A World of Permanent Anxiety: Thoughts on Dishonored

Kaldwin's Bridge Concept

I spent yesterday leafing through my copy of Dishonored: The Dunwall Archives, the sort-of art book for the 2012 stealth-action game created by Arkane Studios. While I’ve instituted a little rule that I wouldn’t talk about video games here in the dolmen, art books for games are enough of a gray area to suit my particular brand of moral hypocrisy. In any case I’ve been an industrial-fantasy kick lately, so I’m in the mood to ramble about it for a bit.

To summarize the premise very briefly, Dishonored is set in the city of Dunwall, the fantasy-London capital of a small archipelago-empire suffering from a crippling plague and undergoing a rather odd industrial revolution. You play as the chief bodyguard for the Empress and her daughter, returning after a long trip looking for help with the plague. Unfortunately for you, the day you return is the day her ministers were planning on assassinating her and pinning it on you. Bad stuff happens, you get thrown in the clink, only to get sprung and hook up with a merry band plotting to unseat the conspirators.

Also, during your first night of freedom, the Outsider, the local equivalent of God, appears to you in a dream and gives you magic powers for funsies.

Dunwall - CityscapeOne of the fun things to do when looking at a virtual world is to figure out just what all the influences are. Sadly, The Dunwall Archives doesn’t get much into it, being a collection of in-game documents and art rather than a true making-of book. Still, a careful eye reveals a lot of detail. The initial model for Dunwall is, of course, the London of 1666, the year the metropolis was ravaged by both fire and plague. On top of that core, we have fashions from the late eighteenth century, with both men and women partaking of modified historical men’s styles. (Sadly, petticoat-rendering technology is still beyond our grasp.) The nineteenth century is expressed in the print culture and in the new landmarks, the riffs on Tower Bridge and Big Ben. There’s also a bit of fantasy London in Dunwall’s makeup. There are times when Dishonored‘s juxtaposition of social realism and fantastic elements recalls Ankh-Morpork, and Sir Terry himself is namedropped in the game. In terms of games, there’s quite a bit of influence from the old Looking Glass Studio games of the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of whose people made their way onto Arkane’s roster. While there’s a bit of Deus Ex in there, the biggest influence is the Thief series, games known for their stealth-action mechanics and their ramshackle medieval-industrial setting, filled with secret societies based on magic and machinery.

However, there is one thing that sets Dishonored apart from its influences: fear. Some of the sources for this fear are obvious: Dunwall is, after all, a city being consumed by plague. It’s a place where the infected wander blindly, hacking up their various fluids. It’s a place that’s been beset by floods, where city blocks have crumbled to rubble and where entire neighborhoods lie beneath the hungry river. As you play the game, Dunwall feels less like a continuous environment and more like a series of keeps, of enclaves of rich and poor holding out against the expanding zones of urban decay.

This fear of the malignant outside, this idea of humanity as an ember against the darkness, is more than just a reflection of anxious times. It’s a theme that is reflected in various aspects of the game’s world. In terms of metaphysics, the only real force is the Outsider, a figure who stands outside the world and its rules. On occasion he grants people supernatural abilities, but has no commandments for them to follow, other than the vague request that they “interest” him. In due course, most people blessed by him turn their gifts towards mass murder and the exploitation of others. Artifacts that bear his mark drive men and women to madness. The only thing standing against him is the Abbey of the Everyman, a sort of militant philosophical school that is the closest the society of Dunwall has to a religion. Represented by their Overseers, men in severe Prussian uniforms and snarling theatrical masks, they rough up citizens and devise intricate machines in their war against heresy, a war the Outsider himself views more with bemusement than anything. Materialism provides no comfort either; according to the greatest astronomers and physicists of the Empire, there is a great maw in the cosmos into which their world is being slowly drawn. Even geography is a source of paranoia: in the world of Dishonored, the Empire of the Isles, a place that appears to be the birthplace of humanity and the sole organized civilization, is no bigger than Japan. The only other landmass discussed at length is the continent of Pandyssia, a great no man’s land that swallows explorers and colonies whole.

The Void - Tallboy Attack

The industrial revolution of Dishonored is another source of deep anxiety. There are the usual issues common to contemporary societies dealing with a machine economy, but Dishonored goes one step further by making its machinery irrational and inhuman. The machine age of Dunwall is not fueled by coal, oil, or water; it is fueled by whale oil processed by the great stinking abattoirs that line the Wrenhaven River. While the oil serves as a suitable replacement for electricity and any manner of explosives, its properties also have other, more esoteric uses. Whale oil powers the arc pylons and “walls of light” that maintain the plague city’s quarantines and vaporize anyone who has not performed the correct recognition ritual. The streets are patrolled by “tallboys,” longbow-armed stilt-walkers whose contraptions are powered by the precious oil. The new machines intrude on the urban landscape, appearing as spindly blue-metal constructions that appear simultaneously frail and imposing, at times recalling the grace of a Parisian railway station, at others the authoritarian indifference of armor plating. But the great secret of this new age, the one no likes to talk about, is that this revolution is solely a revolution of engineering. The science behind these machines is unknown. It works, but they don’t know why.

