The Sting in the Tale

The frog and the scorpion.

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.

Comments

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You might want to put a warning about Dishonored Spoilers at the top. I'm about to start my non-lethal playthrough and had some twists ruined.

S0LIDARITY wrote:

You might want to put a warning about Dishonored Spoilers at the top. I'm about to start my non-lethal playthrough and had some twists ruined.

Sorry. I'd heard that particular spoiler so many times by now that I just glossed over it.

wordsmythe wrote:
S0LIDARITY wrote:

You might want to put a warning about Dishonored Spoilers at the top. I'm about to start my non-lethal playthrough and had some twists ruined.

Sorry. I'd heard that particular spoiler so many times by now that I just glossed over it.

That's okay. It's going to be my second playthrough; I still appreciated the twist even if it wasn't through the intended medium.

My favorite variant of the story is when the scorpion responds "It is my nature". A bit more obvious, but it has made the fable that much more valuable in my dealings with other people.

My issue with Dishonored, though, was that it never seemed to be fully fleshed out in terms of atmosphere or story or goal. Every ad you see paints this dark world about vengeance. Yet if you "do good", the smog by the hound pits begins to clear and the sky is blue and wonderful and Emily becomes a good Empress and yatta yatta.

I feel like this game needed a tone where "good" was subjective, and every action would have dark consequences.

Then again, I also feel like the "good" ending for the original Bioshock should have left the protagonist condemned to live the remainder of his days as a Big Daddy in Rapture as he waves the Little Sisters and German Lady Whose Name I Forget up to the surface. That the "good" ending involves self-sacrifice.

I feel like if you're story is supposed to be dreary, dark and depressing, then it better end that way as well.

ccesarano wrote:

My favorite variant of the story is when the scorpion responds "It is my nature". A bit more obvious, but it has made the fable that much more valuable in my dealings with other people.

I really hate how fables have been dumbed down for today's audiences.

ccesarano wrote:

I feel like this game needed a tone where "good" was subjective, and every action would have dark consequences.

...

I feel like if you're story is supposed to be dreary, dark and depressing, then it better end that way as well.

What, the existing consequences weren't enough for you?

Spoiler:

Every non-lethal elimination of a mark is a fate worse than death. You can be instrumental to spreading the plague with a poisoned cure (leading to more weepers in the streets when you revisit that area), most or all of the servants die before the end, in the low-chaos ending the conspirators basically give up hope of survival once you get to them, etc.

Though I do take your point that the actual "low-chaos" ending sequence is pretty upbeat. I'd have liked that part to play out a bit further (maybe an interactive tag scene that confronted the player one more consequence of earlier choices).

As for the heart:

Spoiler:

I think it's actual use for the incidental characters was a bit of a rhetorical device rather than an actual insight, since (mechanical system spoilers) for most of the grunts and minions you encounter it just picks a random line appropriate to their category, and then gives you a different random line the next time you use it on the same character. (I think it'd have been stronger if they had picked a random line for each character and then stuck with it.) And the lists of lines include enough moral-event-horizon-crossing stuff that the player will feel justified in killing that character. The system was ultimately too transparent for me to really accept it for what it was trying to do.

I think the heart was a brilliant idea, I'd just like to see the next implementation of it (or something like it) include a better mechanic for how the system it invokes actually works. It's a great way to layer deeper information into the world itself. I hope it becomes a model for future game storytelling.

Ah, badly worded on my part I guess. I understand that the fate of these folks was pretty dark, but when you wandered the world the sky was clear, birds were singing, and everything seemed happy. The game lacked the feeling of a true spiral.

I guess the best I can think it is the end of the film Falling Down. It's a dark film, but a lot of it takes place in bright daylight. However, things always seem tense. Of course, this is film. You'd have to communicate this stuff differently in a game. But it seemed like you committed these folks to a horrible fate, but that's okay because Emily loves you and she becomes a wonderful little Empress!

(Also, if I should, I'll put these behind spoiler tags. I saw the spoiler warning before I read the post and so figured anyone reading comments would already have played the game).

I had little problem with the non-lethal endings, and yes, they were often more cruel than actual death.

Spoiler:

E.g. Chief Overseer Campbell becomes a weeper and you can find him in the flooded district.

