Electron Dance
20Mar/13Off

If All You Have is a Knife

This is the final part of the Dishonored quadrilogy. The previous entries were Fish Out of Water, Across the Rooftops and La Peste.

dishonored-through-the-rain

Someone had contaminated Slackjaw’s still.

Rather than killing many of his gang outright, those who had quaffed elixir from the poisoned still were now Weepers, quarantined in a makeshift gaol. The Bottle Street Gang was crippled, which was why Slackjaw turned to me for help. Something had happened in Dr. Galvani’s place and he didn’t have anyone available to follow it up.

Slackjaw was not aware that I was the one who had poisoned his still. Neither was he aware that his bodyguards were unconscious, sheltering under cobwebs in the darkest corners of the distillery.

I delivered revelation with my knife and wrote the truth across his chest. He gasped and staggered back, but I left him no time to respond. A second revelation proved too much for him and he collapsed to the floor.

As I took my leave, none of the gang members in the main hall noticed anything was wrong. Outside was a different story. The Weepers had escaped from their prison and, with surprising enthusiasm, had taken up the task of attacking and infecting their jailers.

The Bottle Street Gang profited from misery every day and terrorised the ordinary people of Dunwall. And so I killed them.

Psychopathy

If all you have is a knife, then everything you see is a throat to slit.

--Fish Out of Water, first article in the Dishonored quadrilogy

When I played through Dishonored a second time, I threw away my moral scruples and used Corvo Attano’s blade as my moral compass. Initially, I had no intention to spill the blood of innocents although that rule was relaxed. The Golden Cat was referred to as “a bloodbath” and only a few of the working girls survived alive. All they had to do was keep quiet but they kept calling for help. Using violence instead of stealth makes the game substantially easier. I suppose this is where the ten hour complaints come from, the sidequest skippers and the guard killers.

I was already familiar with many of the game's twists and turns, but as Dishonored saw my new Corvo Attano for the psychopath he was, the game put more guards on patrol and unleashed more rats and Weepers. The world became a little meaner. It was not mean enough to make a real difference, of course. The game flaunts its adaptive difficulty through a tutorial screen, calling it “chaos”. More death means more chaos and the game pushes back against you.

Phil Wiebe wrote about the recent trend in videogame critical writing to treat games as “ethical objects” and reading too much into decisions that were made for pragmatic design reasons:

Is Oblivion a racist game? Sure, maybe, possibly not? Is it offensive? To some, apparently. Does this bother me? Not at all, and not just because I’m a ruthless white bourgeois misogynist xenophobe – it’s just that in most cases the offending messages are so subjective to player experience that they become ultimately meaningless in the game’s thematic narrative, and if they improve rather than detract from the game I’ll take them.

Should we read too much into the adaptive difficulty of Dishonored? The game might convince some players that the association between Attano’s actions and the developer’s pocket universe of Dunwall makes no sense, but there is a rational explanation for this device. As Attano murders his way through Dunwall's elite, the authorities become more obsessed with an unstoppable killer and divert resources away from responding to the rat plague.

Dishonored very much wants you to perceive the use of weapons as an ethical choice.

Intermission

dishonored-upon-the-party

I followed the wires into a cupboard and rewired the Wall. Now I was ready. As I made my way back to the stairs, I murdered a guard in cold blood, in full view of everyone in the main entrance hall.

Party guests screamed and cowered on the floor, pistols emerged and guards ran towards me. I stepped through the Wall of Light and waited for the first guard to try the same: he burst into ash confetti.

The guards didn’t see their brethren die and several more of them disintegrated as they attempted to apprehend me through the Wall. Eventually, the guards became wise to what I’d done and that was when I went in for a little of the old ultraviolent. They didn’t stand a chance. Pistol, knife and mana were the three ingredients I needed for my lethal cocktail, although I did throw in a grenade for a little extra colour, dismembering four guards simultaneously in a doorway.

When the guards were all dead, I waited for a while to see if the silence was final. I then stepped over the headless corpses of the City Watch and proceeded to kill, one after another, every guest at the party. Goodbye, Miss White. Farewell, Lord Brisby.

I found each of the Boyle sisters. “You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Of course I was. Each one ended up with my knife plunged through her chest.

