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I’ve been chatting an awful lot with giabread about Dishonored, and she’s brought up the point that one of the reasons the fans are so miffed that the game passive-aggressively rewards you for nonviolence (after dangling all these shiny offensive powers in front of your nose) is the marketing. The gameplay trailer showed almost nothing but murder, after all, and there was even a trailer called ‘Creative Kills.’ Dishonored was pitched as more of a fast-paced action/assassination game, not as the Thief-inspired stealth-based one that it arguably actually is.
And yes, I agree. And I agree that it’s deeply odd that the game pushes you so hard towards violence and then slaps you across the face for it with dialogue and betrayals and a nasty ending. And for most players it’s deeply frustrating. Hell, it frustrated me (I wanted to use the swarm of rats that was so lovingly showcased in the gameplay trailer, dammit).
But I believe that this is exactly the point that the game is trying to make.
I believe that the essential message of Dishonored is exploring What You Are In The Dark.
The entire game pushes you towards violence, both on a meta and mundane level. Corvo is pitched as a “supernatural assassin.” You kill people in the opening minutes (if it’s somehow possible to spare the two or three initial assassin mooks who attack the Empress, please, let me know). The opening level sees you with none of the powers (Blink, Darkvision, Possession, Time Bend, crossbow sleeper darts) that are essential to a pacifist run, and tempts you with lovely tutorial prompts on how to drop-assassinate.
Pacifist players can use the powers listed above. That’s it. Stab-happy ones get a knife, a pistol, fancy crossbow bolts, grenades, sticky grenades, razor wire bombs, rewire tools, gusts of wind, and goddamn swarms of rats. I repeat: goddamn swarms of rats. That stuff is really cool. Pacifist players can never, ever use these. Ever.
It is fully possible to play through most (probably all) of the levels without ever discovering the nonlethal objectives.
And when the tagline of the game is “revenge solves everything,” I’m pretty sure that the revenge they’re talking about has nothing to do with politely putting your targets to sleep.
Most tellingly, I think, is the in-game motto that we see on the game’s title page: The Boldest Measures Are The Safest.
This is the motto of the omnipresent church. This is the motto that the world of Dishonored lives by. And it is patently untrue.
A player who lives by the boldest measure are the safest and dutifully slaughters everyone will wind up with NPCs who hate him and betray him and a deeply depressing ending. The boldest measures result in things that are horrifying. (I believe that the game hints at this by presenting the Abbey, the originators of this motto, as corrupt and actively hostile and by presenting the Outsider whom they paint as wholly evil in a much more ambiguous and likeable light; but that’s a separate point. The fact that both the player and Corvo can recognize the motto as flawed propaganda doesn’t change the fact that everyone believes the motto to be true).
The motto of the boldest measures are the safest is shoved in Corvo’s face all the time, in-universe. Much as it’s shoved in the player’s face at the loading screen; much as the player’s instincts as gamers are urging them that (in a game nominally about assassination) they should take these bold measures and kill people. I would argue that the game is not, in fact, about assassination - it is about ignoring this maintaining true to your morals and not falling into a He Who Fights Monsters situation.
Because we have to remember that Corvo’s duties as the Lord Protector did not end when the Empress died - he can still serve in that role toward her daughter, who is obviously (and rather heavy-handedly) set up as the the emotional center of the game. Corvo can, by his actions, continue on in the role he had before and protect the innocence she has left. And the game will recognize this. And the game will recognize if he does the opposite and cuts a bloody killing spree across Dunwall, as Emily’s character becomes much darker and more traumatized.
She is the emotional compass of the game because she is the symbol of the life Corvo once had (and that, in a low-chaos ending, he can have again). To jump off the slippery slope into violence, therefore, is to abandon the person that Corvo was before. And the game is encouraging you to do this. Even though Corvo is very obviously set up as a parent to Emily, the player is still enticed away from actually parenting her and towards a spiral into bloodshed.
Because the player’s temptation and Corvo’s temptation are the same.
Because the player is working against a lifetime of experience telling them that they should kill people because That’s What The Game Wants Them To Do; and Corvo is working against rage and grief and human instinct and a world that tells him that the boldest measures are the safest and that he should kill people because That’s What He Should Want To Do.
And it is, of course, entirely possible to deny the emotional connection to Emily and go the whole game without speaking to her outside of required cutscenes. Hell, it’s easy; we as players are jaded and conditioned to not fall for the charms of innocent child characters who look at us with big wide eyes and ask us why we kill people. Naah, we say. Cliche. Anti-feminist (which it is). Seen it before.
Just as it is easily possible to go the entire game without pulling out the Heart and actively looking for the emotional hooks of backstory. (I believe that the fact that the player has to actively use a heart - an emotional center, and a literal piece of the symbol of the life Corvo once had - in order to learn about much of the nuance and humanity of most characters is no coincidence).
The game requires you to work for that deeper emotional level. And it requires you to work for nonviolence and ignore the shiny allure of killing everyone, just like Corvo has to work damn hard to remember that he is still the Lord Protector (who guards, passively) and not an assassin - that just because he does not have an Empress anymore it doesn’t mean that his actions don’t have repercussions and that he won’t ever be answerable to anyone.
Is this problematic? Hell yes. Is it ideal? No. Is it frustrating when I want to use that really nifty summon-rats power? You bet your ass it is. It’s a similar situation as to when the Dragon Age 2 ending became frustratingly linear and railroady in an attempt to teach that the hero doesn’t always have agency and that some events can’t be prevented. It proves a narrative point, alright, and I can appreciate that as someone who enjoys a good narrative…even if that doesn’t take away from the fact that as a player it really sucks.
But Dishonored does an excellent job of proving that narrative point.
The game is telling you, both in-universe and out of it, that the boldest measures are the safest and revenge solves everything and that you are a supernatural assassin and that murder is the best solution. And to get the best ending you have to ignore that, and take the high road, and deny everything that you’ve just been told and stop thinking like a gamer.
Corvo is not a supernatural assassin. Corvo is the Lord Protector and lone parent to a very impressionable seven-year-old girl. And Corvo and the player have to work incredibly hard to live up to that promise.