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.