When there was nothing left but bodies, I retreated downstairs to the servant area and took their lives too. This is what you get working for a bunch of parasitic aristocrats. Nothing escapes my attention.

I signed the guestbook and left through the front door. Now that was what I call a party.

Virtual Ethics

I wrote about Austin Breed's disturbing Covetous a few years ago, in which the player takes the role of a vanishing twin who somehow survives. It disturbs because the player grows by consuming his otherwise healthy and completely defenceless brother. Normally, a lack of challenge would undermine the presentation of a struggle - but not in this case.

So here is the astonishing thing about playing Dishonored as a psychopath after completing the game without hurting a soul. I was aware of how much power I had at my disposal, the power not to kill, to make lives better in my wake. When I chose not to use that power and took the easy route of blade and bullet, the resulting experience was repugnant, gratuitous, unseemly. There was no craftsmanship, nor finesse in my work.

The game tries to flesh out the repercussions of negative play. Attano's blade becomes bloodstained, for example. Dialogue differences are minimal until after the Return to the Tower mission when, finally, there are some shocking deviations from the low chaos plot. Emily goes from troubled to tyrant-in-the-making. The loyalist conspirators – Havelock, Martin and Pendleton – bicker and boast about what has been achieved. Callista Curnow is shot in the back by the loyalists whereas she survived during my nonlethal run. Wallace's death is more grotesque with Havelock skewering his eye with a cutlass.

But these narrative tweaks pale in comparison to simply knowing I did not have to take life. And there's the rub.

Achievement statistics as of 19 March 2013 reveal that although the split between stealth and violent completions is roughly equal, only 6.4% of all Steam players have completed both low and high chaos scenarios.

dishonord-steam-endgame-achievements

Achievements relating to Dishonored completion (Steam, 19 March 2013)

In your standard FPS, lethal weapons are the only tools offered to players and we are comfortable with the limited verbs of the environment. Like Wiebe suggests, most of us accept an FPS at face value as a mere game - not a shooting simulator with an ethical dimension. Dishonored offers choice but only allows players to meditate on the consequences if they play the game twice and very few have done that, meaning most players will see the game as verb preference as opposed to ethical decision. This was precisely my initial impression of the game last year as I wrote in a piece called A Slave Obeys:

The important choices are not to be found in the plot nor in the simplistic moral consequences echoed in the rat population. The important choices are the colours I apply to the canvas. This is artistic freedom, not the burdensome purchasing decisions that beleaguer the consumer.

dishonor-the-corpse

I'm currently reading Dylan Holmes' book "A Mind Forever Voyaging" and in an excellent chapter on Ultima IV he writes about how player morality has been reduced to personal play style:

... [modern] systems uniformly avoid judgment of the player; they are merely different paths through the game's experience, each equally valid and (generally) neither one more difficult or more rewarding than the other. This is a marked change from Ultima IV; and while it reduces frustration, I can't help but feel that it's also a cop-out, a way to implement moral systems and just another game dynamic without really challenging the player, as true ethical conundrums inevitably will.

Dishonored doesn't offer the more problematic questions of games such as Cart Life and The Walking Dead as its choices are of the Bioshock variety: kill or do not kill. Critics will shed blood trying to uncover ethical watermarks in a "close reading" of such games but the ordinary player will merely see a check list of achievements and runes to collect. These games do everything possible to undermine their appreciation as a story with consequences. There can be no consequences because a player is the ultimate customer: they are always right.

It's worse than that, of course. The ethical choice of Dishonored and Bioshock is artificial, as worthless as the "trolley problem", a popular thought experiment in ethics. Here's the cut-down version of the trolley problem: five people will die unless you throw a switch in which case only one person will die. There are variations of the problem but basically Spock said it best with "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few".

Alonzo Fyfe has written on the trolley problem about how it is less revealing than it seems, because the problem is so sterile, devoid of messy reality. We answer knowing we will never have to make such a decision but we are prompted to contemplate the taking of life for the greater good. Is this a life skill we really need to acquire? Fyfe writes:

The real question is, "How do we feel ... about being surrounded by people who are comfortable with killing whenever they perceive some sort of overall benefit?"

