Wayne Sang
Design and Product


[Gamelog] Dishonored and moral choices


Gamelog is my plan to write something about every game I play. Rather than full out reviews, I'll probably be focussing on specific aspects of the game design that make them unique. First up: Dishonored.

Note: I really loved Dishonored. What follows is a close examination over a specific mechanic, so don't take it as a criticism of the whole game.

I clocked in about 16 hours for my first play through of Dishonored and I had a pretty great time. The game equips you with a solid selection of interesting powers that are effective in making you feel powerful and creative, while still requiring you to patiently consider how to approach sets of problems. Plus they constructed a beautiful, distinct world to explore. Loved that stuff.

Like many some other games Dishonored outlines two basic paths for the player to take in essentially good or evil ways. It does it better than many RPGs by implementing this through its gameplay, rather than colour coded dialogue choices (Mass Effect anyone?). Throughout the first play I stuck strictly with the "good" actions, all the while maintaining excitement for my second play through in which I'd let loose and use the destructive powers I had restricted myself from touching.

Fast forward to my second play through, and a few hours in I had lost steam and put the game down. I sat there and wondered "what happened"?

How it works

Early on in the game you are instructed on how this system works so that you're able to shape your actions. In Dishonored the more people you kill, the higher your "chaos" rating goes for that mission. Higher chaos changes future missions such that more hostiles populate the world in the form of zombies and swarms of rats. How stealthy you are also is a factor, but the decision to kill is by far the biggest factor. All in all it's a reasonable negative feedback system.

The increased hostility plus the promise of a "better" ending swayed me towards attempting a no-kill, no-detection run as my first play through, and as I said before I had a great time in my first play through. It was tense and thoughtful, and despite having locked myself out of several skills (skills that ended with killing) I had fun with the basic blink skill as it's exceptionally well implemented. I just figured I would do a second play through that was pure mayhem where I'd use all the destructive, murderous skills I had avoided.

The false promise of multiple play throughs

As I lost steam in the second play through I became frustrated that I hadn't used these powers in the first play through. They were compromises I felt comfortable making at the time, but afterwards I felt short-changed.

I came to feel that while I had already played through the game, I had at the same time missed out on a huge part of it. Yes, it was my choice, but it was a choice heavily influenced by the feedback systems of the game.

The problem is that the real core of the experience is in how you use your powers to work through the content. By going the pacifist route most of these options vanish. The gameplay variety is weighted heavily to the lethal path.

Above: The Many Death of Lady Boyle is a perfect example of the creative gameplay I missed.

This felt very different from playing the Paragon vs Renegade options in Mass Effect. In Dishonored you feel neutered by your choice, while in Mass Effect your powers are based on your class, and are well-rounded no matter what moral path you've chosen.

Despite enjoying the first play through, I now find myself wishing the good/evil mechanic hadn't been there at all, so I would have been free to kill or have mercy depending on the situation. Or better yet dependent on clear mission requirement differences. I wanted to experience the "whole" game the first time, a feeling I actually had after single play throughs of Mass Effect and KotOR.

In the end I this is just part of an overall examination of all branching gameplay choices. We've seen the Bioware style through KotOR and Mass Effect, and we've also seen a variation here in Dishonored to a different effect. It's an interesting to me that the implementation in Dishonored left me wanting, while the others didn't.

Wayne Sanggamelog, game design