No Heroes or Monsters. Only Man

(Image by Flickr User: JBLivin [cc])

By now, DisHonored by Arcane Studios has reached the status of an instant classic. It’s unique setting, superbly-executed combat and stealth mechanics, and intriguing characters have cemented its status as one of the premier titles of the last generation. What I found to be its best and perhaps most insidious feature was its morality system, one that I believe should be the model for most future games looking to incorporate some idea of morality in their play mechanics.

What makes the system stand out in DisHonored is just how realistic it is in its subtlety. It’s not laid out in front of you like those of Infamous or Mass Effect, and it doesn’t make the followers of the “good” path look like angels while simultaneously turning the “bad” path followers into demons. There are no morality walls barring access to certain powers, nor is the player is presented with many play-interrupting choices in the game to highlight their moral-fiber or lack thereof. Instead it’s all left up to the in-the-moment choices of the player. No fuss, no fanfare, just Corvo and the consequences of his actions. How the system actually worked wasn’t obvious at first, but it became apparent over the course of my two playthroughs.

I always try to be the hero in my games when given a choice. I think the idea of my character being a paragon, a hero through and through. In other games it’s a simple thing to do, choose the properly color-coded actions or choices and boom, it’s a done deal. Not so much in DisHonored though. In DisHonored, the “good” methods and choices are still obvious, but without all the added benefits and neutrality found in other games those choices suddenly became harder to make. The result was that the Corvo of my first playthrough did not become the hero I wanted him to be. In fact he was so much of a monster that Samuel, the game’s resident conscience, wanted nothing to do with him by the time I reached the end.

At first the result took me by surprise, but then I started to think back on how I’d actually played the game. I had played with the goal of being a wraith, but more often than not it turned out that I didn’t have the patience to play that way. I’d get caught and wind up taking the easy out of fighting the guards who discovered me. In fact the entire game became easier by taking the bad or “chaotic” route. Down that route lay more powers, better weapons, and more opportunities to remove opposition. Getting through an area was no big thing for “chaotic” Corvo, though that same ease did come at the cost of the satisfaction a stealthy approach would have yielded. That said, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that he was seen as a monster toward the end, but I had looked at the game through the lens of what I’d tried to be, not the actual methods.

I eventually did a second playthrough and in it I managed to achieve the “no-deaths-undetected” Corvo I’d wanted from the beginning. Slowly picking my way through sections I’d previously had to fight my way out of (using only basic Blink I might add) was immensely rewarding. This Corvo was a ghost, a man who was skilled enough to achieve his goals without having to hurt the poor folks who were really only trying to do their jobs. Still, I couldn’t tell you how many time I’d be sitting in the shadows thinking about all the ways I could take out a guard, maid, or butler who would not just get out of the way. The “good” path was immensely rewarding and really felt good each time I finished a level without detection, but it was surprisingly hard not to just get people out of the way regardless of whether or not they saw me. Really the only thing that stopped me was my desire to be able to say that I’d completed a “no-deaths-undetected” playthrough.

I’d like to honestly say that in most games my true character is the paragon-ideal I want them to be. After playing DisHonored though, I don’t think I can. My true Corvo isn’t the heroic wraith I crafted in my second playthrough. No, my Corvo is the one that fought and even killed rather than failing to save Dunwall, by allowing himself to get caught. I wouldn’t know that if the morality mechanic hadn’t been built around encouraging genuine choices, rather than forcing us to be either heroes or monsters like most other games do. I can’t say I’m happy with what my real Corvo turned out to be, but I’m glad that I at least know and hope that we see more morality systems like this in the future.

***

If you played DisHonored, what was your “true” Corvo like? Did you have toactively resist the easy methods in order to be stealthy too? If you haven’y played, do you think the characters you’ve developed in other games are really the heroes/monsters you made them to be in accordance to the game’s morality system?

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