While the debate may usually center around how it impacts psychological and social behavior, I would argue the implement of violence in videogames is more evidence of laziness in their design. That's not to say every game in which there's violent content is inept or inherently flawed; it's just few seem to become anything more than digitally rendered shooting galleries. After awhile, completing the “Kill thousands of dudes!” kinds of challenges while walking through hallways gets boring. To me, complacency should be the only behavior modifying worry associated with violent games.
Thankfully there's Arkane Studios' Dishonored. Not only does it reinvigorate the hum-drum M-rated landscape, it also imparts meaning to its violence. Arkane's able to use a fairly routine story of betrayal and quest for revenge to produce a masterfully contained and focused experience, where the implement or denial of violence has rewards and consequences. There are some rough edges that could be smoother, but Dishonored is so refreshing, they carry little weight.
This is one of those cases where you'd do better by playing the game rather than reading about it. Corvo Attano's resolution to his framing for the assassination of Dunwall's Empress, and the abduction of her daughter, is a product of how you guide him in exacting retribution against the true conspirators. It's a structured story that uses either-or decisions to affect the outcome of your tale in a city rotting with a plague. 9 missions might present themselves as mazes to navigate, but getting to the target at their goals and what you do with them involves small, organic decision making from the outset. Depending on how you play, you can either get the core events of the story and the gist of things, or you can uncover the reasons behind the central conflict, certain happenings, motivations, and histories.
With unlockable skills that let Corvo teleport around an environment, stop time, as well as possess creatures and enemies, he develops into an assassin that can easily avoid confrontation altogether or preempt it, with either killing blows or non-lethal incapacitation. Weapons and tools also allow him to knock out or maim enemies by hand or repurposed traps. Along with collectables that augment different abilities, Corvo has a full complement of skills for varying situations. By leveraging those skills, getting to targets can be quick and dirty, with patrolling enemies relentlessly hunting you down, or slow and methodical without having to worry about resources needed to stay alive in engagements.
When the credits roll, it wasn't an overly complex piece of fiction that unfolded, but it's everything involved in how you reached “The End” that makes Dishonored a glowing choose-your-own-adventure style game that favors the stealth side of its options—not because the action is dull however. Should you choose not to kill everything in sight and seek out alternative routes, subsequent missions can become easier with the discovery of fortuitous items, hidden caches reward you more money to upgrade inventory, and uncovered side-missions breed objectives that avail even more otherwise unknown choices. Reliance on wit and strategy also makes it possible to finish the game without blood spilled, which allows for nuanced outcomes to assassination targets. Moreover, further rewards are furnished as a result of Corvo's benevolence after a mission is completed.
If more permanent ends are sought, and tallies added to a bodycount, quick, tight action is playable. Never does Corvo feel encumbered or overly restricted either outside in towering cityscapes or within opulent residences. Both find the right balance of freedom in multiple vectors and direction through subtle constraints. There's always another way to get somewhere, outflank an obstacle, or escape pursuers. Though it's more reckless to run at patrols, with enough skills purchased and upgraded, it's possible to also quickly execute a series of moves in order to take out an enemy and quietly evade any follow-up searches.
In either case, Dishonored allows for flexible, fluid strategies. You aren't tied in to one course, and the choices don't come off as checkpoint forks in the road. Corvo's actions can change at your discretion, and in the eventuality you want to retry a choice, a gracious save system (auto and anytime manual) doesn't force you into completely retreading through an entire mission.
Though the gameplay is incredibly engaging and exciting, it's frustrating to have Corvo entirely defined through action. At no time does he ever interact with those talking at him. If the effort has been made to define his existence in Dunwall, and he's not just one of those nameless everyman personas we're supposed to assume the role of, he needs a voice. I get budgets are tighter for a new IP, but I'd much rather even a passable performance for the main character in exchange for the cost of billboard actors like Susan Sarandon.
The world of Dishonored, on display through Corvo's assassin mask, however, make it easy to forget he doesn't talk with any of the recycled NPC models populating Dunwall's streets. Textures might be a bit muddied on the console, but they give the confluence of old English and steampunk aesthetics an interactive watercolor appearance. The entire art direction, with its rather disparate, anachronistic schemes, is combined so well its endearing.
All wrapped together, the Dishonored package is a model I wish more games—especially the tired first-person shooter genre—would follow. More so today than ever, it seems like they're intent on only offering violent measures as means and ends to their conflicts. Dishonored, instead, uses violence as a choice—a fact that makes it more appropriately rewarding, and happily avoided. There are some weird technical hiccups (like guards able to hear downed and snoozing enemies through walls) and the protagonist is a shell without a voice, but everything gels together so impeccably otherwise, it's unfortunate the game has an ending.
Do you want more choice in gaming, or are you okay with the way things are? Guns blazing or bypassing? Rouse a debate over Twitter and let us know @Gamers_Hell