Losing the Thread: Death of the Outsider and the future of Dishonored

Dishonored Death of the Outsider - Box Art

To fall out of love.

It is an tragedy of life that we all have to experience. Because the universe is not a static system where all is beautiful and good forever, every one of us will have to grapple with this at some point in our lives. People change, relationships evolve, and creators always take their creations in directions not everyone agrees with. That last one, built around the tricky relationship between creators, their works, and their fans, may only occupy a minor place on the great scale of heartbreaks, but it stings all the same. As fans, we read, watch, or play and become immersed. We discuss the elements and themes of a work, we use it as inspiration for stories and creations of our own, or simply take comfort in it and use it as a way to examine our own lives. It’s a strange sort of relationship; we can deeply love a creative work and worship its creator from afar, but the creator can only be aware of this relationship on a vague, theoretical level. As a result, when a creator decides to take their work in a different direction, it can feel like a one-sided betrayal, a sudden shock that reveals that the connection between a fan and the work was more tenuous than imagined. It is of course churlish to demand that creators always respond to the whims of their fans, but as I said, it stings all the same.

Now, being an intense dork of long standing, I’ve had my share of “breakups” over the years. I drifted away from Star Trek as the franchise ran out of steam in the twilight of the Berman/Braga years and the new creative leads did things I didn’t agree with. Something similar happened with my love for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but as I came late to that franchise my feelings towards it are a bit different. Recently, I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty processing my feelings about Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, the latest and possibly final installment of the Dishonored series of games, that was released back in September. While the game is fun to play on the technical level, it also carries over a lot of the problems I had with Dishonored 2 while also introducing even greater ones of its own. (Fair warning, in order to talk about this game properly, I will be spoiling everything about the Dishonored series.)

Advertisers and reviewers have been saying that Death of the Outsider is an ideal place for a newcomer to the series to jump in, which is a bald-faced lie. Everything in the game is built on the stories that came before, to the point where a paragraph of background is necessary before I can even begin discussing the game’s premise. The story of Death of the Outsider starts with Daud, the Outsider-marked assassin whose gang was hired to assassinate Empress Jessamine Kaldwin in the first Dishonored. Daud became the player character in the two story DLCs for Dishonored, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, which told the story of Daud coming to grips with his actions and attempting to atone for them while pursing the coven of Delilah Copperspoon. The Knife of Dunwall also introduced Billie Lurk, Daud’s trusted second-in-command who betrays him to Delilah to secure her place as leader of his gang. After the betrayal fails, the player is offered the choice of killing or sparing Billie; canonically Daud spares her and Billie flees Dunwall into exile. Both Delilah and Billie reappear in Dishonored 2, the former as the main antagonist, the latter in the guise of “Meagan Foster,” the steamship captain that spirits the player out of Dunwall and gives them a safe place to hide in Karnaca. One of the subplots of the second game concerns Meagan/Billie’s own attempt to atone for her part in Jessamine’s death, culminating in her self-revelation to the player at the end of the game.

Death of the Outsider takes place several months after the end of the second game. Meagan has returned to the identity of Billie and become a smuggler and criminal in Karnaca while searching for Daud, who, in spite her betrayal of him, she still sees as a father figure. In the first mission, she finds him caged in an underground boxing club run by the Eyeless, a gang-cum-cult centered around black magic and worship of the Outsider. After freeing him, Daud reveals that he has one last personal contract to fill: to kill the Outsider. Just to provide a little extra personal motivation, the Outsider shows up in Billie’s cabin shortly thereafter and gives her magical powers by attacking and mutilating her. From here, Billie’s quest begins, searching among the rich and powerful members of the Eyeless for the ancient sword that created the Outsider millennia ago, then journeying to their inner sanctum and the heart of the Void itself.

For my discussion of Death of the Outsider, I will begin with my pettiest grievance: I don’t like Billie Lurk. I had no objections to her in The Knife of Dunwall, but after her betrayal and exile I felt her purpose in the story of Dishonored was fulfilled. However, after her initial appearance, both the fanbase and the developers at Arkane latched onto her, and she went on to have a greater role in the later games. Aside from that, I can’t really explain why I don’t like her, which is incredibly frustrating as a reviewer. The worst I can say is that I didn’t enjoy her company in Dishonored 2, particularly when she would snipe at me as Corvo/Emily for neglecting the problems of Serkonos while I was worrying about my capital city being overrun by homicidal witches, but even I find this gripe to be insufficient. Ultimately, Billie Lurk is one of those characters, like Asami Sato from Korra, whose popularity is just inexplicable to me.

