Thursday, July 30, 2015

A totally non-scientific case study on player violence and morality in video games (Dishonored)

I've been doing a bad job taking care of my body this past week.  Hydration, food, and sleep are not always the easiest things to achieve, especially since you have to work constantly to maintain a hydrated, nourished, well rested state once you have achieved it.  There's no winning, just a constant slog.

When I got the money to avert the badness of of having a bill bounce through various accounts each of which would return an answer of insufficient funds and likely charge a fee for trying to over draw, I didn't immediately put up notice that I'd gotten the money.  I told myself that it was because the transaction hadn't moved out of limbo yet and I wanted to make sure badness was averted before I announced, "Badness Averted!" but the truth is I just wasn't up for writing any more that day even though it only would have taken a sentence.

Bad body care leads to bad blog care.

I did get to it the very next day, but as I said in the note, I hoped to quickly have a new post so the SOS wouldn't be the most recent.  That ... didn't happen.

One thing that did happen is I played a new game.  I think.  I definitely finished it in that time, but I'm a little hazy on exactly when I started playing.  I think it played the whole thing in the past three days.


Initially I had my doubts about Dishonored:
Dishonored is an immersive first-person action game that casts you as a supernatural assassin driven by revenge.
Um ... yeah.  You've already lost me.  I would want to be an assassin why?  And while revenge plots can be well done, it's not exactly going to make me feel good about myself that I have attained revenge.

But it was part of a package deal with stuff I did want and something about it drew me in enough to tally it as part of the "stuff that's interesting enough to consider paying for" part of the equation when evaluating whether the package deal was better than just getting the stuff I definitely wanted individually.  (Of course more goes into the equation because if I got stuff individually I wouldn't need to fork out the money all at once, and there are channels that can get me hopefully-working copies of a game for cheap-cheap-cheap and ... yeah.)

So, since I had the game, I played it.

Setting first.


Dishonored takes place in a fictional world, thus freeing it from any need to conform to any culture or place in real history and allowing for elements that do not fit into our world.

The technology level is greatly influenced by the fact that this is a world with magic.  The natural philosophers (for any who don't know, "natural philosophers" is another term for "scientists" which is now well beyond antiquated in the real world) do what any scientist would do when confronted by magic: they study it.

And the magic isn't hiding, the whales (called "leviathans" by a mostly dead mostly disembodied voice), for instance, have it inside of them when the whaling industry makes whale oil it isn't like earthly whale oil.  The power it produces and things it allows one to do when burned is entirely unlike what earth fuel allows.

The study of magic leads to some devices that we couldn't possibly produce today while other things are very much in line with things in earthly history.

Personal weapons technology is at that point where pistols exist, but it's still a really good idea to have a sword.  The way I put it when talking to Lonespark is, "Pistols exist, but they're flintlocks, so people use swords."  Apparently if I'd looked things up I would have found that they're wheellocks which is a design even older than flintlocks.

The game is set during its world's industrial revolution, and the backdrop is a massive rat related plague.

The prologue is six months into the plague.  The main character is Corvo officially the bodyguard to the empress, unofficially the person she trusts most in the world, and definitely treated like family by the empress and her daughter.  It's never clear to me whether or not Corvo is the royal consort (and thus possibly father to the empress' daughter) but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter.

Regardless of any sexual or blood relations, the empress and her daughter treat Corvo as family and they appear to be the only people he treats as family.

Having been convinced that the mission was too important to entrust to anyone she trusted less, the empress sent Corvo away as a royal emissary in spite of the fact that that's highly unusual and not remotely in the job description of royal bodyguard.  It's not clear why someone with absolute trust needed to be sent as what he was doing was sailing to other countries and asking, "Have you ever dealt with a plague like this before?  Can you help us?"

It might be that he was being trusted to negotiate and possibly authorized to give up so much that absolute trust was needed to make sure the negotiator didn't abuse that power.

Regardless, the mission was a failure.  Corvo returns two days early with the news that all of the other nations responded, basically, with, "Fuck off and die."  They won't help, plan to blockade the country, and maybe they'll deal with whoever is left alive later, when the plague has run its course.

And that's when the empress, her name is  Jessamine by the way (don't want to give the impression that she never gets a name), is assassinated right in front of Corvo and he can't do anything to stop it because the assassins are magic.  Emily, the daughter and heir, is kidnapped.

It isn't hard to figure out who is responsible since two of the most powerful men in the empire are first on the scene and quick to blame Corvo in spite of the fact that there's really no reason to jump to that conclusion.  The abduction of Emily proves that at least someone in the responsible group (which could have been a group of one, though it wasn't) got away and Corvo didn't leave with that at-least-someone implying that he isn't on the same side as said at-least-someone.

Corvo is stripped of his rank, thus dishonored thus the title, and thrown into prison.

The game proper begins six months later.  The plague has now been going on for a year the bodies are piling up, draconian quarantine measures are not containing it, the institutional religion has gone full blown inquisition except with more people goosestepping the streets to pick up those to be inquisited.  Everything has gone to hell, not that it was going all that well beforehand, and Corvo is finally to be put to death.

Precisely why they chose this point isn't clear, but it could just be that six months of imprisonment and torture haven't yielded a coerced confession, so the ruling powers figure they're not going to get one and would be better off finally getting rid of him.

If you didn't catch that the two guys who immediately accused you of kidnapping and assassination and sent you to prison were the bad guys behind it, they show up for one last talk where they tell you that it's nothing personal which ... is actually true.  Usually when someone says, "It's nothing personal," it's complete bullshit, but they had done everything in their power to make sure that Corvo was out of town and thus never had any intention of having Corvo take the fall.  Him being there just delivered them a convenient fall guy.

