The game begins with your return to Dunwall and you are soon met by the ugliest man in the world. “Corvo, two days early,” he says in a weedy yet arrogant voice, “Full of surprises, as usual.” I wonder what the chances are of this man turning out to be a villain, and estimate it to be around one in one. Two minutes later he has guards arrest you next to the body of the slain Empress. I don’t think this is a spoiler, since it happens in the opening minutes and, really, is the premise that begins the game. This article will be full of other spoilers, though, so don’t read on if you plan to play Dishonored. It really is a truly excellent game. After you’ve played it, read on as I bitterly criticise it.
Dishonored is just a great game in my opinion. It has the combat and strong sense of physicality of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and the choice of character progression and alternate resolutions of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. In fact, there’s quite a lot in this game that reminds me about Bloodlines, and one such similarity is that both games cultivate a moody sense of distrust. In Bloodlines you are acutely aware that you are a pawn being manipulated by ancient powerful beings with indeterminable motives. In Dishonored you are a betrayed by those you trusted right at the start of the game and thrown in prison. Corvo, the protagonist, is then broken out but doesn’t know where he stands among his new accomplices. An otherworldly Outsider tells him to trust no-one and gives him an artifact that can be used to reveal the secrets in the hearts of his companions, and indeed shows a few of them to be rotten inside. The theme of suspicion and distrust runs strong through this game. But whereas Bloodlines allows your character to be skeptical about basically every other character and everything that happens, Dishonored has Corvo become hopelessly naive for one critical scene.
This is the Loyalist Conspiracy to restore the young Empress-heir to the throne. They break you out of prison and give you direction, information and support but then, in an end-game plot twist, they decide to eliminate you and hold a fake celebration where they hand you a poisoned drink. Then, and here’s the unbelievable part, your character takes it. And drinks it! The game gives you no choice in the matter, probably because I can’t imagine the player that would take the glass if the game offered you a choice. I was suspicious the moment I entered the room. Hell, I was suspicious of these Conspiracy members from the very moment I met them. This article isn’t to brag about how clever I am, but rather to explain that Corvo has no reason in the world to trust any of these characters; he should begin the game intensely paranoid about everyone and nothing that these characters do should give him the impression to let his guard down around them. Largely the opposite in fact. Let me explain this reasoning.
So early in the game Corvo is betrayed by those that, even if he didn’t like, probably at least trusted to some degree. At this point Corvo has been targeted and deposed from his lofty position and reputation, so it’s probably fair to say that Corvo is taking nobody’s motives for granted anymore. Yet when Corvo meets the Conspiracy he instantly trusts them to the extent that he is willing to live and sleep in the same building as them (really another thing I wouldn’t have him do if given the choice). Now, they did break him out of prison and as such avoid his likely execution. Is Corvo the type of person to respond to this with his complete loyalty? Possibly, if the Conspiracy members came across as good-natured and earnest, but almost as soon as you arrive you can encounter them squabbling with each other and keeping secrets from each other. One of them spies through a keyhole as another is taking a bath. One is revealed to have previously spied and reported on his neighbours to the government(!). One of them is literally a haughty, sneering aristocrat that berates a servant for bringing him the wrong bottle of wine. Now, these qualities benefit the game as they create believably flawed characters that help flesh out a realistic setting. Real life is full of dodgy, untrustworthy types who are otherwise not enemies or criminals, and that you have to interact with sometimes and even work with towards a common goal. The game shows early on, and then keeps reinforcing, the sneakiness or unreliability of these characters in a way Corvo would certainly perceive. It’s probably why it came as such as surprise that the game gives you no option to refuse the poisoned drink. The fact that such a drink is offered supports the game’s grimy, realistic theme. The fact that you can’t refuse it is the game’s request that you then ignore this theme.
