Chatty Rats Are the Best NPCs in 'Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider'
Making fascinating, creepy, and lovable new friends in low places.
screenshot by author
Deep in sewers.
Flesh on skewers, over flames.
Snatch, run! Scurry, scurry!
Hot fat melts, sweet guilt on tongue.
One of us. One of us.
The Pandyssian Bull Rat was always one of the core elements of Dishonored's mythology; every animal in that universe is twisted and uncanny, and the rats were cast as carriers of both disease and secrets. In Death of the Outsider, from the very beginning, you can hear the whispered secrets of rats. I found myself chasing after every group of rats in the game to listen to what they had to say. It feels like what I'm playing the game for.
Compared to the Heart from Dishonored and Dishonored 2, the Rat Charm in Death of the Outsider is harder to use. The rats will only talk to you if you're near enough to touch them; if you want to speak to vermin, you have to get down in the gutter. And there's a particular vulnerability, in Dishonored, that comes with being at ground level; the previous games trained me to try and always perch up above the streets. Being harder to get, the rat whispers feel so much more rewarding. The game snares you with the promise of mission clues, to get you listening to the rats at first. But for the most part, the rats supply flavor and story, not actionable intel.
And what makes those tidbits of story so special is their viewpoint. Animals in games are so often enemies to murder or compliant pets; the rats in Dishonored, being both threat and tool, were already more complex than that.
Dishonored saw them scurrying through the walls, torn open on dissection tables, skewered over open fires, and of course eating bodies whole in large swarms. Rats acted as a constant reminder of the presence of the Outsider, a link to the overarching plot of the rat plague, and as an emblematic element of the series' immersive sim ecologies. Suddenly, we see all those familiar notes from the point of view of the rats; now that they speak, there's an odd affection for them. Once you take their point of view, they're weirdly endearing creatures, even as everything they say is laced with horror.
That horror is perfectly fitting to the aesthetics of Dishonored; it suits this world of witchcraft and its obsession with living flesh. One rat whisper brings up rats eating paper and ink; maybe all the ink in this universe drained from squids, much like all the fuel comes from vivisected whales? Much like the whales, the rats always seemed to know something you didn't, perhaps something you couldn't comprehend. And yet it's impossible not to empathize with the rats; most of what they whisper to you is grounded, realistic in a way that engenders sympathy. Of course they devour their own starving young, of course they tangle their tails together and die trapped to one another, of course the bodies wash up ashore.
Their little whispered poems turn on the fact that what is mundane to vermin is horror to us. And that horror is grounded on the series' own themes, on this idea that the vermin are not that far removed from us. You can parallel the rat whispers to the many generic NPC lines about food, about fundamental needs going unfulfilled in the chaos that's spreading through the streets. The rats are horrifying because they gnaw at what we think makes us civilized, reasonable. But they are lovable for the exact same reason; we recognize in them our own most basic hungers and fears, but they don't regard serving those needs as a failure.