The Sting in the Tale
In the fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is reluctant - surely, to deal with a scorpion will bring certain death. But the scorpion is adamant that this train of thought is nonsense - that if he stung the frog, they would both drown, and die. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog asks why the scorpion has condemned them both to death with its sting, only to be met with the obvious - "I am a scorpion."
Fiction demonstrates many concepts, but none so aptly as the fact that some characters are designed by nature to be purely evil and serve that purpose exclusively. To put it another way, some people are scorpions.
Dishonored is not a game about making easy, simple choices. Rather, reflective of real life, the game soon demonstrates that you are interacting with the fate of an entire metropolis. The stones you're throwing in its pool are going to rock someone's boat, regardless of how good your aim is.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
In Dishonored, you are offered the chance to spare the lives of a pair of corrupt politicians — loyal to the villainous city leader, and owners of a mine staffed by slaves. The individual offering you this alternative is a local gang leader, who wants something seemingly innocuous in return. If you do the deed, he will then reveal that your targets will be abducted, have their tongues removed, heads shaved, and be put to work in their own mine.
Dishonored was a game that left me feeling frustrated. The ending felt flat. The non-lethal alternatives weren't obvious enough, to the point where I killed a target because I wanted to play the game, rather than sit around googling the alternatives. But most of all, I couldn't stand the fact that quite frequently, my attempts to be noble and spare my targets resulted in them being condemned to a life with their stalker, or a life toiling away in their own slave mine, tongue and hair removed. What kind of reward system was this?
Erik recently talked about venturing into game worlds with preconceived notions or knowledge that would affect your view of the game. Personally, I went into Dishonored thinking I was going to experience a storyline that allowed me to avoid killing a single person, for once. People’s high hopes for this reality in games design had been dashed by Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s forced boss kills, but Dishonored stayed true to its word.
But is it my fault for assuming that the non-lethal option would be less sadistic? Goodjer Rob Zacny spoke about the game recently, stating that the Heart, an item that tells you the secrets of those you point it at, starts to justify your employment of lethal methods. “Within this world, Corvo had the opportunity and ability to stop murderers and predators from committing further atrocities.”
He’s not wrong. I spent a good few minutes trying to figure out how to take out the Empress-murdering Spymaster General without killing him, but I couldn’t work it out. I then realized that in addition to getting impatient, I was also standing in front of someone who needed to simply be removed from the land of the living for the good of everyone. I took his life, and it’s a life I don’t regret taking. I didn’t need the Heart to help me decide, but that’s because the Heart provides context for those who, without it, wouldn’t feel enough reason to kill a scorpion.
In a way, your choices as a killer or a pacifist in Dishonored are reminiscent of George’s choice at the end of Of Mice and Men. His friend Lenny — mentally innocent but physically guilty of the murder of a local woman — is being hunted by avengers of the victim. George elects to put Lenny down, rather than see him suffer at the hands of his pursuers.
The reason this situation is difficult is because part of me wishes there’d been a way to hide Lenny — to send him off into the wilderness and save him entirely —wishes that there would have been a way to save Dishonored’s Granny Bacon from making a terrible mistake by turning into a killer herself in the sewers of Dunwall. I hate that I can’t have that good ending. But some people are scorpions, and it’s that harsh reality that makes Dishonored such a powerful series of choices.
I feel at fault, for not using the Heart enough. For not hearing what Rob heard. For not being aware that some of the people I snuck behind or choke-held were killers, bastards, so many of them scorpions. It’s at this point that you wonder why chaos was chosen as the name for the sliding morality scale in the game — a scale that dictates that “high chaos” is a sign of violent behavior and relentless killing. From where I’m standing after my relatively passive playthrough, the impact of another hundred deaths in a city ravaged by plague and criminal insanity seems like a drop in the ocean, at best a preservation of the current chaos.
The casus belli for Corvo’s struggle in Dunwall is sound. Tyrants are indefensible figures of malice and oppression, and are deemed to be statues that must be toppled, by any means necessary. While I wish I could stay my blade, Dishonored forces me to abandon my safe gaming environment and launch myself into an eat-or-be-beaten world in which there is no sanctuary, and murder becomes heroism. In order to save a frog, I must play the scorpion.