The first mission is escaping from prison.  You get a cell key and a note from mysterious benefactors telling you that a guard has been bribed to leave a weapon lying around, letting you know where a bomb capable of blowing through the prison's outer defenses has been stashed, and telling you that a nearby sewer entrance has been left unlocked.

Dunwall, for that is where the game takes place, has a combined sewer and storm drain system which means that the absurdly spacious sewers aren't actually that absurd.  Storm drains can be downright gigantic and Dunwall's don't even come near that level.

Anyway, that's where we start, so time to talk about playing, which leads us to violence and morality.


The guards aren't in on the conspiracy --the conspiracy is probably very small in fact.  Most people I meet won't be in on it.  Unless I'm facing one of the powerful men behind it or one of the assassins, I'm probably going to face people who actually think I killed the empress.

They're guards doing their jobs.  I don't particularly want to kill them.

Not killing them is hard.  It takes stealth.  If three guards are coming at me with swords and all I have is a sword of my own ... unless I can find a FAST escape either I'm going to die or kill.

I save early, I save often.  It takes me forever to deal with the first three guards I meet.  Two are stationary, one has a short patrol, and all are near each other.  I have to find a moment when no one is looking at a given guard, put him in a chokehold, get his unconscious body out of sight before anyone looks, do it all quietly, and hope the other guards think he went off to take a piss or something.  Then repeat.

Ok, the part about hoping the other guards assumed the missing one toddled off to the bathroom isn't true, in games like this guards not being on duty is never met with immediate lockdown because if the bad guys read the evil overlord list you'd never stand a chance.  There's no need to hope about that.  But everything else is fucking hard.

It would be so, so, SO much easier to use my sword to attack these people.  No working on perfect timing, no reloading every time I make a tiny mistake.  I can get behind one easy, the other two won't know what's going on until he's dead.  I can probably get the second before he's fully in a combat state of mind.  Then the odds are one on one and whoever's left is just a prison guard while I'm basically an in-universe Secret Service of one.  I can blow through these three with ease, get passed this damned first part of the first fucking level, and actually play the game.

It would be so much easier.

But these people are innocent prison guards.  They don't know I'm falsely accused.  Everyone says that.  (See: The Shawshank Redemption)  They think I killed an innocent monarch, thus ushering in this present draconian era, and kidnapped a child.  A ten year old.

Why didn't it say that in the game description?
Dishonored is an immersive first-person action game that casts you as a supernatural fugitive driven to save the child you were falsely accused of kidnapping.
It should probably be passed through some propagandists to make sure that the end sentence is ad-perfect, but that's way more interesting than an assassin driven by revenge.  And it makes sense why what you're doing is so important.  With the exception of the corrupt people at the top who were in on the job, the authorities are trying to solve the kidnapping by starting from the premise you were a part of it.  Starting from a false premise is going to lead to them spinning their wheels.

You were there, you know what really happened, you've already got a step up on the proper authorities and, since the proper authorities won't listen to you, it falls to you to save her.

But that's not how the advertised it.

Anyway, back to the game.  These people aren't trying to kill me because they're bad, they're doing it because they think I'm a complete monster, I've escaped from my cell, and I'm armed.

They don't deserve to die.  They've done nothing wrong that I know of.  Even if they do deserve to die, it has nothing to do with me and it isn't my place to kill them.

I'm in this prison, a day from being executed, because someone decided to play god.  "I decide who lives and dies," is not a good road.  It does not have a happy ending.  For those who recognize that quote, consider that he's the ONLY person in that entire show who actually-for-sure-definitely died.  (We know because after he died for the final final time his heart was donated to someone who needed it.)

Someone decided the world would be a better place without the empress and look where that led.  I need to choose a different road.  It would be easy to kill them, but it would be wrong.

I eventually get through these guards, and the next, and the next.  Everything tells me to kill.  The first weapon I get is a sword, then a gun, then a crossbow.  These are not used to play nice.

As I sneak over exposed piping to get over my opponents I learn that I can do a drop assassination.  It sounds cool.  I'm sure it looks cool.  But it's an assassination.  I was put in this prison because I was accused of being a monster.  I will not become that monster.

I will not play with the toys I have been given, they are not seemly.

As I reach the prison wall I realize I could drop all stealth.  I could run to the wall, plant my explosive, run for cover, BOOM, and then be gone before the smoke clears.

But if I did one of the guards might get caught in the blast.  I have to take them down, non-lethally, and drag them to a place that I know they'll be safe.

Into the river, into the sewer.  Onward.

At some point I get to have mystical, magical, never cause an allergic reaction, or a stroke, or a heart to stop, or any other damaging thing tranquilizer darts for my crossbow because they come standard in various games with non-lethal options, but they're rare and I can't carry that many at a time.  I also get a cooler sword, the opportunity to upgrade my pistol in myriad ways, a truly horrific type of mine, grenades, explosive arrows, explosive bullets, a thousand ways to kill people, magical charms that help to kill people, magical powers that help to kill people . . . lots of stuff that involves killing people.

As one commentator put it:
Making the decision to go through the game like that carries some costs. [It] is always more circuitous, more difficult, and requires more sneaking around. It also requires perfection – all it takes is one mistake to derail any carefully laid strategy, and the nonlethal escape isn’t always an option. And it cuts off a vast array of game content. Most of the toys you’re given to play with are violent in some way, and choosing to be dogmatic about your playthrough eliminates a wide swath of content.
But I have no intention of killing innocent guards and policemen.

