Dishonored Inside and Out


Way back in the dusty annals of time (April this year), I wrote a lit­tle arti­cle involv­ing Skyrim and nation­al iden­ti­ty. It’s not bad, if I say so myself, and worth a read if you missed it the first time round. Feel free to check it out now, it’ll prob­a­bly make a good basis for what I’m going to write here.

I want to approach a sim­i­lar topic in this arti­cle, though from a slight­ly dif­fer­ent angle. Dishonored’s been out for a lit­tle while now, and man­aged to strike a few inter­est­ing chords for those who’ve played and writ­ten about it, but the note that seems to be ring­ing longest and loud­est is the pre­sen­ta­tion of the game’s world, which will be men­tioned in one way or anoth­er in just about any­thing you read. For some folks the fic­tion­al city-state of Dunwall is the real star of Dishonored, and it’s clear to even the less enthu­si­as­tic crit­ics that Arkane Studios have gone to a great deal of effort to make their set­ting as atmos­pher­ic and involv­ing as pos­si­ble. Dunwall is a unique and cohe­sive work of design, punc­tu­at­ed with inspi­ra­tional moments of sav­age beau­ty, as intim­i­dat­ing as it is impres­sive. Somewhat infa­mous­ly, Arkane took inspi­ra­tion from London and Edinburgh in cre­at­ing Dunwall. As some­one who vis­its both cities at least once a year, I can guar­an­tee to read­ers from fur­ther afield that the devel­op­ment team’s eye for archi­tec­tur­al and geo­graph­i­cal nuance is spot on. Dunwall feels just right.

But invent­ing a mean­ing­ful vir­tu­al place isn’t all about get­ting your back­grounds accu­rate. I want to explore some of the ways Arkane have, in some cases per­haps inad­ver­tent­ly, cre­at­ed a con­vinc­ing and rec­og­niz­able rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a nation. Hell, you never know, in doing so we might just real­ize some­thing about the way nations are for­mu­lat­ed in real­i­ty.

External Opposition 

One of the most fun­da­men­tal ways we estab­lish and per­pet­u­ate our ideas about who we are is by defin­ing who we are not. By stretch­ing a dis­tance between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we try to cement just what con­sti­tutes ‘us’, and, there­fore, ‘me’. On the scale of nation­al­i­ty, (as opposed to, say, music taste or sex­u­al­i­ty) a coun­try can be seen to con­stant­ly look out­wards for the exter­nal oppo­si­tions which delin­eate the bor­ders of inside and out­side. When I tell you I’m English, what I’m also say­ing is that I’m not French, Dutch, Canadian, Korean. Only in ref­er­ence to those things which are not-it can a nation exist, because with­out some­thing to be dis­tinct from it becomes mean­ing­less.

That Dunwall is sit­u­at­ed amongst other, sep­a­rate states is made clear almost imme­di­ate­ly in Dishonored. In nov­els we’re told to pay atten­tion to the first line, that it is impor­tant, so what should we make of the deci­sions that went into Dishonored’s open­ing? The player’s first expe­ri­ence of pro­tag­o­nist Corvo, and his world, are as he returns to Dunwall from an ambas­sado­r­i­al trip out­side the city. That we’re dropped into Corvo at this par­tic­u­lar point ensures that the game’s open­ing con­ver­sa­tions ref­er­ence Dunwall in rela­tion to its outer world; the sub­text of a phrase like ‘Welcome home’ is ‘You have been out­side of our mutu­al ter­ri­to­ry, now you’re inside again, I hope that gives you com­fort’.

Within a short peri­od of time, and still with­in the game’s pro­logue, Corvo meets the Empress who makes an explic­it ref­er­ence to Dunwall’s bor­ders, specif­i­cal­ly that the out­side nations intend to block­ade Dunwall to pre­vent the spread of plague. It’s a small moment of ref­er­ence, but one that I think is impor­tant. Throughout the rest of the game we won’t come near the actu­al bor­ders of Dunwall ter­ri­to­ry, let alone any­thing beyond, and since they don’t exist with­in game­play, they do not exist at all. But ref­er­enc­ing them invents them in the mind of the play­er, from the off­set they’re imag­ined and acknowl­edged. Many, per­haps most, other gam­ing worlds offer only what is seen by the play­er, they see no need for wider ref­er­ence. Dishonored’s sleight-of-hand trick is to pro­vide Dunwall with the sta­bil­i­ty born of locat­ing it in a wider, if total­ly imag­i­nary, series of alter­na­tive spaces.

