Dishonored 2 Embodies Bethesda's Formula for Success

Dishonored 2 Embodies Bethesda's Formula for Success

Namely, hide innovation amidst the mundane.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

Nothing in video games is particularly surprising anymore. Bethesda's E3 press conference really drove that home when the company revealed it's working on virtual reality adaptations for Fallout 4 and DOOM.

"Bet you didn't expect that!" crowed the on-stage presenter. Evidently he's the last person to notice that VR is the territory that every developer and publisher on the planet has been scrambling to claim a stake in for the past year or so. The VR announcement came hot on the heels of the first gameplay footage of virtual strategy card game The Elder Scrolls: Legends (it's Hearthstone); a new Quake game designed explicitly to give id and Bethesda a leg up on eSports; and Prey, a reboot for a series that never expanded beyond the original game. They also revealed a major change for The Elder Scrolls Online that sends it marching in the footsteps of World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI, and a remastered version of the insanely popular Skyrim.

In many respects, Bethesda's press conference felt almost like a winning card of E3 Press Conference Bingo, ticking off all the expected checkboxes in a neat little row. If it's a cliché for a game publisher, Bethesda probably announced it at their press conference.

And yet, it would hardly be fair to write off the company's upcoming slate as more of the same. Tucked amidst the company's array of rote, typical products, Bethesda has some genuinely exciting and ambitious plans. They continue to break the boundaries between consoles and personal computers by giving Xbox One (and soon PlayStation 4) players access to mods — a feature traditionally limited to Windows and Steam. Fallout 4 led the way, and mod access will be incorporated into Skyrim: Special Edition right from the start. Meanwhile, a forthcoming DOOM update will similarly blur boundaries by allowing players to create single-player missions with the custom map editor — a feature that vanished from FPS edit modes a couple of decades ago.

Bethesda seems to be doing a pretty good job of slipping fresh, interesting, and unconventional approaches into what superficially appears to be a rote product schedule. You have to squint a bit, read between the lines, but you can see it if you know what to look for.

The extensive Dishonored 2 playthrough that closed the press event probably embodied Bethesda's duality better than anything else at the show. At a glance, the Dishonored preview seemed almost unbearably trite: A bit of Half-Life-ish "immersive" scripted cut scene leading to exceedingly violent combat, followed by a sort of puzzle dungeon.

But those who know the original game could look between the lines and see the potential lurking beneath the big, dumb, press conference playthrough. Possible alternate routes through the stages, optional powers to allow non-violent solutions, that sort of thing. Producer Harvey Smith presented Dishonored 2 as a fairly typical shooter, because that's how press conferences are done, and his constant lip service to the flexibility and freedom of the game could have come off as empty and facile if not for the way the sequel echoed the excellent original game in subtle but clear ways.

And just as E3 press conferences require presentations observe a certain kind of mindless violence, so too does the games business as a whole demand publishers play by certain rules in order to succeed. Bethesda does, to a degree... but they also have somehow turned janky open-world RPGs and deliberately archaic first-person shooters into some of the hottest games going. Bethesda kind of plays by the rules, and it kind of does it own thing. So despite the superficial predictability of the company's E3 announcements, I'm more than happy to reserve judgment on its upcoming slate of games. They could turn out to be just more of the same, but I'm banking on a few surprises.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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