Samuel the boatman meets me at the sewer exit and takes me to meet my mysterious benefactors.  Before I've even met them I'm already wary.  I'd never have made it out of prison without them, that's for sure.  The bribes and favors they must have called in to get me the key to my cell, to get the weapon left out where no weapon should ever be left, to get a bomb into the damned prison, to make sure that the sewer, which was the only possible way to make a viable getaway once I was outside, would be unlocked, to smuggle even more gear into the sewers for me ... they've done a lot for me.  But all I know about them is that they think I'm innocent and they oppose the current regime.

I'm not a pawn, but I'm still a piece that they can play toward their own ends, which might not be my own.  A knight is a powerful piece, even more so if your opponent doesn't notice you have it, but for all its power it has no more self determination than a pawn, and can be sacrificed just as easily if the situation calls for it.

Samuel, the boat man, though, him I quickly come to trust.  He's not a player like my benefactors, he's another piece on the board.  If my benefactors live down to my fears, I'm confident that he'll see it as as much of a betrayal as I will.

The Loyalists, as they call themselves, have made an abandoned pub in a quarantined part of town their headquarters.  The barriers erected as part of the quarantine make it accessible only by boat.  Everyone who lived here has died or been driven off.  The Loyalists have it all to themselves.

They call themselves, "The Loyalists," presumably because, "The people committing high treason because we think the people in charge committed high treason first and therefore do not recognize them as legitimate," is a bit of a mouthful and doesn't have the same ring to it.

These people think that I'm not the assassin I was accused to being and, therefore, would like me to assassinate people for them.  Wonderful logic there.  Does make sense though, when you think about it.  I was there when it happened, I was close to the person who was murdered and the child who was taken, I had everything taken away from me.  If anyone is primed to go on a blood soaked rampage of revenge, it's me.  And I've already been condemned as an assassin anyway, so what do I really have to lose?

Just my morality.  Just my ability to truly know that I'm different than the bad guys.

Are we the badies? (That's a video link, via this Slacktivist post, which you should read.)  To hide the fact that I'm the most wanted person in the empire I have a mask that looks like a metal skull.  A skull.


Taking a moment out to talk about game design, one of the problems that the game suffers from is that it moves too fast.  I understand the desire that drives that.

It goes mission, downtime, mission, downtime and so on with the downtime playable.  The only time skips are travel time (which is never that long since all the action takes place in a single city) and when you go to sleep.  This is a good form for a game in general to take.  Long cutscenes, large periods of time where your character is twiddling his (we need more protagonists where you can choose, damn it, Corvo never even speaks in the game so all it would have taken was one single extra model being made called "female-bodied-Corvo", and I know the game is trying to portray an unfairly patriarchal culture but Corvo is from one of the islands that said, "fuck off and die," to Dunwall so I think that the Empress has some leeway in who she picks and seriously what the fuck?  Oh, wait, this is a parenthetical) thumbs, and such are generally not good things.

BUT (in capital letters at the start of a sentence at the start of a paragraph) the game has you taking down the regime by first targeting the power base and then going in for the leader when the lack of power base has left him exposed.  That takes time.  What possible difference could it make that you removed his financial support if you're going to storm the castle (have fun) the next day?  An in-game note saying that lack of funds left the approach you took under guarded does not make up for this because it doesn't make sense.  Are we seriously meant to believe that the Evil Overlord's financial backer paid him the city police's wages every day, so her absence would be felt in full force the very next day, and still somehow managed to keep her identity a secret?

How the fuck is that even supposed to work?

"Hey honey.  How was your day at the office?  Here's all of the money you need to pay your larger-than-the-taxes-can-support police force tomorrow.  I love the fact that I only give you one day's worth at a time.  It gives us an excuse to meet every night.  Don't worry, I remembered to come in the back way so no one knows there's a connection between us."

Your missions put massive cracks in his power base but for his power to erode there needs to be time for those cracks to weather, expand, and --you know-- generally exhibit erosion.

Aside over, we return to talking about killing and lack thereof.


My first night's sleep brings a visit from The Outsider.  My understanding is that the expanded universe of the franchise gives him a backstory and honestly I'm against that.  I like the description given in one of the loading screens:
The Outsider is a figure of myth, neither good nor evil.
The Outsider is a figure of the Void.  All magic flows from the Void.  It is said that the Void is beyond time and space.  In my sleep the Outsider draws me into the void.  A floating mess of debris and frozen scenes from points in time and space.  The slain empress.  Emily being held captive, she's written a note for me that she had hoped to put in a bottle in hopes it found me.  The usurper looking over a map of the city and planning where to place defenses as if looking at the pieces on a chessboard.  Civilians being gunned down by war machines.  A random whale, hanging in the air.

The Outsider places his mark upon my left hand, and gives me the ability to teleport short distances.  He has me travel through the frozen scenes, forcing me to use my new ability to avoid falling into the nothingness below.

He gives me "the heart of a living thing" kept alive by magic and clockwork (mostly magic) it gives me the ability to see his artifacts and learn secrets.  I believe it to be the heart of the empress, robbed of the sleep of death and trapped in the one part of her body that remains alive.

He tells me that he has given me the power, but what I do with it is up to me.  Just like the others.

One of the others is obviously the assassin, Daud, who killed the Empress and kidnapped Emily.

When I wake up there's evidence it was more than a dream.  The mark is still on my hand, things have been placed in my room, one of them a book that describes a frightening woman whose name has been forgotten.  People call her "Granny Rags".