Most sub­se­quent ref­er­ences to the lands out­side Dunwall come from the snip­pets of books we read through­out the game. These often take the form of trav­el writ­ing, where a local has ven­tured out into the world and come back to talk about how weird and exot­ic it is. For instance, this entry from ‘Mysteries of Pandyssia’:

At the Academy of Natural Philosophy they speak of the Pandyssian Continent as a place of won­der, where all life has entwined and blos­somed across aeons, pro­duc­ing a vibrant ecol­o­gy unri­valled in the civ­i­lized world. The Overseers from the Abbey of the Everyman, by con­trast, talk of hor­ror and here­sies. Of cults of sub-men engaged in bru­tal, per­verse rit­u­als.

Like all trav­el writ­ing, the inher­ent sug­ges­tion is to look on these outer places with an inner men­tal­i­ty and write for the ben­e­fit of read­ers with a sim­i­lar inner mind set. Set as they are from the view of a Dunwall cit­i­zen, they inter­nal­ize Dunwall as the norm, exoti­ciz­ing the exter­nal. It’s also notable that both mas­ter assas­sin char­ac­ters, Corvo  and Daud, are revealed as for­eign­ers in Dunwall, fur­ther empha­siz­ing the mys­ti­cal­i­ty of the outer regions. This might be a more ten­u­ous con­cept were it not for the fact that Daud is to be the play­er char­ac­ter of Dishonored’s DLC, sug­gest­ing that these are the two most inter­est­ing and acces­si­ble char­ac­ters. Whether it was their for­eign­ness that made Corvo and Daud appro­pri­ate play­er char­ac­ters or vice versa doesn’t mat­ter so much as the cumu­la­tive effect of both fea­tures: the play­er does not play as a Dunwall cit­i­zen, and always looks at Dunwall from the out­side. As such, the dis­rup­tions the play­er inflicts upon the game world always come from an exter­nal source. The play­er can never fully inte­grate with the game world; we always know it’s a game, but by sourc­ing the play­er char­ac­ter from out­side Dunwall this dis­con­nect between play­er and game world doesn’t affect the illu­sion of Dunwall’s inter­nal sta­bil­i­ty. In fact, from this out­side per­spec­tive, it per­haps increas­es it.

Internal Differentiation

To para­phrase Homi Bhabha, the bound­ary of the nation is always ‘Janus faced’, mean­ing it looks both inward and out­ward. While oppos­ing one­self to outer dif­fer­ence is impor­tant in the for­mu­la­tion of a nation­al con­scious­ness, inter­nal homo­gene­ity is nei­ther a real­is­tic or desir­able prospect. All human group­ings are var­i­ous­ly con­nect­ed and dis­persed depend­ing on scale. Just look at sports for a per­fect exam­ple of this. On one scale, you might sup­port the team of your town, sworn ene­mies of the team from the next town over. There is con­stant rival­ry between the teams, vio­lence may even erupt; the enemy sup­port­ers are fiends and demons, bare­ly human. Except, that is, dur­ing nation­al com­pe­ti­tions when you and those sup­port­ers stand arm in arm berat­ing the sup­port­ers of anoth­er team. Perhaps there’s a con­ti­nent vs. con­ti­nent com­pe­ti­tion that rec­on­ciles yet more adver­saries with you; you join to com­pete with a larg­er oppo­si­tion.

Dunwall’s class sys­tem is made abun­dant­ly clear through­out the game. As Corvo, we inter­act with the very high­est and low­est of its cit­i­zens. In the Hound Pits pub that works as the Loyalist head­quar­ters and the base from which we oper­ate, these class dif­fer­ences are put in stark con­trast as aris­to­crat­ic Lord Pendleton mixes in close quar­ters with the ser­vant class­es that con­tin­ue to serve him. As with the ref­er­ences to out­side nations, this is some­thing many other games out­right ignore. It’s easy to imag­ine the level in which Corvo infil­trates an upper class party with­out the ser­vants who stroll about the house mak­ing things run smooth­ly. In real­i­ty they’d be nec­es­sary, but their func­tion is to work behind the scenes, to be ignored. Many ver­sions of this level might have done just that, imag­in­ing, as a stereo­typ­i­cal blue-blooded aris­to­crats might also, that the food just mag­ics itself to the table, the floors clean them­selves, secu­ri­ty is ensured auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Games tend to be func­tion­al, light on sur­plus detail that doesn’t direct­ly inform the game­play. By demon­strat­ing the vari­ety in Duwall’s cit­i­zen­ry, Dishonored colours the city with a vari­ety of shades. We all rec­og­nize inter­nal dif­fer­ences between our­selves and other mem­bers of the groups to which we sub­scribe; we require indi­vid­u­al­i­ty as well as com­mu­nal­i­ty. In Dunwall, the larg­er social group of the nation is demon­stra­bly made up of small­er inter­nal group­ings which in turn are made up of yet small­er group­ings. The trick is to con­vinc­ing por­tray these group­ings as both dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed (be it by class, polit­i­cal opin­ions, reli­gious beliefs, etc.) and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­nect­ed as fran­chis­es of a wider nation­al iden­ti­ty.

