This is a post about Dishonored, Monarchies, and Non-lethality

Spoilers ahead. Thanks for reading.

Corvo Attano, the protagonist of Dishonored, is not a good guy — but I tried to make him one. I’ve always tried to play characters honestly. I enjoy stories, and whether a game is labeled role-playing or not, I require honesty in order to be fully immersed.

Because video games allow agency within story and characters, I bare some of the responsibility for ensuring honesty in the narrative. I have some control over how Corvo behaves, and in Dishonored I also have some control over how the story concludes. That’s why when I started playing Dishonored, I was determined to choose non-lethality whenever possible.

I surmised that as a bodyguard, Corvo would value life enough to avoid killing whenever possible, and only kill with no other alternative. That was the premise, but it  fell away quickly, replaced by something more concrete, but subtle.

I realized Corvo is not a “good guy”, and that the cast of Dishonored is mostly deficient of virtuous characters. This makes the fiction more authentic, cynical; it makes the characters less sympathetic. It disrupted my motivations as a player, and my ability to relate to Corvo.

I ascertained I was about half way through the game and concluded that I wasn’t sympathetic to either side in the struggle for Dunwall. I wasn’t sympathetic to any side, except that of the oppressed and plagued people of the city.

Why a monarchy?

At the beginning of the game, Dunwall is part of an island called Gristol, ruled by an Empress named Jessamine Kaldwin. Dunwall is under a monarchy.

At the game’s opening, Jessamine’s former Spymaster conspires against her, has her assassinated, and becomes Lord Regent because Jessamine’s daughter Emily is not of age to rule.

Jessamine is portrayed as having concern for “her people”. Her assassination, tragic of itself, is meant to signify some greater loss for a people that were lorded over before, and at the loss of a supposedly benevolent ruler, will be lorded over anyway.

As I played the opening sequence, I tried to attach myself to Emily and Jessamine on a personal level. In that respect, it was easy to be sympathetic to a child that witnesses her mother killed in bloody fashion. The politics and power structure aside, that is tragic.

But as the story progressed, I found myself hard pressed to be at all concerned with bringing to justice usurpers of the throne in order to, of all things, place someone else on the throne. Wouldn’t the people of Dunwall and Gristol prefer a form of representative government as oppose to whatever self important opportunist, or highly fortunate royalty, wished to rule over them?

Nevermind whether that person is benevolent or not, I realized I was fighting, and in some cases killing, to replace one concentrated power source with another concentrated power source and passing it off as liberation.

This soured my taste for lethal means even further. I held that Corvo would support the idea that those who plot assassination should be brought to justice, but the idea of murdering in droves to return a monarchical family line to power seemed far less motivating to me.

The things I did as Corvo in the name of rescuing and restoring young empress Emily to power alarmed me. I wanted to see Corvo as a good guy, even playing as non-lethal as possible, but I was forced to do heinous things to achieve loyalist goals.

At one point it is deemed necessary to remove the Lord Regent’s mistress, Lady Boyle. Wanting to avoid murder, I explored to find the non-lethal option for the mission. I discovered that it included incapacitating Lady Boyle, and delivering her to an admirer whose affection for Lady Boyle had been secret, and unrequited.

My only alternative to killing Lady Boyle was to carry her, unconscious, onto a boat in the dead of night, and deliver her to a man obsessed with her, that has done all of promising to treat her kindly. I can think of few things more criminal, morally reprehensible and demeaning to women.

No matter what assurances this masked admirer gave me, I couldn’t help but feel I was putting a woman in considerable danger, potentially to the point of being sexually assaulted. However much that’s paranoia or over sensitivity on my part, I’m not certain, but the feeling was all at once not a good one. I didn’t feel heroic, and I didn’t feel any justification for taking the non-lethal option.

To the point I’ve played, all the non-lethal options are similarly harsh. A few missions in, I’ve committed torture and kidnapping, been an accessory to slavery, and potentially to rape.

All in the name of the empress.

Dishonored is a quasi-period piece set in an era similar to the late 19th century, and modeled after cities like London. I understand the motif of monarchy within that setting, but I felt that half way through the game it had been exploited predictably.

Moreover a feeling persisted that gnawed at me. This city and island started under rule of monarchy, were taken control of by a totalitarian regent, and are being fought for by loyalists who wish to put another monarch in power. Somehow a theme of the game is supposed to be freeing the city. Yet all three of those states seemed the same to me except for the promise of certain monarchs being nice about holding all the power.

And all the while, even trying to be avoid needless violence, I was having to do heinous things to bring back this monarchy.

Predictable but novel

I haven’t finished Dishonored yet. The last mission I played is where Corvo kidnaps or kills Lady Boyle. I was initially going to write this post about the parts of the game I’ve played so far.

