When the End Sours the Means

Dishonored 2

In the throes of twilight, the waves below lash against the cliffs like a city in slow but inevitable revolt. Steadily crashing against the walls of the status quo; of class-ist oppression; of poverty and exploitation. Serkonos, jewel of the South Sea, bleeds in service to prop up a false Empress: Delilah Copperspoon; your Aunt, despot, and deposer.

And here you are, contemplating the murder of the man who helped put her there: the Duke.

Let me rewind.

Dishonored 2 has you inhabit Emily Kaldwin, who in the time since the first game and her mother’s death, has come into her own as Empress of the Isles. She still has Corvo Attano: father; Royal Protector; supernatural assassin marked by the deity-like Outsider; at her side, but Emily rules from a privileged, comfortable position. The empire is at peace with an assassin on the loose. The Crown Killer: their allegiance and intentions unknown; seems to only target Emily’s political opponents; allowing her to rule uncontested, but painting the monarchy with a shade of ruthlessness.

It is here where the seeds of dissent begin to bud. On the 15th anniversary of Jessamine Kaldwin’s death, the Duke of Serkonos is announced to the throne with a unwelcome guest in tow: Delilah Kaldwin; Emily’s supposed Aunt, and claimant to the throne.

In the ensuing struggle, Emily escapes: her father frozen in black marble; her court scattered and slain; the city watch in turmoil as loyalists scatter against Delilah and the Duke’s contingent of traitors and clockwork soldiers. She escapes to Serknos: seat of the Duke and of Delilah’s origins; looking for a way to regain the throne amongst their shared history and web of supporters.

Emily’s path from this moment forward is couched in monarchical birthright and about the ends she’s willing to go to take that birthright back. She teeters between two paths: a chaotic assassin that has no issues discarding the lives of her subjects in order to reclaim power; and a silent saboteur that quietly picks at the pieces, allowing Delilah’s supporters to fall by the wayside due to circumstances of their own making.

It is up to you to determine how she reclaims her throne: with every life spared, left unconscious but hidden in an alleyway; with every twist of your father’s sword in the throat of a pursuant.

And yet, the game makes it abundantly clear that the more aggressive, lethal path will result in a grimmer outcome; a darker future for not only the Empire, but Emily and the people around her as well. With each key target accompanied by a more elaborate set of objectives if approached stealthily and non-lethally; exacting a more fitting, and often crueler, punishment is rewarded the most. So instead, you are provided a budget of bodies; a hazy benchmark of kills that are permissible but still allow for the more optimistic ending to occur. And it is here where the problems arise.

You dance at the edge of the manor’s roof, overlooking the Duke’s guards against a backdrop of waves and sunset. He must be here. The scattered throngs of house guests and hired help; watch dogs, clockwork soldiers, and guards; obscuring the Duke from sight.

You leap from the ledge of the roof into the garden, line of sight broken between the rustle of leaves and hedges underfoot. A knee-height half-slit windowed cellar room lies below, a group of guards playing at cards, too distracted to notice your entrance. Obscured by shadow and with a clench of your fist, you weave their minds together. A web links their fates; the otherworldly Outsider symbol glowing white hot on the back of your palm.

You loose your last sleep bolt from the crossbow-pistol in your right hand as a ethereal arm extends from your left, pulling you from the windowsill above toward the table of cards. The bolt finds its mark, acting quickly as the first guard mumbles in surprise before collapsing. With the web sprung, two other guards loose consciousness, as if hit with bolts as well.

The final guard, his back turned to you, stands in surprise. And it is in that moment that you are already behind him, arms reaching around his neck in intimate embrace, choking the breath from his lips.

He slumps over the back of his chair, but an unexpected sound accompanies his final moan of exertion. The clatter of a tray; the shattering of china and glass; a scream of surprise; a crash through the door adjacent. A member of the house staff stumbles upon you among an assortment of bodies, and even she can put two and two together.

And on the other side on that door, another guard stands startled and surprised, pulling his pistol from the holster.

You catch the first shot as it rings out, alerting what seems like half the house. The bullets rattle against your blade and clatter to the floor.

You must decide, in this moment. Do I kill this man? He is only doing his job, and yet I could discard his life in an instant. If I kill him, and continue, his life is erased forever. Whereas if I die, I can try again and never involve him in the first place.

Stuck between this dichotomy, there is little space for the in-between: where sometimes, the question of taking a life isn’t simply a moral binary pre-defined, but a necessity of the moment. The compromise Emily’s story provides makes it easy to discard and slaughter nameless faces and yet interesting and rewarding to preserve and show mercy to those at the top. Often these are people of power; of wealth; and it feels wrong to allow them to live when so many of those whom Emily encounters aren’t even given a second thought.

So when we do question the value of an unknown life, we freeze in indecision. Instead of further violence, we resign ourselves to our mistake of being in the position in the first place. We don’t run and hide, nor do we guard against the sword gliding cleanly between our ribs. We know we can just retry, and rewind back to that ledge, overlooking the bay. Again and again, until we get it right.

With each reattempt, we’re slowly worn down. How tiresome it is, to wield power with restraint. To show compassion when ruthlessness is more straightforward. Maybe this was the intention, a meditation on the qualities required to rule.

And yet, when rewinding back to that moment. I wonder what would have happened, had I put my sword away, and offered non-violence. Could I have de-escalated the situation, convinced the guard to let me pass, so that I could unseat the man that was likely starving his family?

Could the heart of my mother, calling from the ethereal void, tell me if this man was a good one, filled with fear, or one who only sought blood?

And if he was not convinced, and was determined to end my life, would I be justified in responding with violence in kind?

I wonder if Emily lost out, by never having those types of conversations. By avoiding the learnings of failure and only experiencing consequences when they were on her terms.

I wonder too, what we missed out on, indulging in the same.