Five years ago today, Arkane unleashed the first Dishonored upon the world. It was a brilliant immersive sim (very much in the Thief lineage) with a heavy emphasis on stealth and supernatural powers. It revitalized an aging genre, one that'd quickly become one of of my favorites, and introduced us all to a dark, seductive, often positively nasty world.
Dunwall is disgusting—a city riddled with plague as well as political corruption. People are dying on the streets, itchy swarms of plague rats and rabid gravehounds patrol the streets alongside the beefy, belligerent guards. Even the food is disgusting (well, some of it), greasy potted whale meat and other nauseating treats. The treatment of whaling as a modern industry is on-point here, a barbaric business that coats the whole world in a fishy, grimy sheen.
Actually, Dishonored's world was so gross that it turned me off. There were times I actually put the game down because it was all so slimy and diseased. I love that about it—those art assets and sound design and level geometry combined to create something that felt real, and sticky, and sometimes, even smelly.
I'm ashamed to admit, as much as I love the game, I still haven't finished it—I fell off in the infamous Flooded District, back sometime in 2013, and haven't picked up that save file since. I swear, I'll fix that one day. I'll bring a noseplug.
But it's a testament to just how well-designed and well-executed the game is that it affected me so much before my sewer-based negligence. It's as seductive as it is unsightly, with nooks and crannies that beg to be explored, often with the blink power (that allows you to teleport to nearby sections of the map). And the Telltale-style heart that beats loudly when you are near a bone charm or rune, and the whispers that she offers about people and the state of the world. Dunwall is an awful place to be—but it's near-impossible to forget.
The aesthetics so fully support an equally slimy sense of morality. You can chose to play high-chaos—killing everything in sight—or low, preferring to slip by or knock out the guards. But you need to make sure those sleeping bodies are somewhere safe, because, if the rats get to them, it counts as a kill on your head. Which is both annoying and perfect, because, yeah. You are responsible here.
And famously, the traditionally banal "moral decisions" you need to make regarding your assassination targets are dark as hell. You can kill people (mind you, they are typically presented as pretty awful folks) or send them away, often to places or situations where death may have actually been the softer option. One has stuck with me forever, a deeply uncomfortable decision to send a woman off with her stalker.
I know she's not real. But I worry about her. I worry about what that choice says about me and everyone else who took it.
I think that Dishonored games have only gotten better as time has gone on. Last year's Dishonored 2 was nothing short of a masterpiece of game design, featuring some of the most interesting, varied, environments and mechanics in the AAA space. I dare anyone in big-budget games to make levels that support player choice, exploration, and experimentation half as much as as Arkane's do. I'm still making my way through Death of the Outsider, which positions you in the shoes of arguably the most interesting character in the Dishonored universe, Billie Lurk, who has her own unique set of powers.
All I can do is hope that this studio can keep making Dishonored games, because, for my money, they are among the very best of the decade.
And it all started five years ago today.
Disclaimer: anytime I talk about Dishonored 2, I need to mention that a personal friend worked on some of the game's narrative elements.