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'Dishonored' Games Are Dark, Bloody Fables about Divine Right

Arkane's Dishonored games put the player in the center of the universe, in multiple ways.

by Julie Muncy
Jun 1 2017, 10:00pm

All Dishonored images courtesy of Besthesda

Not My Final Form is Julie Muncy's column about transformations, changes, and their powerful expression in games.

When Dishonored gives you power, it gives you more than it lets on.

Of course, there's the obvious. With the Outsider's Mark on your hand, a symbol of sinister supernatural favor, you become something more than a normal human. Through the course of the two games in the Dishonored series, you'll learn to teleport through a pocket dimension, possess the minds and bodies of your foes, and turn into a living shadow. You'll slow down time and call down swarms of devouring rats. If you want, you'll become a chaotic destroyer, though it's just as possible to become a ghost, mighty and unseen.

But there are other powers, too. These are more subtle. They're in the tenor of the world around you. The way people grow crueler or kinder as you do. How, if you engage in a murderous revenge spiral, Dunwall and Karnaca themselves seem to shift along an invisible axis, plunging into deadly waters. The plague will spiral out of control, or the blood flies will grow fat and unstoppable. If you behave in a certain way, you do more than just harm your enemies. You break the balance of the world around you.

In both Dishonored games, you play as dethroned royalty. In the first game, you're Corvo Attano, Royal Protector and father of the empress-to-be, young Emily Kaldwin. In the sequel, you play as either Corvo or Emily herself, now an adult deposed from her inherited throne. In both games, the goal is to enact a return: get back to the throne, regain power, and put things in their rightful place.

Royal power obviously has a substantial impact on the lives of those it rules. Their policies and behaviors create and enforce social divisions, can destroy or save lives, and shape every level of civil life. No matter what form government takes, politics is inextricable from daily life.

But what's interesting about Dishonored is how this seems to be true on a deeper, more fundamental level. To be royal—in the understanding of these games—is to have an influence on the shape of reality itself. You can transform it in a way that borders on the mystical.

Take, for instance, the last level of the original game. Based on your behaviors, your final assault on the isolated cabal of usurpers to the throne is either easy and peaceful or violent and dangerous. If you've played chaotically, killing and causing mayhem as you go, the conspirators are paranoid and falling apart, literally at war with each other. If you try to play peacefully (which here means simply killing less than twenty percent of the people you come across), they're fundamentally different people. They fall apart as you approach. Their security is weaker. Ultimately, the final conspirator simply gives up.

Even the weather changes. In the chaotic path, that final island is caught in a torrential downpour. In the low chaos path, it's eerily calm.

The same logic applies to a number of aspects of the world around you. Your behavior changes the path of entire nations on such a granular level that it feels impossible. Like magic. In Dishonored, your attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors become a transformative principle that bends the world around you.

It's an old idea. It has roots in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, a side effect of the belief that royalty is serving at the dispensation of God or the gods. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the first hint that Oedipus has committed a grave evil is a plague that ravaged Thebes. In Hamlet, the death of the king radically undoes the spiritual order, causing the ghost of the dead monarch to haunt his son.

In Shakespeare's telling of the death of Julius Caesar, the death of a great leader is presaged by uncanny dread—lions from nowhere roam the streets. In these stories, like in Dishonored, to be royal is to be imbued with a mystic connection to your kingdom or country. The whole world is an inverted pyramid, with you, the divinely appointed ruler, at its base. When you stumble, the whole pyramid shakes. If you break, reality itself breaks with you. Calamity strikes, or the natural order turns on its head.

We don't know much about the gods who rule the Dishonored universe. If they exist, they're undoubtedly capricious. The Outsider, the closest thing to a divine being we see, is pure mischief, merely enjoying your performance in the world. But no matter what you do, the consequences will be unmistakable.

The world that Arkane Studios has crafted is one where you are at the center of everything: all the social complexities and natural crises of Dunwall and its neighbors. As your sword swings—or doesn't—everything around you transforms.

For better, or for much, much worse.