I’ve been replaying Dishonored 2 lately, mostly because the old mill town where I now live made me intensely nostalgic for that series’ paranoid Gothic-Industrial aesthetic, but also because Death of the Outsider reminded me of how much I’d forgotten about the details of Dishonored 2’s plot. So I decided to revisit one of my favorite game worlds and play through what I had regarded, at first glance, as the masterpiece of the Dishonored series… only to discover I didn’t like it nearly as much as I thought I did.
What’s odd about this is that I don’t feel like my feelings have actually changed. Everything that I loved and that impressed me a couple years ago is still capable of taking my breath away. It’s a world I just love to inhabit and explore, thanks to its use of architecture to establish characters and their backstory, and the extensive array of in-game art and literature that portrays how this world’s inhabitants respond to it. Dishonored 2 still feels like a gorgeous murder-museum, unveiling one haunting diorama after another. It’s huge and ambitious and full of things I love… but for some reason it just feels less inviting and playful than either Dishonored or its paired expansions, Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches.
I think the difference might be that, for reasons either technical or financial or both, Dishonored and its expansions always felt like they had to suggest a world more than create one. Levels still felt like self-contained spaces built around a core theme or idea: the Flooded District was Dunwall’s deserted wasteland, the symbol of a government’s callousness and growing incapacity. The Golden Cat was a club and bordello meant both to cater to the elite’s demand for sophistication and elegance, and their fetishization of and exultation at the creeping squalor overtaking their social inferiors. The sadistic “slumming” of the Golden Cat contrasted well against the desperate, panicked revels of the masked ball at the Boyle estate.
But each of these moments stands out as a distinct chapter in a tightly-constructed novel. Dishonored 2, by contrast, does much of its world-building in interstitial “city” levels that you have to navigate before you ever get to the mission locations where your targets reside. In other words, Dishonored had to imply a world beyond the confines of its carefully constructed puzzle-boxes. Dishonored 2 just builds the world around the puzzle box and, as I play through it again, I’m realizing how much less I enjoy that structure even as I admire the scale and detail it allows. Dishonored 2 is the exact game I thought I wanted after playing Brigmore Witches, and now I’m realizing just how much of a monkey’s paw proposition that proved to be.
I still love Dishonored 2 and enjoy the degree to which it is catering to my gluttonous desire for more. But it also makes me think about how good limitations can be, because they leave room for the imagination to fill-in spaces around what is directly depicted. I don’t actually have to see an extensive fictional neighborhood in order to imagine it, and in fact it might be more fun if there’s just the barest outline of it that you glimpse from a window and learn about from a snippet of overheard dialogue. But I think there’s an impulse with video games in general and sequels in particular to literally portray what is best left to the imagination, which often comes at the price of focus and momentum. In a word, it’s more interesting to me to imagine commuting through Karnaca than it is to actually have to do it a half-dozen times over the course of a game.
What about you? What are games that gave you exactly what you thought you wanted, only to discover you liked them less?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9kgnmy/when-you-get-the-exact-game-you-wanted-and-it-turns-out-you-dont-like-it