A love letter to Dishonored 2

I want to talk about Dishonored 2, because I think this is the best immersive sim I have played in at least 18 years. I just recently finished the main campaign and I can’t stop thinking about how great this game is.

Since 1998, my all time favorite video game has been Thief: The Dark Project (the original Thief is not necessary the best in the series, but it’s certainly the first and it matters). I still think Thief’s masterful chemistry of shadow-based stealth gameplay, complexity of systems, world building, story and production values (most notably cut-scenes and sound design) are unparalleled to this day, but I have to admit that a couple of times during Dishonored 2 I thought that this game came very close to overthrowing Thief from that pedestal for me. Dishonored 2 doesn’t try to be a new and better Thief, not even close — instead it wants to be a completely different, yet heavily influenced, set of ideas and systems that work in concert and conveys a message, and boy this game succeeds at that. Dishonored 2 is like a group of virtuoso musicians who play together in a band, have a spark, and thoroughly enjoy the process, and the resulting product is so much more that the sum of its parts.

This, crucially, is what makes the second game better than the original Dishonored — the first game was also a set of interesting systems, but the secret sauce was somewhat lacking. I really enjoyed my playthrough of the original game, but only after I had finished it, I sort of started to appreciate that the game was great — but there were no moments that had me stop playing and think “Holy shit, what I’m playing right now is a masterpiece”. Dishonored 2 had lots of these moments. It is a game that took everything great from the original, amplified it, perfected it and made it click in a way that never happened with the first title.

Who knows, maybe I’m too biased? Maybe — but the first thing that I always appreciate in an immersive sim is level design. Level design can save a rough and unbalanced game and make it enjoyable, and it also can turn a perfectly tuned game into a bore fest if done wrong. Thankfully, in Dishonored 2, we have stellar game systems married with a sensational, phenomenal level design. While I don’t think Dishonored 2 as a game surpasses Thief: The Dark Project in my personal eternal chart, its level design is certainly better than Thief’s, and this is quite an achievement. Hell, this game has the best level design I have ever seen in any game.

Every single mission in this game is a master class. There is no mission in the game that doesn’t evoke either rapture or at least admiration of the ambition and the hard work put into creating these spaces, between engineering, architecture and art direction. You reach the highest roof of Addemire Institute, look down at the massive sprawling complex below and just reflect how open and multilayered and beautiful it is. You wander around Cyria Gardens and absorb the vibe of a city built right between the trees of a massive ancient forest. You leave Dunwall in haste at the very beginning, only to find its streets, and halls of Dunwall Tower, twisted and ruined at the very end (and also faithful to the original game’s level, which is a nice bonus). And don’t even get me started on the geometrical wickedness and sensation of Duke Abele’s wonderful Grand Palace.

But there are two missions that are unlike anything I have ever seen before.

First there is Kirin Jindosh and his clockwork mansion. It was heavily spoiled even ahead of the game’s release, but it changed nothing — no spoilers can prepare you for the ambition and engineering marvel of this level. I think Harvey Smith mentioned in one interview that the level’s designer Daniel Todd and architect David Di Giacomo had to actually create a real life model of the mansion just to see if numerous moving parts made sense realistically, mechanically and geometrically. You flip a lever, and the entire segment of the house completely shifts and transforms — certain walls become floors, some floors become ceilings, and some ceilings disappear and move away. Just taken separately as a 3D space, this level is an engineering marvel — but Dishnoroed 2 is an immersive sim with constantly evolving systems, set of tools, and characters, and Clockwork Mansion is elevated to an unprecedented masterpiece level by those factors. In my playthrough, I found a few clockwork soldiers stuck and patrolling the “outskirts” of the mansion as a result of me constantly flipping levers, and it felt (and was) a great feature rather than a bug — and I’m sure other players had a completely different layout of patrols and room combinations. (Think about it, game designers — your AI can end up being stuck between walls or floors of your building because a player keeps moving these spaces around — what are the odds you would brave balancing and debugging this versus declaring the idea too risky?) This possibility of creating more and more “outskirts” in the manor eventually provides a way to navigate through most of the mission using those secret passages and observe life in the inhabitable rooms of the house from the shadows — something I love dearly in stealth games. When a player leaves the “normal” rooms and goes off the radar, Jindosh (who is usually watching your every move) starts to sound worried, as he no longer knows where you are — a touch of narrative genius married with an incredible system.

That is provided that Jindosh even knows that you are in the house. At the very entrance, you can climb up on the roof through the glass ceiling and reach the inventor so that he doesn’t even know you are coming. You can get a special achievement for that, but in reality it’s rather a level design achievement.

When I thought I saw it all, I reached Aramis Stilton’s mansion and learnt how to jump through time. This was one of the most sensational moments gaming has given me in the last 18 years.

