I’m terrible at stealth games. I lack the patience, the focus and the discipline to unravel the knot at the centre of each level. Don’t get me wrong, I love sneaking around in the shadows. I just don’t like getting caught. And I always get caught. But while some games punish this sort of behaviour, kicking the player back to a loading screen whenever they stick a toe out of line, Dishonored isn’t one of them. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Dishonored is as intrigued by its players’ mistakes as their exploits.
Its levels are sometimes long and winding, sometimes cramped and claustrophobic, but always organic and never seemingly created merely for the pleasure of others. In the game’s second mission, silent protagonist Corvo Attano invades the compound of High Overseer Campbell to assassinate him. How that happens is up to you though. You can switch Campbell’s glass with a rival he’s trying to poison, or simply poison them both, or you can kill Campbell before he even steps foot in the room with the poison, or cut his through long after he’s left it.
The first time I played Dishonored, I had no idea who Campbell was or what he looked like. And as a result, I don’t even remember killing him. Maybe I lobbed a grenade accidentally in his direction? Or perhaps I cut him down while trying to escape the compound after robbing the contents of a safe in a basement office that actually had nothing to do with anything. Eventually I came across Samuel, waiting with his boat like he always does, ready to ferry me in-between Dishonored’s load screens like an old friend who knows when not to ask questions. The best mazes are hardly noticeable, and Dishonored’s often seem outright invisible.
Nowhere is this more apparent then when watching the people speedrun the game. The current world record for shortest time needed to beat the game is 33:28:744. It’s held by “Heny” and only a month old. While some knocked the game for being too short when it first came out, there’s something mind boggling about cramming the visual breadth and thematic depth of Dishonored into just over half an hour. In a way though, it seems like a logical extension of the just how open and concise the rest of the game is. Compare one of its storage closets to those in Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Bioshock Infinite and you’ll learn to appreciate just how sparse the game is without being empty.
The key to speedrunning Dishonored is to manage the vials you have to restore your magic with the constant need to blink around the map to finish each level as quickly as possible. There are certain places on the map where taking a second to grab some extra resources will pay off later by adding a few more blinks. You might think that trying to get through a stealth level as quickly as possible would mean leaving a bloodbath in your wake, but it’s actually the opposite. Heny doesn’t have time to kill random NPCs. He only lays a finger on those he has to. In Dishonored, stealth isn’t synonymous with slow.
It’s this side of the game that has made it stick with me so vividly years later. While I rack my brain to remember my favourite games from 2013 and 2014, or even last year, Dishonored sticks out like piece of silver after years of collecting dirt and grime: Unpolished but still unmistakable. While other games tried to craft the perfect little rat maze, Dishonored was intent on creating a world that could cope with the player no matter what. Kill everyone in your path and the plague-infested alleys and sewers become even more chaotic. Take a more virtuous path and the game will try to preserve some semblance of rational order, mostly so it’s that much more grim and tragic when you eventually do fuck up.
Dishonored is not a particularly hard game. It’s easy to die, but it’s also easy to escape. The guards, killers and occult agents who patrol its corridors and streets don’t have machine guns or X-ray vision, meaning that while it can be difficult, it’s not impossible to back to yourself into a broom closet and try to fight them off one by one, or simply wait and hope they never open the door. In this way Dishonored likes to toy with its prey the way a cat might, curious to see how the creature at its mercy will react instead of flaunt its own power or cleverness.
The game knows it’s more fun to be caught and somehow manage, with your back up against the wall, to find a way out, so it provides the tools for doing that. What fun is a game of cat and mouse if the two never see each other? Fortunately, in Dishonored’s case, the game’s creators were kind enough to give the mouse magic powers and a deadly arsenal of steam punk weapons. That’s probably why I love it so much. Dishonored is less a game about perfecting stealth than learning to cope with how much you probably suck at it.