Dishonored rewards players who cover themselves in shadow, slink across balconies unseen and keep their hands as clean as possible. It does this not only by rewarding them with achievement points, but by providing alternative routes, access to rare collectibles and importantly, a rewarding conclusion to the storyline. My first playthrough began with clean hands as I tried to complete the game without ever killing a soul, yet I found that as the curtain fell on my time with Dishonored, my hands were bloodied. As I crept through the shadows, Dishonored’s plague-infested city of Dunwall began to reveal its hideous underbelly, and as it did so, my attitudes changed.
Dunwall doesn’t want to see or hear you as you choke-hold the men of the City Watch or silently dispatch its high-ranking officials. Dunwall is a desperate place shaped by a deadly plague, a plague that threatens good and bad alike. It turns humans into hollow shells of life known as Weepers, wandering the filthy streets and sewers while throwing up their stomach contents. In many ways, the plague that infests Dunwall shapes the way the game unfolds.
The plague changed how I played Dishonored.
A couple of missions in, I stumbled across a young mother who had been confronted by two guards in a dark alley. She had found a health elixir, something to ward off the deadly plague that haunts Dishonored’s fictional city of Dunwall, but the guards refused to let her go without handing it over. She pleaded with them that the elixir was for her child, that she needed it to keep her baby safe. As the situation worsened she began to scream for help, help that I knew I could give, but help that I didn’t bother providing.
I watched the guards cut her down and take the elixir for themselves. I couldn’t afford to waste any sleep darts so early in the mission for that would put me at risk and I couldn’t take one guard out without alerting the other. In an effort to keep my own hands clean, I let a woman die. It was a strange feeling. In attempting a non-lethal, unseen run, I watched an innocent woman cut down in front of me. I had the power to stop it but I didn’t. I didn’t stop it because I put me, the player, first. I put the idea of being a masterful, unseen assassin ahead of my own morals. I put being cool ahead of being humane.
I reloaded a save from before the incident.
The second time I did everything I could to stop it. I used Dishonored’s teleportation power “Blink” to get into position, then slowed down time so I could fire a sleep dart into one of the guard’s necks. I was hoping this would afford me the time to silence one guard, without alerting the other. It didn’t. As I went to shoot the second guard, time began to speed up and the next thing I knew, the woman was on the ground again, bloodied and lifeless. I had to reload.
For one, I knew that Dishonored would reward me for saving an innocent woman. If I could do so, perhaps she would help me by offering up a city secret or allowing me passage through a well-guarded section of the town. As I reloaded a third time, I took a different approach. I heard the guards again berating her, just like they were scripted to do, every time I appeared in the alleyway. Until this point, I didn’t feel as if anyone in the game deserved death. It wasn’t just about getting rewarded at the end of the game, it was about the city of Dunwall and it’s sad, hopeless inhabitants.
I wanted to save Dunwall and the only way I knew how was to keep my body count low, which in turn prevented the spread of the plague and kept the disease-ridden rats at bay.
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t save this woman without alerting the guards. I had planned to get through the game completely unseen, with not a single soul’s blood on my hands. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to have that badge of honour. I defeated Dishonored, and I did it the hard way. Yet, this woman’s blood was all over me. It left a stain on my game that I could not wash away. It wouldn’t be attributed to my stats, but it would hang over my playthrough until I reached the end.
It was only after I had reloaded that same save, 12-10-2012 14:32:09, for the thirteenth time that I decided her blood meant more to me than I knew. I tried to work out a way that I could both save her and save the guards, but I soon realised the guards didn’t deserve saving. What kind of man corners a young woman in an alleyway? Even though he is driven by his fear of the plague and his desire to survive, taking her life wasn’t necessary.
I loaded up the save and crept up the stairs that lead to the alleyway. The guards began their scripted berating and the woman pleaded for help. I slowed time down, walked straight into the alley, equipped my pistol and shot the first guard in the stomach. The second guard’s neck embraced my blade as time began to revert to normal. The two guards fell into a heap on the floor. I had killed them and my kill count rose to 2.
I saved the woman and she offered me assistance. She offered me, the killer, an alternative route to my goal as if to say “the plague killed these men, you did the right thing”. She didn’t run scared of a man in a mask holding a pistol. She didn’t even flinch when the two guards went down. I justified my actions immediately – these guards were to kill an innocent woman and thus, they deserve death. They deserve it more than any of the high priority targets I have encountered and they definitely deserve it more than she does. She thanked me. I did the right thing.
It wasn’t until the end of the mission, when the statistics come up, that I noticed the kill count stood at 4. It was that moment in the alleyway that said to me, it is right to take a life and so I did so, twice more, in the same mission for different reasons. Sometimes I did it out of desperation, a Weeper that attacked me and began gnawing at my hands took an incendiary bolt to the face and sometimes I did it to save another.
Unfortunately, it was seeing that number appear on the mission stats screen that told me I did the wrong thing. As poorly as the guards had acted and even if they were to kill the young woman, I still couldn’t justify being the killer. That wasn’t how I was going to play and that’s not how I save this poor city of Dunwall. I wasn’t just doing it for the achievements, or to look cool to all my Steam friends when I finished the game with clean hands, I was doing it because that’s how I feel. I feel like no-one has the right to take another life, but I compromised that attitude through my actions in-game.
I killed those 4 men because Dunwall is a place where desperate times call for desperate measures. The plague either drives those who live in Dunwall to death or it drives them to struggle to survive. It drives them to push back against those in power. Sometimes, it drives the player to kill, even when it goes against the way they wanted to play – or what they believe in. The plague simmers behind the scenes in Dishonored but it is truly a grand player in the way the game unfolds, both in terms of story and in terms of how the player interacts with the world.
The plague changed the way I played Dishonored because it showed me how a desire to survive changes the way we act. It skewed my views on justice by driving the residents of Dunwall to desperate measures. It drove two men to kill a young woman. It drove me to react. It drove us all to murder. The plague was what started it all.
The only way to stop the plague, was to keep the body count low.
If I really wanted to save the city of Dunwall, I was going to have to do it without taking a single life. I reloaded the save: 12-10-2012 14:32:09, pressed Enter and tried to save the woman and the guards one more time.