By Nicholas Nicou
In the current gaming generation, the amount of titles which shun violence in favour of narrative creativity can likely be counted on one hand.
Indeed, in an era dominated by big-budget shooters like Call of Duty, it seems that developers have become ever-more action-oriented in the hope of attracting new players off the back of other blockbuster successes, with running-and-gunning fast becoming the benchmark necessary to attain best-selling figures in the charts.
Such is the overstated role of violence in gaming that even those titles which do seek to promote a non-violent play-through need to be heavily conditioned by brutal undertones and violent iconography to be remotely marketable. The stealth game Dishonored, released in 2012, is a prime example: looking at the cover art and synopsis, the first thing we see is the slogan “revenge solves everything”.
Sat atop the statement is a masked assassin wielding a blade, while the section touting the impressive supernatural abilities accorded to the protagonist Corvo notes that you can “summon swarms of rats, bend time and utilise your arsenal of weapons to eliminate the opposition (my emphasis)”. The message is loud and clear: violence sells.
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this game is as concerned with unadulterated violence as any other; indeed, many of the game’s mechanics do veer towards this idea, initially mirroring the hallmarks of combat-driven games ranging from Uncharted to Condemned: there are a range of powers which can be used to violently subdue your enemies (rat swarm, for example) and also different abilities like chain kills which offer exceedingly brutal ways to dispatch your foes. Pistols, grenades and even more brutal implements called ‘spring razors’ are also at hand for maximum devastation, much like in basically every other acclaimed game around today.
However, among this throng of violent choices, it quickly becomes clear that the entire game can be completed without killing a single person. Despite being dubbed an assassin from the start, you soon learn that Corvo can navigate the levels and eliminate the targets using stealth alone, with evasion, not conflict, being a realistic course of action.
This is where Dishonored breaks free from the generic positioning of other games of this generation. Even those games seeking to bear the ‘stealth’ label require killings to run into the hundreds or thousands (the pioneer of such games, Metal Gear Solid, comes to mind) while other titles which have constantly stressed the importance of choice (Fable III, Bioshock) also require a bloodthirsty approach to be completed.
In Dishonored, the player really does have a complete choice in their approach to the game. Certain missions will at first state that a murder is necessary, but secondary characters can be found during the levels offering alternative means of peacefully ‘eliminating’ your targets.
Additionally, the powers which can be used to violently subdue can also be used to progress through levels undetected: the stop time and blink powers allow you to freeze time temporarily and teleport over short distances respectively, allowing you to subvert in-game security systems and advance without being seen.
Likewise, enemy characters can be non-violently subdued instead of being knifed or gunned down, allowing you to incapacitate and hide them rather than leaving a trail of destruction behind you.
To complement these design choices, the developers introduced the notion of chaos to the game. In a world in which a plague is converting the people into zombie-esque creatures called ‘weepers’, more violent approaches will lead to more of the population becoming infected, so it is in fact in your best interests to approach the game non-violently rather than run-and-gun.
The workability of the peaceful course of action means that the gamer is actively encouraged to think about their actions in the game, anticipating the negative consequences they may engender through violence rather than mindlessly mowing down any foe in their way.
As such, though every corner of the game is conditioned by violence and brutality, the game urges the gamer to shun combat in favour of passivity, making them think carefully about which routes to take and which ways to navigate obstacles rather than advance as quickly as possible through the levels. The violent option is almost always the easier one, but the strength of the game’s mechanics make the gamer eager to progress without leaving a single trace behind.
Accordingly, Dishonored succeeds in two key ways: it is quite possibly the first game which can truly bear the hallmark of a ‘stealth’ title, in that, if approached carefully, it is possible to complete the game as a complete ghost, even if this course of action will require more time than its violent counterpart. Simultaneously, it brings thought back to gaming, with mindless violence replaced by combat with consequences, making for a richer game experience where there really is, as the box art promotes, “action with meaning”.
At a time when violence appears to be part and parcel of the gaming experience, it is impressive to see a developer cater to a different kind of audience with Dishonored. It was refreshing to go through an entire game without ever having to add to the kill-count, and even better for being rewarded for having done so.
Nevertheless, the fact that the game overshadows its pacifist credentials with violent imagery and a veneer of brutality shows that we are a long way away from seeing game experiences where violence is altogether relegated in favour of story-driven experiences.