“Here You Are at Last, in a Ruined and Drowning World”: The Dishonored Series as Environmental and Social Commentary

  By Amy Green

 

Abstract: “‘Here You Are at Last, in a Ruined and Drowning World’”: The Dishonored Series as Environmental and Social Commentary” explores at depth the intersection of environmental destruction, social stratification, and the exploitation of the poor. What emerges from the narrative is a compelling ecological warning, as the player embodying Corvo first witnesses the ruined city of Dunwall and the casual slaughter of whales, then becomes a subject of The Outsider’s interest. This warning carries through Dishonored 2 and Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider as these sequels continue to explore the exploitation and oppression of the poor and to follow The Outsider, who is at once a ringmaster, observer of what those who bear his mark enact on the world, and beleaguered victim, enduring fetishization by those who worship him as well as his own history as the subject of terrible violence. The narrative that emerges across all three games provides a stark warning about the consequences of those with power and wealth ravaging the environment and the vulnerable.

 

Keywords: ecocriticism, video game studies, Dishonored, leviathan, whaling

 

Arkane Studios’ 2012 video game Dishonored received accolades and honors for innovation in gameplay. Although much praise fell to the game’s mechanics, the game’s narrative warrants closer attention. The overarching plot is one of revenge: Corvo Attano, royal protector and lover to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, carves a path of vengeance after being framed for her murder. First, he must first recover their daughter, Emily Kaldwin, who is being held prisoner by those who orchestrated a coup and murdered her mother in front of her. He must then decide how to contend with everyone involved in the plot. Corvo receives aid from a mysterious figure, known as The Outsider, who takes the form of a young man, and those who are loyal to the murdered Empress. However, the game’s setting and its introduction of the god-like character The Outsider belie a simple and straightforward story of vengeance. Indeed, at the core of Corvo’s story of revenge lies the crown city of Dunwall, ravaged by plague and filth and engaged in the whale oil trade. In darkened alleys throughout the heavily industrialized city, beleaguered citizens have erected shrines to The Outsider in defiance of the new, dominant religion outlawing the practice. What emerges from the narrative is a compelling ecological warning, as the player embodying Corvo first witnesses the ruined city and the casual slaughter of whales, then becomes a subject of The Outsider’s interest. This warning carries through Dishonored 2 and Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider as these sequels continue to explore the exploitation and oppression of the poor and to follow The Outsider, who is at once a ringmaster, observer of what those who bear his mark enact on the world, and beleaguered victim, enduring fetishization by those who worship him as well as his own history as the subject of terrible violence. The narrative that emerges across all three games provides a stark warning about the consequences of those with power and wealth ravaging the environment and the vulnerable.

Video games and their exploration of digital storytelling long ago moved past being simple novelty or mindless entertainment. Although not all video games have as their end goal sophisticated storytelling, those possessing such an aim tell increasingly important, powerful, and controversial stories. The Dishonored series forms the foundation of its plot against the backdrops of environmental destruction and the exploitation of the poor such that it effortlessly blends with the actions the player might opt to take in each game.[1] That video games like the Dishonored series might opt to explore weighty subject matter, such as the destruction of the environment and the hunting of species to the brink of extinction, intersects seamlessly with the inherently immersive nature of digital storytelling. In considering the role of video games in environmental studies, P. Saxton Brown observes,

If climate change and the multiple other environmental crises faced on a global scale require a rethinking of the roles that the nonhuman, and particularly various kinds of environment, play in our fiction and cultural production, video games that are, in one way or another, about environment constitute an important area of research for the environmental critic. Environment is at the center of gameplay in numerous ways. (385)

The Dishonored series stands as an important example of how digital narrative, already an important source of culturally and socially relevant storytelling, can extend its reach into ecocriticism. In terms of the specific point about the environment, Greg Pritchard focuses on the essential connection between the fictive space and narrative. In the Dishonored series, the settings—the cities of Dunwall and Karnaca—are as vital as any individual plot point.

Instead of eschewing complex matters, such as the exploitation of the poor and the intersection of social inequity with environmental destruction, the game series treats these issues as inherent and important for both the player and the various characters inhabiting the fictional locations to consider. Greg Pritchard argues of the importance of ecocriticism,

The new construction of nature, as something the Western world cares about, obscures the fact that largely it doesn’t. Even people who are well educated in environmental problems do not always change their habits in necessary ways. Given that there are pressing environmental problems, and that they may be partly a result of the way in which Western culture conceptualises the natural world, what role can ecocriticism play in addressing these issues? Western societies, if not all societies, need an ecocritical theory and praxis for the same reason they need feminist theory, Marxist theory, and post-colonial theory. These are proselytising critical theories. And they are all interconnected. They all derive authenticity from the assumption that human rationality can improve the conditions of the disempowered, whether they are women, the poor, the colonised or the environment. (33)

The Dishonored series explores the complexity of these issues, centered on the intersection between the ruined environment and ruined lives of the destitute and oppressed, while never pretending the solutions to these issues will come easily or are even wanted by those who may otherwise claim to be advocates of both. Jennifer Calkins asserts,

While the symbolic nature of other animals is a common focus of literary criticism, the examination of the animal “other” as a true embodied character is rare. However, the recent emergence of animal studies into the academy is resulting in an increasing number of studies investigating how texts are able to embody animal others. (32)

When taken in its totality, the game series spans approximately sixty hours of storytelling and features just such an embodied character via The Outsider. Although he also functions as a god and chooses to appear in the form of a human male, his close and deep association with the whales and their slaughter underscores the important narrative underpinnings of the games and their contribution to a discussion about the modern-day environment.[2]

Across the series’ main games and downloadable content (DLC), focus remains on the intersection of poverty, disease, oppression, and, importantly, The Outsider’s role as he watches these inequities unfold. However, the game’s mechanical elements join with its fictional story elements to form a cohesive whole whereby the player’s choices and actions fundamentally shape the fictive space of the narrative. All of the games in the Dishonored series combine both their narrative elements and mechanical elements such that the overriding concerns related to the environment and the conditions in which many of Dunwall’s and Karnaca’s citizens live blend seamlessly. At the center of this lies the player’s control over play style, with two primary modes of play available, each presenting permanent and evolving changes to Dunwall, Karnaca, and their inhabitants. Although the games allow two modes of play, Low Chaos and High Chaos, they do not allow much switching between the two, and the selected mode of play directly impacts gameplay elements throughout, especially in the games’ endings.[3] There is technically a third category—which may be called less-than-High Chaos—that is not explicitly revealed to the player, as the game only rates missions and overall chaos levels on a scale of low to high. This less-than-High Chaos mode still causes an overall negative tone to the gameplay, but it is less severe than its highest counterpart.

