Videogame (2012). Arkane Studios (AS). Designed by Raphaël Colantonio, Harvey Smith, Ricardo Bare. Platforms: PS3, Win, XB360.
Dishonored is a work of Steampunk and Sorcery, but one which operates in a very science-fictional mode. The gameplay is that of an action-Adventure, seen from the point of view of the player in the manner of a First Person Shooter, with elements drawn from Computer Role Playing Games and much emphasis placed on the protagonist's ability to hide and sneak. With a script written by, among others, Austin Grossman, the game is set in a well-defined world which draws upon the iconography of diverse periods in British history, perhaps especially those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This milieu is a classic uchronia, a Parallel World whose point of divergence from the reality inhabited by its creators is never made clear. Here, an alternate industrial revolution has helped shape the fantasticated Victorian metropolis of Dunwall (see Cities), now racked by a mysterious plague whose impoverished victims are controlled by police walking on giant mechanical stilts and sealed away from their wealthier fellows by lethal barriers of electrical force (see Force Fields).
The game's broadly linear Interactive Narrative begins with the player's character, a royal bodyguard named Corvo Attano, framed for the murder of Dunwall's Empress (the woman who was, perhaps, his lover). Helped to escape from prison by a cabal of plotters against the aristocratic conspiracy which assassinated his employer and now rules his city, Corvo becomes supernaturally enabled, gifted by an extranormal being with the player's choice of a variety of exotic powers and an artificial heart which whispers mystic riddles. Eventually it emerges that the Empress' murderer, who is now Lord Regent, intentionally brought the plague to the city to diminish the numbers of the working classes, whose growing strength threatens the city's elite. This revelation is followed by a betrayal, and a final confrontation; the game ends with the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, or with the plague run wild, or with the fall of the empire of Dunwall. Which of these conclusions is experienced depends partly on the player's level of success, but also on the degree to which they have favoured bloody vengeance on their enemies over careful justice; the more violent their progress through the game, the darker the resolution.
It is possible to identify many influences on the design of Dishonored. As in Half-Life (1998), the protagonist remains mute in order to enhance the player's sense of identification with their character. As in Deus Ex (2000), a game designed by Smith with Warren Spector, there are many choices to make, and they frequently have real consequences. Some of these decisions are moral; most enemies can be either killed or rendered unconscious, though the tone of the work certainly encourages some degree of lethality. Other choices are tactical – each of the game's various missions is played out in a sealed-off region of the city within which there are many paths to the objective, some of them aggressively confrontational and others slow and covert. Effectively, the structure is that of a "string of pearls" (see Interactive Narrative) in which each pearl is a micro-world which allows the player considerable freedom of action, though rather more help and guidance is provided than in earlier works which took a similar approach such as Mercenary (1985). The game's primary plot, however, is somewhat predictable, and the player character is not especially interesting. The true protagonist of Dishonored, perhaps, is its highly explorable and intriguing Game-World, formed by an amalgamation of post-Dickensian fables with class politics and the myths of the Good Queen and the corrupted rich, a setting rooted in an early twenty-first century iteration of the Matter of Britain [for Matter see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].
Related works: Dunwall City Trials (2012 AS, PS3, Win, XB360) is a series of challenges for the player, unrelated to the narrative of the game. [NT]
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