Dishonored 2, A Dangerous Direction in Stealth


What makes a stealth game a stealth game? Many would argue that the act of sneaking around, and staying undetected, however the truth is that a proper stealth game relies on a lot of interweaving design choices to fully capture the stealth experience. Skyrim allows you to sneak, but it is not a stealth game. Xcom 2 allows your troops to remain undetected, but is not a stealth game. Dishonored 2 gives the player tools to stay out of sight, but is not a stealth game.


To emphasise this point, it becomes necessary to compare Dishonored 2 to a proper, similar stealth game. The most recent first-person stealth game would be the 2014 reboot of Thief. As flawed as this game might be, an obvious emphasis was put on the basic act of sneaking around, and it gets right what Dishonored gets wrong in a lot of areas.


The biggest question in any stealth game ever made is: “Can they see me?”, but Dishonored 2 seems to have a lot of issues answering this question.


Thief’s stealth system can be broken down into three main sections: Sound, Sight and Shadow. An NPC can detect you either by hearing you or if you enter their line of sight, but you can mitigate how likely you are to be seen by staying in shadow and removing light sources. The visibility gem even gives you a clear indication as to whether you’re properly concealed by a shadow. Guards may still spot you if they come too close, or if (god forbid) one of them is carrying a torch. Thief’s tensest moments come from stepping on broken glass, then diving into a shadowy corner and praying for mercy as three angry mobsters start searching the place.


Dishonored 2 doesn’t utilise light in its stealth, instead reducing it back to just sight and sound. By failing to replace the shadow mechanic, it loses any indication as to whether or not you are visible. Being instantly seen despite being under desks or in overhead pot-plants is common, because there’s no way to determine whether you’ll be visible or not when an NPC looks in your direction. Compounding this issue is a strange mechanic wherein guards may be near or farsighted, because it’s often impossible to determine when you’re far enough away from someone so as to not be seen by them as you sneak across an open rooftop.


Tying into knowing when you are and aren’t hidden, one of the things that needs to be balanced and polished as much as possible is the simple act of getting caught. When you open a door and bump into a servant, or dive under a table as a group of guards pass, you need to know what kind of leeway you have before you need to start sprinting and necking health potions.


Thief gives you a brief window to escape. Under normal circumstances enemies aren’t going to notice you instantaneously, and you always have the option of diving into the nearest hiding spot. Dishonoured 2 on the other hand has a nasty habit of having guards alerted the instant they turn in your direction, alerting everything in the vicinity. Even when they don’t notice you immediately, diving into a hiding spot is difficult since you’re never entirely clear on what is and is not hidden.


Thief and Dishonored 2 subscribe to different philosophies when it comes to enemies, most often guards, and this difference ripples through all the aspects of the respective games. In Thief, guards are obstacles to be circumnavigated. In Dishonored 2, guards are targets to be eliminated. This is emphasised in guard layout, actions, and level design.


In Thief, the guards are distributed relatively sparsely, and are programmed to wander in set routes than can be observed. This allows the player to memorise the routes from a hiding spot, and move only when the coast is clear, slipping between sight-lines and into the next set of shadows.


In Dishonored 2 the guards are far more numerous, which combines with the fast notice time and the lack of awareness of your visibility. It’s ridiculously difficult to circumnavigate guards without eliminating them. Though many guards are set to move, they spend long periods in single spots, ready for when you sneak up and incapacitate them. Others are set in single locations, often leaning on ledges with their backs conveniently towards you.


This emphasis on the removal of guards directly harms the pure stealth experience. The developers, despite the supposed emphasis on player choice, tailor their game around their own expectations of the player. You are expected to remove guards, but for the stealth-game aficionado, removing a guard might as well be a failure state.

Pictured: Failure

So, once you get caught, and you’re leading a conga-line of angry guards across a rooftop, what happens?


Thief would shrug and ask whether you wanted to load the game now or when you get the game over screen. Garret is a weak, scrawny chap that can’t handle more than one sword in the stomach at a time and has no place being in a fight. It’s possible to run, and several of your items facilitate a quick beeline in the opposite direction, but the most important thing is that you don’t try and fight more than zero people at a time. This emphasis on character frailty enhances the stealth, and encourages the player to take the slower, more careful approach.


Dishonored 2… Well I think this is best illustrated by my playthrough of the second mission, the Addermire Institute, wherein I would sprint from room to room, trailing a platoon of angry guards, using my tentacle to jump over them and occasionally downing a health potion when one of them hit me. I was moving so quickly that I kept losing my little entourage, but I’d find them again shortly afterwards and the fun would begin again. Dishonored 2 had no mechanical incentives or limits as to keep me stealthy. I played the rest of the missions stealthily not because I needed to, but because I chose to implement another self-imposed limitation.


Emphasising the difference in character vulnerability is the way each game handles the physicality of interactable objects.


Thief requires that Garret pick up every object by hand, that he takes a few precious moments to reach out and open a drawer, and physically take whatever is inside. Paintings are removed with a beautiful but horrifically tense animation of slicing it from the frame, as you pray that the guard in the next room stays in there for just long enough for you to get back into cover.


Dishonored 2 again takes an entirely opposite approach. The characters in Dishonored 2 are apparently telekinetic, able to make objects fly at their face without any apparent interaction. Additionally, Dishonored 2 allows the player to manipulate levers, switches and doors from positions that shouldn’t be possible. While this feeds into Dishonored 2’s faster, more action-based design, it detracts from the feeling of vulnerability that stealth games need.


