This article contains incredibly nondescript minor spoilers for Dishonored. I doubt that any information gleaned from this article will effect your knowledge of Dishonored‘s story, but if you are desperate to know absolutely nothing about this game then I suggest you stop reading now.
I recently decided to treat myself to a copy of Arkane Studio’s Dishonored and was truly thrilled to find a game which fulfilled the often lauded promise of offering multiple unique paths to completing objectives. In almost every scenario players are offered several different paths on approaching assassination targets, and are often given choices regarding how to eliminate (or neautralise) said target. Player’s can utilize a silent ghost like approach and slink through the shadows unnoticed whilst showing mercy to your targets, or you can simply slash through swathes of guards and arrive at your target blood-stained and eager to end one more life.
Your actions have a direct effect on the world. If you choose the sinless stealth route then the world becomes a better place, you have caused less death and therefore there are less bodies for the plague rats to thrive on (or so the game’s logic goes). However, if you shape the future with a stained blade there’s more death, therefore everyone is in for a rough ride and they know just the guy to blame; you. And blame they do. I often mixed and matched my approach to the game, differing from Solid Snake to Kratos (admittedly leaning slightly towards the Kratos end of things) like some sort of steam punk schizophrenic, and as a result had received a high “Chaos” rating. The Chaos rating system is dependent on, among other things, how many times you are detected and how many people you killed during a mission.
“You cannot inject new ideas into a man’s head by chopping it off; neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it with a dagger.” – Louis Fischer
My high Chaos rating meant that other characters would respond to me negatively; Samuel, one of my favourite NPC’s, even went as far to say that he was “disappointed” in me. This cut me deep. Corvo’s mute and masked being had easily allowed me to step in and inhabit this world. Why did Samuel hate me when I was simply doing my job? The game had allowed me to deal with any problem in any manner I deemed fit, and I often thought a massacre was a perfectly acceptable solution. The NPC’s negative reactions to my actions made me feel as if I was being punished and judged for simply engaging with the game in a way I wanted to. It annoyed me. But what if the developers wanted this negative emotional reaction? What if they actively wanted to punish players who sought the ‘evil’ route? Perhaps Dishonored then becomes a comment on tyranny and the idea that violence only leads to more violence. Surely a government which overthrows the supposedly evil old powers through violent means is suggesting that violence is a solution not a problem.
Ironically Dishonored’s very own tag line “Revenge solves everything” suggests that blood for blood is one way to get equal with your enemies. There were often times in the game when I was given the opportunity to rid the world of some truly despicable and vile people, people personally responsible for the torture, and ultimately, the deaths of countless citizens. Something in me found it impossible to leave these encounters with clean hands, as though I would play a part in their future crimes by letting them live. But, and this may be what the scoldings from NPC’s may all be about, was I better than any of these men? Was the future destined to be a dark place because I had shaped it by dark means?
”In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” – Francis Bacon
Arkane Studio’s simplistic morality system didn’t exactly get me to question my own ethics but it did make me ponder about the functions and intentions of morality systems in the medium. Is it worth sacrificing some of the player’s enjoyment of the actual product in order to get a complex message about ethics across? I would argue that the game’s message that bloodshed cannot end bloodshed is a bold move for an inherently (and stereotypically so) violent medium/genre to explore. It did personally detract slightly from my relationships with characters, but the overall ironic exploration of the topic struck a chord with me and I feel it highlights the unique capabilities of the medium itself. There is no other medium in which the interactive nature of the medium itself offers the participants the chance to end someone’s life, whilst simultaneously calling into question our motivations and the consequences of doing so.
Regardless of how well explored the topic is in Dishonored I still feel that it’s a risky maneuver to purposefully negatively influence the player’s feelings towards a game’s characters in order to convey a message. My struggle with Dishonored’s morality system reminded me of a similar problem I had with 1984, which I had read very recently, in that I was unsure if I enjoyed the book because it was so bleak and hopeless. Is it wrong to dislike something because the writer/film maker/developer nailed their message so expertly? Clearly George Orwell’s dystopian future is intended to instill a deep unsettling anxiety of how easily a totalitarian government could exist. But after reading the book I was unsure I even enjoyed it because of how well it manages to destroy any hope the reader has. After completing Dishonored I wondered to myself whether Arkane Studios had potentially marked an otherwise brilliant game by associating the “bad” moral choices with player’s choices. After all they were the one’s that allowed me to make these decisions, but then decided I was a bad person for choosing a certain type of play style.
I feel that overall, outside of Dishonored’s black and white morality system, the game is a very interesting commentary on the effects of violence and how they can often lead to tyranny, corruption and more death. Not only are players choosing what style of play but they are also forced to think about the consequences that their actions will have.