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.