We might like to think games can challenge us with ethical quandaries, but I think there are better ways to discuss the problems of the world than handing the player some bullets and a knife.

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Comments (22) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Apologies for the lateness of the post once again – I was away for the weekend and was shattered upon my return. Anyway! At last Dishonored is behind me.

  2. Generally I play pragmatically–what will get me my goal as quickly as possible? I try not to kill but am not above it. It’s all about me, after all. I guess that is an ethical choice, even though I never really think about it like that.

  3. Like I said on Twitter, this is one of my favorites in the series!

    I did a blood-soaked playthrough, and I really didn’t intend to. I knew all of the metagame shit about how it was Really Bad if you killed people, it made it harder, etc. I totally intended to be a sneaky little Corvo who only let out Little Corvo when absolutely necessary, but I’m such a clumsy player–I play everything in Easy Mode–that I ended up killing nearly everyone in the prison level. Okay, well that was the tutorial–next level, I totally did well for sneaking for about five whole minutes before needing to slash my way out. That kept happening again and again–racking up bodies due to sheer clumsiness. It was almost comedic–I kept hearing Benny Hill music every time I would be chased by guards.

    And then…I just kind of gave in to the inevitable. Put all my runes in combat skills and became the Scourge of Dunwall.

    Sometimes, the end game suggests, dark times call for dark decisions. The seat of power is an inherently violent place–won and lost through murder. After a while, I’d simply killed enough guards that I just…gave up trying. Dunwall was in such a state of high chaos that a few more guards wouldn’t hurt much. The game gives you a lot of fun ways to kill dudes–I started taking the game up on the offer.

    Did it matter that I was influencing Emily into violence? Corvo’s her symbolic if not literal father–a man who’s devoted to the girl no matter what moral alignment you choose for him–and I believe that Corvo is ultimately a patriot. Just as Corvo is hardening, he’d want Emily to as well. I don’t think he sees her shift towards darkness as necessarily a bad thing. Given his own moral decline, he may see her as becoming appropriately tough. Maybe her mother was as tough–or maybe, he reasons, she wasn’t tough enough. At one point Emily begins to worry–if someone killed her mother, won’t they come for her next?–but then realizes that, as Empress, she’ll have Corvo and a whole host of guards at her disposal willing to kill anyone who stands in her way.

    So in this regard Dishonored was a very interesting meditation on power and corruption–the lust for power drives everyone, the Lord Regent, the conspirators, Corvo, to evil.

    I’m going to be very honest in that the first time I beheaded someone, I swung the view around to make sure that yes, I was getting a very well-rendered and detailed view of the meat and bone inside someone’s neck. I have extremely complex feelings about this.

  4. I think Wiebe’s “I don’t care about racism and if you write about it then you’re ruining game criticism” line is kind of terrible and gross. Moving on from that though, I think this is an interesting point about the ways games try to intentionally bring up ethics. I’m definitely with you on the central choice of Bioshock (and Dishonored? I still need to play this) being a shallow dilemma – The Walking Dead was interesting in its alternative approach, the way it railroads you through a 90% linear game with no choice or control at all over the Big Questions, but leaves the gaps in your interpretation of Lee himself and his relationships with the others large enough that you are drawn to fill it in.

    I’m not sure I believe that the ordinary player will always see things as a checklist to be completed with no ethical context. I think if you look at what games sell big and what makes them successful, you find a strong desire for games that contextualize themselves within the player’s already existing worldview. I think on some level people buy COD because they want to be America and blow stuff up that is attacking America. There’s more to it, and maybe the pure mechanics play a larger role, but context does register on the scale of the average player.

  5. “Wait, it was ‘tyranny of choice’? I thought he said ‘choice of tyrannies’!” – Dishonoured postmortem

  6. I think Wiebe’s “I don’t care about racism and if you write about it then you’re ruining game criticism” line is kind of terrible and gross.

    Thanks for saying that, Switchbreak. His line seems to be that video game criticism is getting taken over by subjectivity, and also that the racism in Oblivion isn’t important to the experience of the game because it doesn’t affect him. There is a bit of lack of self-awareness there.

    Also, he claims that the Red Guard in Oblivion can’t be racist against African-Americans because they’re based on Moors? He should spend less time quoting philosophy and more time trying not to be stupid.

