Yeah I supposed there was probably less guards in your case since you would have had a low chaos level etc

    Just started a third play-through to go for Ghost, Shadow, Clean Hands and Mostly Flesh and Steel, the last four achievements I need to 100% it. IMO, going for those four at once is the ultimate way to test your stealth skills in this game. Truly, Arkane have created a masterpiece.

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