But I cheated. I looked up the remainder of the plot, because I was curious if there would be contradictions to my assertions in the latter part of the story. I’m telling you this now because, remarkably, my feelings about the loyalists in Dishonored turned out to be exactly correct.

Admiral Havelock, an ally in the early part of the game and de facto leader of the loyalists, turns out to be as hungry for power as the Lord Regent, and similarly only wants to use Emily in order to attain control of the region.

This isn’t novel in and of itself (it’s actually predictable, as I had unsympathetic feelings towards the loyalists all along) — but the honest portrayal of this kind of power struggle is unique.

Control of a region being contended for by a few central figures is not rare in history, and there are few good guys in that kind of struggle. But it isn’t always portrayed that way.

In the first part of the game we play the traditional narrative of picking a side and fighting for one person or small group to attain power. But when Havelock is revealed to be as dangerous as the Lord Regent, we see a kind of honesty about this political power structure that isn’t often depicted in games. It is, however, short lived.

In the end, even after dealing with Havelock, a monarch does take the throne. Emily returns as empress, and depending on the player’s level of chaos (caused by assassinations, random killings, and other high profile actions) they get a lighter, happier ending, or darker, bleaker ending.

It isn’t as poignant an ending as I’d hoped for, at least in summary. I’m eager to finish the game and see for myself, but it seems like Dishonored only offers a partial warning about centralized power. It’s better than nothing, and the reversal seen in your relationship with Havelock is a valuable lesson for players more accustomed to the traditional dichotomy of good guys and bad guys in games.

But unfortunately Dishonored holds onto the naive assumption seen so often in narrative that monarchs and centralized power are good things as long as those in power promise to be nice.

Promise to be nice…

I kidnapped a woman and put her on a boat with a strange man that she’d previously shown no desire to be with. I branded a man on the forehead. I condemned two men to harsh slavery, and mutilation. If they committed crimes, I’d like to believe Corvo would be in favor of punishment. Maybe a trial would have been more appropriate.

Oh but of course, this is war, and all for her majesty and what not. Cruelty is exhibited, horrors are committed, then justified as more merciful than a swift death. All in the name of someone on a throne.

As long as they promise to be nice.

12 responses to “This is a post about Dishonored, Monarchies, and Non-lethality”

  1. M. Joshua says:

    A very interesting perspective for sure! As one who has made all of the same decisions on my first play-through, I fully empathize. As one who has made almost all of the same decisions on the second play-through, I’m contested.

    I still don’t believe that Corvo is a bad guy. Given all of the options in the game, I believe that Corvo is a pretty decent guy. But you really make a lot of compelling points. We really don’t know what’s gonna happen when Lady Boyle and her masked admirer get to their location. It’s almost best not to think about it.

    The game emphasized the “Revenge” thing in the advertising. And perhaps the “nonviolent” option is actually more malicious than I had realized. But somehow I still feel like I’m doing a service to these virtual people by not sending them straight to hell. Naive? Probably.

    I’ll tell you how I feel when I kill just about everybody and end the game on high-chaos. :)

  2. Jens Ayton says:

    “Wouldn’t the people of Dunwall and Gristol prefer a form of representative government as oppose to whatever self important opportunist, or highly fortunate royalty, wished to rule over them?”

    Almost certainly not. People don’t work that way. Convincing a population that they should want democracy tends to take a great deal of time and effort.

    In a chaotic situation like this, the primary political concern of the man on the street is a return to normalcy. In this case, that means a) an end to the rat plague and b) a new monarch with some plausible claim to legitimacy who isn’t actively hunting people down. A radical counter-coup would not be near the top of most people’s wish lists.

    The situation could be different if there had been a strong radical movement in the city before the plague, or if there are more progressive governments nearby. But if so, the plague time will have been filled with anti-radical propaganda insinuating that improper thought weakening the Empire was somehow responsible. Even if you expose the Regent’s secret audioblog, it probably wouldn’t be enough to outweigh that.

    In Corvo’s position, his best chance of achieving a representative government (should he want to) is probably to try to influence Emily to introduce progressive reforms… after murdering Havelock and company.

  3. Neil Henning says:

    Love your analysis of the plot, and I have my own take on his convictions.

    In my good playthrough, playing without killing a soul, Corvo is effectively a surrogate father to Emily, and will do anything to ensure her safety. I see him almost as a simple automaton, doing whatever is necessary to keep her safe. Anyone who has hurt Emily, intends to hurt or control her, has to be removed. But he is not evil, he doesn’t want them to die, but he cares not for how they are removed from the picture.

    I think Arkane have made it a very interesting choice between lethal/non-lethal. Like in the Lady Boyle case you mention I seriously did consider killing her, effectively putting her out of her misery. Finding the Outsider shrine in that level also adds another level of intrigue as he basically says ‘She will grow old far away from here, with her nice clothes fading to tatters’ – I took that as she would be extremely unhappy.