  7. @Eric: Well there you go, it’s the pragmatism of play winning over any sort of ethical decision. Because it doesn’t really matter, the game would be less fun if you tried to make it matter to you.

    @Richard: It’s revealing about how we perceive the modern videogame that we are shocked by Emily’s reactions to Corvo’s crazy murdery antics… but not by the hundreds of bodies we leave in our wake.

    I remember reading one Dishonored player’s comment that the Overseers received no mercy because they abducted children, which misses the point of the Overseer background in the lore. All of the Overseers are abducted children, twisted into religious psychos through indoctrination. These guys are victims themselves and not all of them are completely converted as some of the letters in the barracks reveal. (The Overseers killing one of their own who has plague is a more “moving” in the low chaos version, as he begs his friends to end his life.)

    I’m reminded of the old example of Uncharted being a happy-go-lucky adventure except for the fact that Nathan Drake is a mass-murderer. Our FPS glasses render enemies as abstract obstacles and less the people they are meant to represent.

    @Switchbreak: I included Wiebe’s article because it was a counterpoint that made me stop and wonder– how far down the ethics rabbit hole am I willing to go with analysis? How far is too far? I partner it up with Unwinnable’s “Through the Lens of Gaming” in terms of triggering writer anxiety. You don’t have to agree with contrarian viewpoints – I mean, it’s a contrarian viewpoint, right? – but they can sometimes press buttons that agreeable pieces don’t. Still, everyone’s feelings were pretty clear on Twitter and I have no interest in wading into the nuts and bolts of Wiebe’s article.

    Back to the real topic: I’m really angling at games that depict ethical dilemmas for the player to resolve. COD does not really do that, there are no real questions or choices from what I gather. Whatever you do in “No Russian” doesn’t make any difference, which is actually the problem in a nutshell: you make progress whatever you decide to do. Bioshock and Dishonored offer a faux dilemma, because they are such hermetic, designed environments, just like the trolley problem, asking you to solve problems that only make sense within the carefully constructed scenario.

    It’s Hollywood logic again and that’s not a bad thing – but it’s not really an ethical conundrum. The writers/designers try to maintain a veil of “believability” when, of course, these situations plainly not. I am now thinking of the ridiculous set-up written to make Superman to kill his pregnant wife in the Injustice: Gods Amongst Us prequel comic. At that point, the wiring in the plot starts to show and you lose your audience.

    I have yet to put myself through Mass Effect, of course, to see how that all plays out. And I believe Spec Ops is more a meditation on the medium itself (again yet to play).

    @Ben

    Ha! And that’s not how you spell Dishonored (TM).

  8. So very late to this party, but I wanted to applaud the fine work you put together here, HM. Dishonored is a game that warrants much discussion. As it happens I played obsessively until like two levels from the end and then some other game got my attention… I hope to return and complete it before Bioshock Infinite, so… basically… tonight.

    I believe I’m going to come out pretty middle of the road. I’m definitely guilty of going for the stab-based solution when such an opportunity is just too awesome to pass up.

    Your final point – that there are better ways of discussing the problems of the world than with bullets and knives – should be written on a wall somewhere. It’s simple in games to use concepts like violence as mechanisms for clarity, but we’ve reached the point where greater nuance is possible.

    Something I greatly appreciated about Dishonored is that the decisions you make have subtle effects, conclusions you have to draw on your own, as well as obvious ones. As you note, the more violent Corvo is, the more City resources are devoted to bringing him down… meaning the fewer resources are available to deal with the plague. Overlapping moral issues like this seem like a great way to inject greater presence of dilemma into game worlds.

  9. No problemo Steerpike, there’s always room for more at the table. There’s so much more I wanted to say about some of the subtleties of the game but I think these four articles are more than enough.

    My original rough outline for this article was a more authoritative take down of the “thinking man’s FPS” concept through the lens of Dishonored. A game drenched in killing can’t really claim any moral high ground whichever way you spin it. If you want people to take the story seriously, you can’t get them to treat the shooting as a game mechanic but consider everything else as real and emotionally impacting. (Saying that, I’m sure that kind of dissonance is possible to some extent…) I was thinking of Bioshock and Spec Ops, although I haven’t yet played the latter).

