Dauding Around: A Review of The Knife of Dunwall
Dishonored sits with Dark Souls on my list of games I could play forever. If Dishonored 2 was “The Continuing Adventures of Corvo with Slightly Prettier Graphics and Maybe the Happy Fun Time Daud Hour” I’d be pretty satisfied. And not just because a video game would have a title only slightly shorter than a Fiona Apple album.
So it’s with this bias I enter The Knife of Dunwall, Dishonored’s newest expansion. And, for the most part, it delivers, though in doing so it shines light on a lot of things about its father-game.
When people criticize Dishonored, they focus on a few predictable areas. The graphics don’t have quite the horsepower of bigger games. Playing nonlethal isn’t as much fun as playing lethal. And the story sucks.
The second point I visited in depth a couple weeks ago—you can see that here—and I can’t tell graphics from GFX, so my attention’s on the third point. Simply put: I actually really like Dishonored’s narrative, and The Knife of Dunwall informed me why. It’s because Dishonored’s narrative made sense.
Here’s the thing: video games aren’t movies. The alienation I felt while playing Bioshock Infinite, which is definitely a movie game, bears this out. Video game narratives have a lot more heavy lifting to do than film narratives. Films have to keep us engrossed; video games have to keep us engrossed and give us enough context behind our actions that we don’t turn the thing off. Video games have to keep us from going rogue.
For instance, take the recently released Tom Cruise vehicle, Oblivion. This is a movie without a shred of sensible plot, without, really, any motivation for its characters, but we buy it because Tom Cruise is ruggedly masculine and definitely a Scientologist. A video game of Oblivion, though, would make no sense: we’d have no idea why we were doing anything, so we’d feel railroaded.
Dishonored’s narrative never hit any brilliant notes, but it engrossed above its pay grade. It’s exclusively functional, and what it lacks in drop-dead, “Would you kindly?” brilliance it makes up in keeping you grounded in a character in a fictional world. When people say, “The narrative sucks but the individual levels have such great story,” it’s missing the point: the narrative is there to get you from great level A to great level B. It’s there to put the atmosphere in context. It’s there to give you the Golden Cat and tell you why you should be at the Golden Cat. If it was louder than the atmosphere, you’d have missed it.
Which brings us to The Knife of Dunwall’s problem: without that framework, things begin to fall apart. As a game it focuses on Michael Madsen’s Daud, a character significantly more interesting as a gravelly, mysterious assassin than he is as a protagonist using metaphors like, “The City’s tangled like a bag of snakes.” Corvo wasn’t interesting either, but Corvo had a clear, present motivation: putting Emily on the throne, and getting revenge. Daud doesn’t have anything like that: he’s following a plot thread because that’s what we do in video games.
Daud doesn’t get moments like Corvo got in the Hound Pits. As Daud, we never watch the story develop naturally: we’re constantly being shunted around, without much context besides the whole “bag of snakes” bit, to make sense of everything. Instead of coming naturally, The Knife of Dunwall shouts its plot at you, and it ends up shouting louder than its locations.
And The Knife of Dunwall features one of the best levels in the entire Dishonored cycle in its Slaughterhouse District. The level—all decaying whales and corporate oppression—works: it isn’t particularly long but options sprawl in front of you. Side quests exist in the most insane places. There’s a giant whale you can electrocute, for Christ’s sake. Mechanically, it’s up there with the Boyle party as Dishonored’s shining moment.
But it doesn’t hit quite as well as the original’s levels did. Part of this is The Knife’s fault—it never dips as deeply into the insanities of its marks as Dishonored did—but I think it’s more because of a lack of quiet spaces. The Knife doesn’t give you spaces between levels to understand quite what you’re doing, instead offering a breathless search for answers. It doesn’t quite fit Daud, who’s offered as a bit of a quiet, introspective character in the beginning, and it doesn’t quite fit his relationship with Billie which, quite strangely, forms the glue of the game.
It’s in that relationship—the narrative arc of the piece—where the most ground is missed. Billie acts pretty much as the replacement for the Hound Pits: she gives you information, tells you the lay of the land, and presents situations to you by magically appearing. It works in terms of pure gameplay, but not in terms of narrative: it gives the impression, by the time it all winds down, that The Knife of Dunwall just couldn’t stick to any one idea. A game that purports itself in the first five minutes to be about the Empress dead at Daud’s hands, Daud’s own quest for redemption, and Delilah turns out to be about the mechanical contrivance offering you information at every turn. As opposed to Dishonored proper, which presents itself as Corvo’s quest for revenge and ends up being that selfsame quest.
The fact is, The Knife of Dunwall is three missions long. The first two missions have stories almost completely alien to the core narrative. This is problematic: Dishonored proper’s opponents were related to the game’s overall plot—the chaos in the city—directly enough to make their satellite stories as relevant as the Moon to Earth. Daud’s satellites, meanwhile, relate to one of the strands, to Delilah, and Delilah doesn’t end up mattering very much. Maybe she will when this half story trundles to its eventual conclusion, but it doesn’t here.
And that’s a problem. It’s a very video game disease. Bioware, makers of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, unrepentantly employ this structure: a major plot at the beginning, a plot at the end, and then a bunch of disconnected serpents in the middle. At best, they get a little tangled up; at worst, they aren’t finished and can be cut without changing the whole. What this does, though, is it makes something like The Knife of Dunwall—or Dishonored itself, really—where it requires narrative leaps on the part of the player to put the whole thing together. It makes the micro gameplay ill relate to the macro concepts. It makes everything feel like a spinoff.
That’s what The Knife of Dunwall feels like: a spinoff of a spinoff. Daud has his own story, and I dare say it might be interesting by the end, but at the moment it’s not executed. Daud isn’t important to us; hell, he’s not important to himself. He’s all bag of snakes we don’t have the time or the interest to unravel. His elements are given short shrift in favor of not losing anything, and instead of the tight efficiency that represented Dishonored we have a messy yet constrained sort of thing.
And yet, it’s fun. It’s more Dishonored levels, and I’d play more Dishonored levels forever. So there’s that, too. This is Dishonored, and despite my criticism it’s probably the best DLC I’ve ever played (which is like saying, “This is the first sushi that hasn’t given me food poisoning!”). So, again, there’s that.