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

Sneaking past the gangsters and into their distillery (after having procured diseased rat guts), players can easily poison the plague cure with plague, dealing a pretty heavy blow to the gang. At least, that’s how it seems — but spend some time taking in your surroundings on this particular mission and you might discover a ledger listing the names of families to whom the gang sells its bootleg remedy. The customers are poor people who can’t afford the name-brand stuff. Suddenly, it becomes clear that you might not just be hurting the apparent bad guys in this situation. So does poisoning the criminals’ still make you a bad guy?

Dishonored throws this question our way over and over again, and probably the most unfortunate thing about the game is that it doesn’t stick to its guns. Eventually, the story allows you to achieve moral high ground, rewarding you for choosing mercy.

Still, the game gets pretty close in providing you with a dark path without necessarily suggesting that you revel in it. In most games, you either play as the hero, or you play at being a bad guy — either starting bad and becoming good, or going ludicrously, comically bad, like a Bond villain. Dishonored actually presents you with choices with no right answers more often than not. There’s rarely a chance to actually be a good guy.

That’s a tough sell for a video game, and it’s one of Dishonored’s great strengths that it can challenge players in that way. The game manages to do one better than the standard “moral conundrum” we’ve seen in video games in the last decade — it constantly gives you no-win situations and asks you to choose the lesser of two evils. Or, even better, it provides you with a goal to complete without sharing the true consequences of that action, instead leaving it to the player to discover the context.

Stepping into a world with video games that aren’t about implacable heroes shooting down thousands of minions of evil could very well be stepping into the next generation of games as they continue to evolve as a medium and art form. I only hope that more games embrace this idea as much as, and even more than, Dishonored has.


Follow Hornshaw and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

Combining stealth, magic, and gadgetry against overwhelming odds, Corvo hunts the men that betrayed him in Dishonored. Become a master assassin with Game Front’s Dishonored walkthrough and punish those that have wronged you with style.

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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.