I still have the heart.  I can still teleport.  There are powers available to me if I collect the Outsider's runes, carved from whale bones, the bones of the leviathans.

Again I am faced with the option of killing.  Five and a half of the powers available to me are neither lethal nor immoral, though they can all be used to augment killing people.  The "and a half" is because powers can be gained and then upgraded.  One of the non-lethal ones can be upgraded to be lethal.  Three and a half are about killing, some brutally so.  The remaining power is possession.  Not lethal, but taking over a person or animal's body violates consent like whoa.

They send me to murder the high overseer.  He's one of the two people I know to be behind the assassination of the empress, he leads a religion so powerful it has foot soldiers that are, at the very least, considered the equals of the city guards.  They can kill and abduct people as they see fit.

Samuel takes me to the point on the river-shore nearest my destination and gives me the lay of the land.  City guards stand between me and my destination if I take the direct route.  A single gang controls side streets in the area, and as for the unaffiliated ... Granny Rags lives here.


Almost immediately my rationale for not killing is tested.  Guards are throwing the dead into a barge so they can be taken off and dumped in the flooded district, a place that was abandoned when the levees broke because resources had to be directed to dealing with the plague.  Except, you know how I said that they were throwing the dead?

One of the guards comments that he thinks one of the bodies they threw was still moving.  They have a nice laugh about how it ain't movin' now.  If he thought the person was alive, and threw the person anyway, he's a killer.  That prospect amuses him.

No longer can I tell myself these are good people just doing their jobs.  The heart lets me learn about them, sometimes what I learn is nice.  Sometimes it lets me know that someone is a monster.

It's tempting to take my sword and strike down the guilty.  No one else will do it, after all.

I see Granny Rags.  She asks me to get rid of three thugs at her door.  I do.  I knock them out and carry them to a place where they can wake up in safety.  She gives me a reward.  A rune.  Runes mean power, and I'm going to need supernatural power to get through this.  When the empress was murdered I didn't have power and that allowed them to simply cast me aside.  Granny Rags will give me another rune if I go on a mission for her.

A doctor nearby is investigating the plague, as such he has diseased rat guts on hand.  Go in, steal them, and put it into the gang's elixir.  Elixir is what you consume to avoid contracting the plague.  Once you have the plague there is no cure, but if you're healthy and you take a daily dose of elixir (or the competing product: remedy) you won't get it.  The trouble is that there isn't enough to go around.

Granny Rags is asking me to commit an act of bio terrorism.  She thinks that's ok.  And I have no doubt she's murdered people before.  I cannot, possibly, consider her innocent.  I could kill her in hopes of saving others.

I walk away.  It takes me into gang territory.  They're not just criminals, they're killers.  They've also imprisoned someone and won't let him out until he coughs up something of value.  So they're kidnappers too.

They're armed with swords and fire.  It would be so much easier to just fight through them lethally.  I don't.

I stay my blade, do what I can to help whoever they're oppressing at this particular moment, and move on.

I reach the overseer's main temple.  Oh, wait, rewind.

Granny Rags had a shrine to the Outsider.  He appears to me at his shrines.  He points out that I'm going to confront the head of a cult that's devoted to hating him.  He's not wrong.  They cast him as a devil figure right down to having a saying about idle hands.

The religion may have been good once.  Or maybe it never was.  Its history includes purges and various things that aren't exactly associated with the good parts of religion.  Still, it seems to have had good parts.  Samuel hopes that once this dark time is over they'll start having regular services again.  He doesn't strike me as the type to knowingly associate with evil.

But the services aren't held anymore.  They're on full inquistion mode.  They abduct whoever they suspect of witchcraft and those they suspect are always found guilty.

They hide their faces behind masks and hide their consciences from themselves.  They are the overseers.

When I reach the outer perimeter of their compound I find that they've put someone in the stocks and, if I understood the conversation correctly, intended to leave him there until he's died from exposure.

This is the only case I know of where someone they're punishing is actually guilty.  He is a traitor.  He's in league with The Loyalists.

I knock out the guard and set him free.  I soon find myself at a confrontation between overseers.  One has removed his mask because he's acting not as an overseer, but as a brother.  His sister is accused of witchcraft, he says she's innocent.

Two other overseers respond, basically, that they're going to take a "kill it with fire" approach toward her.  Guilty or not, these people are talking about gruesome premeditated murder.  It's tempting, oh so tempting, to cut them down.

I stay my hand.  I render the overseers unconscious and let the brother and sister go their own way.

The high overseer I've been sent to stop wasn't just involved in the plot to kill the empress, he's also part of the ongoing kidnapping of Emily, and he's plotting to murder a leader in the city guard tonight because the man isn't corruptible enough for his liking.

There is a way to eliminate him without killing him, though.   A special mark called "The Heretic's Brand" is applied to members of the priesthood who have betrayed the religion.  When someone is given it, whatever their status, they are effectively unpersoned.  No questions asked.  You do not hurt them, you do not help them, you do not speak to them.  The religion is powerful enough that the branded also lose their citizenship and it is a mild criminal offence to give a branded person aid of any kind.

Of course it's no ordinary brand otherwise it could be forged.  You need the actual brand, and it isn't applied with heat (too easy to fake, no doubt) but with a special chemical that outsiders wouldn't be able to fake.  There is only one brand and it's kept locked up.

But that didn't stop me.  I prevented him from murdering the guardsman, I knocked him out, I carried him to the special chamber where the ceremony must take place, I took the brand, and I excommunicated the fucker.


