Dishonored's Billie Lurk Was the Spirit of Justice in 2017
In a year filled with debate about how to confront inequity, the heroine of 'Death of the Outsider' did so without apology.
Header image by Leah Goren
Welcome to the Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, the stand-alone expansion to 2016's Dishonored 2, follows the story of Billie Lurk, the assassin Daud’s erstwhile protégé, and Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin’s unlikely ally. The game's shifted focus allows us to get a good look at a character who, for the last two games, has kept mostly to the shadows. Learning more about Billie, in turn, affords us a greater understanding of the entrenched power structures of Dishonored and how she fits into them.
(Spoilers for the Dishonored Series follow.)
The first two games are helmed either by royalty or someone directly adjacent to it. Corvo, despite humble roots, is tightly intertwined with nobility by the time we are introduced to him. Emily, a princess, inherits the throne. As a result, their relative positions influence their outlook on the rest of the world. As Duncan Fyfe wrote for Waypoint last year: “What Emily and Corvo seem to forget along with their powers and abilities is the fact that they've been in power for decades. What's so galling, when they gape at the state of Karnaca, isn't that those problems happened on their watch, but that they seem to be learning about them for the first time.”
Billie is about as far away from royalty as you’re likely to get playing a game about various states of being honored. Unlike Corvo, who's swordsmanship earned him the royal protector position, she has moved laterally, rather than up the social ladder: from starving orphan, to thief, to assassin—not for any noble end, but for basic survival. Unlike Corvo, and nearly everyone else in a position of power and influence, she’s a queer black woman. Alone, any one of these aspects of her identity would disqualify her from power and privilege; together, they’re a potent cocktail for her loneliness and marginalization.
Which is why getting to play as someone like her, someone who sees power not as a birthright but as a tool with which to dig a small kernel of justice out of society’s impenetrable walls, is so damn exciting.
With the exception of Death of the Outsider, the Dishonored games all feature a morality system. The more chaos and violence the player causes, the worse the world ends up looking. But this is only seen as a negative outcome because the original games view the world—the streets teaming with beggars, the blood-slicked whaling ships, the back alleys and rundown bars; the lot of it—as rightful property of the crown; an expensive snow globe that they aren’t supposed to crack. After the credits roll, Emily and Corvo still have to govern the Isles as they left them. As its stewards, they have a vested interest in maintaining the same status quo that is so detrimental to people like Billie and Daud. Death of the Outsider offers an entirely different kind of conclusion. By removing the Outsider from his position of influence, Billie manages to dismantle the status quo that relies on his subjugation.
In allowing for this, and in removing the moral penalty for violence, Death of the Outsider asks us to consider what it means when the stakes of violence shift from the powerful to the powerless. When placed in the hands of the disenfranchised, as opposed to the merely dishonored, tools of chaotic violence can instead become opportunities for righteous vengeance and rebellion. Beyond good and evil, there’s class warfare.
There’s no mistaking the class divisions in Death of the Outsider. The Eyeless, the ancient order that is responsible for originally imprisoning the Outsider, select their ranks from the upper crust of nobility. One of your first encounters with them is at an exclusive club where they vampirically siphon the blood from the veins of a kidnapped laborer for a contact high with the void. As a group of people obsessed with power and immortality, who view the working class as literal blood bags who have nothing else to offer society, their wealthy eccentricity puts even Peter Thiel to shame.
Billie, meanwhile, skims destitution. The game finds her hiding out aboard her broken-down boat, alone. She’s turned down charity from the empress, relying instead on ties with her old criminal compatriots. She takes on contracts that Corvo and Emily would balk at: petty assassinations, burglary, item retrieval. Death of the Outsider is the first time a Dishonored protagonist really needs to hustle to get by. As a result, the game spends a lot less time moralizing about the level of violence required to do so.
Most games tend to frown on overt violence even as they implicitly condone it through the thousands of interactions they present. Splinter Cell: Conviction ends with the choice of whether or not to kill the big bad, ignoring the hundreds of lesser bads Sam Fisher murders at worst, and forcefully introduces to sink edges and toilets at best. The Mass Effect trilogy frequently puts the power of life and death in the singular hands of Commander Shepard, rewarding you with points along a restrictive moral spectrum.
