Losing the Magic: Dishonored 2’s Plot

Excuse a fairly self-indulgent post, but I wanted to articulate the problems I’ve been having with Dishonored 2’s plot. (There will be spoilers for all Dishonored games.)

So, a summary of Dishonored 1’s plot: You’re the bodyguard to the Empress. She is killed by mysterious assassins, and her daughter Emily is kidnapped. You’re framed for the murder, but escape prison with the help of newfound occult powers and join up with a group of loyalists. You rescue Emily, and performing several political assassinations to place the loyalists in charge. As soon as this is done, they betray you, intending to rule by influencing the new empress. You survive, and track them down to find that, they have fallen into infighting: you remove the last of them and return Emily to power.

Aside from the occult powers you gain, it could be just about any spy movie or political thriller. It’s a simple story: the setting builds a deep connection to the magic and the supernatural, but on top of it, the plotline is relatively grounded. There’s no true villain, and the core theme is that all power -supernatural or not – corrupts.

The first thing that happens in Dishonored 2 is a witch launching a coup.

It’s stupider than that, really: said witch (Delilah) struts into the palace, announces that she is the true heiress to the throne, and everyone mostly goes along with it. The player character is exiled, and spends the game following from clue to clue in Delilah’s hometown, including time-travelling to a seance and sabotaging a magi-tech device in a coven of witches. You trap Delilah’s spirit in a heart to return it to her body, then kill Delilah, or trap her in a pocket universe.

sceneofthegrime

Whatever The Opposite of Magical Realism Is

The key difference is how the two games treat their supernatural elements. In the first, they’re very much restricted to the background. Witches and other occultists are present in the world but few and far between (most notably the order of assassins who kill the empress, and Granny Rags, the antagonist of an optional subplot). It feels as if magic is very much a secondary part of the setting, a world power more important than any other nation – but it’s all unseen. It makes the world seem deep, and rich, and large. In Dishonored 2, after about the halfway mark, just about everyone you meet is a witch. A random gang leader turns into a swarm of rats when killed, and another needs a fresh body for unspoken purposes. The mysticism is entwined firmly with the plot, as deeply as Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings, and while this isn’t bad in itself, it feels unsatisfying. It makes the special abilities more normal, it makes the world weirder and shallower, and the plot feel less weighty and more like, well, like a videogame.

screendoorDon’t get me wrong: Dishonored 1 is hardly Dickens, but the plotline was comprehensible and familiar. It was about betrayal, about the bloody mechanics of a coup, about political violence, and Dishonored 2 has horcruxes. If you kill people because they stand in the way of a specific goal parliament votes, funding an enemy, hiring an assassin these are familiar, meaningful ideas. When you start talking about Spirits and runes, summonings and powers… the plot becomes a weightless string of objective markers, always a degree of separation from anything with meaning. You’re tasked with hurdying the gurldehiem, because that will allow you to flibber the yillty, and then you can reclaim your throne.

This doesn’t actually harm the gameplay often, but the ways in which it does are hard to forgive. The assassinations – the core point of the first game, what we bought the game for – feel almost tacked on, secondary to the clue-hunting. Have you ever seen Danger 5, where every mission briefing ends with “And don’t forget – kill hitler!”? It’s like that, but instead you’re tasked with murdering whoever owns the house you’re hunting plot in, usually for fairly spurious reasons. (He’ll make an army of robots, will he? So do we have to burn blueprints or smash prototypes, or – oh, no, okay, just knife this one dude.) There’s so much less to be done finding artefacts or notes, as opposed to tracking a moving, thinking target, and the levels suffer for it, with little reason to take any but the most direct route to wherever the next supernatural doodad is.

Delilah, and Endingsomniscientscarecrow

Delilah is a disappointing villain: she struts and gurns, in tight black trousers and gloves. She gloats about conquering worlds, tells extended unreliable stories about her childhood, and seems to wear a quantity of coral on her shoulders. She seems never even to consider the possibility that the prodigal daughter she exiled might return, and at one point holds a sword to your throat before, for no reason,  turning and wandering away for no reason whatsoever. Her grand plan seems to be some kind of spell that will allow her to take control of the whole world – but it’s the worst magical bullshit in the game, never explained, shrugged off seemingly as magic, as if that’s enough.

She’s a cartoon, a B-movie, which makes far more sense when you realise she was the antagonist from the two narrative Dishonored 1 DLCs, in which the assassin Daud starts hunting her down and ends up protecting Emily from a magical trap. There, she barely arrived in person until the end, with the game spent learning her backstory: she was a MacGuffin as much as a character, and barely has time to disappoint before being removed. The plot is far more entwined with magic than the original, but it all works: the player is aware they’re on a side-route: they’re delving deeper into one aspect of the world, rather than bringing that one aspect glaringly to the fore at the cost of all others.

She suffers all the more in comparison to Havelock, the antagonist of the first game, who was a political threat, a betrayer: he’s the cause of the titular Dishonor. At the end of the game, he knows he’s beaten, he retreats, steadily more desperate: when the end comes, it’s an execution, not a brawl. You’ll despise what he’s done to you and Emily by the end of the game, because he smiled in your face before spitting in it: you truly trusted him.

witchcraftAt the end of the sequel you meet Delilah in a pocket universe, where she summons a swarm of duplicates to fight you before throwing out unique, high-power attacks to challenge you herself: the sort of Boss Fight familiar in everything from Half-Life to Lego Star Wars 2. It’s cliche, and disappointing: Dishonored pausing being itself to be something worse. The first game has no need for this. Some games would have arbitrarily superpowered Havelock for the final fight, in the same way that so many games take weak, political opponents and have them hop into mechs or go super saiyan. It’s a mark of the trust Dishonored 1 holds in itself and it’s own plot that it doesn’t feel the need to do anything like this – the last five minutes of gameplay are in fact the easiest. The bastard knows you’re coming, see: when you arrive he’s alone, desperate and half-mad: it’s finale as plot as reward, the game knowing full well you don’t need a big final punch-up when instead you can stick the knife into someone you truly despise.

In contrast, Delilah extracts no emotion from me but distaste. Dealing with her is like spitting out an unexpected bite of sour apple. This isn’t just me being cynical: I was able to care deeply about the other enemies (Kindosh was fantastic). Delilah simply doesn’t hit the player where it hurts. We’ve all lost friends; few of us have lost empires.

I loved Dishonored 2: the setpiece sequences, the maps, the diversity, the new powers. I fully intend to replay it two or three times: but something always gives with sequels, and it’s almost always – Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2, Portal 2 – how they’re written. Dishonored 2 is a good game, but feels a little less bold than it’s predecessor, which is always a bad thing.

On the other hand, you can mind-link a roomful of people together and yank one of them out of the window by their ankle, thus causing all of them to react as if hurled to their deaths. Swings and roundabouts, is what i’m saying.

Images are all from DeadEndThrills.com – their Dishonored Gallery.

 

 

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