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Video game review: Dishonored incorporates narrative in a refreshing way

BY DAN VERHILLE | OCTOBER 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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Narrative components are not normally the focus when a new video game drops, but it’s the difference between success and failure for any title whose play is adequate but not phenomenal.

Dishonored didn’t need an intricate narrative delivery to compensate for shoddy play, so its tactful story-telling methods just serve to complement the play.

Lazy and straightforward storytelling has become a bit of problem for video-game developers, who seem to believe that telling a story too complex will lose dumber gamers or alienate new ones.

Dishonored doesn’t seem to worry if anyone is too slow or lazy to follow along — it uses an assortment of narrative devices focuses on delivering the story to the player in ways that feel fresh and unique at each twist and turn of the plot.

Dishonored follows the tale of Corvo, the Empress’ loyal bodyguard who is framed for the murder of the empress and the kidnapping of her daughter at the outset of the story. From that point forward, the player can proceed to make a bloodbath of the situation or slip behind enemy lines undetected, preferring nonlethal methods of resolution.

The level of chaos created as a result of the player’s actions shapes the city as the story progresses.

The variety of narrative devices used to tell Corvo’s story permits Dishonored to subtly manipulate the tone of the game.

Loading screens set some scenes with a concise sentence or two, but the majority of Dishonored takes place in first person through Corvo’s eyes. Dishonored does a wonderful job of showing players Covo’s close personal ties to the royal family with short pieces of dialogue and hug exchange or two rather than having non-player characters conspicuously spout off the nature of their relationship.

Dishonored’s choice to force the player to land feet first and start running with the plot is refreshing in the way that it requires players to figure out the relationship dynamics at play. Personally, I’m exhausted with introductory game phases in which another character serves as an obvious guide, telling the player all the details of the story that developers were too lazy to incorporate naturally.

Eavesdropping upon policemen, thugs, and allies is Dishonored’s method of naturally telling the players how their actions have affected the city around them. Chatter about how someone mysteriously disappeared or the massacre at the palace attempts to give the players the sense that their actions had direct consequences, even if it does come off a bit regurgitated and artificial.

My favorite technique at work is the Heart, a mechanical heart that functions like a compass to guide the players toward important items while reciting “songs” of the people who had previously possessed them. The songs are usually eerie and ambiguous, but they provide color and depth to Corvo’s world to make it feel as if it is inhabited by real people rather than just stock characters.

Although I believe Dishonored could have still benefited from a little less “lock the player in place while someone gives him a speech tactic,” and possibly some larger temporal shifts between scene changes, it still manages to tell a story that is diverse enough in its delivery to always be gripping, yet tailored enough to player choices to give a sense of consequence. 

Reviewer’s rating: 8.5/10
Dishonored
Developer: Bethesda
Rating: Mature
Cost: $59.99


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