|When stealth runs go wrong...|
I guess it's true what they say about a good man going to war.
The defining characteristic of a run in Dishonored is its level of 'chaos'. To what extent have your actions increased the general shittiness of the crapsack city of Dunwall? The primary factor determining this level is how many people you have killed, be they enemies, civilians or even the barely more-than-zombie weepers in the final throes of the rat plague; corpses mean chaos and chaos means corpses, as more chaos means more rats, more weepers and more death.
So, a low chaos run is the 'good' path, right? Well, sort of. It's probably the better path, overall, but it's not a nice option. As noted before, the nonlethal options are in a lot of ways nastier than honest murder, however much 'justice' may be attached to them. The High Overseer is a corrupt and monstrous hypocrite who uses his 'faith' as a maul against others while violating its strictures for shiggles. Among his crimes are the abduction of children to be trained as Overseers and the murder of a prostitute (or three) he believed to be blackmailing him. There is a certain narrative symmetry in exposing his crimes simply by marking him as anathema to his own order. Likewise, Slackjaw the gang boss will proudly explain how apt his punishment for the Pendleton twins is, having them shipped off as mutilated slaves for their own mines.
Whatever they may have done to deserve these fates, and however much they may avert the increase of chaos in the city, it would take a warped perception indeed to see them as a righteous course. Rather, the point of Dishonored is more that there is no righteous course. As Bioshock Infinite subverted the moral path of its predecessor by presenting choices that were mechanically meaningless and all led to the same deterministic ending, so Dishonored subverts the same expectations by providing equally or more horrid alternatives.
But why, you might fairly wonder, do these acts of horror produce less chaos than a simple kill? Perhaps it is because there is an appearance of social justice, in place of personal vengeance. When you brand Campbell you force the state to treat him as if he had earned the brand (and, as various notes will tell you, he has done.) The disappearance of the Pendletons is more mysterious, but less personal than the discovery of their stabbed corpses in the Golden Cat 'bathhouse'. When the assassin strikes, the city is at the mercy of a lone nutter with a shiv; when shit happens...
I guess that's just Chinatown.
Many articles have considered the question of Corvo's dishonour, and by what standard, if any, his conduct after the prison break can be considered 'honourable'. Some, in particular this article, make the point that while to an 18th/19th century pseudo-British perspective his actions (spying, murdering, witchcraft, trap setting and bomb throwing) are appalling, they adhere rather more to the vendetta code of the Mediterranean, and in particular Italy.
I would like to make a different point, and one only tangentially related to the protagonist's concrete conduct. Consider the discussion on the boat as Samuel returns Corvo and the rescued Lady Emily to the Hound Pits Pub. Samuel praises Corvo for 'doing the business' on the Pendletons. "What business is that?" Emily asks, to which Samuel awkwardly replies: "Grown up business, m'lady."
Emily is the future Empress of the Isles, although she is yet a child, but the Loyalists shelter her from their own actions and arrange for her to be instructed in etiquette while they plan insurrection on her behalf. Is this because she is a child? Perhaps, but perhaps it is because the dishonour is not Corvo's at all. Corvo was never an honourable man, although perhaps he was once a good one. It is the Empire that is dishonoured by the murder of the Empress and the ascendancy of a treacherous spymaster.
We're never actually told whether the late Empress was an effective ruler, but she was the rightful ruler, and Emily is the figurehead of the Loyalists not because she is expected to be perfect, but because she is the rightful heir. Her ascension to the throne is just and proper; it is the honourable thing, however terrible the deeds that lead to it.
Corvo Attano is not a shamed man fighting to regain his honour. His honour, such as it is, was always a bloody and personal thing and no frame in the world could have taken it from him. Rather, he is fighting for the honour of his country, his Empress, and for his daughter figure if not actually for his daughter. Like Serenity's Operative, he is the monster whose deeds bring about a better world than he has a right to live in. He is the scapegoat who bears the sins of all; or perhaps the angel with the fiery sword standing at the east gate of Eden, protecting paradise but ever standing with his back to its perfection.
The Escapist article also notes that Corvo is the weapon of the conspiracy, rather than a member. I would note also that the Loyalist nobles never give Corvo directions on how to undertake their missions. They are King Henry asking who will rid them of a turbulent priest, and none of their doing if the means of ridding are not within the rules of war. Maybe they thought that he would call the Pendletons out properly, as with Lord Shaw and the bizarre duel by proxy, or at least intended to claim so if the awkward questions were ever asked.
This of course begs the question of the nature of Corvo's work for the Empress. He is referred to as her bodyguard, but his skill set is not typical of that profession. His alertness is given no special note, his defensive fighting is of a fairly common standard. As I noted in the opening, what Corvo Attano is good at is taking alive people and making them into dead people. If he protected the Empress it was surely through the knowledge that attacking her could elicit a visit - just one - from the Lord Protector. One wonders if the 'bodyguard' job wasn't just a cover to explain his frequent proximity to the Empress, or if the Lord Protectorship might have been his door to a world of honour; a door slammed in his face when he is forced back to the path of the assassin.
Poor Corvo; was he ever destined to be more than a blade in the hands of an Empress, of a conspiracy, or of a remote and uncaring player? Is the whole game really a comment on the psychology of the first person shooter?