In any good horror movie, the antagonist reveals something about our fears and hopes. Vampires, werewolves and zombies can stand to tell us about anything from HIV through prejudice to consumer capitalism. In games, it’s often fun to be the monster, breaking all the rules and doing what you want, and Dishonored scratches this itch as well as the best of them. But Arkane’s majestic contribution to the third wave of immersive sims is more concerned with interrogating the role of the monster in society. It gives us the freedom and power of the devil himself, but ultimately asks us to question – and decide – what it means to wear the skull-faced mask of Dunwall’s bogeyman.
Spoilers galore, so stop reading now if you haven’t completed the game.
At the start of every mission, Corvo places his mask over the screen, and at the end he takes it off again. The point of this seemingly superfluous feature is to remind the player, every few hours, that she is not a normal human being anymore. In the world outside the Hound Pits pub, NPCs are hostile by default, and even those who don’t attack you might scream at your horrible new face. Most monstrously, you are more mobile than any mortal man has right to be: not fully a person but a queer tendril of creeping smoke, teleporting presence, now a rat, now a fish, now a simple maid. Yours is not the jump-cutting mobility CEJ Pacian’s Castle of the Red Priest, but nor is it that of an ordinary animal; you are half-embodied, genuinely ‘superhuman’.
With these powers you can simply ignore the way Dunwall is supposed to work, dancing over a complex fabric of broken hallways and forgotten basements, nested roofs and protruding vents. You enter the Golden Cat as a fish through a sewer, or surmount the Overseers’ palace from the maintenance spaces above its corridors. The game places ‘overspill’ areas next to well-protected zones as natural places for the player to escape into when the action gets out of her control. Typically, these are full of poors, thugs, rats or weepers, partly to make things more interesting but partly because it is Corvo’s behaviour which mixes the classes. Leading guards into zombies and vice versa, he blurs the boundaries and can move easily between the gutters and the heights.
Set against this supernatural freedom is a system of physical walls supported by an ideology of restraints. Dunwall is divided against itself not only by spiked fences but by the Walls of Light, disintegration pylons and roving searchlights whose deactivation or circumvention so often forms your first objective. On Kaldwin’s Bridge, a curfew is in effect, enforced by “deadly beating”, while in the backstreets plagued buildings are quarantined with blank metal doors. The Overseers’ use of encumbering body-harnessed ‘music boxes’ to restrict your dark magic only serves to emphasise their rigidity – and confirm, by denying it, your profane fluidity.
Meanwhile, Dunwall shrouds itself in signifiers of prudent confinement – just check out those stiff Victorian collars and strangling cravats. Nobody is more active in this fight than the Overseers. While their religion is never fully explained, it rests on Seven Strictures which hold human appetites in check:
“Restrict the Lying Tongue…the echoes of lies come back as the voice of the Outsider.”
“Restrict the Wandering Gaze that looks hither and yonder for some flashing thing…”
“Restrict the Restless Hands, which quickly become the workmates of the Outsider.”
“Restrict roving feet that love to trespass. They pay no heed to the boundary stones…”
“Restrict the Rampant Hunger…devouring everything wherever they go…”
“Restrict the Wanton Flesh…within these things, the Outsider dwells.”
“Restrict an errant mind before it becomes fractious and divided.”
So Corvo is not merely ‘dishonored’, as Robert Rath so finely showed in his article on 18th and 19th century honour culture. Yes, Corvo’s fall from grace and the destruction of his social capital make him an excellent pawn for the Loyalists – a sacrificial fall guy for their dark intentions. And yes, his foreign origins allow him to slot easily into one of Dunwall’s pre-existing social exclusion boxes once he no longer has power (guards comment on how typical his behaviour is for a Serkonan). Arguably, given Becky Chambers’ analysis of how the game depicts patriarchy, he should have been a woman. They too are among Dunwall’s sacrificial castes.
No, the worst thing is that you basically work for the Satan of Dunwall. Not only does your benefactor get name-checked in commandments 1, 3 and 6, but your whole method of play habitually breaks 2, 3, and 4. If, like me, you immediately gobble up every pot of whale meat you find, then 5 is off the cards as well. Your ability to go anywhere, do anything and ignore social bounds would be fundamentally opposed to the Seven Strictures even if it wasn’t made possible by foul black magic which the entire Overseer order exists to destroy. Corvo is everything they teach you to fear.
Strangely enough, this knowledge becomes available to the player only after her powers are granted. Corvo would logically know all about the Outsider, but we aren’t clued in to his social context until later. The effect of this is to break the Seventh Stricture and divide our thoughts about the actions we take. I’m not talking about their morality per se, because Arkane serve out the Outsider with a generous ladle and it doesn’t take a genius to know he could be bad news. Instead, being the devil’s advocate makes us question our social ties to Dunwall’s world, and with it our commitment to its system.