Social Events

How, though, do you rec­on­cile this idea that a nation­al con­scious­ness is estab­lished by oppos­ing itself both out­wards and inwards? How can I claim a sta­ble inter­nal iden­ti­ty is formed through oppo­si­tion with the out­side whilst at the very same time it’s desta­bi­lized by dif­fer­ences on the inside? This is where simul­tane­ity comes in. As I dis­cuss in more depth in the arti­cle on Skyrim, simul­tane­ity is a con­cept brought to the fore by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities. Essentially it describes the link cre­at­ed between dis­parate indi­vid­u­als when they expe­ri­ence, or believe they expe­ri­ence, events as part of a much wider group. For Anderson, the inven­tion of daily print media was the cat­a­lyst for simul­tane­ity on a nation­al level, as indi­vid­u­als read­ing the morn­ing paper felt that they were includ­ed in events on a far wider scale. What news­pa­pers pro­vid­ed was an aware­ness that Mr Jones next door, Miss Lee at the office and Colonel Mustard at the pub were infor­ma­tion­al­ly con­nect­ed to you, you could dis­cuss the state of the stock mar­ket, those mur­ders down south and the nation­al foot­ball team with some degree of guar­an­teed shared knowl­edge. In mod­ern times, with wide­spread media and an informed pub­lic, the con­cept of the event takes on cul­tur­al impor­tance in that indi­vid­u­als only vic­ar­i­ous­ly con­nect­ed to a given sit­u­a­tion have the sen­sa­tion of con­nec­tion to both event and one anoth­er through their aware­ness. Consider the death of Princess Diana in Britain or the attack on the Twin Towers in the USA, events which are inter­na­tion­al in scale but which are very much owned by their respec­tive nations. They cre­ate an epi­cen­tre through which a whole range of dis­parate indi­vid­u­als are unit­ed by their simul­ta­ne­ous expe­ri­ence. Moments like these are some­times known as ‘flash­bulb mem­o­ries’, those moments where seem­ing­ly every­one can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it hap­pened. But, actu­al­ly, despite think­ing they can, often peo­ple can’t tell you where they were when Princess Diana died. What they can tell is where they were when they heard that Princess Diana had died. What mat­ters is not the event itself, but rather the moment when the indi­vid­ual became a part of it.

Events like the death of the Empress and the rat plague play pre­cise­ly this role in Dishonored, unit­ing Dunwall’s cit­i­zen­ry in a series of shared expe­ri­ences. While the aver­age man in the street is rarely por­trayed in the game, the thoughts of the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion are por­trayed through abun­dant graf­fi­ti which ref­er­ences plague fears, grief for the Empress and dis­dain for her tyran­ni­cal replace­ment. As it does with the outer regions, Dishonored uses sug­ges­tive clues to cre­ate an illu­sion, in this case that of an exten­sive cit­i­zen­ship, lend­ing it an authen­tic­i­ty born of that which is just out of sight. While there are no news­pa­pers here, loud­speak­ers con­stant­ly send out mes­sages which relate to local events, often Corvo’s (pos­si­bly) mur­der­ous antics. That the play­er is often famil­iar with the events being read out fur­thers the authen­tic­i­ty, cre­at­ing a con­nec­tion between her­self, the cit­i­zen­ry who the mes­sages are pre­sum­ably for, and the state. In terms of social struc­ture, these two types of mes­sage come from oppo­site ends of the spec­trum: the furtive ille­gal­i­ty of the graf­fi­ti is opposed to the government-approved loud­speak­ers. Graffiti tends to be an out­spo­ken act of the social­ly dis­en­fran­chised, a method for those who per­ceive them­selves as ignored to make their voice heard. By con­trast, wide­spread offi­cial mes­sages are tac­tic of recon­nect­ing what might seem a dis­tant and iso­lat­ed decision-making power with the wider pub­lic it con­trols. The funny thing is that quite apart from what­ev­er they might hap­pen to say, both sys­tem enact the same sub­tex­tu­al role, to unite dis­parate indi­vid­u­als through their expe­ri­ence of com­ing into con­tact with that mes­sage. No-one writes graf­fi­ti or speaks into a loud­speak­er for them­selves, both acts are focused on exter­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The point is to put a mes­sage ‘out there’, and in doing so build a bond between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’.

Whether Arkane con­scious­ly rec­og­nized that they were play­ing on these var­i­ous nation-building con­ceits I couldn’t, of course, say. It doesn’t real­ly mat­ter all that much. What they man­aged to cre­ate in Dunwall is a city-state that pars­es cor­rect­ly. From there we can start to read into just why it fits togeth­er and how that reflects on the way our own real­i­ty works, and then ques­tion why it works that way. That’s part of what art is for, to shine a light on the things we take for grant­ed and reveal their inher­ent arti­fi­cial­i­ty.


Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.