(A Spoiler Warning is in effect on Dishonored and the entirety of its campaign.)
Recently, I went back and complete my high chaos, highly lethal playthrough of Dishonored. While this playthrough made me feel like a complete jerk (thanks to all of the destruction and devastation I caused) it also became the perfect opportunity to reflect upon morality and how it is viewed through games like Dishonored. When it comes down to it, the moral choices expressed in these kinds of games can be considered juvenile, showing a lack of understanding of nuance and ambiguity that many of these situations entail. In particular, I take issue with the fact that “non-lethal” options are almost always considered objectively good and just. The two main reasons I have for this are the topic for this week's posting.
The first of these reasons is that, for all the talk of moral superiority, non-lethal game-play styles are not inherently any more moral than their lethal cousins. As Chris Franklin, aka Campster, already explained much earlier in this video on Dishonored, many of the things players do in a non-lethal playthrough can be seen as “bad” or “wrong,” including theft of personal property (pickpocketing/looting), forced injection of toxins (crossbow with sleep darts), choking enemies to unconsciousness, and forced invasion of the mind and body (possession). From a certain standpoint, all of these things are transgressions against all of the various people players will encounter. The problem here arises when the game only judges the audience based only on the number of kills made. If the player kills roughly less than 20% of the people in the game, then they are considered Low Chaos and the game ends with Princess Emily guiding Dunwall into a golden age under protagonist Corvo Attano's tutelage. Any more than that, then Emily either grows into a ineffectual dictator of an empire ravaged by plague or dies, leaving ruins in her wake (depending on what happens in the final mission). Corvo, who is nothing more than a supernatural assassin, is either a Bastion of moral purity or a bastard leading a nation into ruin, solely depending on the number of people he killed. This gets even more hazy when the types of non-lethal take-downs of many of the game's targets are taken into account, because almost all of them are fates worse than death. When facing High Overseer Cromwell, head of a group of religious zealots, players are asked to either kill him, or burn his face with a specific branding called the Heretic's Brand, which forbids anyone in the city from being nice to him in any way. Likewise, the Pendleton twins, rich noblemen, can either be assassinated or forced to work in their own silver mines with their tongues removed and their heads shaved. Sure, the fate of these people are rather awful in the non-lethal versions, but according to the game, it is all okay because they are not dead. In fact, players will often be rewarded by NPCs who drop gifts off for him because they opted to “show restraint” and not kill them. Whether one choice over the other is inherently better is an open ended question, but we cannot deny that neither one should be considered objectively good or inherently better than the other without close scrutiny.
While that is indeed bothersome and honestly does not make much sense, it is far from the only issue I take with that kind of dualistic moral choice. The other problem I have with Dishonored is that its lethal and non-lethal divide really inhibits the number of options developers have at their disposal. Like many of its gaming contemporaries, such as Bioshock, inFamous, or even Mass Effect, the complex subject of morality was rendered into a binary choice that lasts for the duration of the game. When the only thing that is tracked is the number of kills, it prevents the game from truly reacting to the way that people play it. No one bats an eye when every single guard in a level has either been choked to sleep or pumped full of sleep darts, but a group of dead bodies causes a massive backlash from the world. This type of binary thinking can break an otherwise strong illusion of a coherent and reactive world. It even seeps into the gameplay as well. When dealing with his targets, the game will only acknowledge whether Corvo killed them or took the non-lethal route given by the game designers. This closes off many avenues of possible problem solving that could would otherwise be possible in a real world scenario. One such example comes from one of the missions that takes place in Act 2 of the game, Lady Boyle's Last Party. The gist of the mission is that Lady Boyle is the mistress of the Lord Regent who has taken power in Dunwall, financing his military as well, so the player has to infiltrate the party she and her two sisters are throwing, figure out which one is the Regent's mistress, and take her out through lethal or non-lethal methods. To the game designers credit, they allow for more than a few ways to go through this mission. Players have the choice of discovering the identity of the mistress, either through sneaking around or by blending in and talking with the guests at the party, and taking her out exclusively. Alternatively, they could kill off all three Ladies Boyle, ensuring that the true target is also eliminated, or knock out the target and sell her off to her creepy stalker who promises Dunwall will “neither see nor hear from her ever again.” Ignoring the potential implications behind that last option, this does drastically reduce the number of options left available, especially for those attempting a non-lethal run of the game. If Corvo speaks with the real Lady Boyle and asks to see her in her bedchambers, she reveals that she has no particular love for the Lord Regent and only sleeps with him to further her own family's social status. That makes all of the methods of dispatching her seem unappealing and unnecessarily punishing her for circumstances beyond her control. It would be nice to allow for options that leave a better taste in the player's mouth like convincing the good lady to drop support for the Regent's cause, either by persuasive or coercive means. Perhaps players could even reduce the Boyle family's sphere of influence in some way, making her support and financial backing less significant. The point is that by forcing a binary “Kill target or take the designated non-lethal approach,” the game is not challenging players to think outside the box as much as they could. It would be interesting to see games track other things besides whether or not people are killed, like maybe how violent players are or how much they stole throughout their run of the game or level. Players who only strike against their targets, yet do so with lethal force, would be treated as a Hitman-esque Silent Assassin, while those who keep their presence and influence as hidden from the world as they can would be treated like a Ghost. It seems like only allowing one single stat to affect everything in the game is naive in a way, given the people are rarely so singularly influenced.
Before I wrap this up, I do not want people to be under the impression that Dishonored is a bad game by any means. While the story is weak and I do criticize the game for not offering more in terms of choice, the amount of options and approaches players are given is significantly more than what most even attempt in other modern games. The exploration and focus on moment-to-moment gameplay are the strongest points of the game. It should also be noted that the Blink mechanic, which allows players to use short-range teleportation to jump to areas within their field of view is revolutionary and dramatically hastens the pace and verticality when roaming or sneaking through the fairly large and wide open (by today's standards) levels thrown at players. It is a remarkable throwback to the likes of Thief with a dash of Deus Ex thrown in; a decent start to a new budding franchise. I only hope that the developers were taking notes and learn from the feedback generated by the game's audience.