A disproportionate amount of my time is spent gaming, and so I am familiar with the majority of the different properties, companies and personalities that influence gaming culture.
I’m going to explore a very recent offering, Dishonored, without giving away too much of the excellent plot. No *SPOILERS* tags here, you don’t need to worry as any discussion of the game’s plot will take place in the opening level and the implications it has on the rest of the adventure and will also be intentionally vague.
You take control of Corvo Attano, bodyguard to Jessamine Kaldwin, Empress of Gristol and her daughter Emily. You’re returning from a mission of national importance, seeking aid from neighboring countries as a rat-borne plague has ravaged Gristol’s capital of Dunwall, when as the title of the game suggests, you are suddenly but inevitably dishonored.
Corvo is sent to prison by the highest court for a crime he didn’t commit. Six months later, he escapes from a maximum security stockade to the Dunwall underground…
First, some thoughts on Corvo. Corvo is a ‘silent protagonist’, a quality that is almost exclusively found in video games. Through the game he says nothing and expresses no opinions, and performs no actions beyond player control. The story provides pressure to act in certain ways, but in this game especially, the morality of the main character is provided by the player through his actions in the world and interactions with characters in it. Players are given the ability to answer simple questions by selecting short dialogue boxes to facilitate trade, but mostly Corvo spends a lot of time listening and keeps his feelings bottled up, waiting for an opportunity to brand someone with a hot iron.
Genre wise, it has been marketed as a first person action adventure game. It differs from most of the top action or adventure titles by allowing the player to navigate the game with either over the top application of brutal force as you might find in a first person shooter, or by carefully and patiently examining the surroundings, and surgically removing your target with as little fuss as necessary using many of the mechanics of the stealth games. You even have the option of moving between these two play styles seamlessly as changing situations call for the player to adapt.
Mixing a silent protagonist with unfettered player freedom makes the game an interesting exercise in morality. The player is given complicated situations, a variety of ways in which they can navigate them, and given feedback by the game as to what consequences the player can expect to face for their actions. (In addition to a variety of interesting unforeseen consequences.)
It is entirely possible to play through the game without directly or indirectly killing a single person. But that style of playthrough takes perception, patience and planning as opposed to the frantic quick reflexes required to murder everybody you meet.
But take heart in the knowledge that even if a player decided, for moral reasons, to play through the game without killing anybody, many of the nonlethal alternatives presented are so heavy with poetic justice that even the staunchest Call of Duty fan would consider a quieter more focused approach just so they could do horribly apt things to the subjects of their ire. So while the game is presenting the player with choice, some of that choice isn’t ‘good‘ versus ‘evil‘ as much as it is ‘order‘ versus ‘chaos‘. The story involves betrayal and revenge, dark secrets and madness, a creeping sickness and the lengths men will go to in order to cure it, so conflict is obviously a major part of the tale, a hard part to avoid in a genre defined by conflict. Maybe the ultimate moral choice could have been for Corvo to accept his fate and remain falsely imprisoned, trusting the world to right itself again.
But in the end… Good, bad… You’re the guy with the gun.