Is Dishonored 2 an inherently bad game? No, it’s well made and does exactly what it needs to do. What it is however, is a bad stealth game, and we should stop pretending otherwise. Dishonored 2 is an assassination game, emphasising target elimination and fast movement. Holding it up as some kind of stealth exemplar because you can crouch only hurts the game and the industry, as stealth fans will find it boring and frustrating, and stealth game devs will pivot towards this stealth-lite form of gameplay because it’s suddenly popular.


Layers of Fear: Completely Fearless

I hear a lot of people online boasting about their apparent immunity to horror games. They load up any game from Silent Hill 2 to Amnesia: Dark Descent, and spend the entire game in a state of meh-faced passivity, or they laugh at the jump-scares and teabag the monsters, all the time basking in their perceived superiority.

I feel that this inherently misses the point of the horror genre. There will always be a certain amount of distance between the audience and the actions on-screen, and you need to put in a little effort in order to close that distance and open yourself up to the experience. You have to want to be scared.

I preface this article with the above because I want to emphasise that I was actively trying to be scared by Layers of Fear, and it just couldn’t manage it.

Horror is subtle. It’s a quiet, creeping thing that works so slowly that you never quite realise when it was that you started shaking in your seat. Horror is a trickle, not a torrent.

Layers of Fear starts with a waterfall and just keeps turning things up. The only area that even hints at a true, proper horror game is the open area at the very start of the game, which consists of maybe five rooms. Once you start the game proper, it immediately hits you with doors that keep changing where they lead to.

This choice results in multiple layers of failure (:D). Firstly, it signals to the player that this entire game is not grounded in reality: it’s a dream, or a hallucination, or a world based on the character’s broken mind. All of these are great settings for horror games; Silent Hill 2 is a classic of the genre that takes place entirely within a setting based on the main character’s psyche, but note that we don’t know that for much of the game.

Horror requires a grounding in reality. It needs us to believe that what we’re seeing has weight and meaning. Without reality, why be scared? How can we be unnerved by the subtle irregularities in a world that the game has established as unreal? Why be concerned about danger and consequence in a dream?

Secondly, the moving-door trope is best served to disorientate and unnerve the player once they’ve learned the geography of an area. By introducing it so early, and so often, the player knows to never bother learning the layout, as it’ll just be taken away again. I feel that the developers took a powerful tool and had no idea what to do with it, so they just kept using it and hoping it would be effective.  Though taking great ideas and completely mistreating them is something that Layers of Fear just keeps doing.

Much of Layers of Fear is walking into a room, watching the “spooky” thing happen, then walking out of the room through the same door but into a new area. By the 45-minute mark I started playing the “what generic spooky thing is going to happen in this room” game. Is something going to fly across the room? Will objects spawn in? Will they fade away? Will a filter be applied to the screen? Though probably the paintings will just melt, again.


Each of these in and of themselves are not bad ideas, and I’ve been scared by all of them before. To be fair, the first couple of times they appeared in Layers of Fear they were effective, but the repetition eventually robs them of any impact and poisons anything new, because you know you’ll see it a hundred times before the end of the game.

Even as the game progresses and the world becomes more and more surreal, it doesn’t turn up the fear. It turns up the blood, the spooky events, the twisting of the world etc, but since the game never took the time to ground itself in reality, it doesn’t have nearly the impact it should.

On the topic of ridiculously overdone; around two-thirds of the way through the game, it develops an intense, but thankfully temporary, fetish for dolls. Everything is dolls. Teleporting dolls! Running dolls! Laughing dolls! Floating dolls! Black abysses filled with the disembodied heads of dolls!

As you might have guessed, this became more boring than scary very quickly. An extended period of the aforementioned baby-head abyss had me checking my phone and responding to messages.

Layers of Fear tries to convey a sense of danger to the player by adding in a rarely-seen but incredibly generic ghost-lady that I have to assume is supposed to be your wife. She pops up a few times throughout the game, sometimes in scripted sequences. She ambiguously kills(?) you and then leaves. For some reason, this is the only aspect of itself that Layers of Fear uses sparingly. In a game that sorely needs to give its spooky goings-on a sense of danger, they hold back on the ghost-lady.

For a better example of how to properly utilise your ghost-lady, we need only turn to the game that Layers of Fear was based on: PT, Playable Teaser. The ghost lady in PT attacks you, sure, but she also laughs at you, appears in mirrors, glares at you from balconies. My point is, an effectively-used ghost lady can be more than just a direct physical threat.

The game hints at a second monster, that leaves paint behind it. By which I mean the game occasionally makes thumping sounds and puts paint-marks on the ground. This is, of course, the opposite problem of the ghost-lady. The paint-monster never presents as an actual threat, and only appears a handful of times as noises and paint-trails, which are unsurprisingly difficult to find threatening.


The final nail in the coffin comes in the form of something that Layers of Fear got right. Layers of Fear has fairly good jump-scares, with satisfying sound cues in case you need to be reminded when to be scared. This is the main role of ghost-lady, but it can also be handled by doll-heads and light-switches, so she better not get too cocky.

Good horror is hard. I can’t emphasise that enough. For every good horror game or movie there are ten that wallow in deserved obscurity. The issue here is that Layers of Fear doesn’t. While I understand that fear isn’t something we can quantify, there is no denying that Layers of Fear fails on several, fundamental levels.

We need to hold our horror games to higher standards. We should not be satisfied with this.