How Arkane granted play­ers mas­tery of space and cre­ated a stealth mas­ter­piece


De­vel­oper Arkane Studios Pub­lisher Bethesda Soft­works For­mat 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease 2012

From up there, crouched on the top of a sign­board, the Dun­wall street looks al­most or­dered. City Watch guards pa­trol up and down, and they have an alarm wired to a con­trol box on a wall op­po­site. There’s an open win­dow across the way, per­haps lead­ing into a house filled with valu­ables or an al­ter­na­tive route to your goal; at the end of the road lies the main gate that leads di­rectly to it. Spy­ing closer, there are grates you can use to pass through, if you can find a rat to pos­sess. There’s an un­der­pass which might let you slip through with­out be­ing seen; maybe that rooftop will of­fer an­other route.

But down there on the wet cob­ble­stones, or­der has crum­bled into chaos and nowhere is safe. The wide boule­vard of­fers lit­tle cover; if the Watch guards see you they’ll come af­ter you with swords and pis­tols. The rats pooled by the grate will throw them­selves at you ravenously if you wan­der too close. Along the un­der­pass stag­ger plague-stricken weep­ers who will vomit and tear at you, and on that rooftop wait quiet, gas-masked as­sas­sins.

Yet you feel pow­er­ful be­cause you’re armed with knowl­edge of the streets. You can make choices and form strate­gies be­cause you’ve seen what’s ahead from on high, and you can al­ways re­turn there be­cause in Dis­hon­ored you’re not tied to the ground. In­stead you ex­ist in a lim­i­nal place be­tween play­ing ac­tor and ob­server, danc­ing be­tween watch­ing, prob­ing, in­fil­trat­ing, fight­ing and es­cap­ing as you find your way through a bro­ken city that’s opened up by the agility of our hero, Corvo At­tano.

He’s lithe and quick, but the most valu­able of At­tano’s skills is su­per­nat­u­ral. With Blink he can tele­port to a nearby lo­ca­tion, whether be­hind a guard or to a ledge above, in to­tal si­lence and with a range that ex­tends far be­yond his jump. It gives the player a com­mand over space which over­comes any loi­ter­ing sen­try, dead end or high wall, since you can al­ways zip past or over. With Blink, Dun­wall be­comes yours, its twist­ing al­leys, by­ways, roads and tun­nels a net­work of pos­si­bil­i­ties, even though it’s pa­trolled by so many dan­gers.

This sense of con­trol marks Dis­hon­ored quite apart from the games that pre­ceded it. As a di­rect mem­ber of a lineage that stretches back to Ul­tima Un­der­world,

Dis­hon­ored fits neatly into the im­mer­sive sim genre, first­per­son games in­scribed with rich RPG-like sys­tems which of­fer play­ers a wide range of choice over how they play in them. From 1992’s Un­der­world emerged

Sys­tem Shock and later Deus Ex, on which Dis­hon­ored’s cre­ative di­rec­tor Har­vey Smith was a de­signer.

But it’s 1998’s Thief: The Dark Pro­ject that Dis­hon­ored most closely re­sem­bles. The sim­i­lar­i­ties go far deeper than their set­tings, which both com­bine Euro­peanesque his­tory with fan­tasy, and steam­punk tech­nol­ogy with magic. In both games, you watch the world from places of safety, look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties. Stealth games are so of­ten about ob­ser­va­tion lead­ing to ex­e­cu­tion: the mem­o­ri­sa­tion of a guard’s pa­trol to find a pre­cise win­dow for when you can slip through the door they’re posted to pro­tect. But that process has many dif­fer­ent shapes.

Thief is a stealth game of light and shadow. Its pace is slow and steady, your po­si­tion­ing fixed on where it’s dark, your speed re­stricted to your glacial silent crouch or noisy run, and so pas­sage through its lev­els is me­thod­i­cal, tak­ing each threat as it comes. Ghost­ing through Thief means root­ing your­self to the shad­ows, at the mercy of the level de­signer. Dis­hon­ored lo­cates its stealth in move­ment, and its pac­ing is up to you. You can creep qui­etly or run, or you can flit from place to place us­ing Blink. Your move­ment through its lev­els is spas­modic and dy­namic as you make an at­tempt at en­try at one lo­ca­tion be­fore try­ing an­other. You feel your way through

Dis­hon­ored, tak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as they arise and adapt­ing to mis­takes, be­cause your abil­i­ties al­low for im­pro­vi­sa­tion and you know you can al­ways es­cape.

This pac­ing isn’t all down to Blink. At­tano’s fluid run and jump are im­por­tant, too, and so is his swift mantling of walls and fences, even if they’re above his head, to stand steadily on their edge. For all his speed, his poise also gives you as­sur­ance in know­ing he won’t slip or tum­ble. And if you buy the se­cond tier of his Agility en­hance­ment, he’ll gain a dou­ble-jump, giv­ing even greater spa­tial ac­cess.

This fo­cus on move­ment makes Dis­hon­ored a much more ac­tion-based take on the im­mer­sive sim than its fore­bears. It in­vites ac­ro­batic feats which test its sys­tems, as a dou­ble-jump en­ables you to reach the pi­lot of a Tall­boy stilt walker and as­sas­si­nate him be­fore Blink­ing away to cover, or Blink above a guard and dropas­sas­si­nate him, or chain to­gether Blinks that take you across the en­tire level. And then there are the Bend Time skills, which slow or even stop time and, when com­bined with the Pos­ses­sion power, can lead to hav­ing guards shoot them­selves: let them fire, stop time, pos­sess them and walk them into their own bul­let. Con­sider, too, rewiring en­vi­ron­men­tal fea­tures such as Walls of Light, so they dis­in­te­grate your en­e­mies, and then mix in a mine which chops its vic­tims into pieces, grenades, guns and cross­bows. And un­der­pin­ning it all is At­tano’s blade. In the right hands,

Dis­hon­ored is a play­ground of flow­ing bloody killing, all pow­ered by pure agility.