That’s crucial, because in falling outside society, you gain the ability to critique it. In a fantastic dissection of Dunwall’s “hidden violence,” Cameron Kunzelman points out how much of the world is incidental, optional, stuff you read and guess at. Just so, the player who explores Dishonored will overhear private conversations and find the hidden storiets of people who died alone, or died together, or drank poison after their families died around them. On Kaldwin’s Bridge, the Heart sums up in seven words the victims of Dunwall’s violence: “ruined men, abandoned women, and plague victims.” Corvo is their witness. But more radically, he is the only one in a position to analyse the system they’re trapped in. Unmoored from the linear paths of the intro and the prison, viewing the patrol routes and safe zones of your in privileged cross-section, you are the mobile, bodyless, saveable and loadable being who sees Dunwall as a 3D person views a 2D world.
In this, Dishonored recalls Thief, to which it owes such a glorious intellectual debt. In that game, as Robert Yang has argued, players enact a kind of physical social critique. By entering the strongholds of the rich via the “forgotten places” of the poor, and liberating the wealth of the rulers, you prove that they never deserved it in the first place, because they ignored and created the inequalities which make your entrance possible. In Dishonored, this is still true – but now your observations feed back into the fate of the city, because you are the one who’ll decide it. Garrett never wanted to change the system but only to profit from it; Corvo might actually bring everything down.
Technically, the Loyalists are fighting for the restoration of legitimacy – wrongs righted, lies exposed, tyrants deposed and the rightful heir back on the throne. But of course their methods are skulduggerous as hell, and their predictable betrayal serves as a claim that this is just the way it works, that Dunwall’s problems are inherent in its structure. Like Kunzelman says, the city is built on bodies and its continued existence seems to require constant atrocity. So you have to ask yourself, is this a system worth saving?
You know that High Overseer Campbell has a secret den and sleeps with whores because you’ve been there and stolen his possessions. You know that his faction kidnap children because you slipped through a rat-hole and found the cellar where they keep them. You know that the respected, wonderful Sokolov, who makes myths as a painter and supports the state with his technology, is actually Doctor fucking Mengele. If you broadcast the Lord Regent’s confession then you know that the plague originally began as a weapon on class warfare, and everyone knows that the Overseers wear masks too. Given all this, who – and I would like a drumroll, please – is the real monster?
Two examples stand over the others. First, when I first entered the mansion of Lady Boyle, and saw its cavernous main hall, my mouth dropped was open for one whole minute. I’d come here through a necropolis, where the relation of safe havens to overspill zones is inverted so that guards patrol the streets and imprison the sick in their tenements. Now I was staring up into a golden vision in high baroque. The experience produces awe, even a kind of reverence – like that created in a cathedral – and in one sense Corvo is the profane element who enters and defiles this sacred place. But then, it’s profane that this place could even exist in such close proximity to the hellscape outside. Here, it’s not only the player’s actions which are unconstrained, but the meaning of those actions. You can go on a deadly rampage or be careful and prudent, but is the former a monstrous debasement or a righteous correction, and is the latter tacit complicity or disgusted abstention? What does your presence here really mean?
The second example comes in the Flooded District. You climb up through the corpses, wading through the ultimate exclusion zone. Bodies are dumped on your head from a train. If you explore the nearby buildings, you might meet a woman who opens her balcony doors, lights a cigarette, and says: “Look.. This is Dunwall.” Beyond her railings is a giant pit full of corpses, and beyond that, searchlights and walls and Tall Boys: all that wonderful technology being used to enforce apartheid, and a train which shuttles humans to where their betters decide they are meant to be.
Bertolt Brecht might have said that Emily is Dishonored’s big mistake. If you are given to care about people in videogames, then you will probably care about her, and Corvo is clearly supposed to. On several occasions, I found myself distanced from the Loyalists when one of them said “…and then we can get your name cleared, Corvo.” What? I would think. You’re joking. This place is fucked. There’s not going to be anything left. Nobody is going home.And then I’d go and visit Emily and she’d ask if she can have cake all day when she’s Empress, and the Seventh Stricture would riot in my head. She is part of the game’s human core, and it’s her who delivers the best WHAM moment since Bioshock when she draws your picture on your bedroom wall – either as your face, or as the mask. Arguably, then, we’re distracted from the simple problem of whether this society deserves to exist. Fascinating, Corvo, the Outsider might say in his enjoyably hammy way. You were ready to tear it all down, but for one single insignificant life. Still, it’s not just her; as Joel Goodwin movingly argues, Dishonored’s heart is “with the little people”. If you really want to blow up everything, they won’t do any better (though they may well do no worse).
Given all this, maybe Dishonored should never had actual endings. The Outsider’s little summaries aren’t bad, and I was happy with the one I got, in part because I had gone through such ethical convolutions that I felt I pretty much deserved it. But putting an end on the story means resolving all of those tensions and dilemmas into a final answer. This was the consequence, and this was what it meant, and this was what happened in the end. Instead, perhaps Dishonored should done everything it does as the final level kicks off – notably and pointedly respond to your actions – but cut out just before they were given a final meaning. You wait behind a great pair of doors, Emily by your side, ready to walk out into the open and be crowned before the cheering crowds. She turns to you and asks: “What’s going to happen now?” The doors open; cut to credits. That way, we would have to decide for ourselves the answers to Dishonored’s big question: not just whether you’ll become a monster, but what it means to be a monster in a monstrous world.