Death and Dishonored: An Ode To My Three Victims

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I killed three people in Dishonored. I know exactly where they were: on a bridge, on the path to the Lighthouse that serves as the game’s penultimate area. I feel terrible about it. I feel terrible for them. I feel terrible for the worst in me it revealed.

Dishonored’s system of morality convinces or doesn’t depending on your level of investment in the game’s fictions. Electron Dance featured, as the end of its month-long perspective on the series, a deconstruction of this. In short (and I recommend reading the article, not just because Electron Dance is on my short list of blogs I read religiously), it boils down to video game morality being inherently flawed: where you or I might see a moral quandry in Dishonored, most people see bullets and guns. Possibly more people played Dishonored violently than peacefully, a distinction I can barely process.

I killed three men playing Dishonored. I don’t remember a whole lot else about the game’s many environmental puzzles, but I remember those three distinctly.

There was nothing noteworthy about their deaths, but there was something about the situation: mechanically, their deaths didn’t matter. Dishonored had already pronounced me a hero, a positive influence on the city. I was locked into the “low chaos” ending of the game. Chaos, determined by how many murders are witnesses in the world, isn’t counted after a certain, arbitrary point, after the game decides which version of the final level you will see.

The whole last level of Dishonored was a slow descent into murder. I was tired—much as I loved the game, it had stayed too long, like most games—and I was racing to the conclusion. So I snuck through levels with more recklessness than I’d shown on previous levels, not hiding bodies, knocking guards out indiscriminately.

Eventually, I got to a bridge, guarded by an arc pylon, a tesla coilesque device, and three guards. I tried to solve the level the way I’d fallen into for the rest of the level: brute forcing stealth. It didn’t work. Then, I noticed, so obvious, the access to the arc pylon. I hacked it, so that the pylon would attack them instead of me. Suddenly, three guards were dead.

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Their deaths meant nothing, so I killed three men. The world didn’t become more chaotic. Nothing changed because I killed them. I killed them because Dishonored didn’t care if I did. It wouldn’t judge me. Neither would history: Emily still became a fine monarch, and Havelock still gave himself up peacefully, and nobody cared about those three men.

It gave me some insight into the aggro world of half of Dishonored’s players, though. It helped me understand the seas of articles that appeared around Dishonored‘s release, decrying the game’s stealth as less fun, less fully featured than its murderous counterpart. Video game websites, even intelligent ones, were knocking morality for being less fun than immorality, as if they’d missed the entirety of human history.

This makes a certain amount of sense. I’ve played plenty of role playing games in my life, and many people play these games as characters totally foreign to themselves: nice, well-meaning people become chaotic monsters. Intelligent, progressive people become sorcerous rapists; nice guys become incoherent murderers. No wonder conservatives decry gaming as a terrible hobby!

Personally, I have more trouble with this character 180. When I play tabletop games, my characters always end up being closer to me than I’d like: I can’t break away from my principles in a game where I am someone, where my actions could have consequences. I’ve tried to play evil characters in Dungeons and Dragons, and it doesn’t work: I can’t kill for fun, I can’t ruin five people for my own benefit. I always end up in the Lawful Good to True Neutral spectrum, at best caring too much and at worst trying (but inevitably failing) not to care at all.

Video games, though, tend to be a different story. I steal everything that isn’t nailed down in Skyrim. I drive on the sidewalk in Grand Theft Auto 4. I greatly enjoyed playing Mass Effect as a renegade bastard.

Dishonored, though, was different. It fell into the Dragon Age: Origins and Planescape: Torment camp of games that actually worked their morality magic. These are games where, instead of making overblown choices, things have unexpected consequences. Killing someone can come back to haunt you. Screwing someone over makes your life difficult.

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Dishonored gets much of this mystique from atmosphere, but also from its nebulous chaos rankings. While I’m sure I could look up an accurate chaos formula now, then it felt a lot more nebulous. It’s what kept me from doing things like infecting Slackjaw’s still, which could have been easily considered a chaotic action, or killing anyone.

That last part is the most troubling. In real life, we don’t need a reason not to kill someone. I don’t need a reason not to kill someone who just walked through a door. I just don’t.

Video games, meanwhile, began as a world where the opposite was true: we would shoot someone who just walked through a door, because they were definitely trying to kill us. Nobody’s friendly in Doom. Now, video games are trying to re-educate us. Look, Bioshock says, it’s wrong to kill little girls. It’s wrong to do unspeakable things. People do them anyway, because our natural state in video games is kill.

We kill. It’s what we do. Those three men I killed in Dishonored, that is the natural state of video games. When I burned down my cities in Sim City 2000, when I drowned my Sims in The Sims, when I killed thousands of random encounters in Final Fantasy VII, these are the natural state of video games.

So it shouldn’t surprise that so many people killed so many in Dishonored, no matter the consequences the developers created. More rats and more weepers isn’t post traumatic stress disorder, isn’t the violation of real murder. It’s barely anything, and we’ve already killed so many.

I killed three people in Dishonored and that feels wrong. I feel like I should have killed more. The game would be more fun that way, right? The city should have poured with blood, with delicious combos and gunfire. I should have abandoned morality altogether.