    I think the evil playthrough ‘fits’ the plot much nicer. Corvo is pissed at being betrayed, pissed that the Empress he was devoted to has been slain, pissed that he was blamed for her death, and pissed that Emily has been kidnapped. From the get go I slaughtered my way out the prison, and the whole narrative of the story changes. Corvo -is- a dangerous psychopath, he is a danger to the guards, and the guards dialogue is genuinely filled with fear/hatred rather than indoctrinated bull towards him too!

    Will be interested to hear your analysis on your evil playthrough :)

  4. Jordan Rivas says:

    @M. Joshua — You’ve made me really want to give the game second play through. I wasn’t sure I would, but I think you’re right, the more violent prone Corvo probably would fit more. Still, I think the conflict I felt while trying to be good was an interesting experience.

    @Jens Ayton — Thanks for your comment, and welcome! I love you’re counter analysis. You’re making a difficult, but sober observation that I think is, unfortunately, true in some cases. I’m just not as certain as you are about it.

    I don’t know enough about the history of Dunwall to say, but I think what you’re saying is more likely to be true depending on how long the monarchy has been in place, to what degree people have been conditioned, and whether or not there have been favorable attempts at reform before. I think the agenda of the average citizen would gravitate towards “normalcy” only if liberty was constantly portrayed as a scary, uncertain option for several generations and access to history was limited. Your point about pro-monarchy propaganda concerning the rat plague, however, is spot on.

    I remember reading a few books and documents concerning Sokolov’s elixir and I think the general tone of them was that it’s perceived unfair that his is the only option, with no competition. The Bottle Street Gang may be criminals, but there numbers are strong, they counterfeit Sokolov’s elixir and at one point actively participate in weakening the Lord Regent’s power. Far from a perfect foundation for a revolution, but I think it’s evidence some dissent exists that has turned into action.

    Otherwise, I like your alternative opinion a lot.

    @Neil Henning — Welcome, and thanks for reading/commenting. I also considered killing Lady Boyle. It was the only time I seriously considered the lethal option, and it was because I really wondered if it was more humane. But her fate (aside from the Outsider’s warning about her wardrobe) was ambiguous and I thought at least with her secret admirer she may have a chance. But doing that still made me feel uneasy, and like I was turning a blind eye/being complicit.

  5. […] written about my experiences in Dishonored, and doubting whether what the city of Dunwall really needed was another m… As Ruhon led the Stormcloaks to victory after victory, gaining further favor with Ulfric the […]

  6. Mike Boxleiter says:

    Jens has it totally correct, the push for grassroots government must start with the people. Your attitude about needing to force democracy on the population of Dunwall is a particular and embarrassing trait of Americans, we have difficulty thinking that perhaps not everyone in the world should do exactly as we do, and we have a propensity to believe we have the power to lift people out of poverty simply by giving them a chance to vote.

    It’s interesting that you find it difficult to like Corvo simply because he can’t fight for your particular chosen type of government, simply trying to remove obvious traitors from government positions and restore an innocent but honorable queen to power isn’t enough.

    I personally think the compelling drive for the plot comes more from the relationship between Corvo and Emily, as well as her mother. It is mentioned once or twice that Corvo is potentially Emily’s father, and the romantic relationship between Corvo and Jessamine is alluded to, though possibly not strongly enough to make it stick out in all player’s minds. The developers probably didn’t go enough into the specific father-daughter and revenge aspects of the story to really motivate you based on those themes alone, and so you spent too much time feeling sorry for the nonexistent populace of Dunwall.

    Other critics have called out the total lack of any innocent civilians in the game as a flaw, but I think that’s more because the overall aim was to create more of an aristocrat-vs-aristocrat story rather than any kind of polemic against monarchs or they way they govern. The addition of the plague and weepers is strange though, and seems inconsistant with the rest of the themes of the story, much of the characters seek power for the sake of power, not mentioning the rights of individual citizens which they are probably stamping on (because why else would you want power?)

    The weepers are the only examples of the disenfranchised poor, but they’re so far gone that they aren’t even worth saving, on my play-through I felt it was doing them a service to end their suffering. And since it was a plague doing the damage, instead of jack-booted thugs, I didn’t really correlate their suffering with the power struggle happening in the palaces. This is in contrast to the Grey Death in Deus Ex, which was directly attributed to the biotech companies who used it to control the population.

    In the end I think the story would have been better focused primarily on the aristocrats and their thugs, something more along the lines of Hamlet as a videogame. Nobody cares about the people of Denmark because that’s just not the story. Was Claudius an unjust king who needed to be unseated for the sake of the people? Who knows? All that matters was that he was a murderer, and Hamlet needed to get his revenge on.