One of the servants of the loyalists is berated by another for not knowing how to curtsy when the next Empress will soon be there.  I want to be able to tell her that curtsying isn't important, a ten year old girl who takes the throne in time of plague doesn't need people who curtsy, she needs strength and this servant has more than enough of it if she'd let it show.

The game doesn't actually let me talk to people.  As I said above, Corvo is a silent protagonist.

Another of the servants is told that she's as important as me.  That, from when we rescue her until we put her on the throne, Emily will be in her charge.  She dreams of adventure on the deck of a ship, but she was born a woman in a culture with high patriarchy, so she's consigned a life of serving those who can afford to not do work themselves.  Well, she also could have joined a brothel, but the only one we see in the game prefers slaves to volunteers.  Slaves have lower wages, after all.

If she shared the side she keeps hidden with Emily, Emily would like that.  I'd like to tell her that.  I'd also like to tell her that one of the men spies on her while she's bathing so she's going to want to cover up the keyhole the next time she needs to get clean.  And I want to tell the man to not fucking do that.

But I can't do these things.

Since I freed Martin, the overseer loyal to our cause, the leaders of the Loyalists have been a former admiral, an aristocrat, and now Martin the overseer.  This is a good mix for the cause.  The military, the nobles, and the overseers are the power groups in the city and we have one person from each.

It is also, however, an unnerving group.  Martin has always wanted to be High Overseer, a position I just made vacant.  When I did I recovered a journal that the High Overseer had been keeping on his person so that the wouldn't have to remember everything.  On the one hand it's let us learn where Emily is being held.  Yay.  On the other hand its principle function was keeping all of his blackmail straight.

He rose to the position by blackmailing key players in the religious faction.  Now Martin can use the same blackmail to rise to the same position.

Is what I'm doing taking down the corrupt regime with a side effect of putting The Loyalists in power, or is it putting The Loyalists in power with a side effect of taking down a corrupt regime?

My next target will be the older brothers of our aristocrat.  With them out of the way he controls their voting bloc.  My final target will be taking out the Lord Regent.  With him out of the way the admiral will take control of the military.

These people are giving me the resources I need to save Emily and topple the usurpers, but they're also the ones who have the most to gain from me doing so.  I wonder, are their motives noble, or is it simple lust for power?

When I sleep I hope to be visited by the Outsider again.  I want his perspective.

I only sleep.  No messages from the Void.


Emily is being held at the favorite brothel of the aristocrat's older brothers.  Presumably this is to allow them to raise Emily in sufficiently noble ways.  That she hasn't been killed is evidence that the plan is to turn her into the new regime's figurehead.

Since eliminating the older brothers and rescuing Emily at the same time is more efficient, I go when they're there.  The problem is that since they're there the brothel is being heavily guarded.  Worse still, it's in roughly the same area I was just in, which means that my escapades have shown that security needed to be beefed up in the area, now movement is even harder.

Which means that a non-lethal approach is even harder.

The leader of the gang I opted not to attack with plague requests a meeting with me.  He says he knows that I'm here to do some killing, and figures that the only people in the area worth killing are the ones I have, indeed, been sent to kill.  He offers a better way in, in exchange for me finding one of his agents who went missing.

It takes me to the same place Granny Rags wanted to send me for a sample of plague.  Unfortunately his informant is quite dead.  Fortunately the informant left a message.

Unfortunately the recording ends with him dying before he can say who the gang's unknown enemy really is.  The gang leader, Slackjaw, keeps his end and gives me access to an abandoned building that allows me to take an approach with less security.

He then makes an interesting offer.  He wants the combination to a certain safe.  The person with the combination is in that very brothel.  If I get the combination, he'll take care of the aristocrats for me without killing anyone.

There is no moral way to navigate this particular minefield.  The combination guy is strapped into an interrogation device for some S&M play.  Pull the lever and he gets a powerful zap.  He'll enjoy the first few times (he's blindfolded and doesn't know you're not the girl who is supposed to be at the controls), but he also has a heart condition and has to call it off pretty quickly for fear that too much would damage his health or possibly even kill him.

The only way to get the combination is to zap him, twice, after he says his safe word.

What the everloving fuck?  He's blindfolded, in a soundproofed room (so his screams can't disturb the other guests), strapped to a machine designed to inflict pain, and afraid that if he gets zapped too many times it'll damage his heart.  This kind of situation is what threats are for.  He'd give up the combination without being tortured.

Even moreso, if you do zap him once after he's said the safeword and repeatedly frob him (frobbing is how you use objects like switches and kitchen sinks, and how you "talk" to people) he'll tell you that he'll give you whatever you want, but then you can't tell him what you want until you zap him again.

What the everloving fuck?

Torture or murder?  That's the choice.

I repeat: What the everloving fuck.

As you can tell from the fact that I know it takes two zaps, I gave him the two zaps rather than killed two people.

While at the brothel I encountered more people who made me think that, maybe, if I played god, decided who lived and died, and killed them the world would be a better place.  But mostly what I really wanted to do was help the women escape.  Some of the prostitutes appear to be there by choice, and if that's good for them then yay, but most of them are tricked into coming by promise of work in a factory, then they arrive in a new city on a new island with no resources and are forced into sex work.

Emily may be the only one who is actually physically confined, but most slaves have no chains.  Other means are used to keep them from escaping.

There's nothing I can do for them.  The game isn't about them.

Emily, it turns out is a resourceful and indomitable 10 year old.  She has had multiple escape attempts and even made it as far as the outer door on the most recent attempt.  Not the front door, instead a discrete door used by people who want to come and go without being seen walking through the doors.  Because of its placement, she was mere footsteps from freedom when they caught her.

