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When violent games want you to play nice

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The challenge of choices that aren’t equal

Dishonored 2 Arkane Studios

So much of video game narrative consists of finding justifications for mass murder. The enemies are baddies/zombies/demons/splicers! Killing everyone is the least bad of two bad outcomes! You get the point.

There needs to be a good reason for people to die so you can kill them without feeling bad about it.

The Dishonored series offers no pretense. Act like a mass murderer and the game will rightfully call you a tyrant; the populace will fear you because you’re a serial killer. Dishonored 2 is not afraid to call it like it is and, by the same token, envision the world as it could be.

Dishonored 2 believes in and cares about its own world, and goes to great lengths to get you to care as well.

When killing makes a difference

Since most violent games don’t think that all killing is OK, they will have some idea of who is “OK to kill” (enemies) and who is “not OK to kill” (usually allies, sometimes also children, will either be impossible or end the game) and sometimes “killable but you really shouldn’t” (often: civilians and guards just-following-orders).

How games judge violence
Claire Hosking

Much of the debate around killing non-player characters in games is about which category people should be in. Given the extremely high levels of violence faced by sex workers in real life, should they be in the “not OK to kill” category more than, say, chefs, for instance? Much of the difference between stealth and other genres like first-person shooters is that stealth games tend to have fewer mandatory deaths and more optional deaths and non-lethal mechanics.

Thus, in some games, narrative must perform a tricky balancing act: make it OK to kill, but not too OK.

In older games, like the classic Thief or Hitman series, this is achieved by characterizing the player as a rogue-at-the-edge-of-society: mercy towards optionally-killable characters is encouraged by the game’s difficulty settings or metrics, but it’s presented as a sign of cool professionalism, not responsibility or humanity. Not killing people in Hitman, ironically enough, is just another sign you’re a very good killer.

The Dishonored series takes a broader approach to death: all enemies and civilians fall into the “killable but you shouldn’t” category. Kill any character in the game, and it will raise your “chaos” level, because of the destruction that death causes through the world.

Dishonored 2 extends this system beyond rough categories by letting you find out someone’s internal moral character using a mind-reading tool called “The Heart.” The more evil a person, the more OK it is to kill them, and the less chaos it causes.

However, it is never totally OK to enact vigilante justice in this way, and it will still raise your “chaos” level even if just a little.

How Dishonored 2 treats killing
Claire Hosking

In this way, it rejects the justifications other games use and asks you to spare not only the good, but also the bad and the sick. Unlike Bioshock’s callous disregard for Rapture’s citizens, Dishonored 2 doesn’t absolve you just because these people “brought it on themselves.” “Chaos” isn’t just a measure of how skilled you are, it’s a measure of how much grief you’re causing this society.

Too many developers think that giving the player options means the game needs to be ambivalent about which of these choices are better, but not Arkane. Designers are often hesitant to label one play style “the wrong one,” but game design respects a player’s decisions better when it actually leads to different experiences, whether it’s a change in the tone of a conversation in The Walking Dead, or a change in major plot points.

Let Your Heart Guide You

The game starts with Empress Emily Kaldwin suddenly usurped by her aunt, Delilah, and now, playing as either Emily or her dad/bodyguard Corvo, you have to find and “deal with” six to 10 key targets to put the situation to rest.

How you do that is up to you, but the game’s world has opinions about your actions. Even though the game has well developed systems and offers opportunities for clever “high chaos” play, it’s hard to ignore just how much work has gone into encouraging the low chaos ideal.

Increasing chaos will increase enemies and hazards, but it’s not simply that the game is harder when you’re murderous — difficulty is satisfying to many players, after all, and who doesn’t want to indulge their dark side sometimes — you lose the warmth and richness of the world. Playing with “high chaos” means enemies can occupy spaces where NPCs were performing or playing, and “blood fly” infestations will replace their apartments. Many opportunities to see and do things just disappear.

Even the UI becomes harsher. A giant red X is shown when you kill a designated target, compared to a simple grey strikethrough if you neutralize them. There is very much an implicit call to peace inside the game; you miss out on the world as it can be if you decide to kill a higher number of people.

In the first game you played commoner Corvo Attano, exiled on a false charge, hollowing out the corrupt upper classes. While this is close to the rogue-at-the-edge archetype, Corvo was formerly the Royal Protector to an Empress, implying a certain responsibility to her subjects.

Dishonored 2 carries this even further: you either play the deposed Empress Emily Kaldwin or Corvo again.

But, after 15 years in power, Emily and Corvo are no longer outsider-reformers, but insider-caretakers. By contextualizing the roles this way, the plot creates a character who has a responsibility to this place and these people.

There are weaknesses here, as well as strengths. The plot of Dishonored 2 fails to grapple with the game’s obvious themes of governance. It doesn’t directly contradict the gameplay; the story just seems to be about different things.

