At around the same I was playing the thoroughly excellent The Last of Us, I was also working on another game that, although flawed, left a lasting impression on me—Dishonored, a 2012 science fiction stealth action-adventure from Bethesda Softworks.
The Last of Us is a triumph for games as a storytelling medium; Dishonored is not, for several reasons. The plot, very briefly: you take the role of Corvo Attano, former bodyguard of an assassinated empress, framed for the crime, living in alternate-universe old London overrun by plague. Your objective: bring those who betrayed you to justice and save the city.
But nitpicking the admittedly limp plot is not really what I’m interested in here. What makes Dishonored interesting is its total commitment to player choice, allowing the player to take an active role in how the story unfolds.
Now, in and of itself, that’s not exactly an uncommon approach for a modern video game—unlike more static mediums, games are flexible enough to accommodate branching storylines. But rarely have I seen player choice—in every encounter, in every puzzle, in every moment from mundane to major—so completely integrated into the experience as in Dishonored. And while plenty of games these days allow players to choose characteristically “good” or “evil” paths (Mass Effect, inFamous, plenty more), I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game in which the difference between those paths was so stark.
Skilled (or at least patient) players striving for moral excellence can guide Corvo through his entire adventure without taking a single virtual life—not the hired guards who patrol the streets, not sick and starving civilians who’ve turned belligerent, not even the very men and women responsible for betraying you and leaving the city to disease and ruin. Innocent members of the city watch just trying to earn money and medicine for themselves and their families are spared, the game’s major antagonists go to jail rather than die by your sword, the princess is saved, the plague is cured, and everybody lives happily ever after. No video game protagonist has ever been so righteous—even Mario stomps goombas.
But players who just want to watch the world burn? They are under no obligation—at least under the rules of the game—to leave anyone standing, from criminals to hostiles to innocents. They are under no obligation to pursue any agenda other than chaos and revenge. They don’t even have to pretend they’re only committing evil acts as a means to serve the greater good, as is the case in most other games that provide an “evil” path. If you choose, you can let the scientists working on a cure die, let the princess die, and flee the city alone as it crumbles to the ground. No video game protagonist has ever been so irredeemable.
Consider the following actual scenario: Corvo must infiltrate a high society party, figure out which of the 3 hosts is secretly and illegally financing the corrupt head of state, and neutralize them. Here are two possible solutions (of many) to the puzzle, both of which will result in an “objective complete”:
Option 1: Infiltrate party. Mingle with guests to see if they have any useful information. Sneak upstairs and search for clues that might point to the identity of the criminal. Once identified, find a way to get the target alone. Subdue target non-lethally. Sneak unconscious target past guards into the underground passageway to a nearby boat. Leave party without arousing further suspicion.
Option 2: Enter party. Engage guards. Once guards are dealt with, systematically eliminate all party guests—one of them, after all, has to the correct target.
On the one hand, I applaud any violence-based game (and Dishonored can be quite the grisly scene for those who chose to play that way) that allows, and even encourages, players to progress through the entire narrative while almost never resorting to any violence at all—and in cases where tranquilizing a guard cannot be avoided, lethal force is never ever required.
On the other hand, the fact that directionless, senseless brutality can be an equally valid method of progression is unsettling, especially when such thoughtful and satisfying non-violent solutions are also attainable.
Most violent games don’t give you non-lethal options, at least not in the scripted scenarios where the game forces you to fight. You go to an area and get spotted by enemies. The enemies will attempt to kill you, and will not stop until either you or them hit the ground. You have no choice but to kill them, and because you have no choice their deaths rarely carry any emotional weight.
Once in a while, an exceptionally well written game will give these bursts of violence the proper sense of tragedy and horror they deserve. (The Last of Us is a game that does this well.) But even in these cases, the decision to kill or not kill is not a morally significant one. It has already been made on your behalf. You are merely acting out a scene the way it was written, the only way it can be completed.
Dishonored is not that kind of game. Despite being a supposedly violent game, any violence that actually takes place is unnecessary violence, and every non-player-character death is necessarily a needless one. Every lethal altercation represents a failure on the part of the player to do the right thing. Every death is the result of the player choosing to kill rather than save, whether that decision was made as a result of laziness or impatience or malice or simply wanting to see a gory animation.
I generally have no moral qualms about mindlessly mowing down enemy combatants in games that give me no other options, because I never feel like the person behind the camera is really me. But in Dishonored even small (by video game standards) amounts of lethal force start to make me queasy. Even in a video game, who chooses to kill when they have an alternative?
Now, I’m not going to pretend that how one chooses to play a video game necessarily says anything meaningful about their personal moral character. When I play games I tend to make the most morally defensible decisions I can whenever I’m given a choice (and have a hard time doing otherwise), but if you want to go virtual kneecapping, be my guest. It’s just a game.
I’m also not going to pretend that Dishonored executes its goal perfectly. The overall story and writing are weak at times. Few of the characters have any significant depth. The pacing is a bit inconsistent. The mechanics are great and it’s a blast to play, but the drawbacks are significant and they do limit the effectiveness and emotional impact of the storytelling.
And I’m certainly not going to say that all games (or even all violent games) need to be non-linear or offer fully non-lethal solutions to all problems in order to be valuable. The Last of Us is a completely linear violent game with plenty of required lethal encounters, and was not only one of the best games I’ve ever played, but also one of the most moving works of art I’ve experienced in years.
But I will say that the Dishonored approach to violence and choice, properly executed with a brilliant plot and compelling characters, is one I hope to see more and more of in the coming years. A game that puts a gun in a player’s hand but allows that same player the freedom to put it away and never bring it out again has the potential to make a statement about violence, and to force players to examine their moral responsibilities in a way that few other violent games can approach.
Stephen Mulder (’10) is a copywriter, editor, account manager, husband, and member of two semi-professional choirs in West Michigan. He spent the majority of his college days inside the Chimes office, eventually serving as editor, web manager, and delivery-boy-in-chief in 2009–2010. He graduated with a degree in history.