As for the gameplay, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The toolset and powers have been changed around, and they are all enjoyable to use. My personal favorite was “semblance,” a magical ability that allows you to masquerade as anyone you’ve knocked unconscious. Aside from playing into my love of disguises, it also adds an interesting dynamic to gameplay. While active, the ability drains your magical energy whenever you move, so you end up thinking tactically about how to quickly plan a route that will let you do whatever you need to do and get you either into hiding or to your next disguise before your energy runs out. The levels in true Dishonored fashion are beautiful and have plenty of nooks and crannies to rummage through, so by the basic standards of the previous games Death of the Outsider succeeds admirably.

At the same time, some of the finer points are blurred or wholly absent. Death of the Outsider seems to have been built as something of a throwback to the original concept for Dishonored, which was focused more on combat. In the previous games, the magical abilities of the characters were powered by “mana,” which regenerated slowly and only by small amounts, encouraging players to play slow and methodically unless they had a bunch of potions handy. By contrast, Billie’s abilities are fueled by “Void Energy,” which regenerates rapidly but can’t be refilled by any sort of potion. While Billie doesn’t have the offensive powersets of previous player characters, her Void Energy does speed up the gameplay. The biggest change, however, is the removal of the chaos system, the centerpiece of all the previous games. In previous games, your behavior would change how other characters would interact with you, how many opponents you would face, and even how the story would end. To get a happier ending, you had to play slowly and methodically, taking care not to kill too many people or get into too many fights. In Death of the Outsider, the ending is determined by a dialogue interaction at the end of the game, so there’s really no point in restraining yourself beyond self-imposed challenge. I was far bloodier as Billie than I was as Corvo, Daud, or Emily, and while I found it an exhilarating change of pace, I have no real desire to try the same playstyle with the other characters.

While the removal of the chaos system may have been inspired by older ideas, it also smacks of something that was cut due to time and money pressures. As near as I can tell, Death of the Outsider was developed in about the same amount of time as the two story DLCs for the first game, but the greater scope of Dishonored 2 meant that a follow-up game had a harder act to follow. There’s really only one level that matches the scope of those of the second game, and it’s reused twice (though in fairness, the level is also home to an enjoyably intricate bank robbery that’s still a challenge even if you knock everyone out with laudanum beforehand). Most of the others are much smaller or simply have less things to do in them, which may have been the rationale behind the introduction of the “contracts” system, which pushes you to explore certain areas of the map or adopt certain playstyles for rewards, instead of letting the player discover opportunities and secrets organically.

However, all these issues with the gameplay and game design pale in comparison to the problems of the story. Once again, on a technical level the execution is fine, but in terms of content and theme it runs counter to what I thought were established ideas about the Dishonored universe and does significant damage to several of its characters.

On a more general level, Death of the Outsider has the same issue with player immersion that Dishonored 2 had, and was in fact instrumental in helping me articulate an issue I had with the two games. To put it simply, I believe it was a mistake for the Dishonored series to move to voiced protagonists. This falls into a pet theory I have that in video games, it is easier to play as a character radically different from yourself if the game is set in third-person view rather than first-person. The ideal of first-person is that, because you are seeing through a character’s eyes the way you see through your own eyes, it is easier to immerse yourself into the setting. While I find that true to an extent, I have also found that when I play first-person games my own personality tends to subsume that of the character. When I play Half-Life­, I don’t play as Gordon Freeman; I play as Alasdair Czyrnyj with Gordon Freeman’s name. That may not be the ideal comparison, given that Gordon Freeman is the platonic ideal of the “blank slate protagonist,” but it is an issue that crops up again and again all the same. Unless the writing is strong enough to let me sympathize with the character (as with B. J. Blazkowicz in Wolfenstein: The New Order) or allows me enough dialogue options that I can simply speak as myself (as in Fallout: New Vegas), I always end up treating the character’s voice as a rogue personality conflicting with my own. By contrast, the simple act of seeing a body that I control but do not own in a third-person game makes it easier to accept a game’s narrative; the main character is not me, just a person I control, and I can interact and immerse myself in the narrative the way an actor would in a play. To finally get back to the point I was trying to make, when the Dishonored series made the switch to voiced protagonists, it disconnected me from the games. It was less of an issue for me with Daud’s DLCs for some reason, but in the later two games I definitely fell out of step. As an example, in the second game the writers went for a more heavy-handed discussion of class inequality, Meagan/Billie would hector me about the failures of the imperial regime to protect the people, and Corvo/Emily would muse on their changing opinions…all while I was choking out shopkeepers and emptying their cash registers to get that sweet, sweet upgrade money. When I was placed in the role of Billie, a character I had issues with beforehand, the problem was only compounded. Perhaps the peak came in the fourth mission of the game, when I had to infiltrate the Royal Conservatory, a location from Dishonored 2 that was the home of a witch coven allied to Delilah. In Death of the Outsider, the building is closed off by the Abbey of the Everyman, and Overseers are hard at work torching heretical artifacts and torturing the few witches who remain inside. The game was showing me the cruelty of the Overseers at every turn, Billie ruminated on how she despised the Abbey, and there was even a contract that would give me a bonecharm if I killed every Overseer and Oracle in the building. Yet every time I’ve played that mission I do my best to avoid killing anyone, no matter how little sense it makes for Billie to do so, because I am playing as me, not her, and in spite of their many flaws I am more sympathetic to the Abbey than I am to the witches.

