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Dishonored 2 is a testament to video games’ power of place

It’s less a game you play than a place you visit.

Landscape still from Dishonored 2
Dishonored 2
Bethesda

In Dishonored 2, you can stroll through city side streets, crawl along building ledges and exposed ducts, leap across chandeliers, and even, with the help of some mystical abilities, teleport between rooftops and balconies, or transform into a living shadow and pass through rat-infested sewer pipes. Like its predecessor, 2012’s Dishonored, the game is set in a quasi-Victorian steampunk alternate world powered by whale oil, where robots coexist with railcars and a wealthy upper class lives lavishly in fancy dwellings while city streets are populated by the poor.

The game allows you to play as one of two characters: the royal bodyguard Corvo, who starred in the first game, or his charge, Emily Kaldwin, the young Empress of the Isles whom Corvo is charged with protecting. The game starts when Emily is ousted from power by a rival lord, and it consists of a series of missions in which you are tasked with finding and assassinating some player in the conspiracy to take the throne: a clever inventor hidden in his mechanical lair, a powerful witch who’s taken up residence in a conservatory, a gang leader on the dusty outskirts of the city.

But ultimately, it’s not the game’s plot or characters that stick with you. It’s the world itself.

Dishonored 2 is a clockwork marvel of video game level design that’s as enthralling as any I’ve ever encountered. Over the course of a single weeklong play-through, I spent dozens of hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the seaside city of Karnaca, where the game takes place, collecting trinkets, reading books and diaries, listening in on the mostly mundane conversations of the various residents and guards who inhabited the place. In the hours I wasn’t playing, I often found myself daydreaming about the locations I visited in Karnaca — not about how to complete the missions, but about the city itself, as if remembering a some foreign locale to which I’d actually been.

Remarkably, over a single week, the virtual locations in Dishonored 2 seemed to take on the character and presence of real places — making it a testament to video games’ power to create immersive and memorable worlds.

Dishonored 2’s primary attraction is its setting

More than any other pop culture medium, video games excel at creating a sense of place. Many of today’s biggest games and franchises are ultimately about exploring virtual geography. That’s especially true in sprawling open-world games like Grand Theft Auto V and Watch Dogs, which are set in detailed recreations of real-world cities. But place matters even in more games with more confined worlds: a stealth game like Hitman is about moving through a specific place; sci-fi shooters like Halo and Gears of War are defined as much by their settings as by their stories; indie games like The Witness and The Talos Principle are built out of a combination of atmospherics and environmental puzzles.

Dishonored 2.
Bethesda

Dishonored 2 borrows a bit from all of these games and more: It’s part stealth game, part action RPG, part first-person platform puzzler. But more than anything, it’s an exercise in physical exploration — not only in moving from place to place but in figuring out how to do so, often with the goal of avoiding detection by the enemy characters patrolling the world.

Both of the game’s playable characters, can run, jump, sneak, and climb, but they can also teleport short distances, moving quietly between overlooks or transporting to impossible-to-reach ledges above. Almost every location can be accessed via multiple paths, and the game’s greatest pleasure is in figuring out all the ways it’s possible to transverse its labyrinthine levels. Scattered around those levels are various magical power-ups — runes and charms that grant your character even more mystical powers. Finding them often involves solving some sort of in-game puzzle by moving through and manipulating the world.

Even if you’re not on the hunt for more magical doodads, the world offers plenty to see: There are books filled with background and lore, and journals kept by non-player characters that offer story background and clues to what it’s actually like to live in this strange alternate world, imbuing it with texture and history. In almost every sense, the place itself is the game’s real attraction.

The game’s setting overshadows its narrative — which is both a strength and a limitation

Although the missions in Dishonored 2 are focused on taking out specific individual targets, and there is sometimes combat involved, the action is almost beside the point. If anything, the game discourages players from taking on enemies directly: It counts up your kills, and how times you were detected, at the end of each level, rewarding you for never murdering a soul.

Dishonored 2.
Bethesda

While it is possible to play the game as a serial murderer, it’s also possible to never kill anyone, even the assassination targets themselves, although it sometimes requires more patience and creativity. And if you do choose to kill frequently, the world responds by turning darker and more dangerous, as if punishing players for bringing chaos and violence to the world rather than carefully moving through it.

Indeed, director Harvey Smith, who also oversaw the first Dishonored, has described an approach to game design that is focused on nonviolent interaction. At his studio, Arkane, he recently told the A.V. Club, “We always talk about non-combat verbs. The more we can add a non-combat verb — even if it’s looking through a spyglass, or eavesdropping on a conversation, or reconfiguring the walls of a mechanistic house — that gives the player something else to do to change the environment, to interact with the environment.”

There are limitations to this approach, of course. The primary gameplay becomes almost secondary, and you become less tuned in to the characters and the narrative. By the time I encountered the Outsider, a dark figure who lives in a magical dimension known as the Void and looks like a singer for an early-aughts emo band, I barely cared about the mystical mumbo jumbo plot information he was trying to explain to me. I wanted to get back to using the magical powers he’d given me for exploration.

But it’s possible to imagine that limitation becoming a strength in a game that more fully embraces fantasy-world tourism. In an interview with Metro earlier this year, Smith told the story of an older woman who played the first Dishonored game on its easiest difficulty setting, avoiding all conflict and simply taking in the experience of making her way through the world. He raised the possibility of a “tourist version” of the game — one presumably focused entirely on that sort of exploration.

Dishonored 2 obviously isn’t that game. But played a certain way, it provides a strong hint of what that experience could be like, and how intense and enjoyable it might be. Place and memory are bound in deep and fascinating ways — championship memorizers often build a “memory palace” in which to mentally house and display the things they are trying to remember — and the memory of Dishonored 2’s locations has stuck with me in a way that’s strangely powerful. As I look back on the time I spent with it, I find myself thinking of it less as a game I played and more as a place I once visited. The game itself was challenging and cleverly designed, but it’s the place I’ll always remember.

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