    This isn’t exactly that article, but it’s in the same ballpark.

  10. I smell podcast…

    …you, Gregg, and I could have quite a delightful time talking about thinking men’s FPSes. Dishonored, Thief, STALKER, Spec Ops, Bioshock…

  11. I beat Dishonored on my former housemate’s Xbox a few days ago. Part of what drove my lethal approach was the annoyance of stealthing and reacting quickly with a gamepad and a painfully limited FOV. I think the game does at least toy with how effective its deadlier tools are. The pistol first comes off as a noisy killing machine, until you get thrown into fights where it won’t result in an automatic victory (though it regains that status if you upgrade it and your bullet capacity fully).

    I kept the objective markers on, both due to my insufficient sense of direction and the desire to collect all I could before reaching critical objectives. Replaying with them off at this point would be something of an empty gesture, even if it’s several months or even years down the line. The other reason I wiped out so many enemies was so I could explore most ways in or out at my leisure, only skipping out on most of the space where the Boyles’ party actually took place.

    I’ll wait on any first-person stealthing for a bit, but I already own Thief on GOG, so I imagine it won’t be too long before I finally get around to it. I heard there’s some forced combat at one point- hopefully it’s not too bad.

  12. Hi there! Frequent reader, but first-time commenter: the discussion of ethics brought me forth, but I wanted to say first how I love this series!

    Although I largely share your point of view here, something was bothering me with your comparison between Fyfe’s thoughts on the trolley problem and videogames, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I think I know now: unlike the trolley problem, which is an artificial choice meant to be a reflection on real-world ethics, or even a representation of a possible real situation, an ethical choice like the Little Sisters in Bioshock is not meant to be understand apart from the particular context of that game. It is artificial, but any ethical question in any kind of artwork will always be, because the artist already designed the situation for us (and in that regard, Cart Life is also artificial, only more complex). The trolley thought experiment is problematic because of its lack of context, and because we know beforehand the consequences of each possible actions we are offered, which is not how it works in the real world. We can never be sure of the outcome of our actions, and this is precisely why a real ethical choice is so difficult: how can I be sure that I will kill only one person by pulling that switch, and not more, or that it will work at all? But videogames present their ethical choices in a very precise context, and we can interpret it inside this context, contrarily to the vacuum of the trolley. And this context, artificial as it may be, can lead to a meaningful ethical decision (whether these games succeed or not is another discussion).

    It’s true though that we mostly know what are the consequences for killing or not in a game (not in Dishonored though, because we don’t know at first what “chaos” mean), and that both paths are usually balanced gameplay-wise in such a way that any real conundrum is avoided (I wrote about this recently, here :http://uncannypostcards.blogspot.ca/2013/03/the-illusion-of-choice_8.html, about Bioshock, although in that case I think the artificiality of it all is pretty much the point). This is the real problem, I think, the one described by Dylan Holmes.

    Also: “Dishonored offers choice but only allows players to meditate on the consequences if they play the game twice and very few have done that, meaning most players will see the game as verb preference as opposed to ethical decision.” The choice of killing or not is ethical, whether you play the game once or twice doesn’t matter (and the fact that the player can choose is, in itself, meaningful). I played the game once for now, and my decision not to kill anyone (well, a few as possible – I got sloppy at some points) surely was ethical (in the context of the game, at least), and was not based on the possible consequences the game might throw at me.

    The consequences represented by the game serve to establish the game’s own set of ethics (violence leads to violence says Dishonored), but any player facing the choice of killing or not is confronting an ethical situation, and we are not obliged at all to accept the game’s own ethics (I can use violence if I think it’s the “good” thing to do even though the game seems to state otherwise). And I can meditate on the consequences of my actions even if I can’t compare them with the consequences of the path I didn’t choose: that’s how it works in real life too, right? I can never know what would’ve happened if I had done otherwise, but I can still consider what I did and what ensued. So, even if you play Dishonored only once in a violent way, the first part of your article would still be a valid reading: the bloody blade, the meaner world, etc. can be interpreted as a consequence of the player’s violence, whether we play the game in different ways to test it out doesn’t matter. It’s true though that most players are probably unaware of the ethical nature of their decision, but this is not game’s fault, surely!