The first game is divided into ten missions, the second into nine, and the third into five, and after completing each, the player is presented with a scorecard detailing whether the mission was Low or High Chaos and providing other statistics, such as the number of enemies killed or whether the player completed the mission without being spotted or detected.[4] The difference between a Low and High Chaos playthrough lies primarily in the player’s approach to lethality. Corvo, Emily, and Billie eventually gain a number of increasingly powerful skills and weapons, and the player has the option to select those that create a lethal outcome or those that do not. The games also allow the player to use stealth mechanics and a critical assessment of each mission environment to avoid most, if not all, combat.[5] The player’s nonlethal options to deal with enemies include using a choke hold or sleep dart, and for every major antagonist or mission objective the player confronts, the game provides at least two options, with at least one being nonlethal. The stealth mechanics of the game are challenging, and completing missions at a Low Chaos level proves challenging, requiring careful planning and strategy at every stage. The less patient player may well feel inclined to simply kill everything in his or her path, as the character embodied by the player can be made sufficiently strong via skills and weapons that this clearly becomes the easier option. Yet, narratively, it is arguably the less satisfying play style to adopt, given that the game’s lush and detailed surroundings invite the player to approach each mission with caution and care. For example, many mission locations are marked by multiple entry points—through a sewer, an unlocked maintenance door, or the like—that beg for a full exploration of each level rather than a quick and simple completion. A number of games make combat the difficult component of gameplay. By contrast, the Dishonored series makes combat relatively simple and alternative methods of mission completion more challenging.

The game’s narrative also provides divergent environmental experiences for Low and High Chaos playthroughs. For example, Dunwall, beset by a plague spread by rats, experiences even greater numbers of infected citizens should the player opt for a High Chaos game; more corpses lead to more rats and therefore more suffering on the streets of the city. In addition, some characters, such as Emily Kaldwin, the young daughter of murdered Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, begin to emulate Corvo’s choices in their own attitudes. A more merciful Corvo provides hope and a sense of morality to those around him. A Corvo focused only on bloodletting deepens the cynicism, rage, and hatred of others. Ultimately, a Low Chaos walk-through leads to an ending that finds Emily Kaldwin installed as empress and ruling justly owing to the example set by Corvo, arguably the best of all possible outcomes for Dunwall’s citizens. Order is restored to Dunwall, and the plague ceases to hold sway. Similarly in Dishonored 2, a High Chaos walk-through leads to more bloodfly[6] nests in subsequent missions. This game also has a number of possible endings, but all hinge on how Emily Kaldwin, eventually restored to her throne—with Delilah Copperspoon either killed or imprisoned—is perceived thereafter by her people. A High Chaos playthrough finds her deemed Emily the Vengeful, ruling over a Dunwall marked by even further plague and poverty. A Low Chaos walk-through leads to her identity as Emily the Just and marks a time of relative peace and prosperity for both Dunwall and Karnaca. The ending of Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider, discussed further on in terms of the two options given to the player regarding its ending, bears reflection here as the game ends on a more ambiguous narrative note than its predecessors regarding the amelioration of circumstances in Dunwall and Karnaca. The game takes place only a few months after the conclusion of the events in Dishonored 2; thus, insufficient time has elapsed for the player to note any significant and lasting changes. However, The Outsider speaks of possibilities for salvation or further suffering. Of his potential fate, he comments, “When I died, this world was remade. And when I die again . . .” He leaves the thought open-ended, as the fate of the world. The extent of inequity and the destruction of the environment is such that, The Outsider ponders here, even a god may be unable to change it quickly or to any significant degree. Instead, The Outsider grants powers to a select group of citizens and allows them to act as agents of change in the world, whether for good or for ill.

The first game takes place wholly in the industrial and crown city of Dunwall, whose economy is primarily driven by, and whose citizens rely on, the steady supply of whale oil produced in what is dubbed Slaughterhouse Row. The settings of Dishonored 2 and The Death of The Outsider broaden to include in the former the southern lands of Serkonos and their capital city of Karnaca, and the latter both Karnaca and the Void itself. The world of Dishonored focuses in equal measure on both technological advances, such as the government’s far-reaching surveillance and security systems, and magic, such as the type granted to Corvo by The Outsider or the more general, albeit outlawed, practice of the pursuit of black magic. Yet for all of its technical wonders, Dunwall remains in many ways markedly rooted in a past that has more in common with the burgeoning industrial ages of America or Europe—Dunwall appears to be structurally and architecturally modeled on Western coastal cities—than it might with a thoroughly futuristic setting. Indeed, excepting the game’s supernatural and magical elements, it very well might be set in those locales, complete with the ravages of unchecked industrial growth choking the city in pollution and detritus.

Dunwall functions as an effective fictive space in that it is at once familiar, with its similarities to known industrialized cities, and alien, exploiting the familiar to create the unique social, cultural, and economic currencies of the game. P. Saxton Brown argues,

Natural environments in video games constitute a paradox on top of the built/natural paradox, as a “mimicked” video game environment is always already a technological one. Mimicking, too, is something of an understatement: environment is at the center of gaming because, as a computer program, a video game is a type of world—a second, simplified nature—that forms the groundwork for the user’s actions and behavior. (386)

Dunwall as a setting provides the player with the opportunity to engage in a tactile manner with the environment itself, bringing into sharper relief the poverty and environmental struggles plaguing it. The game provides a stunning degree of verticality, allowing the player embodying Corvo to climb and physically interact with the landscape. Indeed, to score a Low Chaos level, the player must use spaces like rooftops, ledges, and industrial pipes to remain out of sight of guards and enemies. Such an intimate exploration of space and place underscores the root of the name Dunwall—dun, meaning gray or dark. The city is not only plague-ridden but also filthy, with only the wealthiest district located in the north offering anything approaching decent living conditions. These conditions further reinforce the idea that Dunwall’s citizens—especially those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale—have paid a high price for the city’s relative technological advance. To this end, the game explores an aspect of ecocriticism along the lines of what Greg Garrard describes. He asserts of the exploration of environmental issues, “Environmental problems require analysis in cultural as well as scientific terms, because they are the outcome of an interaction between ecological knowledge of nature and its cultural inflection” (14). With a digital narrative like Dishonored, such conversations occur along two interrelated fronts—the fictional and the real.

The plague ravaging Dunwall provides a critical narrative backdrop to the game’s explorations of revenge and ecological disaster. The plague is called “The Doom of Pandyssia”[7]–an often-referenced continent rumored to be uninhabited by humans—by the player’s Heart, an item granted to Corvo by The Outsider that provides somber, even bitter, commentary about the state of Dunwall and its citizens. Through The Outsider’s power, a mechanism of magic otherwise unexplained, Empress Jessamine’s spirit—speaking always with sadness and regret—embodies the Heart. The Heart itself is no longer strictly organic but riddled with wire and metal, indicative of the manner in which Dunwall has lost its connection with the natural world. Jessamine’s spirit, as an omniscient presence, sees not only all corners of Dunwall but also the darkest secrets of its residents. The Outsider says to Corvo when giving him the Heart, “To help you find these Runes, I give you this: the Heart of a living thing, molded by my hands. With this Heart, you will hear many secrets, and it will guide you toward my runes, no matter how they may be hidden. Listen to the Heart now, and find another Rune.” The ability to trap Jessamine’s spirit inside a heart suggests the magnitude of The Outsider’s power, and both his possible identity and narrative purpose are explored further on. The Heart provides a unique aspect to the game, deepening the player’s connection to the fictive space. With it, the player gains insights into various people and different parts of Dunwall, the revelations of which are always tinged with a sense of deep sadness, even disgust. That the Heart is embodied by a female spirit presents a tie between the female body and its surrounding landscape. Bertrand Westphal, summarizing in part the work of Elizabeth Grosz, argues that “alienation begins with the metaphorical reification of the body in urban space. The city is transformed into a simulacrum of the body, while the body is absorbed in it” (65). So too does Dunwall mimic the Heart’s ravaged state. In an interview with Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio, co-creative directors for Dishonored, Paul Walker recounts them sharing the following about the Heart, “‘Themes of how you use the power you’re given—whether its authority, social class and privilege, or the allegorical supernatural powers—are close to the centre of the game and the world,’ Smith and Colantonio told me. ‘The Heart seemed like a good way to focus on the emotional core’” (n.p.). While the Heart exists as an amalgamation of flesh and technology and sounds ever melancholy in its commentary on both people and places around Corvo, it provides the player who continues to use it with increasing insights that can guide choice and thus offers vital information about the vast inequalities within Dunwall’s social structure. The Heart returns in Dishonored 2 with the same purpose, whether the player chooses to embody Emily or Corvo. However, to trap Delilah Copperspoon’s soul so that she may be defeated, Jessamine’s soul is eventually purged from its artificial housing, and the Heart is destroyed during the process of returning Delilah’s missing soul to her body. Jessamine’s last words to Corvo or to Emily depend on whether the player has played at a Low or High Chaos level and are infused with either hope or despair over her lover’s or daughter’s fall to darkness.[8]

