Last fall, Dishonored 2 ripped me right out of my gaming funk. I tore through the game in two days, scouring every square inch of its wonderful setting, Karnaca. Dishonored 2’s brilliant self-assurance is compelling; I couldn’t stay away. Now, after the release of Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, I found myself craving a return to Dishonored 2.
Many people have rightfully singled out Dishonored 2’s fourth mission, The Clockwork Mansion, as one of the game’s best. It’s a great level, rich with the kind of creativity that Arkane is known for. The game’s seventh mission, A Crack in the Slab, gets less attention. Dishonored 2 released shortly after Titanfall 2, whose time-travel themed mission Effect and Cause might have stolen some of A Crack in the Slab’s thunder. A Crack in the Slab might have a similar premise to Effect and Cause, but its combination of its themes and mechanics makes it stand out.
Where other fantasy games are content to stay tethered to Tolkien’s traditional high fantasy realms with humans, elves, dwarves, and dragons, Arkane forges its own path. Dishonored’s fantasy world is unique, taking place in an industrial age powered not by coal and steam, but by whaling. In the first game you play as Corvo Attano, bodyguard and lover of a murdered empress who has to rescue the princess Emily, your daughter, finally installing her on the throne to rule Dunwall.
In Dishonored 2, you can play as either Corvo or Emily. Delilah Copperspoon, a malevolent witch, usurps the throne, turning one of you to stone and causing the other to flee to the land of Karnaca to find a way to save the empire. Your journey to discover Delilah’s weakness and find a way to stop her eventually takes you to a mansion owned by one Aramis Stilton.
Delilah’s conspirators are among the rich and powerful, and Stilton is no exception. Stilton is a mining baron, and his mansion is a huge part of Karnaca’s Dust District. Three years ago, after a mysterious incident, Stilton became a recluse and closed his home off from outsiders. The only way in is through a complicated lock built by one of the game’s earlier foes, Kirin Jindosh. Dishonored 2 dedicates an entire mission just to getting past the lock. Once you do so, you lose all of your supernatural powers, and A Crack in the Slab begins.
At the start of the mission, Stilton’s mansion is in disrepair. The ruinous Dust District felt crowded, but Stilton’s mansion is empty. As you pick through its bones, you find fragments of a happier past—a great staircase, a decaying museum.
Anyone who has played Dishonored knows how fun it can be to poke around for loot to pilfer, but the opening area of Stilton’s mansion is largely picked over. In the upstairs mining museum, for instance, a safe has been opened and emptied. As you explore, hoping to find something worth taking, most of the mansion is closed off, save for one room.
There you find Stilton himself, babbling about whales in the mines. He tells you that you must inform the empress that something terrible is happening. When you try to talk to him, time freezes and the Outsider appears. The Outsider (who’s basically Gerard Way if he were a bored god) gives you a timepiece, a tool that lets you observe the year 1849 through its crystals and jump between the 1849 and Dishonored 2’s present year of 1852.
As always, the Outsider’s instructions are cryptic, simply urging you to see for yourself what happened three years ago. A quick tutorial popup tells you everything you need to know, so you press the button and leap back to the past. Stilton isn’t in this spot in the past, but through the timepiece’s crystals, you can still see him muttering away at the piano. In 1849, the mansion is well-kept and expensive-looking. There are chairs around the now-immaculate piano, as if Stilton is expecting guests for a musical performance.
While many games are content to simply tell you what’s up, or drench the world in pointless graffiti, Dishonored 2 uses its levels as a means of characterization. It invites you to explore its world, examining the little details and deriving your own conclusions from that. As you explore the past mansion, you come across an instrument tuner who asks a passing guard if Stilton plays music. The guard says he doubts it; he thinks Stilton is a man who buys instruments for appearances.
If you explore this exhibition room, which is just below Stilton’s master bedroom, you’ll find a little space in the back where multiple instruments and instrument parts are stored. There’s a workbench here, and, while nothing is explicitly stated, it seems as though Stilton once enjoyed repairing pianos. In 1852, a mattress and scraps of food are located in the little loft above the workbench, and Stilton spends his time at the piano. While the guards might think Stilton too aloof to play music, privately, it seems to be an important part of his life.
You learn more about Stilton as you go further into the mansion. A letter to his staff shows his taste in food but lack of knowledge on the subject. He references amazing foods he’s had elsewhere, rather than rattling off a list of fancy dishes, showing himself as someone perhaps a little out of his depth. The Duke has written Stilton a letter expressing a desire to know more about Stilton’s interest in improving the working conditions for miners, demonstrating a clear contrast between Stilton’s intentions in 1849 and the Duke’s in 1852. Stilton’s diary contains a series of entries where he fusses over his appearance; apparently, a servant criticized the coal dust underneath his nails, indicating a man of lower station, and Stilton spent several days embarrassed by this remark.
Compared to the other corrupt and arrogant members of Delilah’s conspiracy, Stilton seems like a good man, if something of a coward. He cares, deeply, about doing the right thing, but he’s concerned with his appearance, earnestly attempting to live up to the station he’s found himself in. Later in the level, the player character remarks that they’ve heard Stilton had been a miner. Karnaca’s current state is due to the Duke’s greed; Stilton was a good, caring man in a difficult circumstance, a victim of Delilah’s plot, his mind broken by the mysterious incident in 1849.
