Wednesday, January 30, 2013

#55: Dishonored: The “Non-Lethal” Option and the Inherent Flaws

(A Spoiler Warning is in effect on Dishonored and the entirety of its campaign.)

Recently, I went back and complete my high chaos, highly lethal playthrough of Dishonored. While this playthrough made me feel like a complete jerk (thanks to all of the destruction and devastation I caused) it also became the perfect opportunity to reflect upon morality and how it is viewed through games like Dishonored. When it comes down to it, the moral choices expressed in these kinds of games can be considered juvenile, showing a lack of understanding of nuance and ambiguity that many of these situations entail. In particular, I take issue with the fact that “non-lethal” options are almost always considered objectively good and just. The two main reasons I have for this are the topic for this week's posting.

The first of these reasons is that, for all the talk of moral superiority, non-lethal gameplay styles are not inherently any more moral than their lethal cousins. As Chris Franklin, aka Campster, already explained much earlier in this video on Dishonored, many of the things players do in a non-lethal playthrough can be seen as “bad” or “wrong,” including theft of personal property (pickpocketing/looting), forced injection of toxins (crossbow with sleep darts), choking enemies to unconsciousness, and forced invasion of the mind and body (possession). From a certain standpoint, all of these things are transgressions against all of the various people players will encounter. The problem here arises when the game only judges the audience based only on the number of kills made. If the player kills roughly less than 20% of the people in the game, then they are considered Low Chaos and the game ends with Princess Emily guiding Dunwall into a golden age under protagonist Corvo Attano's tutelage. Any more than that, then Emily either grows into a ineffectual dictator of an empire ravaged by plague or dies, leaving ruins in her wake (depending on what happens in the final mission). Corvo, who is nothing more than a supernatural assassin, is either a Bastion of moral purity or a bastard leading a nation into ruin, solely depending on the number of people he killed. This gets even more hazy when the types of non-lethal takedowns of many of the game's targets are taken into account, because almost all of them are fates worse than death. When facing High Overseer Cromwell, head of a group of religious zealots, players are asked to either kill him, or burn his face with a specific branding called the Heretic's Brand, which forbids anyone in the city from being nice to him in any way. Likewise, the Pendleton twins, rich noblemen, can either be assassinated or forced to work in their own silver mines with their tongues removed and their heads shaved. Sure, the fate of these people are rather awful in the non-lethal versions, but according to the game, it is all okay because they are not dead. In fact, players will often be rewarded by NPCs who drop gifts off for him because they opted to “show restraint” and not kill them. Whether one choice over the other is inherently better is an open ended question, but we cannot deny that neither one should be considered objectively good or inherently better than the other without close scrutiny.

While that is indeed bothersome and honestly does not make much sense, it is far from the only issue I take with that kind of dualistic moral choice. The other problem I have with Dishonored is that its lethal and non-lethal divide really inhibits the number of options developers have at their disposal. Like many of its gaming contemporaries, such as Bioshock, inFamous, or even Mass Effect, the complex subject of morality was rendered into a binary choice that lasts for the duration of the game. When the only thing that is tracked is the number of kills, it prevents the game from truly reacting to the way that people play it. No one bats an eye when every single guard in a level has either been choked to sleep or pumped full of sleep darts, but a group of dead bodies causes a massive backlash from the world. This type of binary thinking can break an otherwise strong illusion of a coherent and reactive world. It even seeps into the gameplay as well. When dealing with his targets, the game will only acknowledge whether Corvo killed them or took the non-lethal route given by the game designers. This closes off many avenues of possible problem solving that could would otherwise be possible in a real world scenario. One such example comes from one of the missions that takes place in Act 2 of the game, Lady Boyle's Last Party. The gist of the mission is that Lady Boyle is the mistress of the Lord Regent who has taken power in Dunwall, financing his military as well, so the player has to infiltrate the party she and her two sisters are throwing, figure out which one is the Regent's mistress, and take her out through lethal or non-lethal methods. To the game designers credit, they allow for more than a few ways to go through this mission. Players have the choice of discovering the identity of the mistress, either through sneaking around or by blending in and talking with the guests at the party, and taking her out exclusively. Alternatively, they could kill off all three Ladies Boyle, ensuring that the true target is also eliminated, or knock out the target and sell her off to her creepy stalker who promises Dunwall will “neither see nor hear from her ever again.” Ignoring the potential implications behind that last option, this does drastically reduce the number of options left available, especially for those attempting a non-lethal run of the game. If Corvo speaks with the real Lady Boyle and asks to see her in her bedchambers, she reveals that she has no particular love for the Lord Regent and only sleeps with him to further her own family's social status. That makes all of the methods of dispatching her seem unappealing and unnecessarily punishing her for circumstances beyond her control. It would be nice to allow for options that leave a better taste in the player's mouth like convincing the good lady to drop support for the Regent's cause, either by persuasive or coercive means. Perhaps players could even reduce the Boyle family's sphere of influence in some way, making her support and financial backing less significant. The point is that by forcing a binary “Kill target or take the designated non-lethal approach,” the game is not challenging players to think outside the box as much as they could. It would be interesting to see games track other things besides whether or not people are killed, like maybe how violent players are or how much they stole throughout their run of the game or level. Players who only strike against their targets, yet do so with lethal force, would be treated as a Hitman-esque Silent Assassin, while those who keep their presence and influence as hidden from the world as they can would be treated like a Ghost. It seems like only allowing one single stat to affect everything in the game is naive in a way, given the people are rarely so singularly influenced.

