Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

When Emily was first revealed as a playable character in Dishonored 2, I was excited. I was less excited when it was shown that she would have completely new abilities. This wasn’t inherently a problem, but I couldn’t imagine playing Dishonored without the Dark Vision ability, which was now apparently limited only to Corvo. A while ago, Bethesda released a new trailer showing that Emily does indeed have Dark Vision. Why is this ability special enough to break the rule that each character has mutually exclusive abilities, and how does it tie in to the Dishonored experience as a whole?

Abilities and Role-Based Design

Dishonored is one of the pioneers of the modern immersive sim movement: games that place a heavy emphasis on emergence and agency. Actions have believable consequences, abstract goals can be approached from a variety of angles, and characters act according to their own agendas. In the past, this would mean many branching narrative paths, but the modern movement seems to be favoring gameplay over story, which is fine.

This does however mean that modern immersive sims need to place a heavy emphasis on level design, and by extension the types of abilities that players will have. Immersive sims in the past balanced level design along with everything else, which resulted in some scenarios that would be unacceptable by today’s standards (such as mine climbing in the original Deus Ex). If mine climbing were to be embraced as an intentional mechanic, it would require a complete overhaul of the level design in order to make it fun, viable, and balanced with respect to all of the player’s other options.

So what does it take to design a level that can be solved in any way the player wants, while still ensuring that every one of those ways is still interesting and challenging? My guess is that they divide up all player abilities in terms of roles, and then scatter pieces of level design according to what roles are required.

Up until now, it seemed that for every one of Corvo’s abilities, there was a corresponding “Emily-version” that fulfilled the same role with a twist. This enables Arkane Studios to let Emily and Corvo both use the same levels, because they both have access to the same baseline toolkit. They can both achieve the same end results, they just do it in different ways.

Movement: Corvo’s Blink, Emily’s Far Reach. Get to places you wouldn’t normally be able to get to.

Crowd control: Corvo’s Possession, Emily’s Domino. Deal with groups of enemies who can’t be easily divided.

Reconnaissance: Corvo’s Dark Vision, Emily’s Shadow Walk. Move around enemies without being avoided.

Lockdown: Corvo’s Bend Time, Emily’s Mesmerize. Stop things from happening for a while.

Reinforcements: Corvo’s Devouring Swarm, Emily’s Doppelganger. Bring a friend as a distraction or a combat helper.

Disruption: Corvo’s Windblast. There hasn’t seemed to be an Emily-version of this yet.

Each ability reaches out slightly into different roles depending on how the player uses it, which also gives the designers flexibility for a little bit of variation. Possession can be used for movement, and Doppelganger can be used as an impromptu lockdown. Since Dishonored 2 has skill trees, it can be assumed that players can customized their abilities to suit whatever roles they prefer.

Under this system, a level designer can block out a scenario in terms of roles. “Here, the player can choose movement by climbing onto the rooftops, or they can choose lockdown by sneaking past a guard outpost, or they can choose crowd control to take all the enemies down.” Certain situations would require a combination of roles or some other special circumstances. This way, there are general paths with a big picture solution, but players still have the freedom to make a detailed plan.

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However, it seems that the selection of roles was a little strange. Crowd control and lockdown are essentially the same thing. If you were in a situation where you felt like you needed to use Bend Time, you probably could have used Possession instead and accomplished your goal anyway.

The idea should have been that each role fulfills a distinct purpose. In the first Dishonored, I felt like I had too many tools to solve problems that really weren’t that difficult. Blink, Dark Vision, and quicksaving was all I needed, even on harder difficulties.

In which case, why go through the trouble of making such a complex immersive sim, when you only need to interact with the surface? The underlying mechanics might make good footage for a cool montage, but realistically, you hardly need to use most of the abilities to beat the game. That just feels like wasted design to me. What’s the difference between Doppelganger and Mesmerize? They do the same thing in a slightly different way.

Now that Emily has been shown to also possess Dark Vision, it throws this system even further off its axis. Would this mean that Emily has two reconnaissance abilities? As a player, I can imagine that Shadow Walk and Dark Vision fulfill nearly the same purpose: I use it if I want to sneak past a bunch of guards while making sure they don’t see me. Isn’t this overkill? Doesn’t this run into the too-many-tools problem again?

Should Shadow Walk belong in a new “invisibility” category, implying that there will be a Corvo-version of Shadow Walk? This would be interesting. Reconnaissance and invisibility aren’t that different from each other, but they’re more different than lockdown versus crowd control. I want to see more unique abilities fulfilling unique roles that open up unique new paths in the level design. I don’t want to see ten different ways of killing the same guard outpost.

The original Thief games had objects that each fulfilled different roles, while also allowing for overlap between them. Moss arrows generally fall under the silencing role, whereas water arrows generally fall under the concealment role. Since Garrett in Thief doesn’t have superpowers, stealth is a lot harder for him, so he needs more specialized tools for the job. Each role in Thief is on a smaller scale.

But in Dishonored, “silencing” and “concealment” hardly need to be differentiated. Shadow Walk does both. Lethal takedowns don’t leave behind puddles of blood that need to be concealed. Sneaking will always be silent no matter what kind of ground you’re walking on.

It’s as if Dishonored is Thief cranked up a notch. Why would you need to worry about something as petty as a torch when you can use magic? Garrett would extinguish the torch with a water arrow, then prepare his blackjack as a patrolling guard moves to investigate. Corvo would just teleport past.

Since Corvo and Emily are so powerful, the enemies needed to be cranked up too, but they weren’t. They’re still the same predictable guards you would expect in Thief, perhaps even dumber. In fact, I think some of the most exciting moments in Dishonored happened near the end, especially in the DLC when you start fighting against other people who also have supernatural powers.

Dishonored 2 looks like it will move in this direction with its heavy emphasis on the clockwork soldiers, who can’t be taken down by normal means and appear to be introduced quite early on. Rather than broadening the number of roles that players can choose, they will instead broaden the number of situations that will require the roles that already exist. Perhaps clockwork soldiers can’t be defeated by crowd control abilities, so you’ll need to use reinforcements instead. Maybe there will be a real situation in which I need to weigh the pros and cons of Dark Vision versus Shadow Walk.