I am slowly playing through the original Dishonored game. It is, by all rights, a fantastic game. But I’m going to complain about it anyway.
No matter what you do, you cannot unlock all abilities in one run
Dishonored is unique because of its dire Victorian industrial theocratic world, its interesting cast of characters, and most of all because of the powers that you, the player, get to use. You can teleport, you can possess animals and people, you can make swarms of rats eat your enemies and you can do much more. But you can’t do everything because there aren’t enough runes – objects hidden throughout the world – to unlock all abilities. Why?
The obvious answers are balance and replayability. Presumably unlocking all abilities close to the end of the game would make it unbalanced and too easy. But unlocking more abilities won’t necessarily make the game easier – one can advance through the game using only a small selection. Using a lot of different abilities in a row is actually more difficult than using and mastering only one or two. What the abilities do is provide variety and choice. More abilities mean more fun. Which is why they should be accessible to the player.
The idea of replayability is that a game should be fun to play again after one has completed the main story. So players can unlock new content only when they play the second or third time. I’m often wary of “replayability” as an ideal because to me it can mean locking content away from the player, but it can be done in a non-annoying way. Some games have “new game plus” modes that are to all intents and purposes the same as the original run, but with stronger enemies and more advanced versions of player powers and equipment, making play more difficult. This is an acceptable way of extending a game for players that want more, as it doesn’t make the game longer by limiting the scope and fun of the original run.
Given that most players don’t even get half way through most games, let alone replay them, the only reason why content should not be available in the original playthrough is if locking content actually improves the game. This may be the case with moral choices and character relationships, where if the player does x, characters respond as if the player has done x, whereas if the player chose y then characters respond as if the player has done y. Having people say to you “You should have done y you bastard!”, especially if one cannot backtrack, gives the player a sense of agency and responsibility.
But abilities and superpowers are not like this. The ability to teleport is not made more fun because it came at the expense of being able to turn into a dog and devour people’s faces. Quite the opposite – it is more fun to teleport, turn into a dog and devour some faces, and then teleport away again.
Don’t make me replay you or go back just so I can get the super-sprint power Dishonored, that’s not cool.
The good path is the boring path
One could write a book about morality and ethics in video games. In Dishonored, killing too many people, especially main characters, results in high chaos, meaning more bad guys, a worse rat plague, and a darker ending. Players can choose what is right – letting characters live – or what is easy – killing those who stand in their path. This, as a general design approach to morality, is sound.
But there are two problems with the good path in Dishonored. First, the win-screen players are given at the end of missions implies that being seen by enemies can increase chaos. If being seen can increase chaos and cause the player to get the bad ending, then once one has been seen the only thing to do is to load a previous save and start again. The “good” game becomes a tedious grind of hide and seek and save scumming.
I looked up the chaos system on the game’s wiki, and it turns out getting spotted doesn’t actually affect chaos. So players can be seen by the dark forces of Dunwall without causing the world to fall apart. But even if the player realises this, and it’s not clearly presented this way, the good path is still boring. This is because there are only a small number of ways players can deal with their foes without killing them – generally they can smother unaware foes from behind, or they can shoot them with sleep darts, or they can avoid them altogether. That’s it. A fairly thorough run of the game by a typical player can take eighteen hours.
Most of the player’s abilities and weapons are geared around killing foes. The game’s advertising is based on killing foes. A large part of the fun of Dishonored comes from the various ways one can kill one’s foes. Try to be good and you are cutting yourself off from the fun of the game.
The solution to this is to allow more non-lethal ways for the player to take out enemies, that are still harder to use than the lethal methods and preserve the trade-off between what is right and what is easy.
For example, the player could have the conventional grenades, which explode and kill their targets, and also have stun grenades, which knock targets to the floor, allowing the player to run in and smother one or two but only if they are quick. Or players could have the option of punching instead of using their sword, which takes more hits to knock someone out, and can be blocked or countered more easily if the player times it wrong. Or what about glue traps, which rather than killing foes, hold enemies in one place, but do not harm them or prevent them from attacking?
But apart from this Dishonored is a great game and I really am nitpicking.