All it took was one line of text to ruin the original Dishonored for me. And it could happen to the next game in the series without the developers even realizing it.
This post contains marketing materials from the upcoming title, Dishonored 2. If you want to keep yourself “in the dark” for a pristine experience, stay back!
The recent release of Corvo’s Gameplay Trailer (above) inspired me to write about what I believe is fatal flaw in the original Dishonored. It was merely a single line of text – and I’m not referring to programming code.
Let’s make something clear first, however. This is not a review of the original Dishonored for PC and consoles. Dishonored 2 has not been released yet as of this moment, so this post is not a review of that game either.
In fact, just to avoid any confusion, you should read this article as if I thought Dishonored was the perfect game in every way. No flaws, no bugs, no issues at all.
This is one of the loading screens you see before the game’s first level, Coldridge Prison. Do you see the problem? Blink and you’ll miss it. Read that line carefully.
A high body count leads to more rats, more plague victims and a darker outcome.
This single line of text, repeated ad infinitum, set the stage for completely ruining my experience with Dishonored.
A Darker Outcome
I started Dishonored on a pretty high difficulty, so the first few attempts at escaping my prison cell were met with defeat after humiliating defeat. But honestly, I didn’t mind at all! I was enjoying experiencing a new first person combat system that required timing and good reflexes. Dying constantly to the first few guards in the game was a pleasure.
Unfortunately, it also caused me to have to reload my save state numerous times. (Dying tends to do that.) I was playing the game with my older brother observing at the time. Every time I died, we would see the message in the loading screen above: Kill people in this game and it will end badly for you in the end.
Eventually, the long-term planner in me could ignore the warning no longer. I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting my time playing the game the wrong way. I tried to ignore it at first, but my brother and I both came to the same conclusion: since this is the beginning of the game, and I’m starting with a clean slate, I might as well “keep it clean”, right? It’s not like I already had a track record of murdering guards by the dozens – this was literally the first level of the game. I could be any kind of Corvo that I wanted.
And so, I made the fateful (terrible) decision to play the game non-lethally. Repeated exposure to the warning above had convinced me that, although being a violent psychopath might be more fun, it’s not worth it in the end! So I dutifully choked guards, stuck to the sleeping dart crossbow, and avoided conflict wherever possible. Whenever I messed up, it was time to reload my save. That meant I needed to save constantly, to preserve the tiny bits of progress I made as I tiptoed through the game.
The end result? I experienced the darkest outcome of all: a ‘beige’ Dishonored with all of the fun and controversy taken out. I didn’t even kill Daud, the man responsible for setting the game’s events in motion and murdering the Empress I was sworn to protect. I locked myself out of playing the revenge fantasy I purchased. And for what? It didn’t really feel like the game was designed for the non-lethal approach at all.
Instead, I felt like I played the game backwards. Perhaps I should have played it once all the way through as a violent madman, slaughtering anyone who looked at me the wrong way. Then, after realizing the terrible result of my actions, it would be time to play the game a second time with the added constraint of being an unseen pacifist. Guided by age and experience, I would be able to complete this more challenging version of the game – and be rewarded with a more peaceful ending.
This Warning Is Hypocritical
I have no idea why that loading screen message needed to be in the game. If all it did was warn you about the rats and plague victims, that would be fine. But warning me about the ending of the game set me up to police my own experience in a way that completely killed the fun.
Dishonored is a stealth game that can be played in many ways, but it has so many more options for crazy stuff if you play it without worrying about the moral consequences of your actions. Most of the game’s talents didn’t seem usable to someone like me. A lot of the game’s new items were lethal by design and thus, useless. But the worst part is that by warning me about the game’s Low Chaos / High Chaos system, it caused me to never actually see it occur.
If I had been allowed to play the game and examine the consequences of my actions, I might have made the decision on my own to kill fewer guards or abandon murder altogether. But I never saw swarms of rats because I was always on Low Chaos. Plague victims were just a part of the story and hardly came up in the game.
The warning in that loading screen also flies in the face of the central thrust of the game’s marketing up until that point. Don’t believe me? Watch some old trailers for Dishonored. The game’s catchphrase before it released was “Revenge Solves Everything.” (The commercial I just linked could alternatively be called “3 minutes of people dying horribly.”) I counted a single (!) non-lethal stealth kill. After months of buildup through violent trailers, the perfect setup for a revenge story, and an intro cutscene designed to get your blood boiling… you tell me not to kill people?
The irony is, in worring about not wanting to “waste my time playing the game the wrong way”, I ended up doing exactly that. And I never returned to play through the game again, or purchase the DLC.
So the moral of the story is: if your game has a range of options, but one of those options is clearly the most fun way to play, make sure you encourage players to take that route. Sure, they might regret it later when they realize the whole kingdom falls to death and violence, but that’s the point! You want players to have those moments in gaming. It’s always better to give people experiences that confirm moral truths than to just lecture them.
Fortunately, I’ve already decided how I’m going to avoid this problem for Dishonored 2. Since the game allows you to play as either Emily Kaldwin and Corvo, I’ve decided that I’ll play as Emily first and do an “anything goes” run. That means I’ll start each encounter out as stealthily as possible, but if a fight breaks out I won’t hesitate to kill people or run away. I’m also going to refrain from over-saving, which is a bad habit I picked up from The Elder Scrolls that tends to ruin the flow of games. It’s going to be autosave only for me… the more things go to hell, the better! Then, if I really want to get the nicer ending, I’ll do that playthrough as Corvo. This way, I’ll get to experience Dishonored 2 the way it was meant to be played, and Corvo gets to retain my head canon of being a merciful phantom.
If you’re playing Dishonored for the first time after reading this article, my advice to you is just to play it your way. If you always play stealth games without killing everybody, go for it. Just don’t make that choice because you were pressured into it by the game.
And I have some advice for anyone on the Dishonored 2 team. Go and look at all of the loading screen messages your team has created – seriously! For each and every one of them, consider if they could pressure a player into changing their tactics in a way that makes the game less fun. Ask yourself: how is this game meant to be played? Does our marketing gel with the message players get when they finally get their hands on the game? Would I be happy if someone only played the game in Low Chaos and never got to see some of the crazy mayhem they can cause with bombs, spells, and guns?
If the answer is no, make sure messages like the one above are nowhere to be found. And for God’s sake, will someone patch that loading screen out of the original Dishonored?
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I’d like to hear from you. Is it just me, or did anyone else have a similar experience with this game? Leave your feedback in the comments below, and be sure to check out my gaming stream where I will one day re-play Dishonored… on maximum chaos.
Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.