Of course then she would have been in plague-afflicted pseudo-gang-territory.  (It's not exactly gang territory and it's not exactly not.)  Even if she had made it out, she might still have needed to be rescued.  Still, at least she's trying to be a self rescuing princess and, while not succeeding, doing a pretty good job of reaching "almost".

Emily goes to safety, I return to Slackjaw with the combination.  (After looting the safe.  It had a rune and a master painting in it.)  He tells me what he plans to do.  It's poetic justice but it also involves mutilation which I would have liked to have known going in.  The brothers run a mine where workers are kept deep underground and treated as slaves.  Slackjaw is going to make them workers in their own horrific mine.  I'm not sure if the mutilation is something that's done to all of the workers, or it's just to prevent them from telling anyone who they really are.


Next up is a kidnapping.  Without the aristocrats the Lord Regent has lost the support of parliament.  He still commands the military (including the police force), but you don't turn a prosperous city into a totalitarian draconian terror state without a lot more funding.  That hasn't been a problem, for him because his mistress is also his financial backer.  Take her out of the picture and, since he doesn't control parliament anymore, he's not going to be able to afford to fund his police state and is going to have to start making cutbacks.

So, why a kidnapping when I've been ordered to kill everyone else?

We don't know who the mistress is.  The Royal Physician who is a genius, inventor, and painter, however, probably does given that he painted a portrait of said mistress.

Honestly I don't know why we didn't recruit him from the start.  He is one of only two people to develop a vaccine against the plague.  The other one works for the Loyalists and together they represent the two brightest minds in the empire.  Put them both in the same room and maybe they can come up with a cure.

Anyway, abduct him, take a nap, wake up to Emily

It turns out that the paranoia is great and, therefore, the genius-painter guy was only allowed to see his subject from behind and never told her full name.  Instead he knows her family name but there are three potentials in the family.

The good luck for me is that the sisters are putting on a masquerade ball, a masked assassin will fit right in.

Again there's a non-lethal option, and again it's extremely icky.  Instead of killing her I can deliver her to someone who claims to love her who promises to keep her far away forevermore.

Um... that is so horribly wrong in so many ways.  I ... I just ... I can't even.

But I've been trying so damned hard to refrain from killing people.  I deliver her up and pray that I'm delivering her to what amounts to a comfortable prison rather than someone who is going to try to force her to love him.  (That is, I pray that what I just did wasn't rapetastic.)


The servant who can't curtsy (Cecelia) tells me that she has a secret hideaway, an abandoned apartment across the street from the loyalist headquarters with good strong doors.  She lets me have the key and tells me to go there if something bad happens, she sure will.

She isn't the only one who has been having such thoughts.  The admiral has been concerned that having this many people here is, sooner or later, going to tip someone off to the fact that the place isn't abandoned or that gangs might move in if they think it is abandoned but realize there is no plague here.

Next I storm the castle to take out the leader of the bad people.


In the castle I break my streak of not killing anyone.  I come face to face with the torturer and he seems immune to my tranquilzer darts.  His job is to torture people (who the fuck makes that a job) he enjoys his work.  I don't feel bad about killing Count Rugen minus the coolness factor.

I stop by the place from which propaganda is spewed and the person there tells me that the Lord Regent (arrogant ass that he is) has recorded his crimes in his own words.  If I can get that recording ... non-lethal option.

I do, and his crimes are worse than I would have imagined.

Various people had noticed that something wasn't right about the plague.  It came from somewhere, but instead of appearing in the shipyards and spreading to the rest of the city from there, it started in the poorer districts where the ragged people go, coming out of places only they would know.  This is made even stranger by the fact that the plague rats were not the same as the native rats, which meant that they had to imported.

If it had started in some upscale district then one might think that a rich naturalist had unknowingly brought the plague when importing an exotic species, but the poor had no way to get rats from the mainland.

Instead it was as if someone had put the the plague there.  The empress commanded her spymaster (head of her intelligence services) to investigate if this was a covert attack by a foreign power.  That led to her downfall.

The spymaster, the man who became Lord Regent, was the one who unleashed the plague on the poor.  He wanted to get rid of the members of society he saw as useless.  It might have worked out just like he planned, though plague is a hard thing to control, but the empress refused to treat sick people like criminals, refused to simply cordon off the the poor areas and let population die, and so the plague spread.

When she asked that he investigate whether the plague was an attack, the then-spymaster realized that the truth would come out if that line of reasoning were to be followed, so she had to go.  Also he thought that the plague, which had now spread far beyond his intentions, could be stopped with suitably oppressive measures.

So he had her killed and took over.  His original plan might have worked if it had been handled his way, but after six months the plague was beyond control.  When he took over and took Draco as a role model even the most Draconian measures couldn't stop the plague.

And then he recorded his justification for posterity, presumably so that if someone found out what he did after his death and thought him horrible he'd have already recorded his counter argument of, "No, I was totes right."

Regardless, broadcasting his recording gets him immediately arrested.


Back with The Loyalists everyone's in a celebratory mood.  I'm uneasy.  If something is going to go horribly wrong, now is the time.  Until Emily is on the throne, our work isn't done.  Even then we haven't dealt with the assassin yet.

If I'm being played, I've just lost my value.

I'm offered a drink, no choice but to take it.  I don't drop dead.  That's a good sign.

As the others celebrate, I start to experience something odd.  Moments of ... wrong.  Wrong color, wrong sound.

