How to Make A Perfect Sequel: Dishonored 2
In our latest video essay, Duncan examines how Arkane Studios went about making a sequel to its most successful game, Dishonored. Check it out below, or scroll down to read it as a feature piece. Enjoy!
In the video game world, sequels are everywhere.
Whether it’s because the financial risk is less of a worry when you’re not gambling on a new intellectual property, or because developers want to improve on their past work, sequels are more commonplace than new franchises.
I mean, think of your favourite video game.
I’d be willing to bet that if it isn’t a sequel itself, that it at least has a sequel, or maybe even more than one. And besides your own favourite, how many successful video games can you think of that don’t have sequels? Or even spiritual successors? How many game developers, studios, and publishers can you name that have never made at least one sequel?
This has been going on almost since the beginning of the medium. Early franchises like Mario, Doom, and Zelda all offered very distinct gameplay, and back in the day, games never changed from sequel to sequel, nor did they have any kind of continuous story – they were essentially just new opportunities to give players more levels. As time rolled along and stories became more important to games, sequels then began to continue a hero or a world’s tale in a follow-up chapter. Then, as technology progressed and players started being bored of familiar formulas, sequels became an opportunity for developers to be adventurous and put new spins on franchises people loved by adding new mechanics, gameplay loops, and more ambitious worlds.
But if this has been going on for so long, why do video game sequels miss the mark so often? Today, sequels never quite hit home with audiences in the same way as originals do. If they aren’t criticised for changing too much about an original game’s formula they get labeled as “safe” or “boring” for keeping things too similar.
The assumption goes that it’s “easier to make a sequel” because you know from criticism what works and what doesn’t work about a game idea, but this is so often not the case. So how do you navigate the minefield of expectations and pressure of making a sequel? Well, I’m no developer, but I think there are criminally underappreciated lessons to be learned about how to make video game sequels when you look at Arkane Studios and their very first attempt at making one.
Dishonored was a bigger success than the studio could have hoped for. Although I can’t find any exact figures, we can safely assume that when Dishonored released in 2012 it outsold all of the studio’s previous projects combined and finally put an end to a creative rut the studio had been in thanks to three canceled projects. Thanks to Dishonored, game of the year praise was flung Arkane's way from every direction, the team became one of Bethesda’s most valuable studios, and suddenly a developer that had never made a sequel had a franchise on its hands.
So just what did Arkane do to make the best sequel possible?
The main reason I think Dishonored 2 is an example of a perfect video game sequel is because it only adds to what made Dishonored brilliant. In fact, almost just as importantly, it takes nothing away from what made Dishonored great. In short, Arkane found out what worked in Dishonored, and they used the whole lot as a starting point for the second game.
By only adding to what made an original great you literally can’t run the risk of taking the magic away.
What were some things people loved about Dishonored? Well, they loved the magical powers you could use. They loved the varying extremes of gameplay and the multiple paths through levels. They loved the gameplay loop, the goofy world-building, the setting itself, the art style, and the way you could navigate the world. Most of all though, people loved the level design.
In Dishonored 2, you get more of all of these things. You get more ways to be stealthy, more ways to rip every enemy to shreds, more routes through levels. You don’t get any fewer, you just get more.
As an in-depth example here let's look at level design.
Dishonored’s famous Blink ability taught players that looking for verticality can make stealth much easier, but as the always entertaining Purposeless Rabitholes brought up in his video about Dishonored 2, if you load up any save from the game and look up, chances are you’ll instantly be able to blink up to another floor.
This verticality shouldn't go understated. It's a massive deal because it shows us just how Arkane amplified Dishonored’s level design. There aren’t just five or more branching paths through one level anymore, there are about three of those levels all piled on top of one another. You might have heard about the innovation of The Clockwork Mansion or the technical beauty of A Crack in the Slab but that's because their concepts are never before seen levels of architectural brilliance. To me, they are the illustration of Arkane’s attitude to improving upon their game design. They took what worked, and they cranked it up to 11.
I do know some people who thought this was all a bit too much, and that Dishonored 2’s myriad of options left them feeling paradoxically stuck for choice, and that’s totally fair enough. However, my point here is; the way Arkane went about sequelisation was correct, and even if you don’t think it worked out, you can’t blame them for their approach.
Dishonored 2 also added to the original game by reducing player friction. In other words, Arkane found a few things that would make the game less annoying or stuff that would streamline the experience and added them in. Examples of this include adding a quicksave feature, adding neutral territories, adding a non-lethal solution to combat, and adding non-lethal options to air assassinations.
My next few points are all variations on this theme, but the main reason Dishonored 2 is such a fitting sequel is dependent on the fact that it focuses on the concept of addition.