    And I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence.

  13. @Steerpike: I guess I would be up for it, although I think we’d have to post it at your place. I have quite a lot of podcasts swirling around here these days…

    @BeamSplashX: Ah, maybe you need a mouse and keyboard arrangement! I liked the fact that exploration was something to be hard-won, although in virtually every level until near the end, I knocked everyone out. I didn’t need to kill to enjoy freedom =) That’s again seeing the game “as a game” and thinking less about the taking of life as a real choice. You’re thinking about how you want to best spend your time at console.

    Thief is profoundly oriented towards non-combat, although there are some sections in which you can get frisky with a blade. If you play hard, then the game will not allow you to kill any human: instant mission fail.

    @sylvain

    Hi and welcome to the comments. I thought we’d seen the end of the long essay comments on this piece but I was wrong!

    So, yes, interesting thought: the ethical decisions in the game are meant to be viewed only within the context of the game, just like the ethical dilemma of some movie protagonist. I think it crosses over here because we’re complicit, we’re actually making a judgement. The game wants you to consider the burden of what you’re doing and that is where I think we spiral off into trolley problem. We need to make the decision, not a protagonist.

    Obviously they don’t do this too well either. Bioshock’s hollow choice is “kill for Adam or rescue for nothing” with few consequences; from a purely mechanical standpoint, there are none. The latter third of the game should derail hard if you’ve even killed a single Little Sister, but it doesn’t. It compartmentalises the decision into small packets and a few narrative flags. I suspect this was not the case in the early versions of Bioshock, but play testing polished all of this out because it led to frustrated players. Dishonored does this better but again the consequences of killing do not really come through until you get deeper into the game.

    It’s a fair point that perhaps it’s not the multiple plays that work the magic, but the person who thinks about what they’re doing. But perceiving it as a choice of playstyle probably outweighs the ethics viewpoint. Witness the comments under the articles here; despite handing every player the power not to kill, some find it too frustrating and default to lethal. If you feel like the game has pushed you into it, then you can argue it’s the designer’s fault not yours, and you perceive it more as a game, with NPCs as artificial obstacles to be negotiated. A feeling of responsibility doesn’t survive that sort of transition.

    Here’s a random thought and I’m not necessarily endorsing it: It could be argued that Dishonored does more harm than good because it allows you to consider that violence, sometimes, is necessary. It allows its players to make those Jack Bauer decisions, anything to save the day. Trolley problem… trolley problem… Compare with a dumb FPS which offers no choice: you make no decision and thus do not feel complicit in what happens. (Most players don’t tend to see play/not play as an ethical choice.) I feel like I’m stepping a bit too much into philosophical waters here where I’m ill-equipped. Someone throw me a lifebuoy!

  14. I did wish I could knock enemies out in direct combat without the limited Combat Sleep Dart. Metal Gear Solid 2 gave you the option of hitting people with the flat of the blade you got right before the last big gunfight, just so you could maintain your personal no-kill playthrough. And in that case, it was purely mechanical- the story was absolutely unaffected by whether you used lethal or nonlethal means to get through. Granted, the MGS series is Wackadoo Central both aesthetically and mechanically, but there are good ideas there.

  15. Well, here’s another long one (and I’m as ill-equiped as you are in this matter).

    “I think it crosses over here because we’re complicit, we’re actually making a judgement. The game wants you to consider the burden of what you’re doing and that is where I think we spiral off into trolley problem. We need to make the decision, not a protagonist.”

    Sure, I make the decision, but I still make it in the context of the game, as a character inside a fictional world, within a particular story. I do consider the burden of what I’m doing, but again I do it inside the parameters set by the game. In the trolley problem, there is no context whatsoever: I have two options, two pre-determined consequences, and nothing else. Bioshock, binary as it may be, is still much more complex than that: having (slightly) less Adam leads to a different playstyle, because you cannot upgrade your powers as much, and Tennenbaum reacts differently to the player’s presence (I think she does, I don’t really remember). In the trolley problem, you do not live with the consequence of killing one person: the experiment ends with your decision. In Bioshock, you have to live with the consequences of having less Adam. I agree that ultimately it’s not much, from the point of the view of the game’s mechanics, and it is a problem.

