The Dishonored series pays homage some of the PC's greatest games. Its blend of realist and futurist cityscapes were inspired by Half Life 2, while its emergent problem solving has its roots in games like Deus Ex and System Shock. The series that Dishonored is most devoted to, however, is Thief.
This is nothing revelatory. Arkane has been entirely open about how Dishonored is inspired by Looking Glass' classic stealth series. But the relationship between Dishonored and Thief is far more granular than Arkane's other inspirations. Many of its best levels are thematically or structurally linked to specific missions from the Thief series, while one particular Thief mission acts as a template for the broader structure of Dishonored as a whole.
This isn't to say that Arkane has copied an older game, far from it. What's fascinating about Dishonored is how it takes those older concepts and reshapes them into something new. In this article, I want to explore precisely how Arkane uses some of the best level design of the past as the basis for some of the best 3D level design today.
The Clockwork Mansion and The Sword
The Clockwork Mansion is arguably Arkane's masterpiece. This mission sees the player tasked with assassinating master inventor Kierin Jindosh at his home high on Karnaca's hillside. The Clockwork Mansion is notable for how its entire layout can change at the pull of a lever. Walls and floors will shift and retract to reveal hidden cabinets and cubbyholes, while entire rooms can be raised and lowered between the mansion's floors. Near the centre of the structure is a hidden turntable that can be used to access several rooms, but the layout of the mansion's corridors shifts each time you pull the lever.
It's one of the most spectacular showcases of 3D level design ever created. But this notion of a mansion whose layout defies expectation was explored in one of Thief's earliest missions. Its official title is The Sword, but it's also known by another name – Constantine's Mansion.
In the mission, Thief's protagonist Garrett must steal a magical sword hidden somewhere inside the mansion, which is owned by a reclusive nobleman who goes by the name Constantine. The mission begins in what seems like a straightforward (if opulent) manor house. But as you ascend into the higher floors of the mansion, the logic of the architecture starts to break down. Stone-built rooms lead to indoor grottos with babbling brooks and strange plant-life. Some rooms are turned on their side, while others are upside-down. The higher you ascend, the further logic breaks down. Walls and windows are skewed at bizarre angles, and some rooms seem to have been designed for giants, with huge hearths and tables so big you can walk underneath them.
What's interesting about these levels is they share the same goal – to bamboozle the player and subvert their expectation of how 3D space works. But they use different thematic and technological approaches to achieve it. The Sword adopts nature as its defining theme. The mansion grows and spreads chaotically like the roots of a tree, twisting over and under itself. The industry had only recently acquired the ability to build truly 3D spaces, and to simply build a convincing house was a significant achievement. The way The Sword messes with scale and perspective was mind-blowing.
The Clockwork Mansion takes the basic concept of the Sword and inverts it, swapping its chaotic, nature-inspired design for one dedicated to order and precision. The mansion is built to an atomically precise blueprint, and Arkane demonstrate this visually through beautiful and elaborate animations, with dozens of individual moving parts in any one of the Mansion's transitions. In addition, Arkane let the player climb behind the facade and sneak between the mansion's cogs and gears. Not only does this provide the player with alternate routes to complete their objective, it also lets Arkane demonstrate that every moving part of the mansion has a place to go, and that they don't just remove those rooms and objects from the game world when they can't be seen.
Addermire Institute and The Shalebridge Cradle
The third mission of Dishonored 2, Addermire Institute is a former solarium for Karnaca's rich and famous, which has been turned into a research centre for Infectious Diseases by Dr Alexandria Hypatia. The Institute is located on a small, Alcatraz-like islet off the coast of Karnaca's main city.
This mission shares a strong thematic link with the Shalebridge Cradle, arguably the standout mission of Thief: Deadly Shadows. The Cradle is a late mission in the game, and sees Garrett infiltrating an abandoned orphanage which, shortly before its closure, was turned into a mental asylum. Crucially, the transition was a gradual one, so that the orphans were still housed there as the City brought in and treated the asylum's patients, many of whom were dangerous. The Cradle was condemned after an ‘accident’ wherein one of the patients killed one of the orphans.
The key links between these two levels are the themes of metamorphosis and corruption. Addermire was once a place of relaxation and play, now it houses the sick and the dying who are as much lab-rats as they are patients. The Cradle was designed as a place of sanctuary for the City's neglected children, a sanctuary which was destroyed when the city decided to use it to perform experimental treatments upon mentally ill people. Both of these changes lead to terrible consequences, and leave behind ghosts both literal and figurative that the player has to deal with.
Addermire and the Cradle are also defined by their horror-like atmospheres, even though Thief and Dishonored are not strictly horror series. But it's more specific than that. The horror of both levels is deeply layered. Their respective stories explore how a sequence of events ultimately lead to tragedy which could have easily been avoided. In the Cradle it's the death of the orphan, which was caused by a series of bureaucratic oversights. In Addermire, it's how Hypatia's research leads her into becoming the Crown Killer, murdering several innocent people and becoming a pawn in the coup that brings Emily and Corvo to Karnaca. Again, this situation could have been avoided had Hypatia's research been subject to more rigorous checks and balances.
Both levels have a marvellously creepy atmosphere, but it's horror with a soul. They both consider how systems of governance and philosophy can lead to inhumanity when left unchecked, and it's that more than anything that binds them together.