On a related note, this is also something of an issue for the greater story of the games themselves. While a great show is made of “playing your own way,” successive installments in the Dishonored always use the low-chaos ending of the previous game as the “canon” ending, which has the effect of rendering your own playthroughs as an exercise in AU fanfiction. This would be less of an issue if entries in the Dishonored series were set in widely separate locations and timeframes with only a few vague nods to earlier games, but Arkane chose not to take this path, making these problems unavoidable.

Yet even that issue is minor compared to the indignities Death of the Outsider inflicts upon its three main characters. In The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, Daud is depicted as having been deeply affected by his assassination of Jessamine Kaldwin, with the story of the DLCs depicting his attempt to make some sort of amends for his actions. When Corvo finally meets and confronts Daud at the end of The Brigmore Witches (and in the original Dishonored as well), a low-chaos playthrough will show Daud, visibly remorseful for his actions, asking for nothing more than his life and a wish to retire from his trade and vanish from the memory of Dunwall. It’s a good ending, and it provides a neat conclusion to his story that leaves little more to say. When Daud reappears in Death of the Outsider, it is something of a shock to discover that, rather than spending his golden years running a winery or something, that “he never stopped killing,” and that rather than believing that the evils of this world are due to the choices he and others make as he seemed to argue in the DLCs, he instead declares that the Outsider himself is wholly responsible for this evil, granting people dangerous gifts knowing full well what the recipients would do with them. As for Billie, she doesn’t really dispute or argue about any of this for most of the game. Her feelings towards Daud and her assault at the Outsider’s hands keep her on the straight and narrow until the very end of the game, when she finds some information that makes the case that the Outsider can be released from his role and become human again rather than killed, with the final decision itself resting on a five-minute conversation with Daud’s shade. Billie is the protagonist, but for all intents and purposes Daud could have taken her role with little alteration.

The greatest victim of character assassination in Death of the Outsider is, of course, the Outsider himself. His assault on Billie is an early sign that the writing for his character has gone seriously awry. While in the first game he was presented in the first game as aloof, enigmatic, and serenely powerful, he appears in the sequel as needling, acerbic, and surprisingly willing to offer up the secrets of his origins. While I would argue that his changes in the later games were for the worse, Death of the Outsider‘s issues with the Outsider go far beyond his characterization and into the basic concept of his character. For once, there is a name to put to this: Hazel Monforton. She was a longtime fan of the franchise who was hired on to write for Death of the Outsider after both a long correspondence with the developers and the publication of an article entitled “Uncovering the meaning of the Outsider, Dishonored’s misunderstood god,” in PC Gamer last November. To summarize her argument very, very briefly, the Outsider is a “pharmakos,” a marginal figure that a community selects to be a repository of all their evils, and who is exiled or sacrificed as a means of symbolically purging the community of its sins. This theme is reiterated constantly in Death of the Outsider, with Daud and the Abbey viewing him as the source of the world’s evil, and with Billie ultimately deciding whether to continue the cycle of violence and sacrifice him again, or to set this ancient innocent free to live a normal human life.