The vast devastation of the plague permeates thought and theology throughout Dunwall. Of the plague, a prophecy the player can find in the game reads, “A crawling foulness will overcome you because you did not shut the gates of your heart to iniquity.” Although this seems to be a statement aimed at Dunwall’s elite, their direct suffering as a result of the plague proves minimal, while the poor die in droves, their shrouded bodies discarded in piles. The game graphically illustrates this idea of suffering and inequality through the appearance of those infected by the plague. The infected eventually drip blood from their eyes and are beleaguered by insects. These Weepers, as they are called, will attack Corvo on sight. Further evidence revealed as the game’s narrative unfolds shows that the citizens have the right to weep, both literally and symbolically. The plague does not occur naturally but has been introduced into the city by Royal Spymaster Hiram Burrows, who eventually orchestrates the assassination of Jessamine Kaldwin and rules, corruptly, in her place before Corvo gets revenge. Burrows wanted to handle Dunwall’s poverty problems by killing the poor through the plague, an unspeakable evil that leads to a plague that spreads out of control and has decimated the overall population by half. Michael Eisenstein writes of the spread of plague and disease around the globe, “Cities can also provide greater opportunities for infectious diseases to flourish. Crowding and poor or nonexistent infrastructure exacerbate the risk of infectious disease to slum inhabitants in particular” (1). Although many of Dunwall’s citizens have died, the wealthy have avoided the issues of overcrowding and lack of resources found in the poor parts of the city and have thus increased their chances of survival.

The disparity and disease permeating life in Dunwall find their best expression when the player visits the area of the city called The Flooded District. The Heart comments of this area that “they bring the bodies here. With rough hands. Rough hands and cages. Some of them are still breathing. The water is so cold, and it is the last thing they feel,” referring to the dumping ground the area has become to those infected by the plague. The Flooded District, ravaged from a previous flood, lies to the south of the city, far from the relative wealth of the north district. The abject misery and poverty of those still living in The Flooded District call into sharp relief that the wealthy are relatively isolated from the horrors of the plague, while everyone else lives in filth and fear, separated both economically and geographically from the safer sections of Dunwall.

In the run-up to the first game’s release, IGN created a site that presented additional background to the game’s world, fictional accounts written from the point of view of those who might have lived in Dunwall. In one such article, the fictional Isolde Parallyne says of whale oil, “The benefits of whale oil should be harnessed to help find a cure for the plague that continues to decimate Dunwall’s lower classes. They claim that it is instead being used in weapons and security measures that further isolate Dunwall’s wealthy elite from the harsh reality unfolding on the city’s streets.” Yet this highlights the important points that whale oil is not a miracle cure—indeed it is never presented as a curative for any disease—and that it is a finite resource, both realities that seem to have escaped Dunwall’s citizens. Despite the problems, though, no one, not even those suffering most, seem especially keen to find an alternative to slaughtering whales. Michael Eisenstein notes of the ability of larger cities to mobilize when outbreaks of disease occur that “better community surveillance and prompt delivery of medical care are key advantages for battling the spread of infection. But even a well-designed rapid response can falter in the slums” (3). In the world of Dishonored, those with means seem ambivalent about providing any medical care to the ill, even when such action would potentially halt or slow the spread of the plague affecting all. Instead, they offer ridiculous solutions, such as using whale oil to cure disease as though it were at once snake oil and a panacea, or seek to isolate those who are infected, leaving them to suffer with neither treatment nor hope of cure.

Dunwall’s problems in the game’s present originated in prior years or even decades. Although Jessamine Kaldwin appeared to rule with a degree of care and concern, her reign was not universally praised, and given how far the plague and social inequity have spread, she was not the city’s savior. Dunwall is very much a city under both surveillance and a totalitarian grip, the seeds of which started under Jessamine’s rule and were exacerbated by those who staged the coup. As fear of the plague spreads, the authorities begin to post notices that read, “Report any sickness. Hiding the plague is punishable by death.” Everyone is well aware that there is no cure for the plague, and the city streets—at least in the poorer areas—are littered with sheet-wrapped corpses. The homes and properties of plague victims are on lockdown, barred by imposing barriers and posted threats to others to “stay away.” Presumably, the families of these victims experienced the same fate, evicted from their homes and divested of the meager property they had possessed. One certainly can infer that this property becomes the chattel of the state and will not be returned. The player can find documents relating the heightened sense of fear and paranoia gripping the city. One such document is a diary kept by a wife and mother whose husband and children have contracted the plague. She notes, “The city watch comes and goes, knocking on doors and asking for signs of the plague. Even neighbors cannot be trusted.” It is not enough for Dunwall’s citizens to be besieged by the horrors of the plague. The lower classes especially must also contend with being reported to the authorities by their neighbors, perhaps even those considered friends. The plague surely cannot be allowed to spread unchecked, and those who are infected will become a problem if they are allowed to remain where they can infect others. However, the darker implication here lies in the confiscation of goods and possessions: one envisions, given the bleak lives the poor of Dunwall lead, jealous neighbors or covetous members of the Watch using the fear of disease to steal from the powerless.

Dishonored 2 continues this exploration of poverty, disease, and exploitation within its setting of Serkonos, the southernmost of the world’s four inhabited lands known collectively as The Isles, to the south of Dunwall and often referred to as “the jewel of the south at the edge of the world.” Such a descriptor seems reserved only for the perspectives of tourists and the rich. While the wealthy live in splendor, the working class enjoy no such luxury. Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, becomes the primary setting for Dishonored 2 and is no less marked by the dichotomy of riches and misery than Dunwall. Although Karnaca has no plague, as there was in Dunwall, the city suffers from an infestation of bloodflies, which are parasitic insects that infect the living with fever and attack with lethal force when defending their nests. The bloodflies become more prevalent, as did the plague-ridden rats in Dishonored, should the player embodying Emily or Corvo choose to play with lethality. However, a large number of bloodfly nests infest Karnaca already, oftentimes concentrated in poorer areas and in abandoned buildings. Karnacan authorities appear to have little concern for the bloodfly infestations in such areas.