    But the real difference is more in the narrative context: if you take the Little Sister choice apart from the game, it becomes as worthless as the trolley problem, for sure. If we do this, though, we’re not really talking about Bioshock anymore, but about an abstract ethical question. We have to consider this choice inside the narrative about the fall of Rapture, and Andrew Ryan’s philosophy; this is where it becomes meaningful (I must say I do not like Bioshock that much, but it’s an interesting game to talk about), in a manner that the trolley problem cannot be. I think it’s pretty close to how we view a protagonist in a movie, the interactivity helps merely to make me feel more engaged in the situation. Both games and movies impose their set of ethic on the player/spectator, who can only accept or reject it. You may choose to kill in Dishonored, but you cannot decide if your actions are virtuous or not, the game has the answer for you: killing is not good. And you cannot reject this judgment by your actions inside the game itself, only as a thinker outside of it.

    “If you feel like the game has pushed you into it, then you can argue it’s the designer’s fault not yours, and you perceive it more as a game, with NPCs as artificial obstacles to be negotiated. A feeling of responsibility doesn’t survive that sort of transition.”

    Well, yes and no: I mean, if I go to court and argue that I murder someone because my friend made me do it, even if my friend is proven guilty of this influence, I will still be guilty for actually committing this murder (maybe the comparison is too approximate, but you get the point). The designer is responsible for the game he makes, but the player cannot completely reject the responsibility on the designer because violence is more easy (and surely there is an ethical statement, intentional or not, when the violent path is designed to be less frustrating than the more pacific one).

    On the other hand, this is the exactly the crux of the problem: how can NPCs represent something more than an obstacle in the player’s power fantasy? How can murdering a NPC feel really disruptive, and not only a thing to be done in order to complete the game? As for the player’s responsibility: the big problem with a game like Spec Ops: The Line is that it tries to make the player feels guilty for playing violent games, but the designers don’t take any responsibility about making such a violent game in the first place. “Look at what you’ve done! Look at what you’ve become!”, says the game, but never does it turn the gun toward itself and accept its own responsibility. It’s also true, to a lesser degree, with Dishonored, and all these violent games trying to put the act of killing in an explicit ethical context: if you want me to see violence like a messy, costly and unnecessary action, well don’t make it fun and attractive in the first place. In a sense, it’s always the designer’s fault, because they programmed the violence for us. I get to choose if I’m violent or not, but the designer already made his choice. And rarely do they seem to acknowledge this. I would not say Dishonored does more harm, but it’s certainly more hypocrite than your average no-brain shooter. I still prefer this hypocrisy, hoping it’s a step towards something better (and I do not accept the “it’s the best we can do in the context of AAA videogames”, because it’s simply not enough).

  16. @sylvain:
    In the case of Spec Ops: The Line, isn’t coming off like the games it’s judging required for it to even be a reversal? It’s not an indictment of shooters that make war actually look or play like hell, after all.

  17. @BeamSplashX

    Well, maybe you’re right, I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sensitive to violence, so when I see such a game (or movie), I’m always thinking “If violence is so bad, maybe it would be best to simply avoid it”. It’s possible to talk about violence without displaying it in its full brutal, bloody, slow-motion glory, so why not try that instead? Anyway, Spec Ops is not that bad, and it did make me feel awful about my actions at some instances, but between these isolated moments I was mindlessly mass-killing everybody like in any other shooters. Maybe that’s precisely the point, or that this conventional shooting is necessary to get the point across, but it feels contradictory.

  18. @sylvain:
    I agree that there’s still probably more mass killing than is necessary to prepare for a reversal, but the people behind it might’ve felt like they were already pushing hard enough. They already had to shoehorn in an online component.

  19. @Sylvian: I see the trolley problem and ethical decisions in games more similar than different due to contextual arrangements. The trolley problem is contrived and not real. The Dishonored problem is contrived and not real … perhaps worse because you can’t even argue with the question; the constraints are baked into the mechanics and force your choices. You can’t try walking away and being political or diplomatic: it’s break into the temples of the elite and kill them or knock them out, so to speak. It’s not the lack of context I have a problem with – because context itself is the problem that demolishes your agency, rendering you as a Jack Bauer wannabe who has no option but to torture his enemies to win the day. You’re asked to preside over an unlikely, ethical choice in a situation where you have only those two awful choices.