Emily is, at the outset, deeply hypocritical. Removed from her power, she goes around mostly removing other aristocrats from theirs. As Duncan Fyfe points out, Emily is barely concerned with ruling, and so is the game. There is a sense that aristocracy encourages cruelty and selfishness, and examples are dotted throughout the plot and lore. But, despite two coups in the last 15 years, and the apparent fragility of relying on good individuals to rise to the top, there’s little sense that bigger changes are necessary to create a lasting improvement. You just want to take back what’s yours.

While the Lucia Pastor storyline hints at something more significant that Emily could participate in, “disable, replace or reform individuals” is the repeated solution. This made more sense in the first game, when it’s about someone whose job is just to protect a particular ruler and not ask too many questions (Corvo), but makes much less sense when it’s about the ruler (Emily). Perhaps it suffers for having two characters with two very different roles play the same story, or by the decision to replicate the structure of the first game so closely and adhere to the antiheroic genre conventions.

But where Dishonored 2 stumbles in addressing responsibility in the plot, it shines when it comes to addressing it through play. Dishonored 2 uses immersive sim techniques not just to carry the story but also to humanize both NPCs and enemies. It sends you through the apartments of the “little” people, where you can watch guards and listen to their daily life and the fragments of dialogue between servants.

This is in contrast to classic “bark” (dialogue) writing, which often sought to minimize enemy personalities so players wouldn’t feel guilty.

“The Heart” isn’t just a gauge of someone’s character, but a window into their personality. You aim it at someone to hear their secrets, which are sometimes gentle, sometimes twisted but always human. Notes, objects and devices that spring to life all repeatedly emphasize how the small and the human touches of everyday life intersect with the larger events of the game’s story.

Characters’ diaries have their dreams and desires, not just records of plot-relevant events. Dishonored 2 doesn’t just want you to pity these people and their forsakenness, it helps you to imagine a better future for them. It wants you to care, and to take care.

You could argue this is just window dressing on a world that encourages the player to consume every resource, to steal everything, use it and dispense with it. While I think you can play that way — why is an empress stealing food and coins from the poor? — it also becomes possible to exhibit increasing concern, to achieve not only your intended aims, but also to achieve them in ways that create subtle or significant side benefits to the world around you.

Dishonored 2 amplifies this further than the first game, giving the player the option to be kinder if they wish. It adds more mechanics for non-lethal combat, like the amazing slide-KO, and new powers like Mesmerize and Doppelganger, which lean more towards distraction, and Far Reach, which allows you to force-pull objects at a distance to avoid scaring or hurting people.

In the first game, the player often has to weigh the morality of harming an individual with dark and twisted “non-lethal” punishments, versus harming a city by killing a target, which exacerbates the rat plague. But in Dishonored 2, there’s a change of tone. Some of the non-lethal takedowns are straight up optimistic, and some levels have three or even four different solutions. Real mercy is possible.

The World as it Could Be

The way that merciful play brings the world to life — sometimes in quite dramatic ways — feels like a return to the ambitions of some older immersive sims, like the original Deus Ex, which were more RPG-influenced, with more emphasis on civilians. I’m sure this is partly to do with Dishonored 2’s director, Harvey Smith, who was the lead designer on Deus Ex, and a team with experience across all the major games in the genre, but it also feels like a resurgent industry trend.

For a while it felt like the System Shocks and Bioshocks created dungeon-style abandoned dystopias where only monsters remained, but now more recent games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Hitman (2016), and the Assassin’s Creed series have created worlds with fewer enemies and more civilians, and put more work into bringing life to their cities.

As the detail that goes into cities and characters increases, and our vocabulary of storytelling techniques develop, it starts to change the player-world relationship. Can our flimsy excuses for death hold up? Do “rogue-at-the-edge” narratives make sense when the player is encouraged to engage with the world? Maybe death should mean more. Dishonored 2 is the rare game where it does; where your relationship to the world isn’t just a number or achievement, but is reflected throughout the game itself.

There’s a kind of optimism embedded in the game world, including the newfound diversity that includes different races; different origins; gay, straight, ambiguous and uninterested; men, women; cis and trans; able and disabled. There is the inclusion of women in the guard, the modern style of Duke Luca Abele’s Palace, the list goes on and on. The potential for a modern, cosmopolitan nation exists, if you could harness it. And maybe, that’s the future.

I don’t expect the low chaos ending to be “and then there was democracy,” but there’s a hint of something more here, something emerging in immersive sims. While Watch_Dogs 2, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Metal Gear Solid V all engage with non-lethal play, Dishonored 2 really makes me feel the possibility that a player could take hold of the world in a different way. Something less about getting the right people in power and more about reforming how power is distributed. It felt like it was trying to say something about compassion and justice.

There’s an idealism at the heart of Dishonored 2 that’s refreshing. Hope exists, and there’s an optimism hidden in here, a vision for games as they could be: a player as a force of positive change, not destruction, in a living world that you can make better if you take the time to do so.


Claire Hosking is a grad architect and illustrator interested in digital architecture, procedural art, robots and feminism. In her spare time she models and programs gameish things and plays the ukulele.