Mocking Morality

I have a complicated relationship with Dishonored.

I was so excited at first, as I snuck up on the first few prison guards and quietly choked them out, thinking how much it felt like Thief.

I love the grimy corrupt world, and the art style to go with it, like an old oil painting. Everything looks slightly washed out but sharp at the same time. Carving deep lines into faces, and making decadent clothes and furnishings look garish next to the rubbish and sickness on the streets.

I love the Art Nouveau posters and scrawled graffiti.

I love the Heart, an ugly mix of flesh and clockwork. She whispers dark secrets about people and places. A voice of fear, pain and compassion versus the opaque motivations and emotions of silent protagonist Corvo.

I love the way everything is vertically exaggerated, making the buildings more imposing and the streets seem even more cramped and dingy. I appreciate the disturbing images of an empire so heavily reliant on whale oil, from the cruelty of the hunt to the dangers faced by factory workers.

If I really wanted to love Dishonored, though, there are two major barriers I’d need to get past. Firstly, that it isn't Thief. Where Thief had me constantly on edge, Dishonored felt like nobody could touch me. Stealth is technically still influenced by light and noise, but it’s not terribly sophisticated or important to keep track of. My non-lethal stealth approach never evolved much after gaining Blink and being able to teleport rings around enemies.

Time Stop and Possession add additional overpowered options, making it possible to bypass or even run through the middle of difficult sections. Dark Vision is the icing on the cake, making enemies visible through walls. I put off gaining Dark Vision for a long time because I knew I’d abuse it — I spent a stupid amount of time in Detective Mode in Batman — and it makes stealth even safer.

I don’t really want a stealth game to feel like a playground full of toys (unless I'm Batman). I'm happy to catch guards out and make them pay for their mistakes, but I want some tension there. This is probably unfair. Dishonored isn't a pure stealth game, and if it wants to play with power instead of vulnerability that’s my problem for chasing something that isn't there. My second barrier to loving Dishonored is a lot more interesting: its approach to morality.

Whether to murder people is very simple morality. If you kill too many people in a level (the cut-off is 20%) it’s considered “high chaos”, and leads to more patrolling guards, zombie-like weepers, and swarms of plague rats.

This doesn't really make sense. Plague has already knocked out a third of the population, adding a few more corpses won’t make a significant difference to the rats’ food supply and subsequent plague spread. Corvo is considered dangerous either way, and warrants heavy guard on his expected targets. But leaving the nonsensical aspects aside, we have a straightforward binary morality setup: keep chaos low for the “good” ending or let chaos get out of control for one of the “bad” endings. I consider the “good” ending contrived and unsatisfying, but there’s a sense of what’s right, regardless. And it’s a morality that makes a mockery of morals in general.

[Heavy spoilers from this point on]

Although I decided to go for a sneaky, predominantly non-lethal, playthrough I started out making decisions based on what I thought was most elegant. In the first real mission my goal was to take out one target while protecting another from a poisoning attempt, so swapping their glasses felt like the perfect, subtle option. I was recruited as an assassin after all; I would keep casualties to a minimum, but had no qualms about killing my target. Not because they necessarily deserved it any more or less than all the other flawed, corrupt and depraved individuals in the city, but because I'm a professional.

But I’d already been corrupted myself: I chose to poison a bootleg medicine distillery. The gang running it might have been asking for it, but I knew full well it would also lead to the death of innocent people who couldn't afford to buy elixir through official channels. But I didn't have to look any of them in the eye, and they didn't count towards my kill total. My reputation remained intact; my hands clean.

When it came time to take out the Pendleton brothers, I’d been twisted towards the game’s harsh setting. I was offered a deal to have them dealt with instead of killed. They would have their tongues cut out and be forced to work in one of their own mines. Not exactly elegant, but it’s a kind of poetic justice. I chose to be cruel, and was rewarded for my “mercy”. I double-crossed the people aiding me while I was at it.

My next assassination target was Lady Boyle, my lowest point yet. Instead of killing her I acted as kidnapper, presumably delivering her into a life of sex slavery. I'm still not completely sure why I made such an awful choice. Partly, I stupidly got caught up in game objectives instead of weighing the options; partly I was starting to consider Corvo corrupt enough to make such a decision. Was I supposed to think she deserved it for being a slut? I got the impression Corvo might think so, or am I just trying to justify my own choice while playing a role?

I’ve already described Dishonored’s world as grimy and corrupt, and it’s sunk deep into Dunwall’s bones. I don’t think it’s possible to escape that. I appreciate a world too dark to have genuinely good choices. If there was a sense that non-lethal actions weren't really condoned it would make sense, but that’s not the way it plays out. There is no moral high ground here, but the game acts as though there is. Family members send rewards for sparing their loved ones. The young Empress Emily stays kind and childlike instead of learning to be cruel. Samuel the boatman continues to give you respect instead of speaking out against your actions. It suggests you’re genuinely on the good, moral path.

Choosing the good path means I can still kill my targets, or subject them to a horrible fate. I can still kill animals without penalty. But killing weepers is discouraged. Weepers are people too far gone with plague to have any hope. They moan, vomit, bleed from the eyes, and act like zombies. If they are still aware they are presumably in a lot of pain. Euthanising them would be a kindness, but the game mechanics don’t see it that way.

I resented the way Dishonored’s objectives and achievements would push for “correct” choices I didn't agree with, and I hated myself more for paying attention to them instead of deciding on my own motivations and morality.

Near the end of the game I sighed once before dropping an unconscious gang leader into a bubbling soup pot (or soup bathtub, technically). He was the first character I’d murdered with my own hands, unless you count the swapped wine glasses. I’d sunk to the level of abetting cannibalism, but it felt more honest.