I worry that it's a sign a supernatural attack is coming, the magic has been described as music, and the overseers developed an atonal "music box" that can negate magic within earshot.  This strange sound could be the precursor to something horrible.

I talk to our equipment guy, upgrade my gear, stock up on ammunition.  I try to talk to anyone about this sudden wrongness, but the limits of the interface mean I can't bring it up and none of them notice.

Finally I go to bed, convinced I'll wake up to something horrible.

And collapse to the ground before I make it to the bed.

Oh.  It wasn't magic.  It was poison.  The reason no one else noticed it was that I was the only one who was poisoned.

The leaders, the admiral, the aristocrat, and the overseer tell me it's nothing personal ... which, bullshit.  When the treasonous assholes framed me for assassination and kidnapping it wasn't personal because I wasn't even supposed to be there that day.  I was the Dante Hicks of that particular story.  This, though, this is personal.

They decided that they'd cement their rule if they rescued Emily from me and came forward with my body.  It would also save them from being punished for the fact that, while the Lord Regent and his allies were illegitimate rulers, everything The Loyalists had done here was treason.

Samuel checks me and tells them I'm dead.  He's left to deal with my body.  It's a good thing none of them were willing to put in the poison themselves.  Granted they watched Samuel put it in so he had to poison me, but he was able to put in only half of the intended lethal dose.  He apologizes to me for doing even that much, puts me in a raft in the river so I'll be far from those that tried to kill me, and promises to try to find me.


The assassins find me in the flooded district.  They recognize the poison, but say the poisoning was amateur work and I'll live (if their boss allows me to.)

Daud is an assassin for hire, but he doesn't just take contracts assigned specifically to him.  There are two bounties on my head.  One under my name, one for what I did as the man in the mask.  He figures the price will be even better alive rather than dead.

He throws away my gear and locks me up.

The Outsider visits me again:

Here you are at last, in a ruined and drowning world, held captive by the man who killed your Empress, the assassin Daud. Your friends poisoned you and dumped your body in the river. Did they do it to protect themselves, so no one would ever know what they'd done? Or was it because they were a single move away from controlling an empire, and they knew you'd never let them manipulate Emily? Maybe none of these. Perhaps that's just the nature of man.

Thanks sunshine, that really brightens my outlook on life.

I escape, of course.  But in these assassins I see something I have not seen before, or have not allowed myself to see.  I see acceptable targets.  They aren't under any illusions, they definitely aren't innocent, and they don't even have a cause.  They're killers.

I don't have my gear, I don't have my tranquilizer darts, and I don't have the patience to try to take them down non-lethally unarmed.

I've reached my breaking point.  I cut them down.

I recover my gear.

With sword and crossbow I kill them.  I cut a swath of blood through the flooded district.  When I near their base I get into a fight where I'm nearly outmatched.  They're on all sides and at least one is able to possess animals.  The animals get tranquilizer darts.  The mindless plague victims that border on zombiehood did too, the assassins die.

After using a tranquilizer darts on a doggish thing they're still loaded into my crossbow and I end up needing to fire, and fire fast, to stay alive.  The assassin is thus spared, falling toward the ground where he'll nap until the effect wears off.  I won't have that.  I kill him, defenseless as he is, with my sword before he hits the ground.  A few more dead bodies and I'm at the man himself.  Daud.  The one who killed the empress right in front of me.

He's recording an entry in his journal.  Says he didn't think an empress would be any different, but it was and now he feels the entire weight of this dying city on him.  Says he'd take it back if he could.  He'd give up all of his gold just to not do that one job.  Then he notices me.

The fight is on.

When he's beaten but not yet dead he uses his magic to teleport away.  I find him a short distance away waxing philosophical and asking for mercy.

The heart, the empress' heart, tells me things about him.  

The two that stand out are:
His hands do violence. But there is a different dream in his heart.
Why have you brought me here? Am I meant to forgive this man for what he did?
No.  Never.  I'd never expect or require that someone forgive the person who murdered them.  But the decision here is mine.

I let him live.

He says:
You choose mercy; extraordinary.
No.  No, what's extraordinary is that I would spare him after I killed all the others.  His underlings didn't deserve to die any more than he did.  They didn't deserve mercy any less.  Sure, none of them asked, but I didn't exactly give them the chance.  Is his life somehow more valuable because he had the power to teleport away before he died, thus giving him a chance to ask for mercy?

What possible reason could there be to spare him and not them?

The path back to where I last saw Emily takes me through the quarantine.  I see them dumping the bodies.  I hear the survivors talking about the grim situation.

There's no hospital, I told you that.  You think they round people up because there's a cure?
They're city guards; they're supposed to protect people.
They did.  The protect the healthy people from people like us.

It is said that a third of the city has died.

One man only wanted to die at home.

One woman tells me that she's not going to try to escape.  This is Dunwall.  Soon the plague will be everywhere.  The city will crumble before us and it won't matter if you're inside or outside quarantine.

I make my escape without even finding myself facing an opponent.

The sewers are the last leg of the journey.  The trouble is, some asshole's gone and locked the way through and the only key on this side of the gate is on Slackjaw.  After his gang was attacked by magically controlled rats Slackjaw led an expedition to find out who was behind it.  One sewer crawl later and I find Slackjaw locked up by Granny Rags.  She's going to cook him, possibly eat him, and definitely carve his bones into occult objects.

She'll give me a rune if I help.  Step one is to kill him.  Don't want him crawling out of the pot while he's being boiled.  Of course I don't help her.  I say I'll help her and then I turn on her.  I spared Daud, the assassin, but he never cooked anyone.