A significant problem is the premise behind the Conspiracy. Their very nature is one of duplicity, as they have to interact in regular (and indeed high-) society while hiding that they are secretly plotting against the government. Overseer Martin is exposed and arrested, but it is shown that Admiral Havelock and especially Lord Pendleton are still manoeuvring through government circles, building support. Can you trust that they won’t throw you under the bus once they have consolidated enough power and their enemies are removed? Can you trust that they will even restore the young Empress to the throne? Their backstories don’t reveal any intense reason why they should care about the Empress in a personal sense. Indeed, Havelock’s backstory is revealed quite early that he tried to seize power after the previous Empress’ assassination but failed, so clearly his motivation is one of personal gain and revenge. Corvo shouldn’t avoid working together with this man, but shouldn’t be accepting drinks from him.
Really this game works hard towards establishing a theme of ugly secrets behind a fancy dress. At one point you infiltrate a fancy dress party where the guests are literally wearing masks but are rotten aristocrats living a high-life and spreading intrigue while plague victims are dying in the streets nearby. This is a theme that works, it fits the setting beautifully, but it asks you to get into the mindset of looking past the fancy, important clothes of every character to try to have a peek at their ugly core. With that said…
Bleurgh! These characters are ugly on the outside, too. This has been ascribed to an intentional decision of pursuing a “painterly look” with the game’s art assets. Fair enough, but rather than distract from the characters’ untrustworthiness it adds to it. Spymaster Burrows in the first picture is the ugliest, weaselly character in the game and I anticipated his betrayal almost instantly. What is it with ugliness in games and films? Why have we been trained to accept this as a tip-off for a character being evil (or petty or selfish or cruel etc)? Is it because in most visual stories we try to avoid having a handsome villain? In any case the Conspiracy members you meet with, who support you and socialise with you are just ugly with grim features and scars, and this makes me distrust them. Does this say more about myself than the game? Probably not, since I’ve been conditioned by so many games and films before. In all seriousness I would have loved for the game to subvert this angle and have the ugliest characters turn out to be all-round good guys. I would have loved for the game to subvert the immensely-suspicious poisoned drink, too, and have your character just go to bed afterwards with no negative consequences.
To make it clear, I don’t think that games shouldn’t have any ugly characters – that would be absurd. But the idea of ugly characters turning out to be evil is such a well-established trope that if you include it in your game you can’t also expect the player to be surprised. You have to subvert this trope to bypass the player’s presuppositions.
The young Empress Emily isn’t ugly. She’s a figure of complete honesty, likely because she is a child and you have a strong connection to her. In fact, her staying at the Hound’s Pit Pub is the only legitimate reason I can think of why Corvo would want to stay there as well. As an aside, I think Emily is too trusting herself, though as a naive child at least she has an excuse. You rescue Emily from the establishment where she is being held and she tells you she will go ahead and wait for you at the boat. I thank the game for avoiding what would undoubtedly turn into an annoying escort quest if she stuck with you. But she strikes off alone, away from the man she trusts most, and without knowing which direction to go or where the boat is she proceeds to run through guard- and zombie- filled streets to end up at the waterfront where you find she has already climbed into the boat of a complete stranger. How did she know where to go? How does she know she can trust this man? He’s a conspiracy member but she’s never met him before and he’s hiding out of sight of the street, dressed like a hobo. He knows her name and who she is but then again everyone knows who she is because she was the Empress-heir and her face is even depicted in street graffiti. Regardless she puts herself in his power by climbing into a boat that could take off with her at a moment’s notice. Girl needs to learn about stranger danger.
Enough of me bagging out a game that is truly excellent for too many reasons to get into in this article. The game has a plot twist where your compatriots betray you, it leads into a “lost your equipment” section and sets up the final villain. The poisoned drink is heavy-handed railroading and a stark loss of player agency, but what other ways can the Conspiracy believably disable Corvo? Let’s explore some alternatives that might have worked better.
- Corvo is already sleeping at the Hound’s Pit Pub (against my better judgement). Perhaps have a conspirator poison him in his sleep. You wake up and a shadowy figure is looming over you, and sticks you with a syringe. Could be a dramatic scene.
- Perhaps Emily is co-opted by the Conspiracy. She is tricked into bringing Corvo some poisoned item, perhaps an apple, and he eats it while bonding with her. It’s clear that Emily is the only person that Corvo really trusts so using her against him plays into this well. He can refuse suspicious drinks and then when Emily is manipulated against him, his desire for revenge would burn all the harder.
