Morally Dishonored


October 19, 2012 by rcthames

When broaching the topic of morality in games, one’s first thoughts might go towards the long debate over video game violence. Since the early days of computer RPGs like Pool of Radiance up through games like Baldur’s Gate to more modern RPGs, questions of morality have also been built into the mechanics of the games themselves. While a look at the evolution of moral value systems from the Dungeons and Dragons based 9 alignment categories to the scored “reputation” systems, good and evil scales, and karma scales would be an interesting endeavor, this essay will focus on the more mystified morality of the recently released Dishonored. In addition to its RPG elements, Dishonored is a stealth game, which like many stealth games presents the player with sneaky nonlethal options for completing missions in addition to combat and assassination. Many of the player comments I have read regarding the game evidence a perception that the game “wants” them to go the nonlethal route, but that many inevitably fail and turn to killing. I propose that, unlike morality scales in many previous games where players had strong motivations for picking an alignment early and sticking to it, Dishonored deliberately strives for ambiguity, pulling players back and forth between lethal and nonlethal, good and evil. While there is a morality scale in the game, the “chaos system,” it is a highly abstract measurement that conceals the exact values of the system from the player’s knowledge. The vagueness of the game’s morality scale, combined with conflicting diegetic messages and non-diegetic hints/suggestions all push the player towards this ambiguity and oscillation between moral and immoral actions.

To begin, a few more details about the game are in order. The setting of the game is a steampunk-esque monarchy just hitting a golden age of technological and industrial innovation that has been struck down by a mysterious plague. The player’s character (PC) Corvo Attano is the Lord Protector, personal bodyguard to the queen, who is soon framed for her assassination and imprisoned as a group of corrupt upper-level officials take control of the city. As his execution date nears, an underground group of loyalists hatch a plan to free Corvo so that he can exact vengeance and put the queen’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by the usurpers, on the throne as her successor. The loyalists are not the player’s only ally in this fight, however. Corvo is also aided by a mysterious entity called the Outsider, often spoken of by the religious texts in the diegesis as the Christian church might speak of Satan, who grants Corvo access to magical powers as well as an important artifact—a strange beating heart that when held will whisper secrets about people and places, and direct him towards powerful objects. As this summary reveals, moral ambiguity is integral to the story of Dishonored. It is a story about justice, but also revenge, about people doing good but with ulterior motives, and about fighting evil at times with the aid of evil.

It is fitting, then, that the morality system of this game reflects the ambiguity of its story. As mentioned previously, the chaos system is a morality system of sorts, but one the player has very limited knowledge of. Whereas other games might have an exact alignment or reputation score or at the very least a graphic representation of where they stand on the scale, the chaos system simply reports being “high” or “low” at the end of each mission. Nothing is revealed about how high or low, or even which actions and how many of such actions brought the score to this state. One can, of course, find such “behind-the-curtain” information about the system in premium game guides, but it is telling that such information is not disclosed in the game. The effects of having a “high” chaos rating (that is, killing more people) are different events occurring in the plot, as well as more and/or different enemies arrayed against you, and further deterioration of the city of Dunwall. The player may find this information out by trial and error, but is more likely to find out via numerous non-diegetic messages shown on the game’s loading screens, or popping up as hint information. The player is informed about the increase of certain enemies and creatures and is also told that high chaos will lead to “a darker game world.” The player might also be treated to such messages as “Combat doesn’t have to end in a bloodbath. You can always run away.” Based on these messages alone, a player might come to the conclusion that the game does, indeed, want them to pursue a nonviolent route. However, as the player navigates the diegetic world of the game, this intention is less certain.

A huge factor in luring players towards violent action despite the explicit warnings noted above can be found in the gameplay itself. No matter which difficulty level one plays on, traversing the game space nonlethally is hard—especially if one wishes to collect all of the valuable items and runes that unlock powers, as well as learning as much as possible about the world. If one chooses to walk the world openly, lethal combat is inevitable, but sneaking does not make lethality any less enticing. It is easy to, quite early in the game, upgrade a power that makes enemies you assassinate vanish in a cloud of ashes. Thus, in areas with frequent patrols, careful assassinations become the easy way to get into certain locations. The nonlethal alternatives to this are shooting an enemy with a tranquilizer dart, or chocking them out from behind, both of which require quick hiding of the body before another enemy spots you.

Beyond gameplay, however, there are plenty of diegetic messages to encourage killing. Many of these messages come by way of the aforementioned heart which whispers secrets about characters you are looking at. Often, the messages reveal characters to be horrible people: “The love of drink outweighs all else for this one. He has already spilled much blood today,” or, “He will murder two more men before dawn if he is not killed tonight,” or, “He killed his lover in a fit of rage, and framed someone else for the crime.” Such messages might encourage even a nonlethal player that killing this character is justified, especially if it makes the gameplay easier. Yet, other times the messages evoke pity, “He visits his father in the asylum. The man no longer remembers him,” or, “He has a woman friend as ugly as he, but they are kind to each other. If there were work on the ships, there would be fewer men signing up for the watch,” such that even a lethal player might pause.

The constant temptation towards lethal and nonlethal action by these various sources seems to intentionally encourage a state of moral ambiguity in Dishonored, and such as state fits the presented story-world perfectly. In this way, Dishonored presents one of the more unique morality systems of its genres, but further, looking at how it accomplishes this we can also explore how games can utilize contradictions among nondiegetic messages, diegetic messages, and gameplay to evoke a certain meaning and mood.

E3 Trailer-

Cinematic/Story Trailer-

Stealth Gameplay demo-

(keep in mind actual gameplay on release is a bit different and can also be much more difficult, especially since the player, unlike the developers, doesn’t know exactly where to go and when a given character will be in a given place)


One thought on “Morally Dishonored

  1. sczaja200 says:

    I enjoyed reading your essay. While I haven’t played Dishonored yet, it certainly seems like a cool game. Morality does not seem to be a topic questioned often by gamers while playing video games. It seems like if a video game gives the player the ability to kill and lacks any judgment or punishment for doing so, players will frequently go on violent mindless rampages within the game world. Such a phenomenon appears almost analogous to what occurred with the Germans who were on trial for their crimes during the Holocaust. Many of them claimed that they committed their actions because superiors gave them the order and there were no repercussions for doing so.

    Check out this (arguably hilarious) Dishonored video where someone appears to lose control during a scenario –


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