Before I wrap this up, I do not want people to be under the impression that Dishonored is a bad game by any means. While the story is weak and I do criticize the game for not offering a lot in terms of choice, the amount of options and approaches players are given is significantly more than what most even attempt in other modern games. The exploration and focus on moment-to-moment gameplay are the strongest points of the game. It should also be noted that the Blink mechanic, which allows players to use short-range teleportation to jump to areas within their field of view is revolutionary and dramatically hastens the pace and verticality when roaming or sneaking through the fairly large and wide open (by today's standards) levels thrown at players. It is a remarkable throwback to the likes of Thief with a dash of Deus Ex thrown in; A decent start to a new budding franchise. I only hope that the developers were taking notes and learn from the feedback generated by the game's audience.

Update: Shortly after publishing this post, I showed it to Dishonored's lead designer Harvey Smith, who I follow on Twitter. He disagreed with the notions I asserted in the second paragraph of this post, where I talk about the morality of it. From his perspective, he released this game with the message that "mass murders inevitably lead to instability," which was a guiding though behind the Chaos system and a notion that I can agree with. It was a commentary on the nature of violence in gaming and gaming culture. The conversation had about this was interesting, as we both lamented how little consumers and even designers think about the amount of death in the games we play. While this does really help me to understand the rationale and reason behind the Chaos system, I still maintain that using more than primarily killing as the means to track Chaos is not something I entirely agree. (And, to be fair, I am being almost willfully ignorant of the fact that players of Dishonored can lower their Chaos by doing things that help out the common folk.) I write this addendum so that you may get the full story and judge for yourself. It feels disingenuous to have a conversation with the lead designer and not include the fruits of that conversation for you to see.


Indy said...

I enjoyed reading this article. In total, I've given Dishonoured 3 runs, the first a generally low chaos run while still killing the odd guard, the second a mass murder run without the use of magic and the third was a ghost/bloodless run. I feel a little odd going through the game three times without using magic like rat swarm or windblast. They just never fit within my playstyle.

I can see the reason keeping targets alive is better but I don't agree with it. Deposing the High Overseer or the Lord Regent would destabilise their groups just as much as killing them would. And after typing that sentence, I realise the difference. The group goes from standing against you and being shocked when you kill them to standing against them for a betrayal and almost celebrating your intervention. Focusing on the group's fate is harder to do than focusing on the fate of the target but it is more relevant. This game is very clever in that regard.

I like Harvey's batman comment. Perfect for a dual-morality man like him. He's Twoface, right?

newdarkcloud said...

That's an interesting thought process and one that makes quite a bit of sense.

Yeah, Twoface's name is Harvey.

Anonymous said...

This was a well written piece that echoed my own feelings on the 'non-lethal' approach, namely the targets all faced a fate somewhat worse than death.
Still, playing through in Ghost mode was a real challenge and hugely enjoyable.

newdarkcloud said...

Thank you. :)

In my first playthrough, I tried for both Ghost and "Mostly Flesh and Steel" in my first playthrough.
There was a lot of save scumming.

polar said...

I’ve been vocally arguing about this since I played the game: Dishonored does not have a morality system. The game (and by proxy, the devs) do not judge you based on the morality of your actions. Killing/sparing your targets (and your method of doing so) does not affect the chaos system in any significant way. Basically, Harvey Smith is correct.

Also: "No one bats an eye when every single guard in a level has either been choked to sleep or pumped full of sleep darts, but a group of dead bodies causes a massive backlash from the world."

The city watch is holding back the plague, and every guard you kill is one less active deterrent left. That's basically all there is to the chaos system. Killing Daud's men, for instance, has no effect on the chaos rating. This isn't because they're evil, it's because they're not responsible for containing the plague.

The chaos system is not without its flaws, though. It’s still binary, it still doesn’t make sense that killing weepers raises chaos (they are active vectors of the plague), and actually it also doesn’t make sense that killing the whaler assassins doesn’t raise chaos–-since, ostensibly, they put down weepers in the flooded district.

But the question of morality is only ever raised by individual characters in the game, and never by the game’s systems or world. In fact, that the non-lethal options are so horrifying is a design decision probably taken just to draw the player's attention to the absence of absolute morality in Dishonored.

newdarkcloud said...

That's not a bad argument at all. Although what I will say is that it is hard to think of it as anything other than good/evil simply because of how the ending and how Emily reacts to you frame the Chaos system.