In addition to the spread of the bloodflies, Karnaca’s environment suffers fallout from silver mining, the area’s main industry. The mines not only function through the labor of the poorest citizens—the player can find information throughout the area attesting to the dangers of the mines and the many workers maimed or killed within them—but also spew toxic silver dust clouds throughout the area of the city known as the Dust District, primarily inhabited by mine workers. The player embodying either Corvo or Emily frequently finds the visibility brought to zero as periodic dust storms blanket this quadrant of the city. Naturally occurring wind currents regularly blow through the active mines, scattering silver dust within and out into the environment. Under the rule of the self-interested Duke Abele, the output of the mines has been significantly increased, thus compounding the problem. The duke shows no concern for the workers or the environmental destruction occurring in the Dust District and is instead known for his gluttony and elaborate, wasteful parties. Jessamine, speaking through the Heart, comments on the divide between the wealthy and poor: “I see a mine collapsing on a dozen workers. A beggar succumbs to bloodflies. A cat sleeps on a velvet pillow.” This stark contrast of victimization and opulence surrounds the embodied player in the fictional world of the game, but the issues of the dangers of mining and the disregard of worker safety have their real-world counterparts.

Historically, mining safety has mattered, as it does in the Dishonored series, only to those whose lives are directly impacted, seeming almost a novel thought to those not directly in harm’s potential way. A news item published in the New York Evangelist in 1877 reported on an accident in a silver mine in which worker Hugh McDonald fainted as the transport cage was working its way back to the surface. He fell to his death owing to the absence of a security railing to prevent such an incident. The journalist comments that “it is not an unusual occurrence” for miners to faint from the heat in the mines and that “some enclosures should be provided” to prevent miners from falling to their deaths (1). While these comments can be read as sympathetic, they may also seem disconnected, as though such enclosures are intended for animal rather than human safety. Laws in some countries have since improved mine worker conditions, but the industry as a whole remains a threat to both them and to the environment. Matilda Lee explains of modern-day silver mining,

Generally, silver comes to market as a byproduct of the industrial mining of other metals, such as copper, zinc, and gold. In 2005, only 30 percent of silver came from actual silver mines. It is no high honour to be grouped into “one of the world’s most destructive industries,” as the industrial mining industry is known. According to the report “Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment,” by Earthworks and Oxfam America, the environmental and social costs of metals mining include using as much as 10 percent of world energy, arsenic emissions, cyanide and mercury poisoning, child labour and human rights abuses, as well as vast landscape damage. (n.p.)

The assumption in Dishonored 2 is that the dust clouds comprise just the silver dust from the mines and sand from the area around it, which would be problematical enough. However, the larger implication is that the clouds contain potentially far worse and more lethal substances, of the types described by Lee. Paul Stretesky and Michael Lynch in their discussion of strip mining for coal assert,

Environmental justice research is based on the premise that environmental harms are distributed unequally, and that this unequal distribution is explicable with respect to variations in community power and characteristics (e.g., income, poverty, race, ethnicity). In the environmental justice view, eliminating those forms of inequality through the ‘‘fair treatment of all races, cultures, incomes, and educational levels with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1998, p. 1) is one method for reducing inequity in the distribution of landscape harms. (211)

Mining in Karnaca focuses on silver, not coal, but the overarching concerns are relevant. The silver miners of Karnaca have no power and rely on the economics of the industry such that they live in an impossible situation: they mine for silver beyond environmental tolerance, thereby contaminating the poorer areas of the city, yet they have no viable financial alternatives.[9]

Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider focuses narrative attention away from the plague and the environmental ravages of the mines and toward the origins and potential destruction of its titular character as the series resolves the narrative threads surrounding his origins and purpose. Although the player still encounters bloodfly infestations and evidence of the oppression of the poor, the overall focus lies in Billie Lurk’s quest to find The Outsider in the Void and either kill or liberate him. The Outsider looms over the events in the series and the characters embodied by the player, and he is particularly associated with whales, a critical hint to his nature and motivations explored further in this paper. The final story in the Dishonored series picks up only a few months after the events of Dishonored 2, but approximately fifteen years following the events of Dishonored, enabling the player a view of the fictive world unfolding across a relatively long span of time. With respect to the ecological disasters in Dunwall and Karnaca and the hunting of whales to the point of extinction, little has changed.[10] At one point, the player embodying Billie can observe a poster that refers to whale oil rationing in Karnaca. This poster serves as one of several physical locations in the game where the Void, a symbolic representation of the desperate state of both the poor and the environment, appears to be bleeding into the real world. At these locations, The Outsider will speak to Billie, commenting on events around them. However, it is unclear whether The Outsider has created these rifts between planes or simply takes advantage of their existence. At this particular poster, he describes Karnaca as having been built on the bones of dead whales and ominously contends that “it will all shudder and writhe.” Whether he will be the instrument of such a reckoning or merely acts as its harbinger remains uncertain. Still, his potential loss, his removal from a world already on the precipice of ecological disaster and persistent suffering, weighs heavily across those who inhabit it. One citizen wonders, “What will we have left if The Outsider’s gone?” However plaintive the inquiry, it is one the narrative resists answering. Depending on player choice, the narrative concludes with either The Outsider dead at Billie’s hands or freed from his prison in the Void, but provides no additional information regarding the fate of Karnaca, Dunwall, or any of the world’s other lands.

The player embodying the series’s major characters has an opportunity to effect small changes, granting hope or fostering more terror. But regardless of the impact that the player’s individual decisions have on the plague and the political climate of Dunwall and Karnaca, the foundations from which the greedy and opportunistic have operated remain largely intact, even on a Low Chaos playthrough. A primary example of this lies in Dunwall’s whaling industry, mirrored to a lesser extent in Karnaca, and its intersections with the real world and debates about the environment and the preservation of species. The whaling industry still thrives around the globe in the real world and creates passionate, uncomfortable debates between those who see it as nothing but slaughter and those who would argue that nothing is inherently wrong with the industry. Further problematizing debates about whaling are indigenous peoples who seek to hunt whales as part of an expression of cultures often destroyed or riven by incursions by colonizers. The global and more ancient origins of whaling prove hard to definitively discover. Eric Jay Dolin notes, “Just when humans began viewing whales as objects worthy of pursuit will never be known. … The first close-up encounter between people and whales was likely not at sea but on an unknown beach where a whale, either dead or dying, had washed ashore, no doubt astonishing and scaring the locals” (20). Today, whale hunting may be equated with both the slaughter of sentient creatures and the diminishing of species up to the point of extinction. In Dishonored, The Heart says of whale slaughter, “They butchered the deep ones here, breathing in the rich stink of their enchanted flesh.” The Heart also comments, ominously, “When the last leviathan is gone, darkness will fall,” hinting at a fate far worse than the plague and one that is ultimately driven by those at all levels of Dunwall’s socioeconomic scale. Digital narratives, alongside their counterparts in written storytelling, oral storytelling, and film, have a unique ability to consider ecological issues. Louise Westling argues of these types of stories, although not specifically of storytelling in video games, “They can project possible futures based on present science; they can dramatise ecological dangers only beginning to be glimpsed in contemporary research projects” (82). While the Heart hints at a possible “enchanted” nature to the whales, as it is never clear whether this is a metaphor or some deeper insight into these creatures, Dishonored’s whales are easily recognizable. Although their appearance is not identical to that of real-word whales—they have more sets of flippers, for example—it is clear that the pervasive issue of whale hunting is designed to ask players to think about its existence in the modern world.

