30 Mar 2018

Immersive Sim Structure and Dishonored 2

As a fan of series such as Deus Ex and Thief, I had always wanted to become more invested in Arkane Studios' Dishonored franchise. I'd played the first one when it released back in 2012, but had somehow missed out on its sequel until earlier this month. After seeing talk about it once again on Twitter, I decided to give it a spin.

Set fifteen years after the death of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, Dishonored 2 ditches the Dickensian-engineered labyrinth of Dunwall from the first game and takes players to the sand-swept, temperate metropolis of Karnaca. When a supernatural usurper known as Delilah seizes the throne for herself, the Kaldwin dynasty is once again threatened as the protagonists are forced into exile.

As in its predecessor, most of your time in Dishonored 2 will be spent sneaking around urban areas with the purpose of eliminating a target, either lethally or non-lethally, while  also avoiding guards, traps and other obstacles. The key to making each mission flow in the game belongs to a design principle known as the immersive simulation, a structure providing artificial systems that reliably respond to a variety of player actions, granting them an extended sense of agency as they are presented with multiple approaches to a given level.
Returning characters from the first game include Corvo and Emily - who are both now playable and fully voiced by actors Stephen Russell (Thief, System Shock 2) and Erica Luttrell (Steven Universe, Fallout 4) - as well as the Outsider, a morally-ambiguous deity who grants supernatural talents to the player. Both characters have their own abilities, with Corvo retaining most of his such as Blink that lets you teleport across the level, and Bend Time that allows you to slow - or even stop - time in order to act without being noticed. Emily's abilities become more focused on combat and heavy hitting. She receives Far Reach in place of Blink, which is more of a Spider-Man web-slinging-esque power, which can also be used to grab items from afar. Her best ability is Domino, which allows you to chain enemies together so they can all be killed or knocked unconscious at once.

In an interview with Red Bull, lead designer Dinga Bakaba spoke about the philosophy behind designing the characters: "we would like players to see all the aspects of our game and try out the different combinations and playstyles for themselves. We try to find many ways to encourage replayability, but in terms of the characters themselves, clearly from the moment we decided that Corvo and Emily would have different power sets, we wanted both of them to be versatile [...] we didn’t want one to be the Warrior and the other to be the Rogue. You don’t lock yourself into a particular playstyle if you choose Corvo or Emily."

Other than the supernatural powers, there are no other practical differences for choosing one character over the other, however there are smaller narrative variations that may influence your decision. Corvo grew up in Karnaca, and thus the game also acts as a homecoming for him. You'll learn more about him, his past and his feelings towards Jessamine and the others. As for Emily, you'll see how being empress has changed her over the years as well as learning more about the relationship between herself and Corvo, revealing a more emotional side to her. Altogether, you're better off doing a playthrough with each character in order to fully understand them.

Aside from that, Arkane has also brought back other popular features. Bonecharms - collectible items that grant small bonuses - return and are more expanded upon, with stronger charms being divided into black and corrupted variants. The player can also learn an ability that allows them to craft their own, paving the way for unique combinations that will affect how robust the character can be.
The chaos system also returns, where the state of the player's world and eventual outcome of the game will be determined by how many kills are performed throughout the campaign. For the most part, this will affect vermin populations and the number of guards found per mission, but it may also change how other characters perceive the protagonist as well as affecting certain dialogue opportunities. My favourite part about this system is how unclear chaos is to the player, leaving them with the possibility that the game may be changing through their actions without them knowing. Despite its restrictively binary result, it ultimately works as a great tool for shaping the world around your playstyle.

In order to lessen the chances of repetition, each level in Dishonored 2 is built around a distinct theme or mechanic. For example, the mission The Good Doctor is all about verticality as you must venture to the top of a medical institute to find information on one of your allies. It can be as simple as sneaking inside and taking the elevator to the objective, or as elaborate moving upwards and around the exterior, weaving in-and-out of windows and ventilation shafts, as well as evading the heavier guard patrols. This is where the immersive sim-like characteristics come out in Dishonored 2, as each mission can be explored in its own unique way. There are plenty of routes to find and hidden secrets to uncover, including lethal and nonlethal methods to eliminate your target.

One of the best examples of how these qualities are handled is found in the mission The Clockwork Mansion, which has the player reach a mansion built on clockwork mechanisms, with entire room layouts and objects changing with the flick of a switch. The level begins in a closed foyer consisting of a grand piano and several chairs, but activating a nearby lever will transform the place, retract the walls and unveil grand staircases with which to explore. From here, there are more spaces to explore as you reveal the mysteries of the mansion, as many rooms can be reached by using the cramped crawl-spaces between the walls. For the more perceptive player, the transformation mechanic can be bypassed entirely as they will find hidden passageways, skylights and closets that allow them to progress through the building without ever letting its owner know you're there.
As beloved as The Clockwork Mansion is, the highlight of the game for me is a mission called A Crack in the Slab. The protagonist receives an artifact known as a timepiece after arriving at a manor that has been sealed for the past three years. Using the timepiece will allow the player to travel between two time periods; the ravaged present and its elegant past. Corridors left in ruin suddenly become lavish halls filled with guards and maids. Flooded suites with shattered walls and windows are repaired and well-lit once again. What follows is a series of puzzles where the player must shift between the two realities, with your actions in the past affecting the present. Disposing of a dog's corpse will remove the infestation of vermin in the present, whilst destroying the support beams on a balcony will cause it to collapse, creating a path to climb years later. You'll be avoiding guards in one time period whilst trying to pass by debris and rubble in the other, and it made for one of the most fascinating gameplay mechanics I've ever seen in a videogame.

But one of the best things Dishonored 2 does, not just in these two missions but in the game as a whole, is pay close attention to the details of the environment. Homes feel occupied, with paintings, documents and clutter items informing the player about the individuals who live there. From the splendor of Dunwall Tower to the degraded industrial bureaus of the Dust District, each location has been designed with this in mind. Game director Harvey Smith backed this up in an interview with Metro, saying, "You can get from the beginning of the game to the end without violence, and it’s one of the things we’re really happy with. It’s one of the reasons that we put so much into the world. There’s that layer of the world that’s an adventure game layer, where you’re just looking at this alternate reality… it’s the art sure, but it’s also the narrative layer and the lore. And the way the Empire seems to function."
The main thing to take from the flow of Dishonored 2's gameplay that other stealth games have missed is that there's never really a moment when you feel like you're waiting for something to happen. Because of powers like Blink and Bend Time, movement around the level doesn't seem restrictive and there are always ways to sneak around a group of guards. Compare this to a game such as Hitman, where the immersive sim aspects are still a core feature of design but also require your patience in allowing certain events to unfold. Dishonored just feels right in that it gives the player that sense of always being able to advance forward without waiting for the world to catch up.

There is no finer example of how a good sequel is formed than in Dishonored 2. With expanded gameplay mechanics, an engaging story and sensible design choices, it's clear that Arkane Studios have poured a lot of thought into this product. While the immersive sim genre has been around for decades, I can see this game being remembered as a core influencer in how developers approach such elements in the future.

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