Arkane Studios’ Dishonored, the hot topic this week along with Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead Episode 4, has a very distinct art style. Many describe it as steampunk, but that leaving it at that would be doing a disservice to what visual design director Viktor Antonov and art director Sebastien Mitton have crafted. Much like the hodgepodge yet cohesive premise, the visuals of Dunwall are a conglomeration of many different things that make it wholly unique.
Given Antonov’s involvement, you are obviously going to get a bit of Half-Life 2‘s City 17 in there, but it’s not simply City 17 all over again. It feels like Antonov’s work because he has an incredible attention to industrial design details. And then you get flashes of things you haven’t seen together, like a Darksiders-ish ethereal glow juxtaposed to a Victorian-era fishing port.
These odd designs extend to the characters as well. If you go back watch the developer diary videos, you’ll see them talk about how they studied the morphology and ancestry of industrial England, making sure that the way characters look not only fit within the milieu of the game but also enhance it.
They can, however, be described in a single word: exaggerated, perhaps cartoonish. Character builds look something more akin to Team Fortress 2 than a more realistic Heavy Rain. Noses take up 90% of the face, foreheads can stretch from the eyes to the skies, and bigger brutes look impossibly top-heavy, arms unfurling into watermelon-sized meatballs that could potentially be used as hands.
And it fits. They are caricatures of physical European traits but, as is everything else, based at least somewhat in reality. The extension, then, is that the animations—the way characters and animals react and how the environment reacts in a similarly exaggerated physics framework—are also cartoonish.
Guards are what you might call bumbling in an old, black and white Looney Toons kind of way, though they are still incredibly potent and very adept at putting swords and bullets into you. Humans of all kinds have an odd gait about them, limbs seemingly lumped around, flailing in all sorts of directions and only happening to coincide in a walking motion. It’s an interesting contrast with the very dark deeds you commit as protagonist Corvo Attano.
It also seems to extend to the AI. Some people seem to be complaining about how the guards and dogs are a bit buffoonish in their approach to safeguarding their wards, stumbling over themselves and being as easy to manipulate and predict as a cat chasing a laser pointer. One of the prime criticisms (as I’ve seen this happen, too, multiple times) is that there are instances where you will cause a noise almost directly in front of a guard and he, slightly startled and bewildered, will turn around and begin to look all around him before honing back in on your location. Fair point, but I say it’s purposeful and, better yet, fitting.
You see, in a world where everything is a bit over the top, it only makes sense that the AI is also slightly exaggerated. Or, I guess, not the AI but the AI’s reactions to things. If you as a person are spooked, you are likely to look straight in the direction you heard the noise or saw the flame flicker or whatever because you are a real person. Your reactions are, in a word, rational.
Cartoons, however, are not. They are irrational (even more than √ -1 (yes, I went there)). If you spook a cartoon, their first instinct is to jump in the air and frazzle every piece of hair on their body. Now, given that Dishonored isn’t that out there, the guards take a more toned down yet still hyperbolized approach.
Guards in Dunwall will hear a noise and assume it’s coming from everywhere. If they see something—even you in broad daylight crouching in the middle of a sidewalk—will first be taken aback and startled before hounding after you. They are caricatures in a caricature world; of course they are going to react like caricatures, too.
And perhaps more importantly, it is a vital concession made in the stealth component of Dishonored. Much like how Mark of the Ninja attempts to alleviate the usual trial-and-error teaching methodology instilled in most stealth games, Dishonored was designed around the same “let’s make this better” mentality. Supernatural abilities are given to you as Corvo to empower you to overthrow the Lord Regent, but they are given to you as a player to help make you not feel frustrated.
The combative powers like Windblast are meant to make it more fun to fight people, sure, but the powers like Blink and Shadow Kill are meant to make stealth a bit, well, not necessarily easier but more approachable. You still have to do the same types of observations and careful planning but if you botch a jump, you can Blink away before being noticed, and if you kill a guard, their bodies will turn to ash instead of lingering around just to be discovered by someone else. Even Possession, by admission of co-creative director Harvey Smith, can be a last ditch escape power. Just possess the guard that noticed you and whammy, problem solved—non-lethally!
So then the overblown reactions from guards when they hear or see you also make sense in that regard. They give you that split second of recompense so that if your error was slight, you can correct and still go unnoticed. They may be alarmed but you won’t be found. If you peek too far out from a door or you accidentally knock over an empty bottle, you can still go about stealthing around without being ruined for the rest of the level. You’ll have to make a quick and minor adjustment (say, move to another bookcase or pipe), but that is streets ahead of switching to a constant alert phase or having to reload your last save.
Some may call it babying the player and others may call it inconsequential, but I prefer to call it fitting. It fits the world so well being exaggerated and a bit cartoonish but it also fits the rest of the gameplay design decisions. It’s an appropriately over-the-top thing to have the game’s AI be a bit buffoonish, but underneath the bumbling veneer is reason. It’s a design that helps you keep doing the stealth things you like (sneaking around, barely escaping detection) and avoid the things you don’t like (reloading checkpoints, getting caught).
Plus, it’s kind of funny to see them stumble around.