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Spoiler-Talk: Dishonored and its challenging moral dilemmas

by John Keefer, Jan 23, 2013 11:00am PST

In Spoiler-Talk, we take a no-holds-barred look at some of the biggest games and discuss what the future holds for these franchises. Expect many, many spoilers.


Dishonored became something of a surprise hit for developer Arkane Studios and publisher Bethesda. With critical acclaim and sales to match, Bethesda had discovered a brand new franchise.

Betrayal and Chaos

In my path to personal redemption, I attempted a "low-chaos" playthrough. I avoided killing guards; they were just doing their job, after all. In the end, I was able to rescue Emily from her captors and my redemption was supposedly complete. But then, I was betrayed yet again--this time by my so-called "friends." Something inside me just snapped. I killed everyone that got in my way, knowing full well that it would result in a darker ending.

Bloodthirst defined the latter half of the game. Samuel rebuked me for going down this path, and was going to betray me by warning those that had Emily--so I killed him. Martin and Pendleton? They paid with their lives. And what do you think I did to Admiral Havelock? I finally saved Emily, but at what cost? In my mind, saving Emily justified the bloodshed.

Honor and Violence

Robert Rath argued that Corvo is "not an honorable man" because he kills from the shadows, uses booby traps and magic, and basically "never fights fair." However, given Corvo's situation, I doubt I would play fair if it meant getting my children back safe and sound.

While Dishonored repeatedly encourages a non-lethal playthrough, it gives players the ability to play as they see fit. After constantly testing the code, Joe Houston explained that he had become desensitized to the violence possible in the game. While the non-lethal path may be the right one, the more violent option is more fun. He uses that dichotomy to point out that "a moral code in a game, oftentimes encoded unintentionally by its designers, is unavoidable. And when a game becomes more effective at evoking emotion (due to player choice), it also gains a higher level of social responsibility. It is a double-edged sword, and one that must be wielded with care." While I was empowered by the game's violent tools, the high-chaos ending reminded me that violence, no matter how justified, doesn't necessarily deliver a more satisfying resolution. The "harder" visage of Emily's innocence lost provided a stark contrast to her lighter little girl countenance in the low chaos version.

Granny Rags

One of the best representations of Dishonored's travels through the moral gray is Granny Rags. Although she appeared to be addled and living in her past aristocracy, her true nature as a witch with powers granted by The Outsider came as a bit of a surprise. Her journal entry explaining how she killed her husband for bone charm and rune material made it particularly easy for me to side with Bottle Street Gang leader Slackjaw in their confrontation. Then again, helping her cook and eat the hoodlum might also have proved entertaining.

Daud and DLC

Three DLC packs have been announced for the game. The first, a horde-mode style affair called Dunwall City Trials has already been released, but offers little in the way of narrative.

A more story-driven second pack coming early this year will allow the the player to take on the role of master assassin Daud, the head of mystical Whalers, who boast the same powers as Corvo. It will be interesting to see how Daud is worked in as playable, given that one of Corvo's missions offered the option of killing the assassin or disgracing him. The pack could be a prequel to the main story, which would alleviate the narrative stickiness if the player had killed him in the main game, or it could automatically take the disgraced angle with Daud seeking revenge. The pack will be coming this spring.

Little is known about the third pack, other than it will also add to the story and will be out later this year. The only characters left unresolved by the end are intellectuals Piero and Anton Sokolov (who find a cure for the plague in the low chaos ending), and Emily in her new role as Empress. I wouldn't mind seeing a new threat to Emily's rule, giving Corvo the opportunity to again play Lord Protector.

The last episode of the Dishonored webisodes also told a bit of the backstory behind Piero and how his own nightmares of The Outsider spurred him to create Corvo's signature mask. Piero's status at the end of the game is never fully fleshed out, other than he helps find a cure for the plague in the good ending. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him crop up in a future game or DLC.

Future Games in the "Franchise"

You really can't label a game a franchise and not have a sequel already in the planning and concept phases. The endings showed possible futures for the Empire, and either of those could be easy fodder for a new game. The fact that the nebulous Outsider is so generous with the bestowing of supernatural powers also opens the door for someone other than Corvo to be the game's main protagonist. Arkane has also created a world beyond Dunwall through lore found throughout the game. A setting outside the Isle of Gristol with an entirely new cast of characters that uses the events of Dishonored for historical reference could also be a possibility.

Then again, Harvey Smith has already said that is he leery of a sequel. "Part of me would love to see future games leverage this world," he said, "and part of me would love it if the vault door was just closed and that's it. This is your one view into the Empire of the Isles and into the city of Dunwall."





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