Arkane’s philosophical take on denying The Outsider in Dishonored 2

Chris Stead 18 October 2016


In blockbuster sequel Dishonored 2, you don’t have to accept the mark of The Outsider and all its powers, but why would you do that?

Player choice is at the heart of the Dishonored series, and it’s even more expansive in the coming sequel than it was in the 2012 original. Due for release for PS4, Xbox One and PC on 11 November, Dishonored 2 adds a second playable character to the mix in original hero Corvo’s daughter, Emily. Both these characters play in different ways and have access to unique powers, so will present you with different options for getting through a level and to a target. As well as the multitude of routes and assassination strategies, you can excel at different powers, go high or low chaos, use stealth or all-out attack and more – it all adds up to ensure no two play experiences will be the same.

In fact, it’s even possible to ignore The Outsider altogether; it’s this mysterious being that gives both Emily and Corvo “the mark,” and in doing so bestows them with magical powers. When Emily is offered these powers by The Outsider, she can refuse, giving players the opportunity to try and complete the game via stealth and traditional weapons only. This approach even has a name: the “flesh and steel” play through. But why would you want to play Dishonored 2 without any of its awesome powers?

During a recent interview with the game’s co-creative director, Harvey Smith, I asked that very question and it set the industry legend off into an interesting discussion about player psychology. This is what he said:

So is there any sort of narrative payoff to rejecting The Outsider’s mark and playing without powers?

I find it really interesting that people always ask, “why would I do this or what will I get from doing that?” It’s philosophical in that it goes to the question of play: why would you play to begin with? Why would I go camping next weekend when I could just sit at home? It might be fun; I might connect with my friends; I might have an experience I otherwise would not have. So with Dishonored, why would I play violently or non-violently? Is it an expression of myself? Why would I challenge myself to play without powers? Why would I challenge myself to play without being detected?This is one of the craziest things people try to do in Dishonored: they try and play from start to finish without being seen – literally with no NPC ever going, “hey, what was that sound?” We call it the ghost play through. Others finish the game without the AI ever going into an alert mode. So [denying The Outsider] goes to the larger question of why people do what they do with their time. Why do they not spend every waking moment improving their food, wealth, shelter and propagating their DNA? Because we are humans and we play and there’s some stuff that is just more interesting than other stuff. It’s what makes us human.

So when you deny The Outsider it becomes another surprise, and Emily says, “I’ve had enough of your gifts.” And you literally don’t have the mark; so you don’t have to cover your hand - you can see Emily’s hand is unwrapped. She has no powers; no Far Reach, no Domino, no Mesmerise, no Shadow Hawk. We call this the “flesh and steel” play through, as you have to go through the whole game eavesdropping, climbing, jumping and using weapons.


Could the “payoff” actually be provided within the concept of emergent difficulty, where the player is defining the game’s difficulty as they go?

Yeah, I think so. You can set the difficulty overtly through the four different difficulty modes, and you can make it harder for yourself by trying not to kill or trying not to be detected. But by saying no to The Outsider, you’re definitely signing up for a completely different context – the contextualisation of the game is totally different. When you look at a situation off into the distance and you formulate a quick plan on how to solve the problems there – hide behind this, climb up there, etc. – you suddenly have a much more narrow range of options.

It’s fascinating to see who plays like this; I think only a subset will play that way. You know the hardcore mode in the game Diablo where, if you die, your character is erased. There’s something about that. When you are playing with friends, if someone chooses a hardcore player the drama just goes through the roof. But it’s such a pain in the ass because everyone gets to the 15th level and then you die, and your character is gone and you have to start over. It’s interesting to me that some people want a different experience that is harder or more dramatic or challenging. Personally I tend to go with the default difficulty as I like an easier more relaxed experience.

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