I became lost in the sprawling city of Dunwall a total of 14 times after receiving the teleporting Blink ability. The culprit wasn't entangling level design or oblique objectives. It was curiosity – a hunger for the unknown rivalling Corvo Attano's desire for revenge in its intensity.
From the moment salty ferryman Samuel Beechworth deposited me on the silty, moonlit shoreline of Dunwall's outskirts, I sensed it: the compelling need to uncover the beating pulse of this once-mighty industrial city.
The best thing about Dishonored isn't its kinetically scrumptious combat, which has certainly reaped its fair share of praise. It's the simple existence of an immersive story churning independently from Corvo's own narrative. Abandoned apartments, garish brothels, rusted whaling factories – each locale offers another slice of Dunwall's identity for ravenous absorption. The ubiquity of snippets of lore captured in tattered books and note scraps peppered along Corvo's path only fuels my hunger for more.
Corvo's accomplices and detractors leave equally unforgettable marks exacerbated by the cryptic whispers of the cogwork Heart. It's like a remote control of truth and gossip. It lays bare the innermost secrets of the pallid, downcast faces encountered in slum and suburb alike. Samuel's life at sea, for example, was a response to the numbing loss of a hopeless love. He also can't sleep in a normal bed. (Presumably due to their very non-wavy construction.)
Dunwall is a grim and grisly place filled with horror and despair, but Arkane's creation also brims with possibility. Sure, Corvo seeks closure, but I relished the opportunities to tell my own brand of story at every turn. Dunwall's presence made me feel the density of my rain-slick pea coat as I perched on high. It underscored the angular juxtaposition of technology with old-world architecture. Brushed tableaus of history leapt forth from Sergey Kolesov's fantastically detailed paintings. An impromptu eavesdrop revealed an aristocratic couple reduced to squabbling amid the ruins of their lives in a plague-infested district.
Dishonored doesn't force your nose up against everything it offers, but its revelatory depiction of a believable world tearing itself apart springboards the need to explore and travel beyond Dunwall's cobblestone streets. Such a distinction exists in but a few predecessor titles considered staples of PC gaming, and Dishonored wholeheartedly deserves its seat beside such exploratory games as Deus Ex, Thief and Unreal.
I could go on. In a genre that defines variety mostly by the amount of ammo left in a gun, Dishonored's richness both solidifies its legacy as a keystone stealth game and etches memories that linger far beyond the last credit line.
Runners Up: Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami.