I was looking for my daughter in a brothel. Not for prurient- nor prudish reasons- but because she had been kidnapped. Since she was also the rightful heir to the Empire of the Isles, I have even more reasons to get her back. Naturally, the first room I stumble into was the bedroom of a prostitute waiting for her next client. I quickly teleported behind her and rendered her unconscious before she could cry for help.
“Are you just going to leave her on the floor” My wife asked? “She’s safe from the plague rats if I shut the door, it’ll be ok.” “No”, my wife replied, “you can at least put her in her bed.” Dishonored, from Arkane Studios is that kind of game.
Dunwall- the city in which the game takes place- has enough verisimilitude to underline the reality of the people who inhabit the world, while also underscoring how alien the world is to our own. Books are commonly found in bathrooms, guards will whistle a tune as they patrol, people fall in love, and plaster ads on billboards. The fact that these are recognizably human things to do makes it much easier for the player to treat the non player characters in this world as people.
Dishonored gives players tools for murder- a sword, a crossbow, a set of magical powers- and a mission of vengeance. The opening of the game has your character, Corvo Attano, (the Royal Protector) fail to save the life of the Empress he loves. Having given the player these tools and this mission, the game creates some very straightforward paths to murder. At the end of every mission, the game counts up the number of enemies you killed (including those that you merely placed in the path of mortal danger), the number of times you were spotted by enemies, and the number of times an alarm was run. That’s where things get more complicated, and more interesting.
Based on these factors, the game gives you a “chaos” score. The more people you kill, the more the alarms sounded across the city, the more general chaos there is. The more chaos there is, the worse the plague gets. The worse the plague gets, the more swarming rats there are, the more “weepers” (a sort of zombie) there are, On top of that, later missions will feature more guards for the player to deal with, and more the more of Corvo’s friends will die. Perhaps worst of all, Emily- your daughter- becomes an Empress who rules with an iron fist over a court of terrible cruelty.
Alternately, if the player goes through the game- if Corvo restores the monarchy- in such a way that few or no people die, the “low chaos” setting is achieved. On this low chaos mode, there missions will feature more civilians (instead of plague victims), fewer guards, more friendly non-player-characters will survive the final mission. The epilogue shows the plague being cured shortly after the game ends, and that Emily’s eventual reign is remembered as a golden era.
Which raises the question: why? The city of Dunwall has a population somewhere between half and one million. The city is undergoing a plague that is so bad the government is literally having to dump bodies into the sea. Compared to that, the upwards-of-200 people that Corvo can kill in a “maximum carnage” run simply can’t add meaningfully to that number.
All but two of the missions in the game gives Corvo a target for assassination. Along the way, the player can learn of a way to deal with a given target without killing them. It is, therefore, possible to play the game with “clean hands”- without killing anyone.
Interestingly, the chaos mechanic itself makes no real distinction between killing your intended targets and killing a plague-infected, zombie-like “weeper”. Given that your targets in each mission are chosen for political reasons, for the sake of creating regime change, it’s worth noting that the designers of the game itself value each human life the same. By contrast, non human life- such as dogs, rats, and the like- can be killed without raising the chaos level.
That’s a significant clue to why Corvo’s killings should lead to such massive destabilization. Human life matters. Human choices matter. Corvo can choose to let Emily ascend to the throne- in the game’s words- “over a mountain of corpses”. In so doing, they perpetuate a political system that legitimizes violence. The message this sends to Emily and anyone else with a pretense to power is that naked force is the only factor that maters. Emily learns to be violent, and learns to deal with all threats around her violently. People in the system- starting with the loyalist conspirators who Corvo works with, and who ultimately betray him- see the breakdown of social norms and begin to give into their own worse impulses. By visiting violence against them, Corvo does not differentiate himself from them ideologically, but rather makes the claim that his will to power is greater than they can hope to overcome.
In a High Chaos run, violence- from the point of view of bystanders- becomes random. But because random violence is used as a tool of the State, it creates a breakdown in the social fabric. The State may only legitimately use violence to protect the citizenry from greater harm. That’s why it is generally ok for the government to create quarantine zones, and to enforce those zones with deadly force. The citizens of Dunwall seem terrified by the plague, but do recognize that this is something the State ought to be permitted to do.
When the player uses violence sparingly, Corvo upholds the social norm against political violence. He chooses not to place his own interests as the arbiter of murder. In doing so, he allows Dunwall to stand down from the cycle of coup, counter coup, and revolution. Freed from both the example of continual of murder, and having to be constantly on guard from a subject population that has learned violence as their only recourse, she is able to turn her attention to other things- and to create a golden age.
We can certainly argue about the plausibility of one person’s example being that overpowering. Was Corvo always the fulcrum of an age, whatever that age might have been, or was it greater historical forces at work? It is certainly easy to give into the temptation of history to become about the “great man”. Those are certainly interesting conversations to have! We do also need to recognize that as individuals we have choices. Sometimes they are large, and sometimes they are small. We will always see the world reflected back to us that we have helped create.