This column contains a ton of spoilers for Dishonored. If you haven’t had a chance to finish it yet, I suggest doing so before reading ahead.
Dishonored is a game all about player choice, focusing less on Mass Effect-style dialogue options and more on your decisions through actions. As you quickly discover, you will be choosing to kill or spare many of those who wish to impede your ultimate goal of revenge. But Dishonored does more than simply give you the tools to decide the fates of those who betrayed you; it offers you a new perspective on a character who never utters a single word and it does so through the words and actions of others. Even the smallest details are enough to help form the most intriguing character I’ve seen in a game in years.
Corvo Attano, Dishonored’s mysterious lead, is a character that seemed almost like a blank slate at first. Leading up to the game’s release, we knew very little about the masked man other than his mission to get revenge on those who killed the Empress and kidnapped her daughter, Emily, who he was sworn to protect. He never speaks a single word throughout the entire game, and because of this I never felt like I could connect with him, at least not initially. And yet, like with Chell from Portal and Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, he is as memorable and likeable as the player wants him to be due to his interactions with others, the world and characters around him, and how he approaches his ultimate goal.
Early on in Dishonored, you arrive back at Dunwall, the setting for this adventure, after what seems like a long mission abroad. The Empress is happy to see you, and her reaction to your return is more like the greeting of a friend than a servant or bodyguard. Emily demands your attention immediately as well, immediately setting up Corvo as a loyal and reliable servant. It is in these opening moments you discover his strong connections to the Empress and especially to Emily, who views you almost like a father-figure. After a friendly game of hide-and-seek with Emily, things make a turn for the terrible as assassins arrive on the scene, swiftly kill the Empress, capture Emily, and leave without a trace of their presence. Corvo is quickly imprisoned, with these crimes falling on entirely on his lap, and people he considered his allies set to take over the Empire without you or the Empress to stop him. This sets the stage, introduces Emily, Corvo, and Corvo’s ultimate goal. And this is all before he puts on the mask.
After Corvo escapes from prison thanks to some new allies who claim they want to help rescue Emily and take out those who oppose her rightful place as the next Empress, he is granted his new abilities, a plethora of weapons, and his trusty mask. This is used to hide his face among the crowd and strike fear in the hearts of those who oppose him, but it’s also used to hide his humanity. When out on a mission, he wants to achieve his goal no matter what, and the mask is almost his way of hiding himself from the people of Dunwall who not only consider him a criminal, they have no doubt that he is a threat to their safety. While he could go without the mask, it represents his personal separation of Corvo the servant of Emily and the Empire and Corvo the assassin.
This is made especially clear when you begin to realize that when he is at his home base, speaking to his newfound allies and friends, he remains maskless. He is safe from those who wish to kill him and he is free to be himself, even if what is discussed is that of murder. This became especially apparent once Emily was rescued. Corvo didn’t want her to see him with the mask, at least not more than she had to, so he made sure to keep it off whenever he was around her.
I saw this as his ability to separate the two parts of himself and embrace that he is still a human being, capable of good and believer in justice. When he’s about to embark on his next assignment? He puts the mask on, ready to seek out his next target and dispense that justice in the way that Corvo the assassin believes is right. The removal of the mask during these quiet moments is a small touch, but a necessary one.
Once Corvo begins his assignments, player agency kicks into high gear, allowing you to approach each target however you want. As you navigate your way through the many areas of Dunwall, you overhear conversations, many of which are about the status of Dunwall itself, others dealing with Corvo and the rumors circulating about him. This is where you begin to learn a lot about Corvo, even if a lot of what you hear throughout your travels is never confirmed.
For example, rumors were floating around that Emily was actually the daughter of Corvo, implying his close connection to the Empress were more than just a friendship. This would explain that his desire for revenge was not simply a selfish one: if Emily was his daughter, he wanted what was best for her. These small conversations you pick up along your journey are nice touches that add to the humanity of Corvo and, for me, helped ensure the kind of character I wanted him to be. Dishonored took the idea of blending into the background and made it literal.
It wasn’t long before I realized that Corvo was someone who would not rely on killing for the sake of killing, at least in my mind. He would attempt to sneak his way through the many areas of Dunwall, dealing with enemies that would kill him without hesitation as non-lethally as possible. He may have been out for revenge, but everything up to that point led me to believe that he would not rely on needless violence to get that revenge. It was then that I discovered that each main target that he needed to dispose of to meet his goal could be taken care of non-lethally. They would not go unpunished; they met a fate worse than death.
For example, one of the early missions involves a pair of men known as the Pendleton brothers. In order to deal with them without killing them directly, he needed to work with a man named Slackjaw, a crime boss who requires Corvo’s help to keep his organization afloat. I was reluctant, but in the end I decided to work with Slackjaw and his men. After aiding them, Slackjaw kept his promise. They were able to kidnap the brothers, cut out their tongues, and force them to work in Slackjaw’s mines for the rest of their lives, away from Dunwall and the rest of society. It was a fitting punishment. Corvo did not show mercy, but his hands remained bloodless for the time being.
Eventually you find your way back to Dunwall Tower, where everything began. Corvo returns to take out the Lord Regent, Hiram Burrows, the man currently in control of the Empire and the mastermind behind the assassination and your sentencing. It wasn’t long before he discovered a non-lethal approach; Burrows kept secret recordings confessing his many crimes in his safe that could be broadcast to all of Dunwall. Getting to the safe wasn’t easy, but once he grabbed these recordings he was able to use them to expose the Lord Regent for the criminal he is. I made sure to stay and listen as the guards quickly arrested him for his crimes, making the extra effort worth it. Corvo soon returned to his base to celebrate with his comrades, but before he knew it, his mission was far from over.
At this point Corvo was able to carry out his revenge the way he wanted to. He removed his mask, greeted his allies, and then was quickly betrayed by Havelock, the man responsible for rescuing him and putting this whole revenge plan into action. He was left to die in the sewers while Havelock and his men went off to Dunwall Tower with a now kidnapped Emily to reclaim the throne. By the time I reached the final part of the game, with Havelock in my sights, he was willing and able to kill him quickly and quietly. I could have left Havelock alone, or merely incapacitated him, but by that point it was clear that there was no way he could be left alive.
While Corvo’s ultimate goal was revenge, it wasn’t until the very end when he was betrayed by Havelock that it felt necessary to resort to a lethal approach. Everything was building towards a happy ending, and it was taken away from Corvo yet again. It was at that point when Corvo the bodyguard and Corvo the assassin became one, and his quest for vengeance was finally complete. I actually think back on those last moments and wonder if it would have been worth it to spare Havelock, but it seemed worth it in the end. I think, above all else, it is what Corvo would have done.
There is a lot to love about Dishonored, but the human element is what stuck with me long after the credits rolled. Corvo is not the most well-defined character around, but I consider him one of the most memorable. He doesn’t speak; like the choices that you make throughout the game, his actions speak for him. And when he takes off his mask, he is just an ordinary citizen of Dunwall trying to protect those he cares about most. Some people may go through Dishonored and never even pay attention to any of this. They will never consider the things that make Corvo such a spectacular character and why it adds so much to the overall experience. That, more than anything else, is a real shame.