At times, all this anxiety reminds me of the work of William Hope Hodgson. Dishonored doesn’t quote any of his work directly, but there do seem to be affinities. The sense of paranoia, of a inner sanctum holding out against a malignant outside and the forces of time and entropy is a recurring theme in his work. Dishonored also heavily mines the oceanic terror Hodgson pioneered, depicting marine life as grotesque and implacably hostile to human life. (These are themes that Lovecraft picked up on and used in his work, but the game doesn’t seem to be drawing from Lovecraft at all.)

I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about the meaning of this anxiety. It may be a reflection of contemporary woes. More than likely its meant to play into the open-ended nature of the gameplay; the grants you a fair amount of freedom in deciding if and who you should assassinate and how much collateral damage you cause, so depicting a world standing on a knife edge is an easy way to make the player feel that your choices have an effect. More myself, as someone who likes the idea of blending industry and mysticism and as someone whose worldview encompasses a great deal of anxiety, the setting of Dishonored resonates with me. It’s a game I’m glad to own, and despite my issues, I’m happy I have The Dunwall Archives on my bookshelf.

Oh, and if you wish, here’s an old trailer for the game filled with people being stabbed.

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6 Responses to A World of Permanent Anxiety: Thoughts on Dishonored

  1. Michal says:

    While I haven’t played Dishonored, it seems like the game captured the visual atmosphere of the first three Thief games far better than the Thief reboot did (which I have played)–the nameless city of the original Thief always carried that feeling, intentional or not, of a recent industrial revolution plastered over and not quite integrating with its preindustrial surroundings.

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    • Alasdair says:

      The Thief reboot (or Thief 4, or Thi4f, or 4 Steal 4 Stuff) is a weird one. It was in development for a long while, suffered a few publisher-dictated revisions, may have been bounced between teams, and there doesn’t seem to have been much agreement on what the game would actually be about or what the City would look like. In the end, it looks like what it is: something stitched together out of a bunch of drafts to make the ship date (which is something becoming distressingly common in AAA game development).

      I still haven’t played the Thiefs yet (maybe this summer!), but I was under the impression that mechanical industrialization was a small-scale affair, something done privately by the Hammerites that was slowly disseminated throughout the City. In 4, I think it’s supposed to be implemented by directives from above, but the effect seems to be industrial and medieval just kludged together without the two having any dialogue with each other. In Dishonored, the new machinery is styled to look alien (yet recognizably human) and oppressive, as if it’s invading the ruins of Dunwall.

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      • Michal says:

        A huge problem with Thief not-4 is that the City was very much a character in the earlier games, and here it’s been replaced with a near-mirror of mid-19th century London in both architecture and clothes. The only difference is that the guardsmen wear armour stolen from Cromwell’s New Model Army.

        Certainly in Thief: The Dark Project you get the feeling (intentional or not on the designers’ part) that technological innovation is contained and strictly controlled; only the rich seem to benefit. This changes in Thief 2: The Metal Age, where the Mechanists are flooding the city with their own creations, so far advanced they feel deeply jarring. It’s later revealed that their significance is, in fact, apocalyptic–something I feel could have merited more exploration than the game really allows (thus my contention that this is the one property I could actually see myself reading a licensed novel for).

        I don’t think Dishonored has any chance of running on my computer, but it’s about damn time I watched a Let’s Play, at least.

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        • Alasdair says:

          If you want an Let’s Play, this one I found off the LP archive should be good.

          http://lparchive.org/Dishonored/
          It’s an LP from SomethingAwful, so the guy playing it knows what he’s doing and doesn’t talk over everything. (Actually there’s two playthroughs in there: one that goes through the game and shows off everything, and a stealthy no-kill run.)

          After that, you can enjoy the playthrough for the DLC campaign. It has witches! And whale abuse!
          http://lparchive.org/Dishonored-DLC/

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  2. Pingback: The Parts, But Not the Whole: Thoughts on Dishonored 2 | The Futurist Dolmen

  3. Pingback: Losing the Thread: Death of the Outsider and the future of Dishonored | The Futurist Dolmen

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