Not killing one person doesn't make up for killing another. Life and death don't balance out that easily.
Dishonored 2Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Players: 1 player
Release Date: 2016-11-11
Dishonored 2 opens with a coup. Emily Kaldwin is dethroned by an aunt she never knew she had, then imprisoned in her castle. Naturally, she escapes, and the first level/tutorial of the game has us sneaking out of our home. Along the way, you'll encounter many traitorous guards and many more dead bodies. It's easy to put two and two together; this was a coup after all. So what are you going to do about it?
Dishonored 2 is a stealth action game that tells you to “play the way you want". What that means is you have a choice in how to get rid of patrolling guards: Either kill them or knock them out. The former action adds "chaos" to the world; the latter action lessens the "chaos". A high level of chaos leads to a cynical ending, while low level chaos gives us a more optimistic ending. On the surface, it seems like an elaborate narrative excuse for multiple endings, but that does the game a disservice. Your chaos level affects the narrative throughout the game, as characters react to you and events differently depending on how many guys you’ve murdered. The endings aren't just different caps on the same pen; they are natural extensions of the story as it’s told.
I wanted a low chaos ending. I got a high chaos ending for the first Dishonored, so it made sense to try for the other this time. I played that the opening level like a ninja, sneaking around, choking out each guard, running away from fights, and even choking out guards while also running away from a fight. However, about halfway through I entered an open park with bodies littering the ground, and I decided to make an exception to my rule.
I killed everyone. Every god damn traitor. I even retraced my steps back through the level, killing every guard I had previously knocked out. I stood over their sleeping bodies and stabbed them in the face. I needed revenge.
Afterward, the game changes the location to another continent so that you can investigate the past of your mysterious aunt. I visited mining towns and elaborate mansions, fought gangs and guards, and while some of them proved themselves to be horrible people I didn’t kill them. It didn’t feel right. They hadn’t wronged me. They were assholes, but they were part of a conflict I had no skin in.
This seemed to me like a surefire way to get a low chaos ending except for one catch. After beating the second level, non-lethally, my overall chaos was still high. After I had beaten the third level, non-lethally, my overall chaos was still high. It freaked me out, and I began to reconsider my vengeful murder spree.
The dead haunted me. The shadow of my violence loomed over all my subsequent good deeds as a reminder of my potential. No matter how many people I don’t kill, Emily is not a good person; she’s not a peaceful person. She’s a violent person, and that violence has consequences, and those consequences linger. Murder is not so easily forgotten.
Dishonored 2 doesn’t treat life and death as equal. Not killing one person doesn't make up for killing another. Life and death don't balance out that easily.
The high/low chaos morality may be binary, but the spectrum between each extreme is nuanced. By not treating these actions as equal, the game forces us (or me, at least) to live in that nuanced zone for a few levels. The mechanics became an expression of regret: Even as Emily talked a big game about revenge, I saw that lingering high chaos as the doubt in the back of her mind, an inner struggle to justify herself.
Eventually, my chaos level did lower. It took an unusual amount of time, but Emily does come to terms with her violence. She learns to live with herself and to be content with the path she's chosen. It's a happy moment of introspection and acceptance.
But I’m still playing, and as I get closer to the end of the game I wonder: What will I do when I get back to my castle? What will I do when faced with more traitorous guards? One more massacre could undo all the good my non-violence has generated. How much do I care about peace?
Dishonored 2 argues that death weighs more heavily on the soul than life. The question is, do I want to carry that weight?