    In a book, we’d ask ourselves why Corvo Attano wouldn’t try a less-violent alternative – unless it was some pulpy steampunk novel which is all about the cool moves and less about the complex relationships between the characters. Once Emily was rescued, would he want to continue his secret war with knives and ne’er-do-wells in the night? In a game, we accept the premise and the arbitrary ethical choice foisted upon us.

    In Bioshock, I still think the ethical elements are weak. The choice is too much in your face to be taken seriously (Eric had an interesting reaction as he relates in Counterweight 3). It undermines the mechanical impacts of the choice by topping up “the good player” with little extra packets of Adam along the way. And the narrative consequences are so slight because its a strictly linear storyline. Dishonored does so much better in this regard although the designers pay a heavy price for embracing that (more on this at the end).

    I should be honest here, I seem to be moaning whatever the developers do. Bioshock I complain is too black-and-white although both options have no striking differences. In Dishonored, I complain the choices are black-and-black which means players just choose their preferred playstyle. Reviewing, I guess what really bugs me is the simplicity of these ethical arguments, that they are devoid of contemporary relevance, gimmicky and false. They are gamey and… maybe that’s okay.

    “The designer is responsible for the game he makes, but the player cannot completely reject the responsibility on the designer because violence is more easy (and surely there is an ethical statement, intentional or not, when the violent path is designed to be less frustrating than the more pacific one).”
    But the player is being directed, at all times, to remember he/she is playing a game. The designer has created achievements for all the different outcomes, for all the different weird deaths and toxic murders (kill all three Boyle sisters, kill five enemies in one go). The game was portrayed in the advertising as not just “play your way” but “kill your way”. All of that context *around the game* alters perception, reinforcing that players are playing a game. The story and ethics are addendum, to be ignored or engaged as required. Once players find the stealth route too difficult, they inevitably “give up” and don’t feel too bad about it. At least they didn’t condemn Lady Boyle to a potential future of daily rape.

    “I still prefer this hypocrisy”
    I totally agree. The reason Dishonored is more problematic is because it is trying to do more. I wouldn’t want them to learn the lesson “don’t try this again”.

  20. I’m replying a little late, but as I began to write my answer, my comment became so long that I thought it would be best to post in on my blog, and take some time to polish it. So, if you’re interested, here’s my reply… which is not really one since, as I come to realized when writing: you’re right! That the short version, the long one is here:

    http://uncannypostcards.blogspot.ca/2013/04/to-kill-or-not-to-kill_5.html#more

    And thanks for the discussion!

  21. “We might like to think games can challenge us with ethical quandaries, but I think there are better ways to discuss the problems of the world than handing the player some bullets and a knife.”

    Joel, this is one of the best single sentences you’ve ever written. What a wonderfully poignant thought. I’ve really enjoyed this series, but since there’s already a bunch of long comments (and because I’m really late to the game), I’m going to try and just add a brief thought.

    I think you’re a step ahead of me (as usual?) in realizing games only really give us two options: action or inaction. And of the actions we’re given we often only have one major tool like “shoot” in shooters, or more broadly “kill”. So our options are “shoot” or don’t “shoot”, “kill” or “don’t kill”. What’s strange is that the game that brought about this realization for me was SimCity. This week’s post (Wednesday) I’m taking a break from the Mass Effect stuff to delve into this sort of thought around SimCity.

    I’m also going to want to read Sylvain’s post soon since I enjoyed this exchange. Another blog to add to the reading list!

  22. I don’t know if I can take the credit on the binary choice, it feels like a… game critics’ trope, if such a thing existed. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t seeing it in terms of action and inaction, more of A vs B, so maybe that one is on you.

    I read Sylvain’s post last night and it’s worth a read. It’s everything and the kitchen sink. Sylvain’s pushback in the comments and the linked post have actually made me think a bit more about this whole ethics then. i.e. are these really ethical dilemmas or just dramatic plot devices? This goes back to the derided Phil Wiebe point but I think it’s good to step back sometimes and review your position.