The Treatment of Women in Dishonored

Warning: Minor Dishonored spoilers for mechanics and setting, though not for the plot or main story. 

A naked blonde women shown in a wooden bathtub, crossing her hands across her chest to cover herself up. She says “I can’t believe this, when I took this job they told me I’d work with good men.”

Like many other PC gamers these last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a bit of time with a new friend Dishonored.  This game hit me entirely by surprise (as I suppose any good stealth game should) and I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I bought it on Steam on release night.  I’ve been pretty blown away by how much fun and excitement I experience when I finally sit down to play. I’ve only just finished the third mission so I’m not terribly far through the experience, but I found this article by Becky Chambers very interesting.

There are many other examples, but those were the two that made me realize that Dishonored is fully aware of how the women within it are treated. It knows how unfair that treatment is. It knows how unhappy these women are. When I played this game, I did not get the sense that gender discrimination was included simply because it’s habitual or historically accurate (more on that in a moment). Dishonored is, first and foremost, a story about corruption. Everywhere you turn, you see how broken Dunwall is. You climb through stained rooms stacked with insect-ridden corpses and disgusting cans of jellied meat while the nobility throws a lavish party on the other end of town. Religious leaders lecture about piety, then poison their rivals’ drinks. Police officers laugh as they kill people breaking curfew. Wagons full of dead plague victims are dumped into the river, and the men at the controls joke about how if any of the bodies were still moving, “they’re not anymore.” There is nothing good about this city.

So, yes, the way this game treated women made me uncomfortable — which, I think, is exactly what it intended to do.

I really felt and understood this article.  There were times where I was made uncomfortable by the treatment of the women in the game, a great example of this being in the brothel in the third mission.  The women were walking around in small amounts of clothing while the guards were all fully clothed.  When Corvo (played by you) is discovered by one of the women in the brothel she sits down and cowers, covering her eyes and whimpering for help.  Sneaking up behind them and strangling the courtesans with a sleeper hold and hearing their choking sounds was too far on the side of realism for me (notable: I have no problem walking around strangling all the men in the game) and I tried to avoid it as much as possible.

The article linked is accurate in that if you equip the Heart item and click around on people and things, you will discover sentiments that reveal more about how the characters feel about their situations.  The problem for me is that it’s easy to forget to equip the Heart and click on things, it’s a completely optional mechanic in Dishonored.  If I hadn’t read that article I would have dismissed the Heart completely.  Now that I’m aware of some of the deeper messages that it speaks I am clicking on everything I can as if my left mouse button is stuck.  I feel like I’m aware of elements of the game that many players won’t, and I’m afraid that the treatment of women in Dishonored does feel token if you aren’t the type to obsess over minor details and flavor text.

A commenter named Salmantica at The Mary Sue expanded on what I was already trying to formulate in my head:

I have enough of SHE WAS A WENCH in real life. I don’t need videogames to inform me that corrupt societies often hate women. Maybe people who aren’t aware of that could benefit from it. Let them buy this game. But for the most part I think this is a “feel good” move the same way Avatar was: an injustice is presented so we can look at it, feel bad about the victims, and feel good about ourselves for feeling bad. If the game wants to go anywhere with that, it has to offer a way to rebel, to do something about it beyond allowing you to wallow in self-complacency about how nice you are for caring about the victims, the way Avatar did.

I think that’s what frustrates me about the depiction of women in Dishonored.  The women in Dunwall are oppressed as they are in most ‘violent’ games set in fictional or non-fictional historical places.  I just wish that at least once, either the women are given the chance to fight back and improve their situation, or I am given the option as a player to help them and show that I care.  I feel like in Dishonored I am made blatantly aware of their inequalities and how unhappy the women of Dunwall are but also I am hobbled and unable to do anything about it, rendering it a cheap trope used to color the setting and add flavor to the plot.

Becky Chambers sums up her blog post with the following thought:

 The fact that the game points out inequality shows that it’s not complicit in it. It wants you to think about it. It wants you to know that such things aren’t right.

I’m just not sure that we don’t have enough games that point out inequality.  There are games that are trashy and offensive toward women without any deeper message about how sexism is wrong (see: Duke Nukem Forever) but for the most part I feel that most games with blatant misogyny as a plot point aren’t hiding the fact that it’s inequality at work.  But if the game wanted me to know that such things aren’t right, why couldn’t it have given me the opportunity to react?  I’d have loved if I could talk to the women in the “House of Pleasure” and find out more about their backstories.  Why are they there?  How did they come to be a courtesan?  Are they happy with their treatment and their wages?  Do they need help?  Instead, I am big bad scary Corvo and my only options are to completely ignore their situation, kill them in cold blood, or strangle them and leave them unconscious for someone else to deal with later.  In other words, I am complicit.

I am thoroughly enjoying Dishonored, I must admit.  This is my first first-person stealth game that I’ve played and the element of choice is leaving me hopelessly perplexed and regretful at times but also excited to see what’s next (though this bathtub scene is not high on my list of excitement).  There are many things about the game that I have fallen in love with, such as all of the flavor in the notes and stories, the music and sound effects, the world design and its filth, and the stealth mechanics.  Since I have 2/3 of the game to go, I’m hoping to have made sense of how I feel about its depictions of women by the end of it.  I’d like to hear how you, The Border House readers, feel about Dishonored.  Do you agree with Becky Chambers, or does your opinion side more with Salmantica or something else altogether?