It’s a interesting interpretation, true. The only problem with it is…well, it’s bollocks. None of what Monforton writes bears any resemblance to my own interpretation of the Outsider, to the point where I feel the two of us have been playing different games. In preparation for this review-article thing, I was looking though the Dishonored fan community on Tumblr for discussions of Death of the Outsider, and I was fortunate enough to find a rant post that precisely articulated my ultimate problem with the game. Unfortunately the post’s author, “ladywindupbird,” closed her account in late September, so all I can offer is a reblog. It’s not a model essay; it veers too often into attacks on Ms. Monforton’s character and anti-intellectualism (I have strong feelings about the use of the word “pretentious,” but now’s not the time), but her central insight is spot-on.

The problem of Monforton’s essay, and with Death of the Outsider, is that they work to uncover the ultimate truth of the Outsider…but they fail to realize that this truth doesn’t matter.

It never did. Dishonored was never about the Outsider. In the first game, his purpose was to solely be a demiurge/trickster figure who provided the player with magic powers and watched the action from afar with curiosity. He poked the clockwork of the universe from time to time, but mostly left it to manage itself. He was a figure of fear, true, but it always felt like that was a reasonable reaction to the horror and chaos of the world of Dishonored (and it’s interesting to note that the omnipresent dread of the first Dishonored was something that was dropped in the later games). He was a facilitator and a mythological figure in the first game, and that’s all he needed to be. Dishonored isn’t about the Outsider or original sin or whatnot; it’s about the choices we make when given power over other people, and how those choices affect the world. It’s as simple as that. The tragedy of Death of the Outsider is that it spends so much time and energy twisting and warping characters and themes all to answer a question that didn’t need to be asked in the first place. To make it worse, after the final decision has been made Billie admits in the closing voice-over that in time the Void will choose another person to serve as its avatar, seemingly undercutting the purpose of the whole damn game.

It’s difficult to say what the future holds for the Dishonored series. Harvey Smith, the man half responsible for the series, has said in recent interviews that all of the games and story DLCs released to date are part of “the Kaldwin arc,” following everything that spilled out after the assassination of Jessamine Kaldwin in the first game. Both Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider appear to have been written with the intention of sweeping the board and resolving the fates of every major character. If there is a Dishonored 3 (and given the drubbing the second game received at launch thanks to technical issues, a third entry is not a sure thing), it will be in uncharted waters, and I don’t know how to feel about that. Perhaps it would be best to take the advice of my good friend Michal, cut my losses, and just stick with the first Dishonored and those parts of Dishonored 2 that I like. When it comes to stories and games, that’s probably the healthiest approach; take what you like, leave the rest, and use it to build something of your own.

Before I close this essay, I wish to talk about one final problem, one that overshadowed every other issue I had with Death of the Outsider: the design of the Oracular Sisters. In the first Dishonored, it was mentioned in some offhand documents that the Abbey of the Everyman was segregated by gender, with men joining the Overseers and women joining the Oracular Order. Over time details leaked out about these enigmatic women: they were seers who received visions of the future in cloistered gatherings, occasionally with a little pharmaceutical help; they were rigorous students of history and politics who debated long and hard among themselves about the meanings of their visions; they were trained in combat with a mace instead of a sword. Naturally the fan community latched onto them, offering many interpretations of their costume. Many of these ended up being some variant of masked “battle nun,” which I have to admit is an aesthetic I quite like. Finally, after much teasing, the Sisters finally appeared in the flesh in Death of the Outsider…only to be wearing drab white uniforms with ridiculous blindfolds. They were presumably designed to match the redesign of the Overseer uniform for the second game (which I also did not like), but seeing them just drives the point home: as much as you love something, eventually you and its creator will disagree it, and you will have to decide whether to stay or go.

Oracular Order - alearius tumblr concept

Oracular Sister concept by alearius.

Oracular Order - zerosum-life concept

Oracular Sister concept by zerosum-life.

Oracular Order - scuzer tumbler concept

Oracular Sister concept by scuzer.

Orcaular Order Sister - The disappointing reality

The Oracular Sisters as they actually appear in Death of the Outsider. Sigh.

(Editor Alasdair’s Note: This may be the second-longest post I have ever made, holy damn. Korra is still number one, tho.)

This entry was posted in Uncollected Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s