Game designers rarely provide players with tools that theyâ€™re not expected to use. Thereâ€™s no stun gun in Borderlands 2, no chainsaw murder missile in Journey â€“ the arsenal tends to dictate the moral tone of the experience: you need to be as brutal as the system allows.
Dishonored is different. Protagonist Corvo Attano has a ferocious â€“ and fun to use â€“ selection of weapons at his disposal, as well as all the supernatural powers required to get the most out of them. And yet this is a game that seems to actively caution you for using lethal force. Characters berate you and the plague of rats grows if your chaos meter rises; Dunwall reflects and darkens with every spent life.
Is this a comment on violence and morality in games? During a Post Script interview that appears alongside our review of Dishonored in our next issue, which is out October 25, co-creative director Raphael Colantonio told us that itâ€™s certainly no accident: â€œWe wanted to play with temptation very early on, about having power and choosing to resist it or not. Itâ€™s an interesting tension compared to games that just tell you to kill everybody, or not kill anyone.â€
â€œRaph and I spent a lot of time talking about culpability â€“ how much responsibility does the player have?â€ said fellow co-creative director Harvey Smith. â€œIf you give her a game with no options, sheâ€™s just finishing the game. If you give her a game with the option to kill and itâ€™s fun either way, then if she kills the culpability is on her.â€
But they both denied they are actively discouraging a murderous approach. â€œWe never wanted to be judgemental,â€ says Smith. â€œThatâ€™s why we didnâ€™t model good and evil. We tried to model stability and instability with the â€˜Chaosâ€™ system. You can solve your problems with a corrupt government by slitting the right throats, or you could solve [them] another way, and thatâ€™s partly what we tried to model [â€¦] Weâ€™d like to think that both paths are supported, but asymmetrically, and one is not given greater value than the other.â€
The chaos meter certainly provides an interesting spin on the whole concept of killing and choice in games. In titles like Deus Ex, Thief and Fallout, where bloodless approaches are also possible, avoiding killing is more of a skill measure: the better you are, the less you need to use deadly force, and their gameworlds donâ€™t tend to judge you. But Dishonored adds feedback to your choices, making you engage with the fiction of the universe â€“ is this a story about redemption or retribution? Is it about utilising or repressing power?
Ultimately, the design builds up into the gameâ€™s overall theme: are you going to take the easy â€“ and pleasurable â€“ route and kill your way through the game? This how the weak and corrupted people youâ€™re assigned to assassinate behave; can you really only operate on their level? Or will you be an exemplar, taking the hard route by exercising self-control in not using those deliciously fun-to-use weapons and skills?
Interestingly, Colantonio offers up a scenario in which deadly force is something cinematic and self-conscious. â€œIn movies, they often do that thing where the hero, even if heâ€™s meant to be a good guy and isnâ€™t meant to kill people, finds himself in a situation in which he eventually loses his temper and kills everyone around him,â€ he says. â€œI think thereâ€™s a little of that in our game, where you try not to kill and try to be good, and then reach a point where you say, â€˜Right, now Iâ€™m going to show you exactly what Iâ€™m capable of.â€™ And after that moment when you unleash your powers, sometimes you reload the game because you feel guilty, but you feel powerful.â€
To kill or not to kill? Dishonored may well provide one of the most interesting and ambiguous answers to that vintage gameplay question. Dunwall discretely asks you not to do it, but the odd ostentatious display of blood-curdling force may be acceptable, if only to remind other characters that, letâ€™s face it, Dunwall isnâ€™t exactly spotless.