The time jumping mechanic itself, albeit crazily innovative for an immersive sim, is not exactly new in games — in a way that you can go to the past, do something and alter the present. What is absolutely phenomenal is the way Arkane implemented it on a technical level. Your Timepiece device allows you to see what’s going on in the parallel timeline without being there, and the implications of that, both systemical and perceptional, are groundbreaking. For a few times during the mission, I had to simultaneously pay attention to what was going on around me in my current timeline while also trying to peek into the other timeline, and sometimes I thought that my brain was almost overloaded with this systemical paradox. You can jump into the past while a guard’s back is turned, plant a mine on the floor, jump back and observe him getting hit by a trap from the safety of the present — that is, if you are indeed safe and not spotted by a creepy Nest Keeper or a hound. If this was not enough, later in the mission you can discover that Arkane has built not two, but three (four?) distinct versions of the mansion that exist in parallel timelines — these were deliberately built in such a way that a player would constantly jump between timelines to overcome obstacles and challenges, but I believe that except for a few story-driven moments, you can complete almost the entire mission by sticking mostly to one specific timeline if you like. So it’s essentially three completely different levels you can choose from, packaged into one mission, and all three of them are worth exploring thoroughly.

The way the level constantly pushes you from one timeline to another because at some point you no longer feel safe is an amazing mind trick. The present version of the mansion, at least initially, is scary and getting on nerves, so you are always tempted to go to the past, to the warmth and lights and life of the Stilton’s mansion before the incident. But you can’t stay there too long as the guards are everywhere and being hidden is very difficult — and before you know it, you are pushed back into the creepy, cold and ruined present where blood flies, dead men and unnerving ticking of the ghost clock await. In either of these mansions that exist in parallel universes, you never feel at home.

Even on a technical level, I’m not sure how Arkane pulled it off. Are these, perhaps, somehow two different sets of textures, meshes and objects placed in the same 3D space and swapped around? I think in one interview someone hinted that it could be different spaces built on top of one another in the same level file, and by jumping through timelines, technically, a player teleports up and down — but I might be wrong. The thought of “how did they do it?” still haunts me. Most importantly, how they did it in a way it feels so seamless, belieavable, and reliable — l never got stuck in furniture or teleported out of the world — is beyond impressive. If you haven’t noticed yet, Dishonored 2 level designers are not the faint of heart when it comes to amazing space design, systemical and engineering challenges.

Aramis Stilton’s mansion is a place where technical innovation, phenomenal level design and storytelling conveyed through it all come together to create something that is not only the testament to Dishonored 2’s overall ambition, but to what video games can — and should — be as a medium. The type of feelings, emotions and experiences this space evokes is something only video games can offer, and everyone who took part in making this mission should be proud.

One of the defining pillars or immersive sim games is replayability and conveying the feeling that every player has a completely unique experience. Dishonored 2 advances this school of design — not only each mission is wonderfully open and non-linear, and the game itself provides for many ways of player expression through character development and tools available, but Dishonored 2 has many smart and subtle procedural elements. From the elements of Jindosh riddle at the entrance to the Stilton’s mansion through the whereabouts and identity of Duke Abele in the Grand Palace, each mission has elements that change every time you play while retaining the feeling of hand-craftedness, which makes it refreshing and incentivizes follow-up runs. I highly appreciate the effort (huge effort!) Arkane designers put into these elements even though most players would only complete the game once, and I hope we’ll see more of it in the future immersive sim games.

Level design is one thing, but there is also story and characters I actually cared about deeply in this game. The entire universe of Dishonored — and that includes all games, DLCs, books and graphic novels — is very engaging and well-crafted, but the second game specifically managed to achieve some real integrity and sense of maturity to most of its characters. There are relatively few of them, but each one is developed and somewhat complex, and there are human stories to connect with. While playing the game, I cared about Sokolov and his hopeless fight with aging. Having played the first game’s DLC several years ago, I completely forgot the look of Billie Lurk and was surprised to discover the true identity of Meagan Foster, and I felt sorry for her troubled past and struggle with rediscovering purpose and meaning to her life. As always in Dishonored, no character is purely black or white (part of the genius of the series is the interconnection of narrative with the state of the world and people’s actions changing depending on the way you play the game). Even Delilah Copperspoon isn’t a simple villain — dig deeper into the game’s depths, and you will find out details about her tragic childhood that could make you think twice before you finally confront her at the game’s finale. Writing in Dishonored 2 is more coherent and consistent compared to the first game, and it manages to make the world and characters multi-layered without being overwhelming.

Dishonored 2 is a work of art, it’s the type of a game you would want to exhibit in a museum to proudly present what video games can be and what real effort and passion can achieve. Every single mission is a level design masterpiece, every single screenshot deserves to be framed and hung on a wall, and the game’s story, while not being too complex, encourages reflection and debates. This game alone would cement Arkane’s reputation of one of the finest development studios in the world, let alone past gems like Arx Fatalis or an equally groundbreaking Prey that followed.

Having tastes defined in my younger years, I never thought any game would come so close to overthrowing Thief: The Dark Project from my personal best-game-ever position, let alone almost two decades after, but Arkane almost did it with Dishonored 2. I know some people who were burnt out recently by games turning away from the type of immersive single player experiences they grew up playing in the 90s and early 2000s, and if you are one of them, trust me — look no further than Dishonored 2 to have your faith in modern gaming completely restored. From the bottom of my heart, thanks to every one of you, Arkane.