Although the Dishonored series is not without depictions of violence and cruelty—all the more so should the player opt for a High Chaos playthrough—its depictions of the whaling industry are bloody and wholly unpleasant. The player can find a review of a book called The Leviathan’s Sorrow. It says in part: “Drivel on the ‘aesthetic wonder’ of what is, in reality, the great and terrible Ocean that ever-threatens to swallow us. Includes arguments on the ‘gentle nature’ of the brutes, a notion refuted by seamen who return to shore, wide-eyed with tales of the whales’ savagery.” These words sound above all like a convenient set of theories used to justify the slaughter, but they also mirror modern conversations about the inherent right of existence for nonhuman species. The review also stands in direct conflict to the idea that “many environmentalists argue that we need to develop a value system which takes the intrinsic or inherent value of nature as its starting point” (Garrard 18). In the game series, common citizens prove as complicit as their superiors and oppressors at exploiting the natural environment. Those who rely on whaling for money or for oil to power many of their everyday conveniences seem hard-pressed to change even when faced with the reality forecasted by their actions: the eventual extinction of all whales. Adrian Burton writes of the decimation of various species and changing attitudes toward such slaughter,

Now that we understand that chaos is promoted by the needless killing of wildlife, that our ancient heroic epics do not explain how we fit into the biological world and the monsters who have so often been us. Yet a place for heroes does remain. Not for those who kill mantas, lions, or rhinos for some outdated sense of glory or personal gain, but for those who would preserve them. (56)

Burton’s thoughts dovetail with the game series’s presentation of whaling as emblematic of its world’s larger ills. While the citizens of Dunwall and Karnaca might argue that they need whale oil, such a supposition sidesteps technological innovations that would certainly be possible. Slaughtering whales, after all, is simple. The Outsider does not seem willing or able to stop the killing himself, but his seeking out of individuals to bear his mark, and thus the powers of the Void, appears to be in part his quest for just such a potential hero.

While the series proper does not shy from depictions of bloody water and the ravaged carcasses of whales, the most graphic depiction of the whaling industry is outside of the main Dishonored game series in its DLC “The Knife of Dunwall” during its Slaughterhouse Row sequence.[11] The DLC follows Daud, an antagonist in Dishonored and the murderer of Empress Jessamine, in the months after his actions. Daud’s story eventually takes him, and thus the player, into one of Dunwall’s whale slaughterhouses. Given the inherent immersive nature of digital storytelling and the embodiment of the player in the midst of the story, this section of the game risks devolving into what has been deemed “ecoporn.” Greg Garrard explains of nature documentaries that “the illusion of unrestricted access into a mysterious or forbidden space produces a relation of subject to object that is structurally similar to that involved in pornography in which the eye/I derives pleasure from an obtrusive gaze that its object cannot challenge or return” (154). The sequences inside the slaughterhouse, however, avoid this pitfall of the gaze through their unrelenting emphasis on cruelty and bloodletting. The idea of torture porn stems from studies that indicate that, for some people, certain sexualized forms of violence stimulate the same parts of the brain that pornography does. The scenes of unutterable suffering in the slaughterhouse seem inconsistent with torture porn, as the violence is in no way erotic. Moreover, the sequences place the player in the fundamental roles of both actor and spectator. The player can opt to find a way to euthanize the whale that is being slowly tortured and bled while continually moaning in agony. Yet this action cannot be quickly or easily completed, as it requires careful elimination of the guards surrounding the area. Graeme Kirkpatrick argues, “What makes a game representation more vivid, then, seems to be the intensity of its interaction fused with the presence in its sequences of symbols that maintain a connection with the subject matter at hand” (209). In the case of these sequences, the player exists in the unenviable position of either finding a way to end the whale’s suffering or having to both view and listen to its agony throughout the rest of this portion of the game. Aki Järvinen states that “gameplay, as a human experience, is instilled with emotions, from fierce to mild in their intensity, and from persistent to fleeting in their temporality” (87). Witnessing these scenes of a majestic and wondrous creature needlessly suffering may make a real and lasting emotional impression on the player. Furthermore, Järvinen asserts that “voluntary suffering appears in many games” and can indeed become a powerful aspect to storytelling (106).

The game series provides a brutal and realistic portrait of the suffering experienced by intelligent animals, such as whales as they are hunted and slaughtered, and it also considers other ecological disasters, including the silver mines in Karnaca and the plagues there and in Dunwall. Against this backdrop of plague and the decimation of the whale population, The Outsider emerges as the primary figure looming over the games and its main characters,[12] an enigmatic figure who in some instances appears to be a herald of destruction and at other times, a symbol of hope and renewal. The Outsider is best likened to a chthonic being associated with the deep. The area of the Void where The Outsider dwells reflects this as it is normally filled with crumbling stone buildings, symbolic of the earth, and whales, whether spectral or simulacrum, floating through. Hazel Monforton observes of The Outsider,

His places are the hidden, marginal places of the world: the witches’ hideouts, the rat-filled sewers, the abandoned apartments inhabited by the mad or the wicked. His chthonic nature binds him to death and judgment. He is hated and feared by the powerful and worshipped by the destitute. (n.p.)

He is a god, then, along the lines of a chthonic being of the deep, yet he does not function or act in ways traditionally ascribed to gods and goddesses across mythological systems. While he is worshipped, he does not seek such reverence and does not mark only those who would worship at his feet. Indeed, some of his chosen, like Daud, eventually hold The Outsider in contempt. He appears to have the power to create, as evidenced by the Heart and his ability to shape the Void, the in-between, liminal space where he dwells. He is also a trickster in that while he imbues mortals with powers, he chooses those who can act for both good and ill. Although he himself does not test societal boundaries, as is the case with traditional trickster figures, The Outsider empowers those who do. In the specific case of Corvo and Daud, they become pitted against each other, with Daud using his powers to spread terror and fear in all of Dunwall’s citizens. The Outsider physically marks those he finds “interesting,” but he has also planted Runes and Bonecharms[13] that are imbued with his power throughout Dunwall as signs of his existence and continued presence despite the limited glimpses of him outside the Void. Tellingly, the Runes and Bonecharms are made from whalebone. Yet even with all the signs of his existence, The Outsider refuses to succumb to the hubris plaguing so many gods and goddesses in mythological systems found across the world: the need to be worshipped. Greg Pritchard, citing the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, writes, “Schopenhauer’s answer is the same as Ishmael’s: ‘Nature is unfathomable because we seek after causes and consequences in a realm where this form is not to be found . . . merely the form under which our intellect comprehends appearance, i.e., the surface of things’ (1970: 57)” (28). While Pritchard’s work here primarily considers Schopenhauer’s theories against an analysis of Moby Dick, the ideas prove striking in their relevance to the Dishonored series and The Outsider, both of which are largely concerned with whales. The Outsider never seeks to be understood and never justifies his actions, the motivations behind which are his alone.

