- "Think before you strike. If you kill me, you become the assassin we claimed you were. You'll become one of us!"
- —Kirin Jindosh
Chaos is the element that affects the actions and reactions of characters during Dishonored, its DLCs: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, and Dishonored 2 determining the fate of Daud, Emily Kaldwin, Corvo Attano and the Empire of the Isles.
Chaos controls how Corvo, Daud and Emily's quests unfold and their eventual resolution. It affects the number of guards present in each area and the strength of their forces, and increases the quantity of rats, weepers, and bloodflies encountered during missions. It is chiefly calculated by the number of people killed, but is also influenced by other factors, e.g. completing certain side objectives.
It has been reported that, for high chaos to be achieved, Corvo, Daud, or Emily must kill 20% of the human population per mission. If total kills exceed 50% of the population seen, the city is irrevocably thrown into chaos, and the very high chaos ending is depicted. However, these thresholds are not absolute, as there are several other factors that increase or decrease chaos.
Variations on the totals seem to trigger minor differences between chaos levels, such as Samuel Beechworth's behavior in The Light at the End or Meagan Foster's choice to reveal her real identity in Death to the Empress.
The most violent path the protagonist can choose, high chaos, is mainly achieved by killing many human characters.
In Dishonored, having a high chaos rating when Corvo arrives at his final mission drastically changes the situation he encounters on Kingsparrow Island. Cosmetic changes, such as the presence of a large storm on the island, are paired with changes to the environment and story line that will alter how Corvo must navigate the area. At this level, Samuel will fire a gunshot to alert the guards to Corvo's presence, as a demonstration of his absolute disgust with Corvo's actions.
In Dishonored 2, high chaos is taken even further, granting the protagonist the option to leave either Emily or Corvo in stone and rule the Empire alone (which can result in Corvo becoming the new Emperor of the Isles).
Medium chaos is a high chaos state wherein the protagonist has not caused enough chaos to warrant the highest rating. Barring other factors influencing chaos, more than 20% and less than 50% of the human population per mission must be killed for a medium-high chaos rating.
In Dishonored, Samuel will not alert the guards on Kingsparrow Island to Corvo's presence, but will castigate him and say he never wants to see Corvo again. Only with a medium-high chaos factor can Callista Curnow survive the game in high chaos, although even then her survival is not guaranteed.
In The Brigmore Witches, the Outsider's speech to Daud after entering Delilah's painting will vary between medium chaos and other chaos states, even changing between medium-high and medium-low chaos. This is the only known instance of a game reacting to a medium-low chaos factor.
Dishonored 2 has a similar chaos state in which the protagonist, while they have achieved high chaos, still didn't kill enough people to achieve the state of very high chaos. This causes Corvo or Emily to comment differently on most inspectable objects and is a prerequisite for a unique ending, in which Corvo Attano rules Karnaca as "the Bloody Duke".
Low chaos requires the protagonist to avoid killing both enemies and civilians. Non-human enemies such as rats, river krusts and wolfhounds do not affect chaos. Early on, when there are many guards in the protagonist's path, following a low chaos approach can be difficult - however, in some of the later, less populated areas, it is significantly easier.
Effects of Chaos
|Game||High Chaos||Low Chaos|
|General||Increase in the number of guards present.||Decrease in the number of guards present.|
|Darker ending.||More optimistic ending.|
|More cynical reactions from the Outsider at his shrines.||More curious reactions from the Outsider at his shrines.|
|Increase in story-related deaths.||Decrease in story-related deaths.|
|Dishonored||Increase in rat and weeper populations.||Decrease in rat and weeper populations.|
|More hostile reactions from Loyalist members.||Loyalists will be friendlier and more respectful toward Corvo.|
|Negative changes in Emily's behavior.||Positive behavior from Emily.|
|The Knife of Dunwall||Negative changes in Billie Lurk's behavior.||Positive behavior from Billie.|
|Dishonored 2||Increase in bloodfly-infested buildings.||Decrease in bloodfly-infested buildings.|
|More distrustful and hostile reactions from allies.||More trusting and friendly reactions from allies.|
|Negative character development in Corvo or Emily.||Positive character development in Corvo or Emily.|
The Chaos factor is increased by the following activities:
- Killing assassination targets or other human beings - City Watch, civilians, weepers, nest keepers, or other.
- Getting spotted by an enemy or alarmed civilian.
- Letting alarms be rung or bodies be discovered.
- Performing certain side objectives or special actions:
|Poison Slackjaw's still for Granny Rags.||High Overseer Campbell|
|Kill Lord Montgomery Shaw.||Lady Boyle's Last Party|
|Kill the Royal Interrogator.||Return to the Tower|
|Use the Arc Pylon to kill hostiles.||The Loyalists|
|Destroy the Rothwild Slaughterhouse.||A Captain of Industry|
|Kill General Turnbull.||Eminent Domain|
Chaos is decreased by the following activities:
- Dealing with assassination targets in a non-lethal manner.
- Avoiding the use of lethal force against humans in general by either eliminating them non-lethally or avoiding them altogether.
- Avoiding detection.
- Performing certain side objectives or special actions:
|Save Geoff Curnow from Thaddeus Campbell's assassination attempt.||High Overseer Campbell|
|Save Overseer Berthold and his sister from zealous Overseers.||High Overseer Campbell|
|Rescue a woman from a swarm of rats in an abandoned factory on the north side of Kaldwin's Bridge.||The Royal Physician|
|Release Anton Sokolov's test subject from confinement.||The Royal Physician|
|Save the plague survivors in Creating a Safe Haven.||The Flooded District|
|Use the Arc Pylon to incapacitate hostiles.||The Loyalists|
|Maintain Overseer disguise, leaving no evidence behind.||A Stay of Execution for Lizzy|
|Stop the Execution of the Guard who helped Corvo.||A Stay of Execution for Lizzy|
|Restore Water to the Canal.||The Dead Eels|
Dishonored, The Knife of Dunwall, The Brigmore Witches, and Dishonored 2 are concluded in a manner that reflects Corvo, Daud, and Emily's actions.
If a low chaos path is attempted, more than 80% of the total human population, including weepers, must survive.
- Should Corvo choose to neutralize the assassination targets non-lethally in an otherwise high chaos playthrough, the wanted posters around Dunwall will still say that the victims were murdered. Various bits of guard or civilian dialogue will also mention the murders even though they never happened. This oversight is rectified in passing conversations in Dishonored 2.
- In Dishonored 2, the protagonist's portrait in each mission summary screen will be darker and bloodied in high chaos, whereas it will be lighter and clean in low chaos.
- In Dishonored, Emily will become more cynical as chaos increases throughout the story, and the drawings that she makes of Corvo will show a nicer or scarier version of him according to the Chaos level, with a masked Corvo being shown on the high Chaos levels, and a happy, unmasked Corvo in the low Chaos playthroughs.
- Death of the Outsider is the only game that lacks the chaos system but in certain occasions, choosing to kill or not will still lead to different outcomes. It is also the only game that does not have mission targets in the sense that they must be dealt with to proceed (except for the last mission), thus most of the times there is no non-lethal option.