It’s the best game of 2016. Spoilers ahead.
In the final level of Arkane’s masterful Dishonored 2, I was searching for easter eggs. One easter egg, to be specific.
Late in the first game, released all the way back in 2012, you can break into Dunwall Tower, the seat of the empire and the cadre of men who killed the Empress and took it from you. In one of the rich, baroque hallways that lines the upper levels, there’s an innocuous lever on one of the walls. Pull it, and you’ll find yourself inside the late Empress’s secret room. It’s a sweet little easter egg, containing a collectible bone charm and — more importantly — an audiograph from the Empress to her daughter, Emily. In it, the Empress wonders what of these plague-infested years her daughter will remember when she herself sits upon the throne of Dunwall, and how the events to come will shape Emily as she matures into her own woman.
So when the second game rolls around, set 15 years in the future, and Emily finds herself stalking the now dilapidated halls of this same tower, I made sure to take a short detour to that same spot. I pulled the same lever, and wasn’t at all surprised to find myself in the same little secret room. It was barren and empty, rot and decay having set in since the death of the Empress. Yet, there was something different this time. A secret passage, lost to time, that led to a back entrance into the throne room. What’s important (and amazing) about this is that in the original game, there’s a prompt for discovering this easter egg. The game lets you know that it exists before you find it. In the sequel, no such prompt exist. Simply remembering the past and putting my faith in the developer to do the same helped cut out a solid 20 minutes of methodical sneaking for me and greatly expediting my finishing what is, without even the smallest shred of doubt, the best game of 2016.
Dishonored 2 is full of these little side stories. That’s why, despite a fairly boilerplate overarching plot, this game is as skillful at storytelling in all its forms as anything I’ve ever played. Take the power sets of the two playable characters. Corvo, always an outsider, relies more upon stealth and misdirection in his moveset, while Emily, raised from birth to be an Empress, trends more towards outright deception and superiority. Corvo, having grown up on the streets and fought for everything he has, manipulates the world. Emily, having been taught to rule, manipulates the people who populate it.
Another, more prominent example is how the game’s levels are put together. Not quite open world, not quite linear, they’re a modular series of open-ended environments, each with a different theme and style exclusive to them alone. It’s a style distinct both to this series and to the Immersive Sim genre as a whole. What it allows is a sharper attention to detail. How many games do you know of that would include several working typewriters, alarm clocks, desks and fans that have no effect on the game other than through their existence? Dishonored 2 does, and it’s because the developers felt it better to extend their clockwork aesthetic to the mundane corners of their world in order to better understand it. How many games do you know that have flood lines marked upon coastline walls? Dishonored 2 does, because the developers wanted to nail down that these places, Dunwall and Karnaca, have a history. They exist without your input, and they have stories of their own.
A frequent claim made about the original game is that it looked like an oil painting. If that was true in 2012, it’s doubly so here. The best-looking games are triumphs of art direction more than polygon count, and Dishonored 2 is one of the rare games to have actual artists and architects work on it. Karnaca, as both an interesting setting and purely as a game space, is incredible. Almost beyond my ability to really properly capture with words. It does that most delightul of game design things: it allows you to see everywhere you’ll be going over the course of your adventure beforehand.
The most immediately memorable of these adventures takes place at the Clockwork Mansion of local inventor and all-around sociopath Kirin Jindosh, a place of immense complexity, where switches in every room cause the house to reshape itself like a Rubix Cube. It’s both a wonderfully inventive place to explore and a wonderfully potent metaphor for the mind of the genius who created it (it’s worth nothing that Jindosh frequently chimes in on whatever you might be taking note of in these rooms, of his creations, his life’s work). The clockwork soldiers, which are his chief contribution to the glory of the Karnacan military machine you contend with over the course of the game, come with disarmingly cute pre-recorded messages from their creator (“This recording plays when the machine is curious.” “Note: remove this recording after field testing”).
Karnaca is a bay city, and your base of operations is in the bay itself, placing the skyline directly in your view. Even better, Dishonored‘s trademark exaggerated art style allows for every major location in Karnaca to be easily identifiable. This is quickly becoming a treasured artifact for me. The towering wind channels of the Dust District (named for silver dust that blows through periodically due to the mined-out mountain directly behind it) can be seen from wherever you are. The desolate and run-down Addermire Institute stands a few hundred yards out into the bay, accessible only by rail car. That, too, is easy to pick out from the surroundings. While it’s true that these levels aren’t actually connected, just taking the time to craft the illusion that they are, to allow the player exact knowledge of where they are geographically, goes a long way to truly achieving a real sense of place, to an extent that maybe nothing else I’ve played save BioShock has been capable of.
