My Personal Canon: Dishonored

For some reason, Dishonored keeps coming up so I figured it'd be good to rally all my thoughts on this game into one place. I'm sure I praised it plenty when we covered it but maybe I wasn't emphatic enough. Or maybe I was. Or maybe it's just one of those rare games that just ages better the more time goes by. I'm not sure. But in either case, I want to articulate a couple of specific, remarkable things about the game.

There are two ways this game shines. Gameplay and Theme (note I didn't say Gameplay and Narrative).

Spoilers, duh.


Dishonored masquerades as a stealth game and it is, but it's a very special one. Something we talk about A LOT on the show is how overly harsh consequences for failure can make a game cross the line from challenging to frustrating. One of my worst gaming nightmares (along with 3d block pushing puzzles, thank you Soul Reaver) is a stealth sequence where failure means death or starting over. Demanding perfection of all players is overly harsh. There's no reason not to allow for all approaches by incentivizing perfection rather than punishing imperfection (MGS5's ranking system, for example).

Dishonored takes another approach. Dishonored is the only stealth game I've played, save possibly Monaco, where it's fun to get caught. Dishonored arms the player with a bunch of cool ways to respond, even if you're committed to non violence. Escaping through blinking is great fun. Mind controlling a guard and having him cause a distraction is wonderful. It's all fun and it feels good in your hands. You're not useless in a one on one fight.

Of course, not every player wants to get caught and will save scum. This is where the true genius of Dishonored comes in.


Dishonored is a game about power, temptation, and how good it feels to give in. That's an oversimplification but hopefully I can explain what I mean. In the game, you play as a man who has been wronged several times over. A Lucifer figure offers you power to take revenge. The thing is, The Outsider isn't the devil. He's Nyarlathotep. He's an agent of chaos not an agent of evil. He offers you power, yes, but he also offers you fun. The big, showy fun of badass super hero movies and explosive stylish video games. Chaos. It's up to the player to decide if they want to take some or all of that power. Just the minimum to do what the plot asks or if they want to go ham on.

So, if you indulge fully, your avatar not only gets power but the player gets much more satisfying gameplay. Dishonored's lethal play offers some of the most fun combo making chaos I've ever encountered in a game. Attach a mine to a rat and mind control the rat to infiltrate a group of guards frozen in time. That's awesome. It's empowering and fun in a showy ridiculous way. It's a better game as a "stealth until you can't, then fuck it" or as a predatory game than it is a pure stealth game. The game wants to tempt the player the same way The Outsider wants to tempt Corvo.

This is all over the game. Look at the endings. The last level in a low chaos playthrough is wet bread. A big island base with some guards and the bosses have all killed themselves before you even get there. You may as well not even play it. In high chaos, however, it's a stormy island full of insane murderers. The finale has the bad guy holding your daughter over the sea, backlit by lightning. It's amazing, dramatic and cool.

(A quick side note: I love an anti climax. Dark Souls, for example. But that's not what Dishonored is about. I just want to clarify I'm not making a grand statement about what kinds of endings are better).

The high chaos ending monologue features The Outsider listing all the dramatic, exciting stuff that you did and all the dramatic, exciting stuff that's going to happen. He's describing a cool a video game. The low chaos monologue is, again, almost painfully generic.

What about all those people you have to kill to get high chaos, you say. Surely that's a problem and feels bad, right? Well, no, because Dishonored takes pains to be as morally neutral as possible. There are almost no good guys in Dishonored. This is signaled by the loyalists turning on you, this is signaled by the monolithic, order following guards and it's most clearly signaled by the nonlethal options for assassinations. The ways you "spare" people in Dishonored are arguably way worse than just killing them. They usually involve slavery of some kind, and often torture. There isn't a good option in Dishonored. Just high chaos and low chaos, high fun and low fun.

(I know fun is objective. I'm getting to that).

The game projects this in other ways too. There are achievements for both playstyles. And Corvo is silent and Corvo wears a mask. This is because if he had a voice actor and a face, you'd think of him as a character. You'd think about what he'd do rather than what you'd do. Corvo has to be silent for the game to work.

Let's say you know all this and still want the satisfaction of playing stealthily and not murdering anyone, despite the lack of moral implications. This is OK too. If that's you, the game is asking you how important that is to you. You're putting that on one end of a scale and the game is pressing down as hard as it can on the other. If you stay strong, great! Yes, you played a less fun game but I'd argue that it is meaningful because you actually made a choice in spite of the game. Your convictions are strong. You didn't do a "perfect run" and you didn't "ghost" it because the game secretly wants that, you did in spite of the game. Most stealth games present a non lethal run as a challenge. Dishonored presents it as a test you don't really know you're taking.

What's even MORE awesome is that if you want a fully fleshed out protagonist, you just have to look to the DLC and Daud. Daud is a former assassin. He's the player who took the high chaos route and suddenly had morality fall on him like a summer squall. If you want the game where you have a point of view and there's a right way to play morally, it's there. Daud fights magic evil witches, for chrissakes. If you need something evil to work against, it gives you that. It gives you context not in the main game. And the opportunity to ask what the character would do.

Something that I beat like a dead horse (I HATE dead horses) is that narrative and theme are really only impressive when gameplay ties in. Dishonored is one of my favorite games and one of the most impressive games I've played because of how theme and play are connected by an unbreakable chain. Even when you think you're just playing and having fun, you're playing with the games themes. Even if you're not having fun, you're complicit; if you complete the game non lethally and think, "That was it? Thief is better than this," you're complicit. Maybe you should have given into Nyarlathotep? (If you play high chaos and just hate it, well, that's just fun being subjective, I guess. The game tries very hard to make that fun, but if that doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you.)

(I apologize if this got rambly at the end. I've been playing Soul Reaver and I can't contain my enthusiasm for a game I actually like).