In addition to conveying character information, these details add ambiance to A Crack in the Slab. Dishonored is telling a story, and everything in the game works in service to the story being told. A Crack in the Slab’s ambiance encourages you to linger, an action not seen in other mediums. In a game, you can wander around a room, taking in the vibes, considering the space and its occupants. You can become part of the space, so a game, if it wants to tell stories well, must make use of that space to tell its story.
This ambiance and story also have an impact on your gameplay. Dishonored games judge their players at the end, the decisions you make impacting the game’s final scenes.Kill too many people in Dishonored 2, and your character may end up ruling Karnaca with an iron fist. Therefore, it’s best to be armed with as much knowledge as possible, because this informs how you play, which determines what the ending will be.
It doesn’t always work perfectly; I’ve never been a big fan of being graded on my performance, and, according to one of my friends who’s a game designer, it’s extremely difficult for games to determine player intent. I killed a few people in Dishonored 2 because they’d committed murder and no one else could stop them; this meant my game ended with Corvo ruling as a tyrant, where I felt he was a one-man force of justice attempting to save a vulnerable populace from an army of superhuman murderers.
Even though Dishonored’s morality system isn’t perfect, it’s fascinating. Dishonored has always played with morality in interesting ways—in the first game, every non-lethal fate was worse than death. Two brothers get their tongues ripped out and are forced to work in their own mines, the high overseer is branded a heretic and brutally tortured by his own men, a woman is sent to live with her stalker. It was a great way to toy with the common binary perception around stealth game morality that suggests lethal is bad and nonlethal is good. To play a Dishonored game well, you have to consider what the best action is, rather than resorting to a simplistic moral choice.
While Dishonored 2 falls into the lethal/nonlethal paradigm, it fits with the characters presented. In the case of A Crack in the Slab, how you deal with Stilton impacts the entire timeline, in ways that become clear as you play through the level. Your actions have consequences, and the level design of A Crack in the Slab helps players make that decision by inspiring them to scour the level and learning everything they can about Stilton.
A Crack in the Slab’s level design also encourages players to employ the level’s unique timepiece mechanic, the tool by which all of this change occurs. Stealth level design can be especially difficult because players have a limited set of tools, and the goal is always the same: stay out of sight. For a stealth game to be successful, it must attempt to offer as much variety as possible. A Crack in the Slab introduces variety through the use of the timepiece, which lets you travel through time, and, more importantly, observe the timelines before you do.
Stealth games are generally built around observation. You look and listen for guards, while the guards look and listen for you. Arming yourself with information about your surroundings is key to success. In Stilton’s mansion, the magic powers you’ve relied on in all previous levels no longer work, and the level design offers little cover to block the guards’ line of sight. Since the timepiece lets you watch the alternate timeline, you can catch a guard’s attention in 1849, jump to 1852, watch him run to an out-of-the-way place in 1849, then jump back to 1849 and choke him out.
The timepiece is also used to solve puzzles. Shortly after you get the timepiece, you’re left trying to leave the room you entered. You came in through the ceiling, but without your blink ability, you can’t simply teleport back out. Upon further inspection, you’ll discover that the door is locked in 1849, but unlocked with a grate about two feet in front of it in 1852. This means that you can walk into a small space between where the door ought to be and where the grate is, jump through time, and find yourself on the other side of the locked door, with no grate in your path. This lesson will stay with you throughout.
Another puzzle involves trying to clear a path blocked by a giant bust. In 1849, a note left behind on the statue warns that it’s unsteady and too heavy for a single person to move. If you knock the bust over in 1849, breaking it, it’s no longer blocking the passage in 1852, allowing you to advance through the level. This reinforces another lesson: your past actions change the future.
The entire level is like this, full of clever, mind-bending puzzles and actions that ripple throughout the past and present. The complexity of the puzzles increases; as the 1852 mansion opens up to you, the guards of 1849 become more difficult to avoid. Pretty soon, you’re leaping through time, hoping a guard didn’t see you, only to be faced with a swarm of angry bloodflies in 1852. Tension is punctuated by eureka moments, in which you solve time puzzles that leave you feeling like a genius. All of this builds to the ultimate choice. Do you kill Aramis Stilton, unwilling conspirator to Delilah’s plans, or do you spare him?
In 1849, Aramis Stilton was supposed to attend a meeting. Whatever happened to him there left him broken by 1852. I chose mercy, choking him out so that he wouldn’t make his appointment.
This 1852 was brand new. Rather than the derelict mansion that reflected its broken host, the new timeline reflected the mind of a man who had not suffered from Delilah’s plot. Stilton missed his meeting, and it saved his mind. This choice influences the game in some profound ways; Stilton becomes your accomplice in the fight against Delilah. I knew I had made the right choice, regardless of what the post-mission results screen said.
A Crack in the Slab spills its inhabitants’ secrets, while the mechanics and level design choices explore the level’s time travel theme while presenting new stealth challenges. A Crack in the Slab doesn’t possess the lightning-quick roller coaster of Titanfall 2’s Effect and Cause, but it rewards curiosity and responds to your actions in meaningful, game-changing ways. Everything matters, nothing is pointless. It’s as perfect a level as they come, and it’s the reason Dishonored 2 deserves your attention.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.