There’s more of the original Deus Ex in this game than in any game since (including the three Deus Ex sequels). The best example of this lies in a small easter egg concerning Meagan Foster, your character’s first and primary ally (voiced very well by Rosario Dawson). Meagan has a dark past, most noticeable in the fact that she is missing one of her eyes and one of her arms. In a mid-game mission, you explore a run-down mansion that once was nearly destroyed by a mysterious event. Using a timepiece gifted to you by the Outsider, Dishonored‘s pallid trickster god and source of all magic (Robin Lord Taylor), you can explore the mansion both in the present and on the night it was ravaged. If you do a certain thing during the course of the level, you’ll have affected the timeline enough to make it so Meagan never lost her appendages. Not only this, but the area surrounding the mansion is restored to a slightly less dilapidated state, and the frequent gang fights have ceased.
Much like figuring out Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann’s kill phrases in Deus Ex, the game gives you no indication that you can do this, nor does it make much out of you figuring it out. It is worth noting that Harvey Smith, this game’s creative director, worked on Deus Ex, which alone would be enough to include him on whatever sort of gaming hall of fame you could ever conceive. Considering how much of the original game took years for the internet to discover, I can’t even imagine what else might in store.
I’ve gone this long without talking about how this video game even functions as a game, but have no fear, it’s just as intricately designed and inherently pleasant to play. The original release is famous for being perhaps the fastest stealth game of all time, if played in that manner. I consider myself to be really quite good at it, having earlier this year finally caught the white whale of beating it without killing or ever being noticed by anyone. The best compliment I can pay to Dishonored 2 is that such a feat seems almost impossible now.
Imagine my reaction when I first started seeing this guy’s videos, which turn the slow-paced, methodical game of shadows and sightlines into an absolute slaughter fest. It looks like a cutscene. It’s a great testament to a game’s mechanics when they can be pushed this hard and still not break. That’s a common theme through both games. No matter what happens, no matter how hard you try, it never seems like the game thinks you’ve done something wrong. For instance: during the game’s gorgeous, dusky fifth mission, I was trying to sneak through a guard checkpoint without resorting to using the re-wired Wall of Light in front of me.
After clambering upon some construction scaffolding and poking around for a more vertical pathway (I should note that this game is almost dizzyingly vertical at times), I misjudged a jump and plummeted two stories directly into the middle of a bunch of guards. Panicking, I started slashing and clawing my way out, quickly being overwhelmed just by the sheer number of them. Without thinking, I vaulted over the crowd and ran through the Wall of Light checkpoint in an attempt to bottleneck my pursuers a bit. Before I even knew what was happening, four straight guards barreled through the wall and were instantly vaporized, causing the remaining few to turn tail and run, as though I were smoting them where they stood. The game didn’t break, slow down, stop or even so much as acknowledge that anything untoward had happened. It simply continued.
That a game of this scope and prestige can so easily interlock its systems like this is a testament to design, playtesting and overall conception. That it can do it with the literal dozens of level solutions and interwoven story elements, all reliant on choice, skill and ingenuity, is beyond testament. It’s worthy of praise. That it can execute such clockwork perfection while still presenting an incredibly lived-in, interesting and mysterious world to experience is downright incredible. That it does all of these things while still being fun to play, while not only encouraging but demanding curiosity and inventiveness makes it not only the best game I’ve played in this year, but one of the best I’ve played in any year, ever.
I haven’t even talked about how the majority of this game’s core characters are women, how the details here build up to a level of plausibility so strong that you start seeing it in your mind’s eye when you’re out doing real world things, or how, despite being in the middle of my second playthough, I’ve yet to see two identical looking interior spaces. I haven’t even talked about how the Heart, one of gaming’s great ancillary items, is even more terrifying and illuminating this time around. Someone, some day, will write the definitive piece about this absolute monolith of a game. Alas, that person is not me, because I’m going to be too busy replaying it for the second, third, fourth time.