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Dishonored wants to make stealth games cool again

Delimbing aristocrats, embodying rodents. Dishonored is grim, sure, but it's sort of funny, too

Gallery Photo: Dishonored screens
Gallery Photo: Dishonored screens
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Dishonored is a merciless, unabashedly grim game.

The aristocrat begs for his life.

Seconds ago, he was bullying a prostitute in the steam room of a lavish bathhouse. His lean, muscular arms pinning her into submission. Now they lash at the glass window, but you are merciless, wrenching up the steam, causing the room to boil and his lungs to collapse. Dishonored, the new project by Arkane Studios, is unabashedly grim.

You are Corvo, a former Empresses guard. You were framed for her death and imprisoned. In a grimy jail cell, a disinterested god called The Outsider bestowed magical powers unto you via a symbol burned into the flesh. With these supernatural abilities, you now seek vengeance.

The quest is divided into sections, standalone missions in unique settings. Loading docks. Royal estates. Poverty stricken streets. We were shown a bathhouse, a more lavish and colorful arena than the rest.

Like a traditional stealth game, missions involve infiltrating compounds, assassinating political targets, and acquiring information. There's climbing up walls and hiding in shadows. Then there's the magic. Powers like Blink, which "shift" the player dozens of yards, past watchmen or onto balconies: you can inhabit any living creature, from a mouse to a man; time can be frozen; wind can be weaponized.

All skills are upgradeable via a traditional role-playing upgrade tree, allowing you to customize the way Corvo completes his quest for vengeance.

The concept seems both novel and familiar, bold and proven. In a Hollywood pitch meeting, you would pitch Dishonored as Thief meets BioShock. Sneak around, try to stealthily kill key targets, and when things go topsy-turvy, kill everything in a flurry of reality-bending trickery.

That is to say, Dishonored looks to be a smart, careful, quiet game – until you have the urge to make it a summer blockbuster. At our demo, the same bath house stage was shown twice. First, as a stealth mission. Then, a Rambo mission. Both were equally appetizing. You imagine the two will blend together in the majority of play throughs.

Though, perhaps, the killing looked more enjoyable. A dark thing to say, but this is, after all, a dark game.

Graphic fatal maneuvers incentivize murder. Bat an enemy into a concrete ledge, and his legs rip from his torso. Order a swarm of rats to pluck the flesh from the bones of a politician. Each key target even has special animations, just for them.

The game, the developers quickly note, will be completable without a single death (presumably unlocking an Achievement that will be annoyingly flaunted by Senior Editor, Russ Frushtick).

Listen to Chris Plante and Russ Frushtick discussing Dishonored

The dark environment, a port town called Dunwall, is plotted on an alternate earth where the skies are washed by pollution from industry, fueled by precious whale oil. The faces of strangers are craggy and sharp, like the residents of an Irish pub at closing time. Killing them (and if you play Dishonored, you will probably kill many of them – though the game can be completed without taking a single life) seems like a crooked favor. Anywhere must be better than this awful place.

The developers from Arkane beam when they present the setting. It has been a priority in the design process, on equal ground with the game design. Sneaking around, players will need to believe the world is real, so they will think to take full advantage of it. When they see a key hole, they will want to look through it. When they spot a hole in a vent, it will become a secret interest – so long as they inhabit the body of a small enough rat.

Delimbing aristocrats, embodying rodents. Dishonored is grim, sure, but it's sort of funny, too.