You Can’t Play Hero in Dishonored’s Story – And That’s Good

Warning! This post contains spoilers for elements of the plot of Dishonored. They’re relegated to the first third of the game, but if you’d rather go in untainted, you should steer clear.

Dishonored is a game about an assassination. You play the bodyguard of an empress, and when you fail to protect her from the bad guys, you get blamed for the fallout.

The rest of the game experience has the player pursuing the conspirators who murdered the empress and eliminating them — either dealing out death or dealing out non-lethal alternatives instead. You’re backed by another group of conspirators who’d like to depose the new Lord Regent and return the rightful heir to the throne.

What’s fascinating about Dishonored is just how dark it gets. From the outset, you’re a tool of death, and you fall directly into that role without so much as an argument. The marketing for Dishonored suggests your ultimate goal should be revenge, itself an extremely dark concept. Heroes don’t take revenge; heroes rise above.

To a degree, you too can rise above the wrongs committed against your character and your character’s friends, should you so choose. You can peddle mercy rather than death; you can go the whole game without taking a life, and you don’t actually have to assassinate anyone. But saving the lives of your enemies does not necessarily make them any better off. If you take the non-lethal path in one mission, you end up getting the corrupt leader of a religious organization excommunicated, making it a crime for anyone to aid or comfort him. He dies alone, infected with plague. In another mission, a pair of twins who are both assassination targets can be found being generally awful in a brothel. If you save their lives with the help of a local gangster, he explains that to eliminate them, he’ll be cutting out the targets’ tongues, roughing them up, and committing them to working in their own horrendous mines.

Most, if not all, of the non-lethal options play out this way. The people in question, on the one hand, get what they deserve — they are guilty of treason against the benevolent (we assume) empress, after all. On the other hand, you literally have no means of dealing with them in a way that doesn’t utterly ruin their lives. You can’t bring them to justice, you can only mete it out in one of two flavors. It’s a necessary evil, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it less evil.

Dishonored as a game is full of these morally black or blacker decisions. As a game with choices and one built on a huge amount of freedom, the one place where you don’t really get to choose for yourself is whether you’re “good” or “evil.” There’s really no such choice in Dishonored; your job is to remove these people from power. It must be done, and that’s all there is to it.

It’s not often that a game puts you in a position to play bad without really having an opportunity to be good. Most games in which you play the villain allow you to hedge back to the other side. Dishonored actually makes potentially good decisions seem not-so-great. Constantly, the player is forced to ask, “Is there a fate worse than death, and am I committing my enemies to it?”

Even side-quests present you with morally ambiguous moments, and it actually requires a little more due diligence on the part of the player to divine what it is he or she is up to and what consequences it might have for the people of the game world. In one early side-quest, players are tasked with eliminating a few gangsters that come to demand money from an old woman. They can be put down permanently or non-lethally, but after they’re dispatched, the woman asks the player to then strike back against the gang, sending protagonist Corvo to collect plague-infected rat guts and dump it into the gang’s still. It’s the device the gangsters use to create the potion they use to fight the plague.

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6 Comments on You Can’t Play Hero in Dishonored’s Story – And That’s Good

R.J.

On October 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm

This is one of the things that made me get this game. When I first heard that there were non-lethal means of dealing with a target, I wasn’t too impressed because lots of games do something like this so you can feel like the good guy. But the bits I’ve read about certain alternatives genuinely makes me wonder if death isn’t the more merciful option in certain cases. It seems like instead of automatically choosing one option every time, I’m going to actually consider the options and decide which would be more fitting.

Kevin

On October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm

I think we are starting to see a more “mature” look at morality in video games. Gone are the comical days of Bioware’s “dark side” and “light side” options. In Witcher 2 there was never at any point someone truly “good” or “evil”, rather just someone with an agenda, and they wanted to use you to accomplish it. Geralt just needed to find a way to use said person back.

Being a fan of Machiavelli, I far prefer this system than a lot of the “clear-cut” morality tales games put out there.

Hero-Toxiko

On October 12, 2012 at 7:07 pm

yeah i tried hard to kill as little as possible but the game screws you with the amount of non lethal ammo in proportion to the litany of can’t run can’t stun enemies. i figured the game was going to get dark when i saw the poison screen effect as the

psycros

On October 19, 2012 at 9:19 am

Dishonored fails completely in the whole realm of “moral ambiguity” because it relies on artificially constrained gameplay to limit your choices. Worse, you are punished for killing as the city grows darker and more dangerous as your body count rises. It really hurts suspension of disbelief when the royal bodyguard doesn’t know how to knock someone out in a stand-up fight. Dishonored could have been a great game and ends up mediocre due to what seems like sadism on the part of the designers.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 19, 2012 at 9:57 am

@psycros

Having talked to the developers, I can tell you that they don’t see the “chaos” system as being a punishment system, although I can see how it can comes off that way. We’re actually publishing an interview with Producer Ricardo Bare later today that you should definitely read, but to pilfer from that, I’ll paraphrase something he said.

Bare talked about the chaos system and said that it wasn’t supposed to make you feel punished for going bloody, but that the world is reacting to you. The devs were trying to do things in response to a lot of deaths, basically. Bare had a really good quote, in which he mentioned something Co-Creative Director Harvey Smith had said: that if a character went through a book murdering a huge number of people, but everything was fine at the end, you would call that a crap book.

So to me, the morality comes down to how any given player perceives it, and my purpose in this comment isn’t to tell you that you’re wrong. I can totally understand your viewpoint on this, and I’ve had the benefit of knowing what the devs were going for with those elements. I do think there’s a limitation in what a video game can reasonably convey in terms of gray area in this case, though; it’s hard to make the world feel reactive without that necessarily darker reaction not feeling like punishment.

TheDog

On October 19, 2012 at 10:39 am

@psycros Come on. Give me a break. It’s not a punishment, it’s more reality. Figure more deaths, especially guards, less people to hunt and kill rats, and weapers. More diseased means more to infect others. It’s a continually building effect. So it only makes more sense that there are going to be darker and more dangerous to everyone.
It would happen that way in real life. Less guards to hold back the tide. Makes complete sense if you think about it.