The Bank Job and First City Bank and Trust
This is the most obvious of the connections between Dishonored and Thief, but it's also the one most open to interpretation. Both are games about sneaking into places, so it's perfectly natural for them to include missions about robbing banks. What's to say the two are connected in any way?
Well, there are a few clues. Firstly, there's the aesthetic. Thief II's First City Bank and Trust is meant to be a temple to capitalism, lavish and spacious. Its décor comprises of wood-panelled walls, marble floors and statues, a lofty, opulent entry-hall. The Delores Michaels Deposit & Loan Bank — recently introduced in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider — boasts a similar colour scheme and décor, albeit rendered in far more detail.
Both places are also showcases of their world's respective technologies. One of Thief II's main themes is the evolution of industry and mechanics over the first game. First City Bank's security includes prototypical surveillance cameras and steam-powered automatons that patrol the corridors alongside human guards. Dishonored II and its expansion has a similar relationship to its own predecessor. The Delores bank is patrolled by clockwork sentinels and employs electrified floors and walls of light to put off potential thieves.
Perhaps the best evidence for a connection between the two, however, is contained within the vault. The Vault of First City Bank and Trust is a massive square cavern, comprising several floors of safety deposit boxes that can only be accessed via an elevator contained within the vault itself. The Bank Job adds a little twist to this idea, and turns the vault of the Delores bank into an elevator, meaning it can be accessed from several floors, and can even be hidden between floors, making it next to impossible to access.
Dunwall, Karnaca, and Life of the Party
The majority of Dishonored's missions boast a two-part structure. There's the setting for the mission itself, which can be anything from a mansion to a prison to an upmarket brothel. Prior to this, however, the player is usually allowed to explore a limited chunk of the game's wider city, visiting shops, sneaking into apartments, embarking on little side-missions, all of which forms a gradual build-up to the main event.
It's an unusual structure. Normally a game would either take you directly to the mission, or it would be an open world the player could explore freely. But there's a good reason why Dishonored uses this structure, and it's based upon arguably the most influential Thief mission of the entire series.
Life of the Party was the tenth mission of Thief II, and it saw Garrett breaking into Angelwatch, a huge tower belonging to the game's Mechanist cult, which is hosting a party dedicated to the Mechanist leader Karras. By this point in the game, the Mechanists are onto Garrett, making it too dangerous for him to traverse the streets. So instead he must travel to Angelwatch via the “Thieves Highway” — the City's rooftops.
Hence, before the player arrives at Angelwatch, there is a lengthy sequence where Garrett traverses the city from above. This includes sneaking through several houses and apartments. Through this, Looking Glass provide the player with a glimpse into the life of the city, and it has a profound impact in showing Garrett — so alone and removed from the everyday — as part of a wider society that moves autonomously.
What's odd is that there's a mission earlier in the game during which Garrett literally walks through the city's streets. But there's something about the voyeuristic nature of sneaking through people's homes, reading their correspondence and helping yourself to a few bits of jewellery as you go, that makes it feel so much more alive.
This is something Arkane understand acutely, and it's why they dedicate so many resources to creating these intensely detailed streets and cityscapes that have little direct relation to your main mission. It builds the anticipation, letting you experience that crucial set-up period before a heist, a score, or an assassination plot. Moreover, fleshes out the cities of Dunwall and Karnace, making them feel like living places without Arkane actually having to build a full open world, and it all traces back to Life of the Party.
These are the clearest links between Dishonored and Thief, but there are a few extra nods from the former to the latter that are worth delving into. Lady Boyle's Manor from the first Dishonored also has a little Life of the Party in it, although Arkane's take on sneaking into a celebration is very different. Most importantly, the masquerade nature of Lady Boyle's party allows you to wander around the lower floor of the manor unimpeded by the guards, and drink in your lavish surroundings.
The Shalebridge Cradle also influences another mission in Dishonored II. A Crack in the Slab is a brilliant mission in which the player explores an abandoned manor house both in the present and in the past. The two timelines are layered on top of each other, with the player able to transition seamlessly between them, and even alter the present by changing events in the past. Time manipulation is a fundamental theme in the Cradle too. At one point, Garrett has to enter the Cradle's ‘memories’ in order to retrieve an object to alter those memories and free a spirit. The difference is this is a fixed story arc the player has no control of, whereas A Crack in Slab's time-manipulation is a mechanic the player can use to their advantage.
Meanwhile, Dishonored's Knife of Dunwall DLC includes a mission wherein Daud must break into Coldridge Prison (the place Corvo originally escapes from), to rescue a woman named Lizzy Stride. In the second mission of The Dark Project, Garrett needs to break into Cragscleft prison to rescue a man named Cutty.
Lastly, the Royal Conservatory from Dishonored II bears some resemblance to ‘Still Life with Blackjack’, from Thief: Deadly Shadows, wherein Garrett must infiltrate a museum. Aside from the notion of infiltrating a museum-like environment, the two missions don't have an enormous amount in common, with the Royal Conservatory being much grander and more elaborate than the museum of Deadly Shadows.
Dishonored and Thief are distinct series, decades apart. But when you’ve experienced something like The Sword, and years later play the Clockwork Mansion, these games can feel like two sides of the same coin; fundamentally connected, no matter how different they might look.