  7. Grey says:

    Interesting points, and I have to admit I blanched at the prospect of condemning Lady Boyle to such a fate (I had no such sympathy for the High Overseer, nor the Pendletons).
    However, much as the idea of overturning the monarchy seems natural and righteous, it is important to remember that the city is actually closer to 17th century than 19th, and that Corvo is very much a product of his time. Why would he consider anything but loyalty to the crown? I’d argue his real motivation, anyway, is Emily. Everything he does, he does for her, Empress or not.

  8. jc says:

    i intially played non-lethal and while i loved the game, i also noted some serious moral issues at some points and felt like i was railroaded into things i didn’t want to be doing. i guess that is part of your character though, trapped into doing things you don’t really want to ‘for the greater good’.

    anyway, i played through again going for a very lethal style where anyone who would raise a weapon to me was killed and occasionally civillians where they may put me at risk otherwise. the big difference for me was how emily treats you. i loved the drawing she does of you as ‘daddy’ (and all the subtle hints about actually being her father) but it broke my heart on my violent play through to get a picture of myself masked and standing on a pile of bodies. ‘that’s how she sees me?!’.

  9. Jordan Rivas says:

    @Mike — Thanks for your comment and welcome! As I said above, I like Jens’s analysis, even if I don’t fundamentally agree with monarchies. As you state, the story works even without an in-depth perspective of the civilians of Dunwall. I also think the relationship between Emily and Corvo is a key driving element of the game’s emotional impact.

    I like Dishonored quite a bit; this article was more of an aside about a personal reaction I had involving motivation in playing the game, and trying to role play to some extent. I still contend media in general always espousing strong central power as necessary and good is concerning, but I also mention in the article that I understand the game’s setting (quasi-period piece, semi-Victorian era, etc) lends to a monarchy system.

    I also don’t believe in democracy as a cure all fix. I didn’t mean to assert that a democratic government is the answer. Government in general, even a democratic one, tends to be a problem, not a solution. Although I live in America, I’d hardly want to force our system on anyone as it’s not a particularly good one in its current form. When I posed the question (and remember, I did pose it as a question) of whether Dunwall wanted a more representative government, what I was getting at was whether, if they did choose to use government as their tool, would they want more control over it than letting one person decide how such centralized power would be used. I concede I could have clarified that more in the article.

    @Grey — Thanks for commenting. Welcome to the blog.

    “I’d argue his real motivation, anyway, is Emily. Everything he does, he does for her, Empress or not.”

    Excellent point. I know others have already touched on this, but you put it well. I do think ultimately he’s doing this for Emily, and also think Corvo is a on a bloody path of revenge. Again, why I’m looking forward to a darker play through.

    @jc — This probably going to be the only downside to the more lethal play through — having Emily go bonkers. That said, I think it speaks volumes about the game that it has a way to make the player feel some conflict regardless of what path you take. It does a good job of staying away from things that could easily be seen as black or white, morally, and stays deep into the gray.

  10. […] Others have done a great job of summarizing, that the available options don’t often translate into “what Jesus would do.” Especially when that includes getting criminals to rip out their tongues and force them into slavery. Or the part where you have to extort information from a blindfolded guy who ‘enjoys’ torture. Or when it includes putting a woman in the care of a masked man of questionable integrity. These are the things that would get a very strong “no” in the WWJD department. Duh. […]

  11. Justin says:

    Corvo is a “product of his time”? As if belief in monarchy ended centuries ago and no one as “enlightened” as you could hold so views. Such beliefs may have for leftists (of which I imagine you are one) but it didn’t for all of us.

    England, on which Dunwall is most based, still has a monarchy, and it is still overwhelmingly popular. Our armed forces still swear allegiance to the sovereign, and she maintains real reserve powers in case of national emergencies, and is not “just a figurehead” as many Americans think.

    If she were assassinated and the monarchy violently overthrown, the military here would doubtless attempt to restore the rightful (yes, that word still means something to some of us) ruler.

    Try to remember that not everyone shares your sheltered, location and cultural group specific views on what is right and wrong.

    Most people in this country would find the idea of forcing our military and government to kowtow to a self-important, jumped up, elected president repellent.

  12. Kevin says:

    First of all, it’s a constitutional monarchy – there is a Parliament. Furthermore, Emily leads Dunwell into a golden age in the low chaos ending, and unless you think pure democracy has some sort of deontological superiority as a form of government, that fact certainly justifies a bit of hand-dirtying to restore the Empire.

    Pretty much every target deserved their punishment. The slave-holders were made into slaves, the corrupt priest and murderer was made into a social pariah, and the decadent woman financing the corrupt regime’s military with its shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to justice was made into into just the ordinary kind of person she was helping oppress.

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