These decision trees exist largely because of the assumed responsibility of the main characters to the worlds they're interacting with. Each game positions its protagonist—and the player by proxy—as the arbiter of their moral universe. You are the space cop, the spec ops cop, and in the case of Dishonored, the royal cop. You have to choose what the world will look like because you get to choose.
Billie doesn’t get to choose, and instead has to deal with the fallout of Corvo and Emily’s choices, as well as the result of their allegiances. This becomes most clear when playing the fourth mission of Death of the Outsider, The Stolen Archive. The mission has Billie navigate the aftermath of a Dishonored 2 mission at the Royal Conservatory. In that mission, Emily or Corvo are tasked with infiltrating the building—then occupied by a group of witches—and disabling their leader, Breanna Ashworth.
The thing is, whether Emily or Corvo tread heavily or lightly, kick in the door, or sneak in through a window, the results are exactly the same. The Abbey of the Everyman, the fanatical religious order, and the patriarchal antithesis to the Brigmore Witches, has taken over. They are burning “heretical” books and interrogating the survivors. As Billie makes her way through the conservatory, we see bodies hastily wrapped and piled up, female corpses on examining tables, and audiographs detailing horrifying, humiliating torture. One of the contracts that accompanies this mission asks you to murder every last Abbey overseer in the place. It's the only mission of its kind in any of the games; it is the first time the game asks you not to fight for your own empowerment, but to take vengeance for the sake of a fractured and disempowered group of women.
Meanwhile Corvo and Emily are back in Dunwall, back in power. A news clipping mentions that they’re busy burying the high overseer killed in the failed assault on Delilah Copperspoon’s throne in Dishonored 2. Billie's trip to the Royal Conservatory sharply reframes the actions Corvo and Emily took in the previous game. Despite recurring antagonisms Corvo and Emily are still squarely in the Abbey's corner; still backed by patriarchy and hypocritical religious dogma. Throughout history, the role of organized religion has often been to help shore up government power. The Abbey, for its part, spreads stories of the Outsider hiding in the dark, and frightens people into following them, and in turn, the crown.
A common complaint about the Outsider is his irrelevance to the main thrust of Dishonored's narrative. He distributes his powers and peaces out, fulfilling an ancillary mechanical duty without much emotional impact. But in Death of the Outsider, his presence is vital in fleshing out what Billie’s—not Corvo or Emily's—version of justice looks like.
The Outsider bears strong resemblance to Billie herself: someone punished by the forces of power and privilege, meting out the small amount of justice available to them. Not necessarily moral or just themselves, but concerned about righting wrongs where they see them. Though his death may be Daud and Billie's original goal, he has far more in common with them than any of the other groups that we meet in the game.
As long as he remains trapped in the void, the Outsider's role is to balance and counteract the levers of power; to lend his gifts even as the Abbey tries to remove all traces of them, in a kind of long and destructive ouroboros. Removing that lever—making the choice either to put him out of his misery or give him a second chance at life—effectively eliminates the need for the Abbey, and the power structures it supports.
It’s an ending, a conclusion for many of the characters and events of the previous two games, but it’s a chance at a new beginning too. Not for Corvo and Emily in their royal tower—ruling the kingdom as detached and self-content as Delilah, entombed in her painted world—but for Billie, and those like her; the outcasts, the urchins, the thieves, and sex workers. There is hope, with a dispatched Outsider and an Abbey thusly robbed of its convenient scapegoat, for a world with a different, and hopefully more egalitarian power structures in place.
Not to suggest a happy ending is certain, or even likely. This is Dishonored, after all. Centers of power are adept at staying as they are, and scapegoats are far too easy to come by. As for Billie, even after releasing the Outsider, and giving him his freedom, she still bears his mark, still has his stone, unblinking eye, is still black and gay in a straight, white world. But as many of us marginalized folk have realized: embracing the power and potential hidden within your marginalization and seeking to help those in a similar position can be an effective way to find solace, and even a little justice.