The Outsider’s true nature is not presented in a definitive fashion, and he himself is cagey about the details of his life and the nature of his being. He takes the form of a young man, perhaps in his twenties or slightly younger, with black eyes, and his spirit crosses at will between the Void and the real world. He seems keenly interested in issues of social inequity, oppression, and environmental decimation, especially as they relate to whales. In Dishonored 2, he claims to have been a human sacrificed by a mysterious group, although this proves to be a problematical account in that this game heavily implies that his true identity—the life he lived before he was “sacrificed”—was originally that of a whale. He remembers,

It’s the place where my throat was cut 4000 years ago. This is where my life ended and where it began again. It’s where they made me. Right up until the end, I thought I would find a way to escape. I fought but the ropes only cut my skin, so I went limp. And then the knife touched my throat and I knew I’d waited too long. The blood ran out and I became a god.

During this sequence, he shows the player a sacrificial altar and table and at one point lies down on the latter. Although to the player the table appears human sized, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to or is intended to be. Given that The Outsider has much in common with the trickster archetype, his words need not be taken literally. Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider casts further suspicion on this depiction of events. The Outsider claims to have died young, murdered by a cult when he was 15 years old, some 4000 years prior to the events of the games. However, at no point does he appear as a teenager. He always appears as a human in his twenties, never as a young teenager. While The Outsider can certainly take on any form he wishes, this specific appearance proves important. The choice of appearing as a man in his twenties has no other logical counterpart—for example, it would not make his manifestations to his chosen any more or less effective, as supplicants would certainly fall at his feet no matter his chosen appearance. Yet it warrants consideration that he only takes on this one human guise, which appears inconsistent with his own narrative of himself at the time of his death.

Two plausible explanations for this inconsistency emerge. The first and weaker of the two lies in The Outsider’s account, of his being murdered at the age of 15 and through a dark magic ritual reborn as a god, being wholly truthful. However, this interpretation would suggest that his affinity toward whales holds no deeper significance than his overall concern with environmental destruction. The more intriguing interpretation circles back to The Outsider’s recitation of his death being symbolically, but not literally, true. The description in the above passage reads much like the final moments of a slaughtered whale. Perhaps the curious whale moved close to a whaling vessel without realizing the danger until it was too late. The New Bedford National Park’s historical documents regarding whaling and whale hunts describe how “when the whale tired from towing the boat and loss of blood, the men would pull themselves up to the whale’s back, the officer and boat steerer would exchange places, and the officer would kill the whale by puncturing its lung with a long iron lance” (4). Exhausted and hounded, the whale would eventually succumb to its harpoon wounds in a manner analogous to The Outsider’s description of fighting to escape, failing, then dying when his throat was slit. David Dowling writes of the continuously perpetuated myth of the aggressive, violent whale, like Moby Dick, noting the “public perceptions of the whale as a vicious beast, a nefarious sea monster like those storied mythical creatures in the popular press. Inoffensive and timid animals of course do not make formidable foes in romantic hunting narratives whether on land or on the high seas” (260). The Outsider’s account drains all sense of adventure or conflict and instead renders the event for what it was: the slaughter of a creature unable to effectively fight against harpoons and steel.

Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider provides two important narrative clues supporting the interpretation that The Outsider was once a whale and thus closely tied both to the ecology of the games’ world and to its ruination at human hands. The first clue proves a bit circumstantial, but is nonetheless intriguing. Billie Lurk must retrieve a specific, special blade before she can kill The Outsider. It is the same blade that had been used in the rite in which he was killed and remade. Of the twin-bladed weapon, Billie comments that it “turned a boy into a god,” but that reflects her repetition of the story The Outsider has told about himself and is not otherwise grounded in any other verifiable source. Furthermore, the knife, less a dagger than a short sword, bears more than a passing resemblance to a whaling tool called the “boarding knife.[14]National Geographic’s historical information on whaling describes boarding knives as “long, sharp swords whose use was usually limited to the ship’s officers. Boarding knives were used to poke holes in blankets as the blubber reached the deck. A hook would go through the hole, and sailors would hoist the blanket as high as their ship’s mast” (n.p.). The otherwise unidentified cultists that The Outsider describes as killing him transform into the crew of a whaling vessel, the instrument of his rebirth and potential death at the hands of Billie Lurk, a tool used to strip blubber from carcass.

The second critical narrative clue provides a more direct link between The Outsider and a previous life as a creature of the deep. As is a hallmark of The Dishonored series, players always have at least two options for completing quest objectives, and one of those is always a nonlethal resolution. The game privileges nonlethal over lethal solutions, requiring critical thought and assessment of the environment and a full exploration of it. In Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider, the player embodying Billie can opt to either kill The Outsider, as her former mentor Daud pressures her to do, or save him. It becomes apparent when Billie finally reaches the place where The Outsider’s physical form lies trapped in the Void[15] that his fate has been terrible, confined between life and death. Billie comments of his state, “But you’ve always been at the mercy of bad people, haven’t you?” However much the player may sympathize and wish to free The Outsider, certain extra steps must first be fulfilled. Once the player reaches the Void, crawling with members of the Eyeless who fetishize and worship The Outsider, he or she, through careful investigation, can learn of one member called Malchiodi whose special area of research lies in the lost language that The Outsider supposedly speaks as his original tongue. This language takes physical form as well, and Malchiodi discovers that The Outsider’s mark is itself a pictogram, a series of 16 distinct images that form both the mark and The Outsider’s name. Malchiodi’s recorded notes clearly indicate that this name is not in an “earthly tongue” and is conspicuous for its “distinction in tone and pitch to convey meaning.” He further asserts that the language is unusual in that it is especially diphthong heavy. Diphthongs combine two vowel sounds pronounced as one, for example, the “ou” sound in cloud and the “oi” sound in foil. Together, the different diphthong possibilities create a sense of rising and falling musicality when recited in longer strings. That the language of The Outsider is really whale song proves a logical assessment, with Malchiodi’s comment about diphthongs of critical importance. Jade Joddle, a speech development teacher, utilizes the following rhyme to teach diphthongs to her students: “Deep below where the whales roam/They squeal and moan, squawk and groan/Over the whole wide range of tones” (9). She notes that these lines are “designed to imitate the sound of a whale song” (Ibid) and that this is heard by enunciating and even exaggerating the diphthongs in them. Finally, Billie herself cannot speak The Outsider’s name; it has to be done by someone who is dead and trapped with him in the Void. The implication is that human vocal cords and mouth structures are insufficient to intone the language. Daud has been freed from the limitations of mortal flesh and is trapped in the Void with The Outsider. Armed with this knowledge, Billie can convince Daud to speak The Outsider’s name,[16] and by having his name returned, The Outsider is finally freed.[17]

Whether he is the protector or a god of the whales or, intriguingly, perhaps something akin to the biblical Leviathan[18] are all fascinating possibilities, but they remain hypotheses. What is clear is that The Outsider figuratively walks the earth, appearing to some and marking others, and shrines dedicated to him exist throughout the kingdom despite their having been outlawed by the new and now dominant religion The Abbey of the Everyman, a direct result of Dunwall’s and Karnaca’s ecological disasters. The Abbey perceives the worship of The Outsider as a grave threat to order and stability, and they routinely burn his adherents at the stake. They also inundate the cities with propaganda designed to instill fear of him and his radical potential for change. In their own words, the Abbey “teaches that The Outsider preys on weakness.” Where the Abbey of the Everyman attempts to use fear to prevent the worship of The Outsider, the Eyeless[19] fetishize him and nurse an unhealthy obsession with the occult, more so than the ordinary citizens who search out or build shrines to The Outsider to seek his help or his blessing. Unlike most of the other organized groups and gangs in the series, the Eyeless are unique in that their ranks draw from all social strata, as opposed to being polarized into groups of either the privileged or the destitute. In Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider, the Eyeless succeed in opening a pathway into the Void as they pursue the place where The Outsider slumbers, presumably to both gain additional power and be closer to the god they worship. Yet theirs proves an unhealthy fascination. Of the Eyeless, The Outsider comments to Billie that they are “never satisfied, no matter how much they take.” Still, even after death and a form of rebirth as a god, The Outsider gains no peace. The members of the Abbey seek his destruction and the eradication of his memory from the living world, while the Eyeless mount a relentless campaign to strip away his secrets and to invade his domain in the Void.

