A game I’ve been playing a lot recently is Dishonored. A kind of mission based sand box stealth game where you have a lot of freedom in how you choose to complete the missions. The game’s world and story also changes based on your decisions, by ranking your “chaos”. Chaos measures how stealthy you were and how high your kill count was. Like most games with moral choice systems (Fallout, Mass Effect, Infamous) it’s supposed to give a sense of freedom in how you choose to complete the game, but really it just locks you into a choice at the very beginning, and eliminates all other options.
The morality system in Dishonored diminishes the game. It breaks the core mechanics into two separate pieces, choosing to boost replay value over creating one fluid experience. This made the game’s entire combat system redundant. Emphasising stealth reduced the game to two buttons, Blink-Choke-Repeat. The simplest, most effective way to complete stealth playthroughs. The game then rewarded you for being stealthy and non lethal, in doing so it rewards you for not fleshing out its own mechanics, for ignoring an entire portion of its gameplay and refraining from using the combat at all.
The morality system kept telling me not to play the game. Avoiding enemies and confrontations, reloading saves to avoid having to kill. I was rewarded for one play style, I was outwardly told during loading screens that playing this way would make the game’s world better and give me the best ending. So I was locked into a choice, locked into being stealthy and non lethal, locked into not utilizing the combat system. The point of the combat is so that if you do get caught, you can fight your way out, it’s not an instant game over. This keeps the game intense and gives it a great flow. But by punishing you for using combat, it takes away the entire point of the combat in the first place. When I got caught, I had to just reload a save anyway to keep my chaos low, it may as well have been an instant game over. Otherwise I would have to deal with more rats and weepers, I would use up most of my resources, receive a darker ending, and those end of mission boxes, “didn’t kill anyone” and “never detected”, would remain unchecked. So I just reloaded the save and tried again. By giving me choice, the game actively reduced the freedom I had in how I chose to play the game.
On a side note, having the amount of rats and weepers around increase as you kill more people actually makes sense. It could’ve been a pretty cool mechanic if it just occurred passively, or if you learnt about it in one of the many books or notes you find, or through any other element actually inside of the game’s world as opposed it being shoved in front of your face during a loading screen.
As gamers we’ve been conditioned to play to make the game happy. To satisfy that compulsion to get the best ending, get the high score, collect all the collectables, check all the boxes. Dishonored was a great game, it had a great art style, good mechanics, and interesting concepts. But the game separated its core mechanics and then reattached them to a morality system in a way that effectively bound you to a play style and locked off half the game, if you wanted to achieve the best or most consistent outcomes. So I may have played the game in a way that made it choppy, frustrating, poorly paced, and utterly restricted my options, but at least I got the best ending.
Dishonored is owned by Bethesda Softworks. All images used under Fair Use.