Turns out she can't be killed that easily, but before Slackjaw was ultimately captured he was able to find the way to kill her for good in one of her books.  There are lessons here.  One is that if you stop to read books in a death match with a supernatural murderer you might end up on the menu.  The other is that it's good if someone stopped to read books during or, better still, before the deathmatch with the supernatural murderer.

Granny Rags tells me that he's not worth saving, perhaps she's right.  He lives by a code, but that doesn't mean he's not a murderer who leads a gang of murderers.  But I've had my fill of deciding who lives and dies based on some criteria of worth.  Granny Rags is the one doing a horrible thing to Slackjaw.  Who gives a fuck what he deserves?  He's the victim and he needs saving.  In this case, that seems to require killing Granny Rags, but it's not based on some estimation of her worth, it's based on the fact that she's trying to kill someone right here right now.

After I save him Slackjaw gives a little speech, I think the start is interesting.
Wanna know somethin' funny?  When we were kids we were all scared of Granny Rags.  Thought she was a terrible witch.  Then we grew up and figured she was just a sad old lady.  We were right the first time.  Now ain't that funny?
I'm not sure that I'd call that funny, but there's something else on my mind.  Granny Rags was touched by the Outsider, even has shrines to him.  Daud was gifted with power too.  The torturer had a shrine to the Outsider.  One shrine was built by someone who didn't know anything about this stuff found a rune, ended up building a shrine to it, and was driven to malice and murder at nigh Smeagolesque speed.

In another place someone brought a rune in and the plague rats followed, killing almost everyone.  Emily found one and held onto it for luck, but it gave her nightmares.

Everyone I see who is associated with the Outsider is evil.  What does that make me?  The only person associated with the Outsider who doesn't appear to be evil is the Outsider himself who finds the mercy I showed to Daud fascinating.

I go on, through the sewers.  It's only when I find myself attacking an acid spitting death clam with a sword again and again and again, in spite of the fact that the sword can't physically harm it and all I seem to be doing is causing senseless pain, that I realize something somewhere has gone horribly wrong.

Daud saw in me what he could have been.  My masters at The Loyalists wanted me to be an assassin for them.  To kill for them.  I chose not to kill.

But I have become like Daud.  When I laid waste to his assassins my hands became soaked in blood.

Daud said that he would have given up all of his gold to undo the killing of the Empress.  He couldn't.  I, however, can take back what I have done.

I give up all of my progress since I was poisoned, and start fresh from there.  I don't kill unless I need to, and Granny Rags is the only one I need to kill.


Actually, I just checked, and I could have rendered her unconscious after destroying her resurrection charm, but I honestly didn't even consider it at the time


It isn't easy.  Daud's assassins like to stand at the edge of rooftops so just shooting them with tranq-darts leaves them falling to their deaths.  To not kill them you need to get behind them so you can catch them.

It was a lot harder, but it was better.

I reached what had been our headquarters.  Cecelia is the first one I meet.  She made it into the abandoned apartment she'd told me about before.  She escaped execution only because the servants were lured to their deaths with promise of bonuses and an asshole servant (who still didn't deserve to die) told her that she wouldn't get one.

Emily's tutor who dreamed of the sea was also spared.  The admiral owed her uncle.

Cecelia didn't know what happened to the two geniuses.

When I approached the locked up and fortified building of The Loyalists resident genius I heard him and the other genius finally having a conversation.  About damned time, too.  They even thought that maybe together they could finally make a cure.  (They can.)

At first I was confused.  I didn't see them anywhere.  I wondered if what I was hearing was a recording to trick people into thinking they were still in there.  When I got to the main workshop I realized what was happening: their calm polite conversation was taking place while they both hid under the workshop tables.

Before everything had gone to shit they'd collaborated on a defensive measure that could knock out (or incinerate) any enemy in the quarantined block.  Good news is that since they made it beforehand the two other survivors are considered "not enemy" (the turncoats would be too, but they're not here so it hardly matters) presumably they do something to make that apply to me as well.

I get them the parts they need to finish it (they're too afraid to step outside, and it is pretty fucking dangerous.)  I don't tell them to make the others burn.  We're back to innocent guards who think we're the baddies.

After this, though, I'm on my own.  There's only one last place to go, and no one else is a warrior.

I go to the place the new regime has set up shop.  I don't kill anyone.  Slowly, methodically, and having to save often, I make my way to her at the top of a fortified tower.

When I get there everything has fallen apart.  The admiral is talking to the dead bodies of the aristocrat and the overseer, asking if they remember how it started.  If they remember when they were still people with good intentions and a noble cause.

He doesn't try to put up a fight.  He knows he can't win.  He resigns himself to his fate, whatever that may be.  I don't kill him.  (I don't leave him walking around either; I'm not stupid.)

When I let Emily out of the closet she's locked in everything is finally over.

The Outsider gives me a glimpse of my future.  Emily will lean on me as an adviser when she's still young, but she'll grow to be Emily the Wise.  That, combined with the cure to the plague that the two geniuses make will usher in a golden age for the city and the empire.  When I do finally die I'll be buried beside the fallen empress.  Emily and the empire will go on without me.


  1. That sounds like a great game experience.

  2. Any conflict where a faction is calling itself "Loyalists" is a conflict not to get involved in. Well, even more than usual.

    Given the usual way of computer games, I'm surprised it's even possible to complete it non-lethally. Since the designers made that choice, it's vaguely surprising that they didn't go on to put in more rewards for that route (since clearly it'll be more challenging and thus appealing to the gamer with more skill).

  3. Oh, wow. Oh. Oh, wow, I got goosebumps.