That The Outsider is a source of both revulsion and fascination stems in part from his refusal to explain his own nature. As Hazel Monforton[20] argues, “Sea monsters, witches, black magic, wayward girls, thieves, murderers, etc., are all blamed on The Outsider’s influence. Some rightfully, most arbitrarily” (n.p.). The Outsider offers no theology or doctrine for his faithful to follow, yet he seems to be the closest thing to hope they have left. He empowers, for good or for ill, those who tend to be rendered powerless by others or by their circumstances, those he describes as “interesting.” Once the mark is accepted and bestowed, The Outsider does not direct the behavior of those who bear it. He may appear to them, as he does to Corvo in the first game and to Corvo or Emily in the second, and comment that their actions have power and weight in the lives of the people around them, but he leaves the choices to them. In their choices lie both potential and ruin. Daud, who gathered a group of acolytes and built a life terrorizing the innocent, never takes responsibility for his actions. When Billie reunites with him in Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider, Daud burns with resentment, arguing, “The Outsider gave me that mark knowing what I could do with all that power.” The sentiment is hardly fair. As Hazel Monforton argues, “He gives his gifts to the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the blamed. He revisits his own powerlessness when he reaches out to give a choice to the abused. His position within the Empire, forcibly outside its walls, gives him the power to ask these questions” (n.p.). Antagonists, such as Daud and Delilah Copperspoon, eventually come to wield The Outsider’s gifts with cruelty, becoming what they once claimed to hate most. The protagonists embodied by the player—Corvo, Emily, and Billie[21]—may opt to become forces of good or chaos. Yet the key point is that all have been allowed to choose. The Outsider has neither threatened his chosen with punishment for not doing as he says nor forced them to follow any particular course of action.

While the game’s narrative offers no definitive conclusions, there is significant, albeit circumstantial, evidence that The Outsider’s true identity is the Leviathan, greater than just an ordinary whale, and perhaps akin to the biblical creature, an old chthonic creature of the deep who would, by virtue of that ancient existence and power, possess specific concern for the natural world. The murder of such a creature may bring about unintended results, such as this creature finding a new and human form as a god. The player can find a book excerpt entitled “The Spirit of the Deep.” In it, the author, who seems to be writing about a first-person mystical experience, says of The Outsider, “You rule my dreams, where I behold with senses I do not possess in waking life the dark splendor of your home in the deep. There the ocean rests on your back like a sleeping child on his father’s shoulders. In these sleepless nights of despair, you appear to me not as the mighty leviathan, but as a young man, with eyes as black as the Void.” An interesting consideration here is Catherine Keller’s assertion that “The fact that atmospheric and oceanic vortices pose prime examples of the dynamic systems of chaos is not incidental to a tehomic intertextuality, which describes turbulent orders only much later legible to science” (143). Dunwall and Karnaca enjoy scientific advancement, so a lack of knowledge is not the source of their problems or the turbulence within their walls. Indeed, it would appear that the Chaos or the Void from which The Outsider lives and emerges has been forgotten in this world, such that the reassertion of both the Leviathan’s might and its fickle nature proves necessary. Catherine Keller also considers the image of the Leviathan as it exists in the Book of Job. She notes, “The author could not have imagined the current human capacity to annihilate the whales altogether, or to turn the sea into a sewer. … The chaos monster does not seek vengeance but respect for its domain” (138). David Dowling argues, “The invention of the monstrous fighting whale has had a long cultural life of its own that continues to obscure the fact that the number of ships sunk by whales using their heads as battering rams constitutes a fraction of the innumerable collisions that did not harm vessels but instead left whales lacerated, mangled, and dismembered” (269). His thoughts intersect with Keller’s ideas about how a creature like the whale desires not to attack or to harm but to be left in peace, respected and safe in the deep. The violation of the whale who evolves into The Outsider, an ancient and powerful leviathan-like creature, would be such an affront to the natural world that its rules might be upended, enabling a whale to become human.

The game’s developers have, perhaps wisely, left the final analysis of The Outsider’s nature and true form in the hands of players and subject to debate. In a Twitter conversation, Harvey Smith, one of the creative directors at Arkane Studios, fielded several questions from players about the nature of The Outsider, tweeting, “He appears almost as he was in life.” However, in that same thread, Smith also states that The Outsider’s relationship to the whales is ultimately “unclear” when asked if The Outsider’s sympathy for the creatures was more a spiritual bond or affinity or something more “literal.” In considering The Outsider, there is something of Bertrand Westphal’s idea that “the relationship between familiar and fabulous has evolved throughout the history of science. Today, the familiar has prevailed over the fabulous. Originally, the relationship was reversed. All was fabulous, an enormous voice, blank spots on a virtual map” (79). Perhaps this is why The Outsider feels the need to walk the world again. However, the game’s narrative avoids oversimplifying what happens in the story such that the environmental message is clearly laid out, with a firm sense of good vs. evil. Even The Outsider’s actions are not without fault, as he bestows powers on those he finds “interesting,” and allows them to use those powers as they will. That being the case, the narrative evades the flaws of some environmental apocalypse narratives that feature a “warning presented in terms of absolute authority; the material threat is ‘evil,’ and so, by association, are the authors of it; the consequences of failure to heed the warning are catastrophic, and the danger is not only imminent, but already well under way” (Garrard 95). Certainly, the game provides a pointed critique of the disparity in social class and the ravaging of the whale population and environment while avoiding simple delineations of good and evil.

Even considering The Outsider’s willingness to potentially create more chaos, he does not appear to want this to be the path that his chosen ones select. He appears to favor a Low Chaos playthrough, as his tone in the segments in which the player meets him tends to reflect interest in Corvo’s choices, whereas The Outsider sounds colder, clipped, and snide on a High Chaos playthrough. An example of this is found in a mission in the first game involving one of the antagonists who Corvo must either eliminate or deal with in a nonlethal manner. Lady Boyle, one of the supporters of the Lord Regent and therefore of the coup and murder of the Empress, is well protected in her mansion, and reaching her is difficult regardless of which option the player chooses. Corvo can either kill her outright or orchestrate her kidnapping and living, presumably for the rest of her life, under lock and key. Here are the comments The Outsider makes depending on Corvo’s choice:

Death: “I suppose she had to go. Supporting a tyrant, the Lord Regent. And living in opulence while the people of the city starve to death and live in fear of plague. What choice did you have?” The question is presented with a healthy dose of scorn, given that the player embodying Corvo did have a choice.