Alright, so by only adding to what worked you take care of anyone who wants to criticise a sequel for being too similar to the original. But what about the equally annoying people who say that a sequel is too different?
Dishonored 2 is set 15 years after the events of Dishonored. The sequel allows you to play as Emily (the young empress you spent most of your time in the first game trying to save). Emily offers something new to Dishonored gameplay, her available powers are different, but can pretty much be used for the same reasons as Corvo’s powers were. Far Reach is Emily’s version of Blink. Domino allows you to take out multiple enemies at once just like Bend Time does. Shadow Walk allows you to pass by unnoticed and navigate wall cavities just like possession, and Mesmerize and Doppelganger allow for the same creativity as Wind Blast and Deadly Swarm.
But if these new powers are too much for die-hard fans, Dishonored 2 allows you to choose to play as Corvo, the hero of the first game, and treat the sequel as a direct continuation. If you decide to play as the now fully-voiced Corvo, you get access to all his original powers but with additional and optional ways to improve and upgrade them. Then if you play New Game+ you get the opportunity to mix and match both sets of powers and use them to your liking.
By adding this choice to the beginning of the game, you don’t just checkmate some critics, you also add even more replayability to a game that can already be replayed a million times in a million different ways.
I don’t know what it is, but way too many games are afraid to provide fans with callbacks and easter eggs to what they loved about a first game. Maybe its the multitude of studios that completely misunderstand their fans, but some of the best and most infamous moments from video games this console generation have come from fan service moments. Anyone who’s played 2018’s God of War and reclaimed their Chaos Blades will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The team at Arkane understands their fans. They know what they loved about Dishonored and you can tell that they love what they made just as much. The sense of world-building, of setting, of emergent gameplay and fun from Dishonored, is so present in Dishonored 2, and I believe it's because Arkane doesn’t shy away from providing callbacks, easter eggs, and fan service.
In terms of easter eggs, there are a lot in Dishonored 2. The heart from the first game is back (albeit with a slightly less subtle purpose for those who didn’t understand its significance in the first game). The artwork that Emily creates in the first game can be seen in Dunwall Tower. You can rob Galvani’s safe again because he’s a sorry son of a bitch who should hide his safe combinations better. Granny Rags’ hand appears if you choose to kill one of the targets who fulfills an oddly similar purpose in Karnaca that her rival, Slackjaw did in Dunwall. Hell, the game even repeats one of Dishonored’s best levels and allows you to explore a witch-infested Dunwall Tower.
You might think that these tiny things are unnoticeable details that don’t make a difference, but I’m a massive fan of Dishonored, its world, and its characters. I know the game inside out. These easter eggs were meaningful and let me know that I wasn’t the only one who loved this game a stupid amount. It felt like some sort of homecoming.
Speaking of locations, fan service doesn’t have to only be easter eggs. It can be the continuation of themes, feelings, and anything else that created the essence of an original.
Karanaca as a setting is a superb successor to Dunwall. It feels like the Mediterranean holiday destination to Dunwall’s bureaucratic, smoggy capital city. But the sense of continuity with how both cities function is expertly handled. For example, the city-wide speaker system that’s used to make announcements, the nail-biting tensions between factions in the city, the deadly plague that’s allowing the rich to get rid of some of the downtrodden and less fortunate in society - they’re all there, and again, they add to this feeling that the player is coming home to an empire they loved to explore and learn about.
Moreover, for me, Dishonored was always a game that was somehow good in spite of its flaws. Its cooky, quirky voice acting and weird enemy AI was so odd but it never seemed cheap or broken to me, just part of the surreal in-game world. Changing this, in a sequel then, would ultimately change Dishonored and that would have been a cardinal sin for the sequel to have committed. You can tell Arkane loved the guards and their limited voice lines, you can tell they wanted to improve upon what they’d made, but supply comical call-backs to the entertaining guards in the original. You might not know this, but in trophy descriptions, Dishonored’s NPCs are all listed as "characters", and fittingly, this is exactly the point I’m trying to make: Dishonored 2 encapsulates the entire character of what makes Dishonored one of my favourite games of all time.
Finally, if reviews made Dishonored famous for being an oil painting in motion, Dishonored 2 showed what would happen if there was some kind of renaissance and Anton Solkolov taught everyone advanced whale oil painting. The world is beautiful and somehow it manages to use a cleaner, more mature version of the already stunning Dishonored art-style.
Instead of boring you with inexact statements about painting styles, I'll let some screenshots speak for me...
It might not have seen the lightning in a bottle sales figures of Dishonored, and it may not have had the massive influence on the industry that the first game did, but even if you didn’t like Dishonored 2 for whatever reason, you can apply these points I’ve discussed to any video game sequel and see that Arkane did everything right.
For me, Dishonored 2 is a perfect sequel and one that definitely deserves more credit.