WARNING: This review contains what might be considered emotional spoilers. No plot points or characters are revealed, but important events are discussed.
I was even more stringent when I was considering buying Dishonored. The 2012 stealth/action game was praised for its setting in the deep, dark city of Dunwall, its exhilarating, creative gameplay, and some gorgeous art design. Powered on whale oil and choking on a rat-borne plague, I breathed in Dunwall like secondhand smoke, crawling around on rooftops among smoke-belching chimneys and sneaking through houses where plague-ridden wackos set up shrines to the mysterious, malicious Outsider.
The game puts the player behind the eyes of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of Dunwall, who returns from a voyage just in time to witness the assassination of his close friend Empress Jessamine and the kidnapping of her daughter Emily. Guards accuse him of the murder, and Corvo is sent off to prison and condemned to be executed. Through some fortuitous circumstances, he escapes and meets up with an undercover team of dissenters trying to take back power from the people who stole it from Corvo.
A video game attempt at "The Count of Monte Cristo" ensues, but instead of wealth, intrigue, and betrayal, Corvo gains supernatural powers from the Outsider, wears a frightening mask, and sets out to eliminate the people who killed the Empress and blamed him for it.
This is where the morality comes in. Early in Dishonored's creation, developers revealed that part of the design of the game was to allow players to win the game without killing anyone. Corvo's targets can all be killed with a flick of the knife (or, more often, a gruesome, bloody shoving match) but every mission rather clearly presents a possibility to stop them from doing evil while still leaving them alive. A religious character can be branded with a mark that makes him excommunicated for life, leaving him living but friendless. Corvo has the opportunity to find a hidden voice recording of a high-ranking official, which, if played over public loudspeakers, is the equivalent of political suicide, rendering him imprisoned but unharmed.
In simpler situations, Corvo sneaks around guards and plague-wild Weepers instead of fighting them, or creeps up behind and knocks them out. Their snores assure the player that the person they've taken out isn't dead, and will wake in the morning with a sore neck but little else.
This idea fascinated me, and motivated me to buy the game even if the trailers looked like a messy, blood-gluttonous massacre. That option exists, and I won't talk about it much because I didn't experience it. I did fight a few times, and it was fun. Once I accidentally lopped a guy's head off and gasped so loudly that my roommate thought I was having a heart attack. It seems fun but way too gory for me, and (important and cool) the game changes depending on how you choose to play, as well as the ending. So I decided not to have that experience, and was interested in what emotional journey the game would take me on.
For much of the game, my choice disappointed me. The Outsider as a deity is pretty shifty, and blesses Corvo with an array of gruesome abilities, such as sending forth a gust of wind to blow enemies off ledges and Splat-style deaths or summoning a horde of vicious, bloodthirsty rats to rip your enemies to shreds. Using a short-range teleportation spell called Blink, the rather-awesome Possession, and the obligatory Night Vision, I felt limited. Weapons, as well, seemed useless, though I did use a couple of incendiary bolts from a crossbow to draw the attention of guards before I sneaked up on them from behind and knocked em out.
Still, this was actually a small issue for me. I am just as satisfied to explore a gorgeously designed world (which it is) and meet interesting characters and discover a deep, three-dimensional world as I am to use an array of weapons to destroy my enemies.
But here's the problem: The world isn't three-dimensional. When Corvo stepped out of prison into the Hound Pits Pub, it was clear from the first look that the men and women enlisting him to help were not motivated by noble ideals. Seeing echoes of City 17 and Half-Life 2 (carried over with the handiwork of art director and conceptual artist Viktor Antonov) I expected a world like that--dark, frightening, but filled with people to whom I could relate.
The world of Dishonored, instead, is filled with people I didn't care about, and who in many ways I abhorred. Their dialogue has no hope, no connection to other people in their lives. I read a few books that detailed bizarre rituals or showed perverted sexual plots from plays. I asked myself for the first several levels: "Why, if Corvo is a deeply moral man who cared about the Empress and Emily, does he agree to join Havelock and the rest? They offered him revenge, but what does he care about that? Why, if I refuse to kill, do my missions revolve around getting rid of people?" I failed to see a motivation for Corvo, and without that the story fell flat. Part of this came from the choice for Corvo to be a silent protagonist. I finished Bioshock Infinite a few months ago, and understanding Booker's amoral, hardened background, I had very little difficult roleplaying in his persona. Violence was normal to Booker, and his motivation was strong--"Give us the girl and wipe away the debt." Even if I didn't agree with him, I was able to learn from being in his shoes for a few hours.
At one point later in the game, everything changed. A plot turn yanked Corvo from safety to being imprisoned again, and I had to find my way to my captor (a man with great significance from earlier in the game) and take him down. Suddenly Corvo had motivation--people I cared about were in danger, and time felt short. I escaped in a hurry and, immersed in the character, I didn't take the time to sneak past the people guarding me. I dispatched them and hurried to find the man who was responsible for much of this.
The best scene of the game followed, and the conversation and one-on-one fight that follows are well-written and gripping. I chose to spare his life, to which he replied: "And you choose mercy. Extraordinary."
Corvo escaped into the dim evening and watched a train dump plague corpses into a trench full of the dead, and overheard a sick man talking to his friends in desperation, still hopeful for his own life. On a bridge above us, two men talked about how they would escape the plague district, their cluelessness and despair becoming very clear.
In the course of a view moments, I was transported from a hostile world of sick, unpleasant people who I could only really help by not stabbing in the face. Instead, I entered a deeply wounded city, where people dreamed of many things that I could not give them, but wanted desperately to. I snuck by them and hurried through the insanity raging around me, desperately trying to find the one person who still mattered to me.
Because of this experience with its last few levels, Dishonored won me over. Its message came through for me--that in a world full of evil, it is hard for good to make any difference. For most of the game, it seemed that no one cared whether I had integrity--whether I cut people to pieces or expended enormous effort to keep everyone alive, people greeted me the same way. But by the end, it made a difference to me. I loved the people of Dunwall with their flaws (though I could have loved them sooner if they were written better) and wanted to help them, even if it was harder for me. It taught me, to some degree, that goodness is not always rewarded by the world, but it is rewarded in small ways.
If we did a do-over, I'd say to the developers: To give more strength to your peaceful-playthrough idea, make the missions about things other than getting rid of the bad guys. Give us a chance to see what the people of Dunwall need. Could Corvo get supplies to the flooded district? Who would he have to convince, or steal from, to do so? What about his mother? Does she live in the city? Wouldn't he want to find her and make sure she's okay? These kind of missions would be much more engaging, and allow us to care about what we see, grieve for the sadness, and fight for better things.
Anyway, I don't make video games, but that's what I think.