Weirdly, I don’t have a lot to say about Dishonored, positive or negative. My initial impressions were profoundly bad, but everything after the second mission or so was so heavily focused around being the most vanilla experience ever that I couldn’t be turned off by it.
But I do have some short remarks to make about the world of Dishonored, the world that houses Dunwall, a city covered in blood.
Or, rather, a city that covers a great sin, a great tragedy. The history of Dunwall is revealed in snippets, and over the course of the game it becomes apparent that it is wholly concerned with layers. Let me run through a couple quick examples:
Dunwall was built on top of another city. That city, more in line with The Outsider, was aware of the magic of the world. The various whalebone trinkets and doodads that Corvo finds and uses to become magically powerful are leftovers from that civilization.
The bones of whales have power. The first people knew that, and so they carved them up. The blubber of whales have power, and so the people of Dunwall slaughter/ed them en masse in order to fuel their civilization.
The civilization is defined by its religious structure, a pseudo-Catholic faith that is so heavily worked into everyday life that that game can’t separate the two from one another so you can see how they work. However, the Outsider shows up occasionally, asserting that he was there before the church and its High Overseer.
The high church culture, in turn, cannot be separated from the aristocracy, which Corvo spends quite a lot of time infiltrating as well. But every moment spent sneaking around in aristocratic bedrooms is met with an equal in the sewers, in the closed districts, where men in stilted armor chase plague victims and kill them with explosive arrows.
And lets not forget the overall story. Political layers; rebellion versus State. The assertion of the self and others to the highest seat of the State.
I’m reminded of Zizek’s reading of Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace” where Kant thinks through the legal status of rebellion. Zizek writes:
What is, while the rebellion goes on, a punishable crime, becomes, after the new legal order is established, the opposite–more precisely, it simply disappears, as a vanishing mediator which retroactively cancels/erases itself as a result. . . . Kant here is one of many conservative (and not only conservative) political thinkers, including Pascal and Joseph de Maistre, who elaborated on the notion of the illegitimate origins of power, of a “founding crime” on which state power is based; to obfuscate these origins, one must offer the people “noble lies,” heroic narratives of the origins. (Living in the End Times, 32-22)
We get these narratives over and over again in Dishonored, particularly through the books and radio messages that Corvo hears during his missions in Dunwall proper. The High Overseer died nobly, murdered by a savage. The noble people of Dunwall have mastered the sea and the brutish whales, taking the oil from their bodies just as we were meant to do.
Dishonored, like every game that builds a world, has in-game notes for us to read. It is “immersive” to read fragments of stories, apparently, but this one in particular gives a good look into the “founding crimes” of Dunwall:
On Hunting Whales
[except from a forward-gaffer's journal-By Old Grum]
These new ships made by that Sokolov fellow make life easier than it was in my youth, I’ll tell you what. Ere was, we were at the mercy of the winds. Nowaday, the engines git up at first whale-sign and there aint time enow to roust the boys from they’re bunks afore you’re on the herd.
We cull out the biggest bastard we can lay eyes on and the pilots drag us out from the circlin’ brutes. Them things groan and bellow across the water, like they’re callin’ to each other. Men below say you can feel it in the hull.
But when the harpoons go in, the beast cannot make for deep water no more. Once it weaks from lost blood, we launch the hook-boat and put chains into the tail. Then the winches drag the bastard backward up the chute and into the rigging overhead.
So Dishonored is a game about layers. But it is also about power and founding myths which, as Zizek tells us, render themselves invisible.
The central core of the game, then, is something rendered invisible. All of the other layers, the dichotomies that displace one another, are spoken and visible. They are told to the player in order to mask a hidden dyad that cannot be split.
This dyad consists of State power and whale genocide.
The two cannot be split. The power of the government of Dunwall is dependent on hidden violence. It needs places to dump bodies. It needs gadgets that shoot invisible energy into the bodies of victims to render them into ash–that is, to render them nonexistent. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of saying, “Well, that is just the eviiiiiiil government! The good government would never do that!” Plague bodies were piling up and being disposed of for months before the game began. Corvo didn’t pick up stealth, assassination, and “necessary violence” in prison. It was always there. Corvo is just doing what Corvo has always done–it just happens that it is against the State for most of Dishonored.
The genocide of whales in functions in the same way. It is rendered powerfully, but never blatantly. It is hidden in the mere aesthetics of the game, in passive portraits and in historical accounts that have to be sought out and read. It resides in the mystical narratives of a still-beating heart that only calls out if you select it and then listen as it speaks. For the average player, and certainly the average citizen, these things are aesthetic–and therefore they are buried, rendered invisible in the same way that a texture on a barrel or the architecture of a level is invisible. We see, but we don’t see.
They butchered the deep ones here, breathing in the rich stink of their enchanted flesh. When the sea wall broke, many strange things were drowned and forgotten. They bring the bodies here. With rough hands. Rough hands and cages. Some of them are still breathing. The water is so cold and it is the last thing they feel. – the Heart
And none of this is told to you. As a commenter on Matthew Weise’s blog says,
I agree that story is good. I don’t fully understand how story is connected to other parts of the game. For example, we don’t see how whales are captured and killed. It’s not obvious if there is a connection between killing of whales and humans. Although maybe I missed it. Also books are scattered randomly in different places. Careful placement of books could emphasize visual environment.
“Maybe I missed it.” No one missed it. You had to go look for it. But if you did miss it, you still felt the repercussions.
That’s the reason for all the layers, all the pairs, all the bad stacked on top of itself so deep that you can’t see the bottom. The truth is that Dunwall is an object lesson in how to live on after a great sin. It is how to live in what James Stanescu has called a “post-lapsarian world.” Stanescu, is writing about ethics, says that
Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world.
Which is to say that ethics is a project of realizing the violence that we are complicit in and then dealing with it, particularly through not doing it anymore. Or at least trying to counter that violence, minimalizing it. Recognition is the critical component here.
And so Dishonored is a key example of a world where ethical life becomes impossible. There is no opportunity for meaningful recognition of the hidden dyad that drives Dunwall. There is no way to recognize complicity, to try to do better, and so Dunwall will continue to rot. The pre-credits roll where Corvo and the Empress live happily ever after is yet another founding myth in a series of founding myths.
State violence still has to go on. Political prisoners have to be disposed of, plague victims have to be experimented on, and rats have to be driven out of cities. Dunwall will still be fuelled with the deaths of whales.
I’m sorry, that wasn’t short at all.