The ones I really struggled with were the Doud and the torturer, because, if spared they would certainly kill again.

But are we really lamenting the moral ambiguity of Dishonored? I thought it was progress from the kill the puppy/love the puppy dichotomy present in so many games.

I found the greatest moral grey area was the Outsider himself, and how Covo draws on the power of one such as him.

Spoiler:

Most of his other . . . followers (?) were not good people.

Tenebrous wrote:

The ones I really struggled with were the Doud and the torturer, because, if spared they would certainly kill again.

Spoiler:

I spared Doud, since by that point I was more upset at the conspiracy, and viewed Doud as more of a tool than someone who acted on his own...though did I worry about Emily's safety with him around.

Tenebrous wrote:

But are we really lamenting the moral ambiguity of Dishonored? I thought it was progress from the kill the puppy/love the puppy dichotomy present in so many games.

I can see both sides of the thing: Dishonored is way more reactive than many purportedly reactive games that let you choose to be good or bad. But it's also kind of a monochromatic grey at times, with the non-lethal choices not being particular examples of virtue.

It really is a law/chaos axis rather than a good/evil axis. There are a lot of bad things done for good reasons and good things done for bad reasons throughout.

Tenebrous wrote:

I found the greatest moral grey area was the Outsider himself, and how Covo draws on the power of one such as him.

Have you listened closely to the sounds when you use the Outsider's powers? More than a little creepy...

ccesarano wrote:

Ah, badly worded on my part I guess. I understand that the fate of these folks was pretty dark, but when you wandered the world the sky was clear, birds were singing, and everything seemed happy. The game lacked the feeling of a true spiral.

I guess the best I can think it is the end of the film Falling Down. It's a dark film, but a lot of it takes place in bright daylight.

I think that makes it even more interesting. It might be too one-note to draw in sympathetic nature and all. Having blue skies and singing birds (after all, they can escape to the blue sky whenever they want) makes it even more poignant when considering those of us bound down by gravity.

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Aw man, Falling Down, good movie.

What kind of reward system was this?

The best kind?

S0LIDARITY wrote:

You might want to put a warning about Dishonored Spoilers at the top. I'm about to start my non-lethal playthrough and had some twists ruined.

Oh god, I am so, so sorry.

One time, I looked up Bioshock on YouTube having not played it, and watched THAT PART before going "oh, damn." Yep. Best twist in a game I've ever seen and I ruined it. For myself.

I was on the fence about Dishonored before, and now I really want to play it.

When I played through Fable 3, I couldn't stand the "hard choices" - because they were never hard choices, it was always "go back on your word for the good of Albion".

I think I'd be more comfortable with non-lethal options leading to "worse than death" consequences.

You know, the relentless awfulness of the Dishonored world is what's kept me from replaying it. I had a phenomenal time, on my first pass through, but trying to repeat it feels vaguely like trying to drink sewage or something.

As great as those mechanics were, and as much fun as I had with the combat and stealth engines, the world is just so remorselessly terrible that I hate being there. It feels real in a way that almost no other game ever has for me, and I'm just the slightest bit nauseated by the idea of visiting it again. It's that completely realized, and that repellent.

If they don't lighten up some in the sequel, I'm not sure I'm gonna buy it. What I'm really worried about is that they'll try to double down and go even worse. No matter how brilliant the mechanics may be, that will probably not be enough to persuade me to visit a place that's worse than the first Dishonored.

Seriously. I think that's probably the worst place in video gaming. It's nearly as bad as Miéville's New Crobuzon, but you can actually see it.

ccesarano wrote:

Then again, I also feel like the "good" ending for the original Bioshock should have left the protagonist condemned to live the remainder of his days as a Big Daddy in Rapture as he waves the Little Sisters and German Lady Whose Name I Forget up to the surface. That the "good" ending involves self-sacrifice.

This was one of the biggest cop-outs in a game full of them.

"To save their innocence you must give up what's left of your free will. Oh, and don't forget to return the suit to the storage closet when you're done. Wouldn't want you to stay that way or anything!"

I loved the "would you kindly" twist, and then the game just crapped all over itself. To this day every time I think of it I get annoyed, and not buying Infinite because of that.