Dishonored, by all counts, is not a very traditional game. First off, it is a new critically and commercially successful IP that comes at the end of a console cycle from a studio known for little else outside of 2002’s Arx Fatalis (although its creative heads went into it already well renowned). Second, it’s an ostensibly steampunk game that utilizes stealth mechanics that focus around the supernatural. Third, Susan Sarandon. I could go on, but trust me on this: it’s a very unique game.
It’s odd then that one of the largest components is incredibly traditional and almost entirely by the book. I know that makes it sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. Lead writer Austin Grossman did a fantastic job and I actually found Corvo’s story to be quite fun (though something tells me had I gone for high chaos, it would be less fun and more fuc—well, you’ll see), but beat for beat, you could overlay a map of traditional story elements and simply connect the dots.
The monomythic structure is popular for many reasons, but the primary one would be that it just works. This is because it is relatable in so many ways despite involving things that we’ll never experience (the supernatural, space wars, dragons, etc.) because the emotional journey of the monomyth is something everyone can relate to. It’s how we are shaken loose from our comfortable world of our known quantities—that small, miniscule portion of the universe that we can say we can control—and thrust into a situation we are not entirely familiar with. We know what it’s like to cross that threshold of the unknown and that relief when we find someone capable of taking us by the hand and showing us the way. And we know what it’s like to think we’ve reached the end, that we’ve gone as low as we can go only to go lower, and then rise up again to defeat this unfamiliar challenge.
Or at least we’d like to think we know what that’s like. It’s easy to imagine how that feels whether or not you’ve actually done it which is why it’s such a relatable cycle of winning and losing. It’s something we all strive for because we’ve seen how it happens in sports and movies and comics and we want to have that in our lives, too.
Even when it involves a silent protagonist that has to prove he didn’t kill the woman he was sworn to protect in a grotesque plot of winding backstabs and diseased melancholy.
SPOILER ALERT: past this point, this article will discuss the plot points of Dishonored. If you wish to remain untainted for your first time through the game or if you want to cut your afternoon reading short by a few hundred words, then you should probably stop here. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
But that’s because it still follows the traditional path: known to unknown to fall to rebirth to ultimate victory (at least in one particular ending). Corvo starts out coming back from an adventure abroad. He’s been trying to single-handedly rally up support for Dunwall across the Isles to defeat the ever-worsening plague. This is rare as he is the personally selected bodyguard for the Empress and he isn’t ever really supposed to leave her side, but urging from the Spymaster makes everyone think it’s somehow a good idea. This opening sequence is the return from another adventure. It is actually both the final phase of Corvo’s previous monomythic journey and the start of this new one. When he was on his own in the other principalities, he was in the unfamiliar. He is back to his old world and thus the circle is complete.
But the Call to Adventure soon beckons as almost immediately, he is attacked by supernatural assassins (of which he currently is not). His Empress is killed, her daughter and heir kidnapped, and he is blamed for all of it. The Call flows into his arrest and subsequent escape orchestrated by the Loyalists all the way up until he quite literally gets Supernatural Aid: the Outsider. The appearance of the Outsider should not be confused with the helper (who will come back later as the third act breaks) but he does get lumped in with the other Loyalists as the Threshold Guardians, the people that signify the crossing of the boundaries for our hero between refusing the adventure and taking the first step towards it. Corvo is a bodyguard; make no mistake in thinking that being an assassin is not part of his transformation.
The Helper and the Mentor in this case, though, are the same person as Samuel will give advice as how to approach the first couple of missions but also later serve as the utility that aids us in the last act break. The Initiation is pretty straightforward when Corvo sets about his first task of eliminating the High Overseer Campbell, but this also gives rise to the moment of Meeting the Goddess, which in our case is little Emily. She is the one that Corvo still loves and will do anything to protect, and he finally has her.
Briefly. There is time enough for what Blake Snyder calls in his seminal screenwriting guide Save the Cat! “Fun and Games” as Corvo and the soon-to-be ironically named Loyalists go about removing the other Pendletons and a Lady Boyle from power, all of which leads up to Snyder’s Midpoint where the monomythic Ultimate Boon is found. Once Corvo takes care of the Lord Regent, we feel we have won, but it is an ephemeral and foreboding feeling as Corvo begins to reel and then pass out from a poisoned drink. It is the All is Lost moment when we think we are finished. From what we see, the story is over and we have lost. It was a false victory.
But our helper! Saved by Samuel, it turns out we are not dead and instead set adrift in the Flooded District, but Corvo’s prospects are not much better here. Instead, we have our darkest moment as we are hauled in by Daud and stripped of our weapons and imprisoned. It is our Death, Snyder’s Dark Night of the Soul. We have hit our lowest point from which we may not return. It is oddly also the weakest part of the story since we have no Refusal of the Return. Corvo never doubts himself in this moment as he should. We don’t get that proper debate about was it worth it, is it worth even trying to fix it all this time, etc. Instead, as soon as we are thrown into the pit, we immediately try to escape. The moment of self-doubt sort of comes later when we visit with the Outsider and he instead tells us that we should have questioned ourselves somewhere along the way. An unfortunate misstep.
But the break into act 3 where we’ve escaped and return to cross the threshold once again is almost poetic. We were imprisoned before and escaped to the Hound Pits, and now we’ve done it all again only to return once more with the same goal: to overthrow a liar and betrayer and set things right with Emily as the empress. Not only that, but we’ve once again come to fall into the hands of our original guide Samuel. He has come to save and deliver us into the final rise, the Atonement of our actions.
Or not. The only guaranteed part of the ending of Dishonored is revenge, and vengeance can never be a part of the act of atoning. Havelock’s death is immaterial to Corvo’s return to the known world and is instead simply a light that points the way. But being a game of choices and actions, we can just as easily choose to not fix the empire, let it crumble and wash away like the eroded buildings of an endless flood. Here is where Dishonored takes to its strengths and breaks from the traditional, from the monomyth, from Snyder’s holy scriptures of Hollywood pens. We have the choice to be uncaring and leave Dunwall without a leader, just as we have the choice to give it to them. We have been making the choice for the past 30 hours to make them whole again or leave it broken and wasted.
Much like the rest of the game, Dishonored takes a traditional shell, works within it, and then breaks it from the inside. We play from a traditional point of view, we have familiar controls, and we have a rote set of story beats (to the point where some complain of its predictability), but that is necessary to buck all the trends and show you the outer fringes of the medium. Without acknowledging the rules, how are we to know that they can and have been broken? How else are we to know it’s okay to look at a map, walk its path, and at the end, after days of sneaking and looting and killing, just walk away?
To turn our backs and know that we did it our own way.