Of the thousands of games I’ve played, a handful have worlds so vivid and memorable that I can immediately recall them. The Animated Holy Land of 2007 Assassin’s Creedthe industrial Midgar of the 1997s Final Fantasy VII (and its solid 2020 remake), 2011’s vast Tamriel The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They are distinctive places filled with iconic architecture and landscapes, settings that I have always enjoyed getting lost in for hours on end. But none of them come close to the atmospheric consistency of Dunwall in 2012 Dishonored, a whaling town so rich in detail, so closely tied to the environment and thematics that it gives me goosebumps. It’s a haunting backdrop for sneaking and stabbing, one that stuck with me all these years later.
Developed by Arkane Studios and launched in October 2012 (it turns 10 this month), Dishonored is a stealth action-adventure game where you play as a master bodyguard turned master assassin Corvo Attano. Accused of a murder you didn’t commit, mostly because you didn’t have the powers or the strength to prevent it, you find yourself locked up and awaiting execution in Coldridge Brutalist Prison. However, just before you lose your mind, you break out of your prison cell (with the help of a shadowy organization) and are gifted with magic by a mysterious supernatural being known as the stranger out for revenge and thwart a hostile government takeover by tyrannical assholes who shouldn’t be in power at all. This composes Dishonored, sending you on a nine-mission adventure of assassinating the unsuspecting. But as compelling as the storytelling was, that wasn’t the draw for me. It was, and always has been, the troubling world.
Everything is threatening, even the architecture
There is an uncomfortable juxtaposition between courses at Dunwall. The industrial city, ravaged by a virulent and deadly contagion caused by the rat plague, shows the proletarians suffering much more than the aristocracy for obvious reasons. Money goes a long way. But while the wealthy think they can escape death, Corvo and Dunwall have something else to come. As late Empress Jessamine Kaldwin stated at the start of the game, everyone is trapped in the cursed city due to the virus, doomed to die either by an infection in the body or by a knife in the heart. It is a tragedy deliberately facilitated by ruthless government officials who (aside from Kaldwin herself) are too reluctant to deal with the crisis despite using resources to fight it. And you feel the weight of this inhumane decision throughout Dunwall, as the disease everyone contracts and the callous indifference of the powerful leads to alleyways inevitably lined with corpses. The soullessness of those in power is terrifying, especially when they hold your life in their selfish hands. At least the oppressors of Dunwall suffer the same fate as, with the mandated blockade issued by the religious monarchy, everyone is doomed in the largely walled city.
And those walls… They’re just as oppressive and intimidating. It’s not the claustrophobic brutalism of Remedy Entertainment Controlbut DishonoredDunwall strikes a similar deal. The buildings in this game are those towering, towering structures that soar into the sky, sometimes making disconcerting creaks and moans as if they feel the weight of your footsteps. Some of them are extravagant, adorned with exquisite draperies and opulent vases. Many are gothic, rusty, tired. But just about every building you come across, except for a few heavily protected areas (such as Le Chat d’Or Pleasure House), was decimated by the plague in one way or another. Rooms are left empty, often with food still out and fireplaces still burning. Rats frolic along floors and streets, chewing on rotting flesh and bone. People are less frequent and those who are still there, because they have no choice but to stay, criticize the conditions in which they have been placed. Dunwall is a demoralized and dying town, filled with the ever-present nightmare the rats have brought with them.
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Rot, pestilence, rats… they are everywhere
That’s because Dunwall’s collapse was intentional. The disease, called The Fate of Pandyssia, was born in the slums and other poor areas of the city before starting to climb the socio-economic ladder. You’d think a plague of rats would start infecting people on the docks, given that Dunwall is a whaling town and rats love seaports. But instead, because power-hungry maniac Hiram Burrows coveting ultimate control, he introduced the plague to the poor as a means of ending poverty—yes, by simply killing all the poor—and restraining the city. Assuming you can subjugate an entire population with unauthorized and unnecessary death is megalomaniacal enough. To think that you sit at the top and reign supreme, unscathed from the consequences of your malevolent decisions, is tyrannical bullshit to the highest degree. It’s this kind of heartlessness, this level of animosity towards the Commonwealth, that has left me scared of the game’s elite but no less ready to plunge a sword into their necks.
I mean, it’s the bourgeoisie’s fault that Dunwall is falling apart. I’m not going to pretend it was a thriving city on the cutting edge of technological innovation or anything, although there were creative minds working in the corners of the city. However, it was the active choices of powerful assholes determined to commandeer authority solely for narcissistic reasons that drove the capital to its demise. The ego is a strong and intimidating aspect of personality that can lead to terrifying circumstances if left unchecked. In this way, Dishonored could be seen as an illustration of what happens when the ego does what it wants, and this allusion continues to haunt me.
I cannot forget the excellent score which underlines the troubling tone of the game. strange set of songs mostly made up of sparse strings, jarring piano and bloated organs, the soundtrack would fit almost perfectly with FromSoftware’s transmitted by blood, or even a slasher movie like Halloween or such a scary movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a perfectly chilling mix of music as you plan and execute your revenge against those who have wronged you. There’s also each level’s sound design which, while mostly absent, does a great job of solidifying Dunwall’s emptiness.
A decade later, I’m still shaking at the thought of crossing Dishonored Again. Not because the game is terrible, far from it. I tremble because of the vacant city streets, the alarming rat plague, the dying citizens, the callous aristocrats. It is a world that, although on the brink of death, still teems with so much life and fear. And it’s this dichotomy that leaves me both scared and ready to face the consequences of my actions, as I leap from rooftop to rooftop, stabbing one wealthy asshole at a time.
#Unsettling #Power #Dunwall #Dishonored