Radio host Joe Frank once did a live show on WBAI where he invited an actor friend to make a mock appearance on the radio as a mime. Frank asked the “mime” to perform a piece from his upcoming show. The result: 30 seconds of dead air. Irate listeners lit up the phone lines at the station to point out how idiotic it was to have a mime perform on the radio. People were not accustomed to hearing silence on the radio.
Silence also isn’t something you often expect to find in the noisy, fast-moving world of video games. Dishonored, which tells the story of an assassin-cum-bodyguard named Corvo, is loaded with moments of quiet. It’s a game that rewards players for being observant, for pausing and being mindful, and for doing something in a virtual world that people generally loathe in real life—waiting.
You’ll wait for a vicious-looking hound to pass. You’ll wait for a spotlight to ever so slowly turn the other way. You’ll wait for a guard to make his rounds, only to watch him finally stop and urinate behind a dumpster. (No guards in the history of video games urinate as much as the well-hydrated guards of Dishonored.) All of this waiting takes place across real minutes. None of it is compressed in the name of hustling things along, because Dishonored has no interest in hustling things along. It’s a slow-moving game that demands that players actually listen to the conversations of others, and to—how quaint—read virtual books, similar to the tracts you’d read in Fallout 3 or Skyrim. Indeed, the hyper-literate Corvo would likely get a star each day of the school year from any grammar school teacher on the planet.
Dishonored is set in the fictional city of Dunwall. With its crumbling parapets, quaint enjoy-a-pint inns, and abandoned dog fighting arenas, Dunwall feels like a Dickensian amusement park gone to seed. At the start of the game, Corvo is in the wrong place at the wrong time during a coup, and he’s framed for the murder of an empress. He’s locked up in a jail cell. Thanks to a loaf of bread with a key inside, he escapes and connects with a band of rebels who intend to return order to Dunwall. They aim to do this by dispatching Corvo on stealthy missions that are designed to subvert Dunwall’s new order.
In a typical mission, you infiltrate a structure, take out your target, and escape. Later missions offer multiple paths to your mark and are stuffed with human guards and mechanical steampunk interlopers like the fearsome Tallboys, which look like the lethal cousins of Renaissance Faire stilt-walkers. It’s during these more complicated, Tallboy-filled missions that the game’s pliable nature reveals itself.
Urinating guards can either be stabbed in the back or merely knocked unconscious, which is the kind of “kill or maim?” decision that has become commonplace in games. Dishonored offers more nuanced choices, though. You could scale that building’s facade, or you could crawl through the sewers underneath. A sneaky player may simply remove the tank of whale oil from a bothersome machine-gun turret. Yet if you have a taste for revenge, you can reprogram the turret, BioShock style, to target the patrolling guards below. Standing atop a newly conquered turret, after all the time you spent cowering from its gaze, is merely one of Dishonored’s many cathartic moments.
Corvo eventually gains several supernatural powers, including the ability to possess human beings (or rats), and the ability to stop time. One possible permutation of these powers: Fire your gun, stop time, possess a nearby guard and move him in front of the halted bullet, start time again, and let the bullet run its course. There’s never one way, or a single right way, to accomplish any objective. No matter what I do in Dishonored or how I do it, there’s always this nagging feeling that there’s a better way out there that I simply haven’t sussed out yet.
It’s those permutations, and those momentary choices—do you kill a guard, or simply knock him unconscious?—that articulate the story at the heart of Dishonored. Each mission is designed to be played repeatedly in a Groundhog Day kind of way, until you’re finally satisfied that all the right choices have been made, and that the story—Corvo’s story, your story—has been told in exactly the way you intended it to be told.
There is a sense that the game is watching you—just as you spend a lot of time waiting, Dishonored waits patiently to see which choices you’ll make. During a mission early in the game, Corvo sneaks into a brothel where he finds a sexually adventurous man blindfolded and strapped into an electroshock chair. The blindfolded man says, “Finally! I’ve been waiting 20 minutes. Your footsteps sound a little loud. Have you gained a little weight, honey?” Dishonored isn’t just a world that’s designed to be observed; it’s also sophisticated enough to observe the player in return.