Of the thousands of games I’ve played, a handful have worlds that are so vivid and memorable that I can instantly recall them. 2007’s Lively Holy Land Assassin’s Creedthe industrial Midgar of 1997 Final Fantasy VII (and its solid 2020 remake), 2011’s massive Tamriel. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These are distinctive places filled with iconic architecture and landscapes, places I’ve always loved to get lost in for hours. But none of them come close to the atmospheric coherence of Dunwall in 2012. Dishonored, a whaling town so rich in detail, so ecologically and thematically intertwined, it gives me chills. It’s a haunting sneak-and-stab background that has stuck with me all these years later.
Developed by Arkane Studios and launched in October 2012 (turns 10 this month), Dishonored is a stealth action-adventure game where you play as a master bodyguard turned master assassin Corvo Attano. Framed for a murder you didn’t commit, mainly because you didn’t have the authority or power to prevent it, you find yourself locked up and awaiting execution in coldridge prison in brutalist style. However, just before this breaks your head, you escape your prison cell (with the help of some shady organization) and are gifted with magic by some mysterious supernatural being known as Outsider to get your revenge and thwart a hostile government takeover by tyrannical morons who shouldn’t be in power at all. It makes up for it Dishonoredthe heart of the narrative, sending you on an adventure with nine missions to kill the unsuspecting. But as compelling as the narrative was, that wasn’t the draw for me. It was and always has been a troubled world.
Everything is threatening, even the architecture
There is an awkward juxtaposition between the classes in Dunwall. The industrial city ravaged by a virulent and deadly plague caused by the plague of rats shows how the proletariat suffers far more than the aristocracy for obvious reasons. Money doesn’t go far. But while the rich think they can escape death, something else is in store for Corvo and Dunwall. Like the late Empress Jessamyn Caldwin said at the beginning of the game, everyone is trapped in the cursed city because of the virus, doomed to die either from an infection in the body or a knife in the heart. It’s a tragedy deliberately facilitated by callous government officials who (aside from Kaldwin herself) are too unwilling to deal with the crisis even though they have the resources to fight it. And you feel the weight of this inhumane decision throughout Dunwall, as the disease everyone faces and the callous indifference of the powerful lead to streets inevitably littered with corpses. The callousness of those in power is appalling, especially when they hold your life in their selfish hands. At least Dunwall’s oppressors suffer the same fate, because with the mandatory blockade issued by the religious monarchy, all are doomed in the mostly walled city.
And those walls… They are equal parts oppressive and intimidating. This is not the claustrophobic brutalism of Remedy Entertainment controlbut DishonoredDunwall strikes a similar chord. The buildings in this game are these massive, towering structures reaching for the sky, occasionally emitting disconcerting creaks and wallowing as if sensing the weight of your footsteps. Some of them are extravagant, decorated with exquisite draperies and lavish vases. They are very gothic, rusty, tired. But almost every building you come across, with the exception of a few highly protected areas (such as the Golden Cat pleasure house), was destroyed by the plague somehow. Rooms are left empty, often with still food and fireplaces. Rats roam the floors and streets, munching on rotting flesh and bones. People are rarer and those who are still around, because they have no choice but to stay, criticize the conditions in which they are placed. Dunwall is a demoralized, dying town that is filled with the ever-present nightmare that the rats brought with them.
The Decay, The Plague, The Rats…They Are Everywhere
That’s because the collapse of Dunwall was intentional. The disease, called Death of Pandisia, originated in the city’s slums and other slums before working his way up the socioeconomic ladder. One would think that a plague of rats would start infecting the people at the docks, given that Dunwall is a whaling town and rats love seaports. But instead, because the power-hungry Hiram Burroughs seeking ultimate control, he introduced the Plague of the Poor as a means of ending poverty – yes, by simply killing all the poor people – and confined the city. The assumption that you can subjugate an entire population through unsanctioned and unnecessary death is already megalomaniac enough. To think that you will sit on top and reign unscathed from the consequences of your malicious decisions is a tyrannical prank of the highest order. It’s this kind of heartlessness, this level of animosity toward society that has made me afraid of the game’s elite, but no less willing to put a sword through their necks.
I mean, Dunwall is decaying, it’s the bourgeoisie’s fault. I’m not going to pretend it’s some sort of booming city on the cutting edge of technological innovation or anything, although there were some creative minds toiling away in the corners of the city. However, the active election of powerful arseholes who seek to control power only for narcissistic reasons pushed the capital to its demise. The ego is a strong, frightening aspect of the personality that can lead to some terrifying circumstances if left unchecked. then Dishonored can be seen as an illustration of what happens when the ego has its way, and this allusion continues to haunt me.
I can’t forget the excellent score that underlines the unsettling tone of the game. Ann eerie set of songs mostly made up of sparse strings, discordant piano and bloated organs, the soundtrack would almost be a perfect fit for FromSoftware blood born or even as a slasher Halloween or nasty movie like The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s an appropriately creepy mix of music as you plot—and execute—your revenge on those who wronged you. There’s also sound design in each level, which, while almost non-existent, does a great job of solidifying the emptiness of Dunwall.
A decade later and I still shudder at the thought of walking through it Dishonored again. Not because the game is terrible, far from it. I tremble because of the empty city streets, the alarming rat epidemic, the dying citizens, the callous aristocrats. It is a world that, though on the brink of death, still teems with so much life and fear. And it’s this dichotomy that makes me both fear and face the consequences of my actions as I bounce from rooftop to rooftop, stabbing one rich ass after another.