Captivity: “She supported a tyrant, the Lord Regent. And lived in opulence while the people of the city starve to death and live in fear of plague. Now she’ll live out her days, month after month, year after year, far away, even as her fine clothes wear into tatters and her silken hair gets dull and gray. Plenty of time for reflection.”

This second dialogue option seems much more aligned with The Outsider’s machinations, such as they can be discerned, to have not a city of corpses but visceral and visible reminders of what evil has been wrought on it, Dunwall’s environment, and the whales.

Perhaps Billie Lurk’s ship, The Dreadful Wale.[22] provides the most poignant evidence of the games’ focus on ecological disaster. The word “wale” evokes two homophones, “whale” and “wail,” while avoiding existing definitively as either one. It brings to mind the haunting cries of whale song and the sounds of terror the creatures make in the agony of their deaths at the hands of hunters. Ultimately, the game series offers no neat narrative conclusions to any of Dunwall’s or Karnaca’s problems. While a Low Chaos ending for Dishonored leads to Empress Emily Kaldwin gaining control over the plague and ushers in what The Outsider describes as a “golden age,” nothing is mentioned of the continued hunting of whales. Indeed, Dishonored 2, taking place some fifteen years after the events of the first game, finds whale oil still the dominant fuel source for the entire kingdom. Although the player can take steps to make Karnaca less corrupt and more mindful of the plight of its mine workers, those are small movements forward, not radical shifts in everyday lives. The seeds for plague, the overcrowding, filthy conditions, and economic disparity, still seem to seethe just below the surface. If the situation is left precarious on Low Chaos endings, High Chaos endings end on bleak notes. Observing all the player’s choices, and commenting on them, is The Outsider, his presence at once mysterious and smoldering with the anger of the oppressed and a decimated environment.

 

 

[1] The player’s choice of either a Low or High Chaos walk-through and this decision’s impact on narrative are discussed further on.

[2] The nature of The Outsider and his narrative purpose are discussed in-depth further on.

[3] While it is possible to have some chapters completed as Low Chaos and others as High Chaos, the game tracks overall instances of Low or High Chaos and uses this measure as the basis for both changes in the game and the ending that the player receives. It is possible for players deliberately attempting Low or High Chaos playthroughs to replay chapters to achieve that end.

[4] Being able to “ghost” a level, as this no detection playthrough is often called, does not determine Chaos level. Of more importance is the player’s overall casualty level and decisions he or she makes regarding missions, again related to whether they are completed lethally or by finding an alternative means to accomplish the objective.

[5] An example of this is the brilliantly designed “Clockwork Mansion” mission in Dishonored 2. The mansion contains a number of levers that when activated shift around walls and rooms like puzzle pieces, leading to a disorienting space to navigate and potential encounters with a large number of enemy guards. On entering the mansion, should the player look toward the ceiling almost immediately after entering, he or she may notice that it is made of glass and can thus be broken with a crossbow bolt. A player that does so can move into the opened space, as it is the crawl space between that wall and the outer wall of the mansion, a space needed to allow the pieces to move when activated. Taking this route to the mission objective, which is to neutralize the mansion’s creator Kirin Jindosh by either lethal or nonlethal means, enables the player to bypass nearly all guards save one, who can easily be overpowered.

[6] A dangerous and parasitic insect.

[7] The Heart will also state that “the Doom of Pandyssia has come to this city,” implying that Pandyssia serves as a mirror for the dark path Dunwall walks and that the continent lies abandoned due to the actions of its former inhabitants.

[8] Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider uses a different in-game tool than the Heart provided to Corvo and to Emily in the first two games by which the player embodying Billie Lurk can gain similar insights into the world around her. Billie gains the ability to listen to the chatter of rats, who sometimes provide information about infiltration points into buildings and at other times speak of the cruelty they have experienced given that they are seen as vermin. For example, some of the rats recount the agony they had experience when they were caught in traps.

 

[9] The player, embodying either Corvo or Emily, has an opportunity to ameliorate circumstances in the Dust District during Mission 6. However, this opportunity makes the mission more complex to complete because it involves finding and interpreting a clue regarding how to deal with the mission’s two main antagonists. The Dust District is bisected into two warring territories—that of the Howler Gang, led by Paolo, and that of the Abbey of the Everyman, led by Overseer Byrne. The initial mission directives lead the player to decide whether to deliver Paolo to Byrne, or vice versa. Bringing the enemy of the other faction into their territory ceases that group’s hostility, meaning the player would only need to work through one enemy area, not two. To complete the mission nonlethally and give hope to the miners, the player must instead deliver Paolo and Byrne to a business serving as a front for a trade in slave labor. This places the Dust District in control of those who are more interested in worker safety.

[10] All of the explored areas in the three games appear dependent on whale oil. Dunwall presented the most sustained and massive whale hunting and processing industry. Karnaca appears to have a lesser trade in whale oil, evidenced by several areas near the water where carcasses are processed.

[11] Although a player is not required to complete DLC add-ons to finish the main game, he or she misses additional and sometimes significant narrative development by sidestepping these extra components.

[12] In Dishonored, The Outsider appears to Corvo and grants him powers to facilitate his quest to avenge Jessamine. In Dishonored 2, the player can embody either Corvo or Emily, and The Outsider grants powers to whomever the player chooses. The player can, however, opt for a “no powers” playthrough, thus completely rejecting The Outsider. Antagonists, such as Daud and Delilah, have similarly been marked by The Outsider. During Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider, Billie Lurk is granted powers temporarily, but The Outsider does not grant his mark.

[13] The player can collect a number of Runes and Bonecharms that allow him or her to upgrade powers or add protections or skills.

[14] Pictures of boarding knives can be found here http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/AG_026608.html

[15] While The Outsider can manifest a spirit form in the real world, he is otherwise trapped in the Void. The narrative hints that a different afterlife exists, the place, for example, to which Jessamine’s spirit is finally released, and that the Void is more of a prison for the souls trapped there than anything else.

[16] Daud, who died earlier in the game, must speak The Outsider’s name to him. He does so by whispering it into The Outsider’s ear, so the player never hears this ancient lost language spoken aloud. The narrative indicates that only a spirit trapped with The Outsider in the Void can serve to free him.

[17] On being freed, The Outsider takes on corporeal form to match the young man that he has always appeared as throughout the series, implying he receives the chance to live out a human life. If he did indeed originate as a whale, the implication here is that his death wrought something so catastrophic that it allowed him a transformation of form. The player embodying Billie can also opt to kill The Outsider using the ceremonial blade.

[18] The specific possibilities and reasons for The Outsider being an iteration of the Leviathan are explored further on.

[19] The narrative implies that the Eyeless have existed for some time, but the group first appears in Dishonored: The Death of The Outsider.

[20] Hazel Monforton is one of the writers for Dishonored: Death of The Outsider.

[21] Billie is never marked by The Outsider, a reality she tells him she once regretted. However, in Dishonored: Death of The Outsider, he does grant Billie temporary Void powers.

[22] This is its spelling in the games.

 

 

 

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