From the very first scene, Dishonored puts players in a position where they’ve been mistreated. The game’s protagonist and the player’s vessel to explore the city of Dunwall, Corvo, is framed for the murder of the Empress and kidnap of her daughter. The player starts the game in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, putting the idea into the player’s head that they are the victims of this world. That then excuses a lot of the actions they need to take (like breaking out of prison, taking out guards, etc.) making the player realize they are in a morally questionable world. The designers of Dishonored made the choice to position players right away so that they’re upset with their situation and from that perspective begin playing a game that allows them to do horrible, gruesome things to people if they so choose. But the players don’t necessarily have to do those things, and that’s where Dishonored takes its first decisive stance on morality. A very objective stance that while the person can be cruel and ruthless, the moral high ground is in not doing those things, as well as the challenge.
One of the key design decisions that tells the player what they need to focus on while playing is the score card the player gets after completing the very first level. The player is shown a lot of information without much context given to its relevance to the story (ie. what having different statistics will mean for the world and the ending). The key piece of information I found while playing is that the game records your “chaos” during that level, meaning how much you disturbed the world through killing guards, civilians, and making noise (see fig. 1). Chaos as a term is something we as a society have pretty unanimously decided is something to avoid, we prefer order and structure. There’s an order and structure to each level, a way to complete each level without causing any disturbances and I took this as the designers telling me the best way to play the level, as that’s the better way to be.
The game also records how many hostiles the player has killed as well as how many civilians the player has killed. Right there the developer has taken a moral stance, they are telling the player that a civilian death means something different then a hostile enemy’s death. The way the world reacts to you also differs depending on who you’re killing. If you kill a civilian and someone sees you they will scream and run, telling you that you’re doing something wrong. Which you are, don’t kill innocent people. But the interesting thing here is that this separation of civilians and hostiles means the designers don’t want you to feel as bad about killing guards. If stab a guard in the neck and watch his blood spray all over the ground it’s meant to seem awesome. Cool, look at that sick kill! It feels different to kill a guard in Dishonored then a civilian. They are both people, they should be equal. But they’re separated, one is turned into an evil force who the player shouldn’t feel guilty dismembering.
This conclusion does contradict with one of the game’s achievements. Every time I start a new game I take a peek at the achievements and in Dishonored there’s one for playing through the entire game without killing anyone, entitled “Clean Hands” (See Fig. 2). If the player can manage to play through the whole game without killing anyone they’re rewarded, and if the player chose to look at the achievements this will give them some insight into the morality of the world. “Clean hands” implies that the player hasn’t done any wrong, and if the only way to get that achievement is to not kill anyone then the player is being told killing someone is wrong. That’s a morally objective stance, that killing is wrong. And so for the rest of my playthrough of Dishonored I will be not killing anyone. I’ve made a moral decision based on the design of the game’s achievements.