While playing through the Dishonored games, my approach has been familiar: avoid violence whenever possible, stay in the shadows, and manipulate the world in my favor. Besides forcing the player to be patient and creative, it seemed to fit the game's main characters—Corvo Attano, former bodyguard of the murdered Empress, and Emily Kaldwin, daughter of said Empress—who struck me as individuals ruthless in a pursuit of reclaiming the power, but not at the moral expense of bloodied bodies piling up along the way. With Death of the Outsider, an expansion to Dishonored 2 and possibly a conclusion to the series, I've completely flipped. Blood is on my hands, the body count has risen—and it feels good.
In Death of the Outsider, you're Billie Lurk, a character who played a pivotal role in setting the events of Dishonored into motion; she was part of the assassination plot that killed Emily Kaldwin's mother, the Empress. Though she eventually tries to make good on her transgressions by helping Emily regain control in Dishonored 2, Death of the Outsider sees her reconnecting with her assassination mentor, Daud, who led the mission against the Empress. These are people who have played by their own rules, albeit ones aided and abetted by the mysterious and god-like Outsider, spending their days and nights slitting the throats of society's hypocritical elite, in service of justice and profit. In Death of the Outsider, they turn their gaze to the unquestioned one, the Outsider, and wonder what it'd be like if the world didn't have his meddling. What happens if you kill God?
Despite how the narrative portrayal of Dishonored's playable characters seemingly lined up with my playstyle, it often put me in a bind. Part of what makes Dishonored (and its sequel) so smart is how the game often placed you in situations that revealed your own hypocrisy. In the original, one mission has you going after two brothers. The "violent" route is to track them down and kill them, while the "non-violent" or "passive" route is to set up a series of complicated events that results in the two being sentenced to physical labor in a rock quarry for rest of their lives. That might be a fate worse than death. Good job?
In Dishonored 2, I squirmed when presented with a resolution to a mission that had you going after Kirin Jindosh, one of the technological intellectuals who was predicted to bring about an age of enlightenment, but in reality, gave the ruling class new weapons to squash those beneath them. You can, of course, simply slit Jindosh's throat and move on—or strap him into his own electroshock machine and administer a few doses. Jindosh doesn't die, but is robbed of his intellect, doomed to wear the face of a genius but without a brain to back it up. Surrounded by his toys for the rest of time, but with no understanding of what they do.
These choices are dark, and meant to make you feel conflicted about the game's definition of non-violent. Still, I cleared my conscience by knowing I'd only knocked out every guard! I'd done my part.
You're freed of those shackles in Death of the Outsider. Billie Lurk is not squeamish about punishing the wicked with the tip of her blade. Given the way she changes in Dishonored 2, one could justify why she might adjust her approach, but I rejected that, and doubled down on Billie as an excuse to play Dishonored differently.
It's incredibly freeing to play Dishonored knowing you're not longer immediately hammering the quick load button when you're discovered; suddenly, you can try to fight your way out of harrowing situations. My version of Billie doesn't flinch at violence, but is conflicted on how to handle guards; it's unclear whether they're all corrupt enough to justify such a quick end. As such, I only enact final judgement on them when there's no other choice, my back to the wall.
It makes Dishonored feel more like Hitman, as I slink through the city, letting little stand in my way. What were once obstacles to avoid are now enemies who would regret their encounter with me. Combined with Death of the Outsider's new powers—one allows you to assume the face of any character in the game, another grants teleporting short distances and through objects, while a third separate spirit from body in order to explore more freely—it's forced me to completely rethink how I approach the AI-driven puzzles at the heart of Dishonored.
One of the side missions in Death of the Outsider has you looking for someone's brother. You eventually find them upstairs at a bar, but instead of hiding away for too many beers, you discover something far more sinister: they've been strapped to a bed and brought to the brink of death, with their blood slowly being transfused into the arms of a group of people in the room over. These monsters, seeking "variety" in a life already full of wealth and power, have been siphoning a man's blood for a risky high, a chance to peer into the Void, the realm of the Outsider. I slit the throat of the man operating the device he was hooked up, turned it off, and took note of a noise, indicating everyone who'd been using the blood had passed out. Before picking up the brother, I walked into that room, pulled out my blade, and maimed everyone blissfully sitting in their puffy chairs, drinks at their side.
Then, realizing there was no way out of the bar with a man over my shoulder, I made a calculation. On the one hand, I could slowly but surely covertly knock out everyone who was hanging out in a bar that was explicitly advertised as a place where you could experience a mind trip siphoned from society's poorest and most vulnerable. Or I could consider all of them complicit and supportive of a gross injustice against Karnaca's marginalized—and kill every single one.
I quietly setting up a series of death chambers in the nearby stairs. After gaining the attention of the patrons by knifing a few, I watched the fireworks.
There's an element of schadenfreude, too, that I can't deny. While we live through a world in which a man who openly admitted to grabbing pussies became President, it's satisfying to be part of a story where bad people meet bad ends because you made it happen. That's not meant to be a call to violence—except, perhaps, punching Nazis—but recognizing the cathartic outlet that games can provide, how their emphasis on agency can provide control, when we otherwise feel powerless.
More than anything, it's a joy to be playing the game differently. It's so easy to fall into comfortable but ultimately repetitive habits when playing a game, and clever designers find ways to force you into developing new strategies and ways of thinking.
So far, I've put about five hours into the game, and it feels like it's only the halfway point. This is a meaty expansion to an already great game, and if Death of the Outsider is where the series ends, it seems to be a fitting conclusion to a series that's had a really great run. So watch out, Outsider; Billie Lurk—my Billie Lurk—is coming, and she's leaving a trail of blood.