- How does Corvo avoid contracting the plague, especially when attacked by Weepers so much? The game establishes that the remedy potions count as a plague serum so maybe Conspiracy members are given regular doses of a special plague serum brewed by Piero. We could have Corvo take it after each mission to establish the contaminated feel of the wider world, and get the player into the habit of a routine that ends up being turned against him.
- Maybe stick with the poisoned drink but give Corvo a choice to refuse it. Phrase it in terms of actively doing something else, not just refusing a drink, as the choice alone will make players suspicious. If the player refuses then the other characters can assault Corvo. Perhaps Martin has one of those overseer magic-suppression devices and someone rushes him with a poisoned pin. This might be less believable since Corvo is supposed to be a superb fighter, but then again he is captureed by two guards at the start of the game with only a pistol and sword, so we’ve already established that Corvo can be captured by force.
Why does Corvo’s lack of suspicion strike me as more salient than countless other games with similar betrayal-based plot twists? The also-excellent Half Life 2 has Gordon Freeman trust the companion NPC Alyx even though he only just meets her for the first time at the start of the game. This is a game that also has a silent protagonist, an underground resistance movement, and a range of NPCs like Alyx that you meet and work with. She acts familiar and friendly with other characters that Gordon does know so maybe he takes this as vouching for her loyalty. But then one of the resistance members turns out to betray you and it doesn’t strike me as strange as when Dishonored does it. It’s just another story beat. Gordon is given no opportunity to mistrust any of his compatriots – so why doesn’t this seem as restrictive to me?
I don’t know for certain but I think it’s because Half Life 2 is really an action game at its core, based around shooting and moving and driving and the story is firmly of secondary importance to the gameplay experiences. The story is like a movie that just plays as you play the game. Dishonored is a roleplaying game instead and follows the time-honoured traditions of the immersive sim. You are given standard RPG choices as to how to develop your character in terms of weapon choices and upgrade powers. You are given choice as to how you accomplish your goals and, often, which goals you try to accomplish. You can try to be stealthy, to be a pacifist, to be a violent maniac, to rely solely on magic over weapons. These gameplay and story choices end up naturally giving you a feeling of ownership over your character, in a real roleplaying sense. Will you work together with Slackjaw? Do you do the bidding of Granny Rags? Do you feel that handing Lady Boyle over to her probably-rapist stalker is morally worse than just killing her?
Because of this utter luxury of roleplay ownership, it ends up feeling much more restricting when decision making is taken away from Corvo than it does from Gordon Freeman. A Corvo that has been stealing from the other conspirators and hearing their secrets and reading their journals would be much less likely to drink the offered glass than one that has faithfully followed directions and exhibited little initiative. Then the game’s continual fleshing out of a theme of pleasant facades around a core of rotten secrets makes the lack of agency for this critical decision all the more chafing. Even a little hand-waving of why Corvo might be so gullible would do much to alleviate the feeling. In the aforementioned Bloodlines your character is subject to a wealth of roleplaying ownership in a setting rich with distrust and duplicity. You still end up having to follow the directions of a clearly corrupt and power-mad prince for most of the game but this is explained that this man is a “Ventrue” vampire, a clan who use their vampiric magic to dominate the willpower of other vampires. Your mindless complicity towards his goals is explained as due to magical manipulation from one much more powerful than you. It’s all a little “would you kindly” but the fact that there at least is an explanation does much to assuage the players who feel that their character shouldn’t be taking the actions that the game insists he does.
At its heart, what this article is saying is that Dishonored is such an engaging, solid roleplaying experience that the railroaded betrayal stands out as a particular sore spot. In lesser games it might as well have gone completely unnoticed. The poisoning could have been done a different way, but game development doesn’t involve infinite time and resources and so for whatever reason the developers went for this story beat, and I found it to be predictable and runs counter to the theme that your character has been presumably learning. Can we punish Dishonored for being so good at developing a consistent theme and rich atmosphere that a traditional betrayal trope can no longer be gotten away with?
I can, because I wanted to smash bottles into the conspirators’ heads from the very first time I met them.