The purpose of this article is to critique how some of Dishonored’s game mechanics negatively impact its narrative. Additionally, as Dishonored’s most egregious examples of moral choice/player agency disconnect happen at the end of the game, beware of spoilers.
While I am not categorically opposed to moral choice systems in videogames, it is safe to say that I am more excited about where they will eventually take the medium, rather than where they currently are. Moral choice systems are still rife with growing pains, as developers have not quite perfected the weaving together of these mechanics with narrative. In otherwise great games where the concept is present, I find that moral choice systems weaken the narrative instead of complementing it.
Think of games like Bioshock, where the difference between the good and bad endings is jarring to the point of absurdity. Consider Fallout 3, where the karma system can nonsensically make NPCs hostile to the protagonist for cat-burglaries committed on the other side of the map. Think of Mass Effect, where I kill dozens of people in every firefight, yet it is largely my dialogue choices that determine my moral standing. A single, fundamental problem lies at the core of what we find unsatisfying about these games: there is a disconnect between my actions as a player and the downstream effects the game insists they cause.
What ultimately makes a moral choice system “work” in a game is how effectively it establishes a clear cause and effect relationship between player action and in-game consequences. It is not sufficient for a game to throw tragic scenes up on screen and demand that I ought to feel bad about them. It only works if I have been given reason to believe that my actions as a player had a direct role in instigating those events. If not, the game is effectively asking me to take responsibility for something outside of my control. At best, this makes the scene feel forced and contrived. At worst, the disconnect between action and consequence can cripple a game’s narrative and undermine its major themes.
Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is the latest game to experiment with a binary moral choice system. Assuming the mantle of framed bodyguard-turned vengeful assassin Corvo Attano, choices I make over the course of the game have an impact on the dystopian city of Dunwall as well as the game’s ultimate conclusion. The game halfway succeeds at connecting my actions to the in-game consequences, and the end result is frustrating. At times Dishonored made me feel that my actions really mattered, and that I was an active player in transforming the world around me. On other occasions –especially near the conclusion of the story- there was a sharp disconnect, wherein Dishonored asked me to accept baffling leaps of logic and feel culpable for things that Corvo literally could not have influenced. These missteps greatly diminish an otherwise excellent game.
Dishonored’s moral choice mechanics are at their strongest when they are subtle. The way in which Corvo’s choices influence Dunwall’s environment, for example, is brilliantly executed. Racking up a high body count provides the local plague rat population with a steady food source, allowing their numbers to explode. This in turn leads to an increase of people infected by the plague, filling the city streets with fever-crazed “weepers”. The mechanics here are elegant in their simplicity. Without saying a single word or pointing a single finger, Dishonored presents a straightforward, logical procession of events that show how I am actively contributing to the problems of an already troubled city. Even if the game had not gone out of its way to tell me that a higher chaos rating leads to more rats and weepers, I still would have recognized them as downstream consequences to my actions.
What doesn’t work is the game’s insistence that my actions can alter the personalities of major supporting characters. By far the most egregious example of this is the impact of Corvo’s chaos rating on the young heir to the throne, Emily Kaldwin; her personality completely changes depending on play style. When Corvo avoids collateral damage and chooses to fulfill his missions through stealth and nonlethal means, she retains her innocence till the very end and ushers in a new era of peace as Empress “Emily the Wise”. In contrast, over the course of a high chaos playthrough she becomes progressively more enamored with violence and begins to draw pictures of Corvo carrying out assassinations. Most jarringly, when saved from Corvo’s former allies at the end of the game, her face contorts into a sneer as she casually remarks that she was planning to have them executed anyway, signaling the birth of her reign of terror.
There are two major problems with this. First off, the game does not provide the slightest justification as to why Corvo’s behavior is capable of altering Emily’s personality and moral values. Unlike the rats and the weepers, where a clear, causal relationship is established,Dishonored simply tells me to accept these two things as connected. Worse, the game provides evidence for why this couldn’t be the case. Emily’s Loyalist caretakers emphasize throughout the game that she is largely kept ignorant about the conditions of Dunwall and the nature of Corvo’s nightly missions. So how could they possibly exert an influence on her?
The second problem is more fundamental to Dishonored’s narrative. If Emily’s behavior is dictated by Corvo, it means she ultimately doesn’t have a personality at all. Yet, she is supposed to be the person most important to Corvo. As a player I am meant to care about her well-being and want to restore her to her rightful throne. But if her personality is so dependent on the player’s actions, how am I supposed to become attached to her? Without her own agency, Emily cannot be a fully realized character; instead, she’s a side effect.
It is tempting to argue that Emily is written this way for thematic purposes. Perhaps the change in her personality is meant to serve as a mirror for how corrupt Corvo has become, just like the dark and stormy sky in the high chaos final mission. However, this explanation runs against the grain of Dishonored’s major theme. The game is an examination of the seductive effect of absolute power on otherwise good people. This is why Corvo “works” as a silent protagonist despite having an established reputation at the beginning of the game: his past doesn’t matter, only his actions after his imprisonment. It is similarly no accident that the game offers a wide array of gadgets and powers to kill enemies, only to punish the player with high chaos when used too enthusiastically. This theme extends to the Loyalists as well. The game never gives any reason to doubt their good intentions, yet they promptly turn on Corvo the moment he dispatches the Lord Regent and creates a power vacuum.
Emily does not fit this pattern. She ought to: she gains the highest seat of power in Dunwall at the end of the game. An opportunity is squandered here to explore what happens when an innocent child is put in control of a city that Corvo helped to ruin. The ending is not surprising or even disconcerting if she has been practicing to be a miniature despot the entire game.
The most frustrating aspect of Emily’s arc is that it is not beyond the skill of Arkane Studios to craft a character who responds believably to my moral choices. The boatman Samuel Beechworth, who serves as transportation and Corvo’s closest companion, is a perfect example of how to do this correctly. Unlike Emily, he has an independent moral compass that significantly changes the final mission... If Corvo has kept the chaos of his missions low, he commends the assassin’s humanity; alternatively, Samuel will reveal his contempt for Corvo as well as the disgust he feels for having ferried around a destructive sociopath for the course of the game. He then spitefully decides to fire his pistol into the air to alert the Loyalists of Corvo’s approach. In my game I killed him before he succeeded, and doing so made me feel far worse about my choices than the “bad ending” did.
Emily, as well as Dishonored’s moral choice system, could have been salvaged if Arkane Studios had given her a similar treatment. She would be far more compelling if she was her own character with unique personality quirks and moral values, rather than a homunculus whose personality is a direct reflection of the protagonist. One can only imagine what a bad ending under these conditions would look like: the young empress finally sees her trusted bodyguard as the irredeemable monster he has become, and is forced to inherit a city crippled by his vengeful rampage. Perhaps Corvo is forced to leave Dunwall in disgrace as she gradually cracks under the strain of undoing the damaged he caused. Maybe she assumes dictatorial powers as a last act of desperation, resulting in the further downward spiral and eventual collapse of her beloved empire. Actually, that hypothetical ending is quite similar to Dishonored’s actual “bad ending”. The only difference is that the fake ending would be completely and irrefutably the player’s fault.