Dishonored, complicated morality and gaming.

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.

Alex,
Signing Off

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About combatwordsmith

I'm Alex. My interest in this course stems from the simple fact that I never really grew up. I'm from the Gold Coast, which is honestly not a great fit for me because it's sunny and hot and people get up before midday. My reading is eclectic, from ancient classics like Chaucer and Frankenstein, to modern classics like Nineteen Eighty Four and The Hobbit, to more mundane but popular children's books like Harry Potter, Lemony Snickets' Series of Unfortunate Events, the Dinotopia series, the works of Graham Base and really, anything someone gives me a good review of. Career wise, I'm on track to become a librarian. I believe strongly that librarians should have an encyclopedic knowledge of not just literature, but of other media forms as well. To this end, I don't merely devour books, but I also partake in a wide variety of television, movies, video games, comics, anime and tabletop games. In the words of Denholm Reynholm I'm a 'STANDARD NERD.'

2 thoughts on “Dishonored, complicated morality and gaming.

  1. An interesting review of a game that is laying in my pile of games to play once the semester is over!

    This sort of conflict has always been a major driving force in these RPG style games. Do I be evil or good? Do I be nice or bad? Balders Gate, Torment and Fallout were my favourite games when growing up because I was given the choice in which I handled myself. If I wanted to be a bad guy I could be and it would give me different ways to complete the games.

    The silent protagonist is, like you say, almost a completely video game created character. It always makes me chuckle when I think about the fact that a man (or woman) can walk around the world and everyone wants to tell him (or her) their life story. People are so much more helpful in the gaming world!

  2. Pingback: CLN647 Group N 2012 - Watchin, Talking and Playing A Game

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