Progression systems in games are often used as a stand-in for helping the player improve at the game. Rather than training your player to get better and play the game with more skill, you simply outfit them with stronger gear, weapons, or abilities and let them have at it. Sure, you’ll increase enemy difficulty as the game goes on, and perhaps the complexity of the game’s systems, but the player is always safely padded behind the comfy wall of an ever-improving character that will be able to push through the game’s challenges with little effort. Herein lies the deceit of progression systems. They’re an artificial way to make the player feel like they have grown stronger, and technically their character has, but the player themself often has not improved much beyond mastering the basic mechanics of the game.
Dishonored Does it Right
Enter Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. The Dishonored series as a whole can be accused of falling prey to this trap of progression; the entire premise of the series is that you are a supernatural assassin with incredible combat training and magical abilities, able to assassinate your targets in any number of creative and cunning ways, which form the basis for its open-ended gameplay. Certainly by endgame, the player will find themselves swimming in gear, upgrades, and enhanced abilities to the point where it’s less about figuring out how to complete the finals levels than it is about deciding the way you want to complete them. This is not to say that this is a bad or inferior way of handling progression in a game, and the success of Dishonored as a series is certainly a testament to the value of its approach to gameplay, but Death of the Outsider, even as a standalone DLC for Dishonored 2, brings something new to the table with its entry into the series: an emphasis on weakness.
The Role of Weakness
Weakness is practically a motif in Death of the Outsider, both thematically and as a gameplay element. You are Billie Lurk, a once great assassin now stripped of powers, on a search to locate your dying mentor and eventually to confront and kill the Outsider, a god responsible for your supernatural abilities who knows your every action. If ever the odds were stacked against a character, it is Lurk.
But why does Death of the Outsider emphasize this weakness? Even after being granted new powers, Lurk is still far below the power levels of previous protagonists, a seemingly odd choice for a game franchise that prides itself on giving the player many different tools with which to choose their approach to level completion. I didn’t realize the answer to this myself until I was about halfway through the game, peering around a corner into the main room of a crowded bar filled with enemies that I would have to defeat to escape.
The ceiling was too low to permit me to pass over unseen, and the room too crowded to hope to stick to the shadows. Lurk’s powers are non-combative, so I was going to have to rely on swordplay and a few tricks to make my way through the impending brawl. After carefully surveying the layout, noting the positions of various enemies and planning out a route in my mind, I took a deep breath, steadied my hands and lunged around the corner.
I dispatched two enemies with quick shots from my crossbow and executed a third unaware one from behind. By now I had been spotted, and every thug in the room had drawn a blade. I dropped a tether point in a carefully selected corner of the room and sprinted to the other side, sliding under a haphazard sword swing in my direction, before snatching up a bottle of liquor from the table and smashing it in the face of two oncoming foes to daze them. Two sword strokes dispatched them, and I exchanged blows with a third opponent before finishing him off and teleporting back to my tether point on the other side of the room to take down the last enemy, who was just taking aim with a pistol in my direction. When the dust cleared, I stood alone among a pile of bodies, the room cleared of any threat.
And the best part? I did it all of my own skill. Every move, every feint and slide, each evasion and tactically planned trick to get the advantage was my own invention. I didn’t get by because of some powerful spells given to me by the game (although that last minute teleport was quite handy) I did so largely thanks to my own quick thinking and reflexes. The game put me into a situation where I couldn’t simply force my way through with superior firepower and, as a result, had to figure out a better way around it.
Weakness is the Key
This experience is one that stuck with me because instead of handing me powerful tools and telling me I deserved them because I was already strong, the game challenged me and demanded that I rise to the occasion to become a better player. The weakness of my in-game character helped to spur growth in me as a player and led to a strengthening of my skills, rather than my stats.
I believe that this focus on player progression, rather than character progression, is one that games should implement more frequently. Even when Death of the Outsider reached endgame, and I had amassed a large store of powerful upgrades and items, I was thrown against strong enemies who were often immune to many of my attacks and could kill me instantly, again forcing me to adapt and change my playstyle to overcome. The weakness of my character led to a sense of confidence and strength in myself as a player, since I realized it was me solving the challenges the game presented, not the game doing it for me.