While Dis­hon­ored’s Dun­wall City Trials DLC sup­ported that no­tion with a se­ries of chal­lenge maps that test freeform and cre­ative killing, the core game doesn’t seem to en­joy At­tano’s skillset so much. Corvo is many things. As the Royal Pro­tec­tor, sworn to keep his charge, Em­press Jes­samine Kald­win, safe, he’s an avenger. A thief, too, since in your at­tempt to find Jes­samine’s daugh­ter and re­store her to her throne, you’ll ran­sack houses for money and runes that will buy up­grades. But you don’t have to be a killer. While the story is hung around the as­sas­si­na­tion of lead­ers of the coup which led to the Em­press’ death, At­tano has an un­com­fort­able re­la­tion­ship with mur­der.

“You made some­one a widow, damn you,” a guard will bark if you kill one of his friends. Dis­hon­ored does a fair amount to hu­man­ise the City Watch, which will bear the most losses at your hands. The first time you see them in ac­tion, they’re roughly throw­ing wrapped corpses from a bridge into the open top of a barge, but you’ll re­alise the guards are just try­ing to main­tain or­der in this plague-rid­den city, even if they’re work­ing for its cor­rupt new lead­ers. Af­ter all, they used to work for At­tano.

Dis­hon­ored’s sys­tems dis­cour­age killing, too. Like many other stealth games, it notes and rewards play­ers who avoid let­ting any­one die, but more than that, the world it­self changes as the Chaos level rises. Killing, leav­ing bod­ies un­hid­den and be­ing seen all af­fect Chaos, and when it ticks to­wards its high state, guard pop­u­la­tions rise, there are more rats and weep­ers, and the group of char­ac­ters you’re work­ing with, the Loy­al­ists, start to ob­ject to your ac­tions. It even trans­forms the fi­nal level’s na­ture.

Chaos is a kind of dy­namic dif­fi­culty sys­tem. Since go­ing lethal in Dis­hon­ored is gen­er­ally rather eas­ier than at­tempt­ing to be stealthy, the ad­di­tional guards and other threats helps to bal­ance things. And on a the­matic level, Dis­hon­ored’s harsh treat­ment


of killing adds a new layer to the choices you make. At ev­ery turn you’re re­minded of the cor­rupt na­ture of the peo­ple you’re op­pos­ing. Your first mark, High Overseer Thad­deus Camp­bell, is the head of a cult­like re­li­gion which mir­rors its bru­tally un­com­pro­mis­ing moral code in its fascis­tic mon­u­men­tal build­ings. Less a church than a cruel bu­reau­cracy, its abbey is filled with records of cit­i­zens’ mis­de­meanours, and rather than pi­ous, Camp­bell is a schem­ing liar, cruel tor­turer and li­cen­tious killer who brings pros­ti­tutes to his se­cret cham­ber and mur­ders them if they at­tempt to dis­close the truth. In other words, he’s de­serv­ing of a se­ri­ous come­up­pance.

The sim­ple way would be to mur­der him, but if you over­hear cer­tain con­ver­sa­tions and read the notes and other clues you find care­fully, you’ll learn that there’s an­other way of deal­ing with him: brand his face with a mark that shows he’s a heretic and you can have him ex­com­mu­ni­cated. There’s a non­lethal way of despatch­ing each of At­tano’s key tar­gets, each adding new chal­lenges to the game and new story de­tails, and they all call into ques­tion your own im­me­di­ate de­sire to kill, whether for re­venge or just con­ve­nience: a re­minder not to stoop to your en­e­mies’ level.

On an emo­tional level, though, it feels like Dis­hon­ored is judg­ing you for us­ing the won­der­ful play­set it’s given you. It’s as if it’s re­alised just how strong At­tano is, with the trans­for­ma­tional power of his abil­ity to move so freely and to know so much about the world, and must act to rein him in. This un­easy feel­ing un­der­scores the full length of the game, but it also com­ple­ments

Dis­hon­ored’s gen­eral sickly tone. From above, it’s a game of cause and ef­fect, and to be down on the street is to ex­pe­ri­ence how mud­dled morals can get when you’re up close to them, when an alarm is blar­ing and a guard is lung­ing. How easy it is to be­head him… In trans­port­ing you quickly be­tween both these states, Dis­hon­ored ex­poses the prof­its and costs of your ac­tions, and isn’t afraid to have an opin­ion of them.

At least, that is, un­til you play The Knife Of Dun­wall, a DLC ad­di­tion in which you play as Daud, the killer of Em­press Jes­samine. This sea­soned killer has few of At­tano’s qualms, none of his high-minded con­nec­tion to the peo­ple. Dun­wall is his city, and he knows his place is in its gut­ters.

In­stead of a gauge to show how dif­fi­cult you are to see, en­e­mies clearly show their ris­ing states of alert­ness as they catch sight of you. If you can get away in time you’ll avoid rais­ing the alarm

Not all Dun­wall’s res­i­dents are purely an­tag­o­nists, such as Granny Rags, who gives you op­tional tasks to carry out

En­e­mies will block your at­tacks, so wait­ing for par­ries is the safest way to fight, if it comes to it. It’s a sys­tem that de­mands you’re in con­trol of a sit­u­a­tion: if you’re sur­rounded, you’re dead

Dis­hon­ored is struc­tured as a se­ries of dis­crete lev­els, but re­turn­ing be­tween them to your base, the Hound Pits Pub, helps make Dun­wall feel more co­her­ent

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