The Philosophy of Dishonored

To this day, Dishonored remains celebrated for its ingenuity in gameplay and style. But what about its philosophy? Dig deep enough, and you'll discover a message packaged in friendship, a lesson on the importance of "the little platoon."

The Philosophy of Dishonored

Nearly 10 years since its release, Dishonored remains a masterclass in the stealth genre, a timeless “how-to” on level design, atmosphere, and combat. Yet, as if to capture the mantra of stealth, its philosophy slips by even its most raving reviews, hidden beneath 80 hours of playtime. But struggle with the Chaos mechanic long enough, and you’ll see that Dishonored’s lesson on morality—a nod to Edmund Burke’s notion of “little platoons”—is one worth knowing. 

The Chaos Mechanic

Set in the industrial city of Dunwall, you play as Corvo, a bodyguard of the Empress framed for her murder, the victim of a ploy hatched by the scheming elite. 

With the Empress dead and her daughter Emily—the rightful heir to the throne—kidnapped, you seek retribution. Against a raging plague and a government corrupt to its core, you don a mask and a hood. In the embrace of the shadows, you set out to rescue Emily and reclaim the city from its conspirators. 

But which path will you take? The Outsider has armed you with unearthly powers—will you wreak havoc, quick and careless in the blood you spill, or will you toil and scrape for peace? 

Dishonored asks this question through a morality gauge, a mechanic dubbed “Chaos.” With every enemy you encounter, from the nameless city watch to the mastermind Lord Regent, you’re forced to decide: kill or let live. Your choices dictate your level of Chaos, which in turn shapes a list of gameplay and story elements, including the game’s ending.

Dishonored Debut Trailer

Gratuitous killing rewards you with rat-littered streets, hostile enemies, and generally spiteful dialogue. Dark and unthinking being the choices you’ve made, your story ends in “high chaos.” Dunwall tumbles deeper into turmoil, and Emily is placed on a throne fashioned from murder. Be truly senseless in your violence to tip the scales toward “total chaos.” Dunwall is utterly ruined and the throne is empty. Emily died before your rescue. 

To see a brighter world and a happier ending, the game demands a less lethal approach. Spare enough lives, and your surroundings light up ever so slightly. Under “low chaos”, rats are few and far between, enemies are less wary, and conversations are something close to pleasant. When the curtains close, the plague is cured and Emily—known by her loving subjects as Emily the Wise—ushers in a golden age for Dunwall. 

Obviously, none of this is very nuanced. “Your actions have consequences” isn’t the most intriguing take, but this isn’t where Dishonored’s philosophy shines. Its real message is instead delivered by its most likable character in Samuel Beechworth. 

Samuel Beechworth

Samuel is your boatman. Slender and weathered, a sense of fatigue radiates from the former sailor. His hair is a dark shade of grey, slicked back to reveal the ridges on his forehead and a scar above his left eye—a sign that the waves he once braved were not so calm. His twilight years are fast approaching, and yet here he stands, facing the currents once more. 

Samuel, your only friend.

Samuel, your only friend.

Every mission opens with the two of you moving through a body of water as he provides you with a lay of the land ahead. You quickly come to realize that if there’s anything good in Dunwall, it’s Samuel. Humble and stubbornly moral, the man stands as a pillar of sincerity in a world of cunning. “Be careful” a permanent fixture of his diction, your friendship grows strong and steady through the course of many boat rides. 

After all, no one in Dunwall cares for you quite like Samuel. When forced by your so-called allies to poison you towards the end of your campaign, your boatman, loyal to the very end, uses only half the bottle before shipping you off on a hidden raft. Managing your Chaos is how you do right by him. Your in-game ethics determines how Samuel bids you farewell. 

Doing Right by Samuel

On our way to my final mission, to end a story I’ve soaked in blood, Samuel begins to list those he had been a fool to trust. Under rain and lightning, he curses the Admiral, Lord Pentleton, Martin… and me, Corvo. As he begrudgingly docks his boat, he whispers over the thunder, “I don’t like what you’ve become.” Before he leaves, he shoots a pistol towards the sky, alerting the enemies of my presence—a humble, desperate attempt to right his wrongs. 

Out of everything the game had thrown at me up to that point, nothing cut like Samuel’s words; I couldn’t shake the feeling that his deepest hatred was for himself. It was as if he hated me for doing what I’d done, but blamed himself for letting me. Dunwall could rot for all I care, but I didn’t want to finish the game knowing I’d let down Samuel. So I began a new save file and swore to kill less. 

“I’d wish you good luck, but I’d be lying.”

Once again on his boat for the final time, I’d come to learn that “less” means little to Samuel as he makes it abundantly clear how lowly he thinks of my violence. At the docks, he tells me I’ll see never see him again—not alive, at least. Then, with a curt good-bye and prayers for Emily and Emily only, he leaves in a quiet hurry, anxious to part ways with a killer. 

So a third playthrough it was. This time, I renounced murder in its entirety. I abandoned my bullets, choked what would’ve been faster to slit, disabled alarms simpler to trip, cautious to never tread on a boatman’s ideals. I let live. 

On my truly last journey with Samuel, the skies are perfectly clear. Making our way across the river, he maps out the island ahead with a sincerity I wasn’t sure I’d hear again, and speaks of our future reunion before gently pulling into the docks. As I step off his boat for the final time, he wishes me luck, saying if anyone deserves it, it’s me. He sends Emily his best, calls me his friend, then leaves quietly, but not so quickly. 

I go on to rescue Emily and rid Dunwall of its worst conspirators. Soon after, the throne is returned to its rightful heir, and an era of prosperity finds Dunwall. In a few years time, the plague is cured and loved ones are reunited. All the while, the economy thrives under the auspices of a scientific revolution. Dunwall is roaring, and in a far-off pub Samuel quietly pours himself a pint. Across from him is none other than Corvo, sipping away at a hard-earned drink. 

The Little Platoon

In roughly 80 hours, I had seen all three endings to Dishonored. By the last, I had chosen to burden myself with a painstaking benevolence, not for Dunwall, but for Samuel. In the one real bond it affords the player, Dishonored reminds us that life doesn’t come with a Chaos gauge. The weight of our actions is felt through the people closest to us. Our little platoon. 

Your city won’t collapse because you killed someone. The world will carry on, indifferent to your crimes. But the lives of those around you—your world—will come to a screeching halt. Your mom won’t sleep for days. Your dad will need a therapist. Your siblings will turn to alcohol or whatever numbs the pain. Your closest friends will desert you, only to blame themselves for what you did. Samuel will hate you, but not as much as he hates himself. The consequences of your actions won’t be felt in the macro, but will instead confront you with a mighty fury in what is most intimate: the people you hold dear. 

In a better Dunwall.

In a better Dunwall.

Dishonored says that what compels us to be better isn’t rooted in a grand notion of society. Rather, we tame our vices with our loved ones in mind. And in the smallness of rebuilding our everyday selves for everyday people, we each contribute to something greater. Something awfully noble. 

Look around. Whether we righted our wrongs for Samuel or Dunwall, the sun shines on cleaner streets and friendlier folk—a happier world. Kindness prevails. Dunwall is saved. Samuel pours a pint. 

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