Dishonored 2 and the odd appeal of the nonlethal playthrough

After a lengthy development cycle and a detailed ad campaign, Dishonored 2 finally came out last month. Bethesda has been hyping it up for months, circulating plenty of trailers and gameplay videos that show off the game’s clever, multifaceted ways of killing your enemies. You can do things like stop time, teleport behind a gang of enemies, stick a mine to one of their backs and kick him into his buddies. That’s awesome.

But, to be honest, I’m one of those people who isn’t terribly interested in that aspect of games like Dishonored 2. I’m more concerned with something that I (and many others) consider to be a defining feature of stealth/action games like it: the ability to play through it without killing anyone.

But whether I’m slinking through the Metal Gear series with nothing but a tranquilizer, spending way too much time lying in wait in the Deus Ex games, or figuring out all the methods of eliminating each target without killing them in Dishonored, there’s one question that I get from anyone who’s watched me play a game this way: “Why?”

Why would I want to actively avoid using the weapons and methods at my disposal to kill my enemies in cool and hilarious ways? Why would I want to slow the pace of the game to a crawl by constantly crouching and taking the most roundabout route possible? And why the hell would I want to spare the lives of all these characters that would like nothing more than to kill me?

It’s because a nonlethal playthrough is something that distinguishes itself through those self-imposed limitations.

Committing to a nonlethal playthrough requires you to tap into an entirely new vision of the game’s design. The experience isn’t about killing in the coolest, quickest way anymore — it’s about analyzing and adapting to each situation the game presents you with and ultimately outwitting the developers.

“Committing to a nonlethal playthrough requires you to tap into an entirely new vision of the game’s design.”

Becoming intimately familiar with a small range of nonlethal weapons and abilities (and knowing how to use them effectively) is part of the draw of a nonlethal run. Most stealth/action games only provide you with a few nonlethal weapons and abilities, which is part of what makes them so enticingly, even prohibitively difficult. But the Dishonored series makes pacifist runs both challenging and fun by giving you nonlethal versions of other deadly things. Teleportation, mind control, sleep darts, gas grenades and more can all be used for stealth as well as chaos, and they keep the experience from feeling stilted.

A nonlethal run also teaches you a game’s level design in multiple layers. You come to realize that a good level in a stealth/action game is split between intended paths and incidental paths. Deus Ex games contain intricately designed areas with numerous different paths that can help you get through the various missions, but most of these lesser-known paths are only apparent to someone who insists on avoiding open combat and staying hidden. You’re eventually able to infer where a secret path can be, and finding it is much more satisfying after you’ve been evading the long sightlines of mercenaries while looking for that one perfect vent that leads to the upper floors. It acts like a validation of playing with stealth and discretion, rather than using your cybernetic augmentations to kill everyone before progressing down a hallway.

“It acts like a validation of playing with stealth and discretion, rather than using your cybernetic augmentations to kill everyone.”

Enemy placement is another major consideration of any nonlethal playthrough. With the meticulous enemy placement of a game like Mark of the Ninja, each room becomes its own puzzle of timing and patience. Learning where enemies will go before they even move is crucial to sneaking past them, and distracting them with a broken lightbulb or a noisemaker must be done at just the right moment. A nonlethal run is not necessarily about taking out your enemies without killing them, either — it’s about leaving no trace by avoiding conflict whenever possible. Succeeding at that is one of the highlights of a pacifist player’s skill.

Of course, the most important part of enemy encounters in a nonlethal playthrough isn’t just the enemy placement; it’s the AI itself. Complex, adaptive AI systems in the Metal Gear series make each soldier react to different cues in distinct ways. Since you can’t simply kill them, encounters become a battle of wits between the player and the developer. Knowing that a single soldier can track clues to where you are, radio for help, or even kill you on his own makes you seek out any holes or exploits in the AI pattern that you can use to your advantage in the long term. Even better is when developers anticipate this, and include a variety of enemy types that appear to think differently from one another.

We’ve gone through a number of mechanical reasons for why a nonlethal run is uniquely enjoyable and challenging, but there’s another dimension to the pacifist playthrough. Plenty of people choose to play this way for the inherent moral gratification of knowing that they can be an agent of power in a fictional world without being a violent one. Dishonored, Deus Ex, Mark of the Ninja and Metal Gear all actively encourage this kind of thinking by including various rewards for progressing peacefully or making smart story choices. It might be the happier alternate endings of Dishonored or Deus Ex. It may be the higher rankings and bonus items of Metal Gear and Mark of the Ninja. But ultimately, these games stand out by making you feel like you’ve left your mark on their worlds by leaving no mark at all.