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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36 Responses to The Treatment of Women in Dishonored

  1. KA101 says:

    I think Canisa’s (haven’t I seen that callsign somewhere before? ;-)E>) comment at the Chalmers article was accurate; you get into the same idea in your second-last paragraph. Basically, it’s the story of some guy dealing with the aftermath of a powerful woman, for whom he worked, getting fridged.

    Rather suspect there are enough of those already.

    The fact that the Heart is optional (though given its description, it might be upsetting to players?) doesn’t help matters.

  2. QueenOfThorns says:

    Ehh. I’m tired of playing these games in the perspective of a dude. Maybe these games that point out misogyny in yee olden tyme settings wouldn’t be as boring to me if you could actually see the perspective of women, and played as them.
    Though that also has the potential to be terrible if it’s not handled right. Please don’t let a team of only dudes write it, please. I can see the cartoony misogyny being played straight so any of the sexist things the main characters get a pass, because, hey at least they’re not shouting women are inferior from the rooftops, right?

    As it is, it just feels like an excuse. “Oh, well, the misogyny was there because it was like that back then! Ignore the utterly ridiculous and unrealistic things that happen in the game!”

    I’ll pass.

  3. Dishonored has been a difficult game for me to pin down in this regard. The women within The Golden Cat (One of the missions near the start of the game) are all dressed in their underwear and serve to pleasure the men who visit the “bathhouse”, yet their clothing manages to tread a line between appropriate and titillating. The women are given room to revel personalities and identities, as they can be overheard talking with each other about their lives and events in the world that effect them. It at least attempts to show that they are people and not just sexual objects.

    Yet at the same time the developers chosen to set a game in a brothel. Additionally the non-lethal means of of revenging yourself upon Lady Boyle (One of your assassination targets within the game) is very, very unpleasant. It is never treated as being in any way a good act, but nor is it actively condemned.

    The heart is fascinating, and given its ability to locate runes within the world which grant Corvo additional powers, it’s not strictly optional but it can easily be ignored. It’s back story is even more fascinating, I don’t want to spoil too much but there’s a theme running through that aspect of the game that I wasn’t really expected.

    The game does start with the Empress getting fridged, and the stated goal is revenging yourself upon those who are responsible for that act. So that’s hardly an inspiring opening, yet as the game progresses additional things become clear that provide additional context to those events. Throughout it’s heavily implied that the Empress was a far better ruler than the men that followed her, though I’m not sure making them venal and repulsive and therefore her noble and virtuous in comparison was the best way to approach that. Ultimately the goal is to return the Empress’ daughter to the throne, with revenge simply being a means to that end.

    Dishonored is a game that recognises and acknowledges that women are treated horribly, something I think is rarer than Cuppycake does, but that’s about as far as it goes. The characters you are encouraged to sympathise with are rarely active in the ill treatment of women but nor are they overtly critical of it, they are as complicit as everybody else. It leaves the final judgement of their worth up to the player, with all the obvious problems that brings.

  4. SleekitSicarian says:

    So many of my thinky thoughts about Dishonored (there are other, shallower ones that run mostly along the lines of “Whee~”) are wrapped up in my general weariness re: “realistic” fantasy settings that I couldn’t quite parse how I felt about its portrayal of women. So thanks to Cuppycake for sort of laying things out nice and tidy.
    I can appreciate the narrative awareness of the inequalities presented (which I think is becoming fairly rare these days, sad to say) but I’m honestly just tired of all these assumptions that come along for the ride when developers go about world-building.

    All the vast breadth and scope of human civilization, and we get constant reiterations of the same stuff. It’s easy to say that all possible narratives have already been done before when you stop counting after Woman in the Fridge and Vengeful Crusade.

  5. Nezumi says:

    This is probably a failing on my part and at least partially because I’ve only completed the first proper mission in the game so far, but I took the misogyny of the setting as part and parcel of how painfully Victorian the setting is, without thinking too deeply about it.

    In many ways, the game is a fictionalized take-down of our unrealistically rosy vision of the Victorian era. It covers aspects we tend to forget or downplay about the period, such as the reliance on a brutal and unsustainable whaling trade, the disease and squalor of the lower classes, the misogyny, or the governmental corruption, while also showing that many of the aspects we tend to focus on aren’t as positive as we tend to perceive them.

    As someone fascinated with the Victorian era and troubled by parallels to it in the modern US, this drew me in too readily for me to consider the implications of its treatment of women too deeply. From what I’ve played, I would tend to say that it portrays this attitude negatively, which is better than far too many examples in modern entertainment, but I’ll need to play more and take a more critical eye to it to say more.

    • Cuppycake says:

      That is a really interesting topic that I didn’t think of, being that my knowledge of the Victorian era is actually quite narrow. I’d love to see an article written about that subject, expanding more on the culture around the classism in the Victorian age as depicted by Dishonored along with the whaling trade and corruption. If you’re feeling up to it, feel free to write it up and we’d be happy to post it here.

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Dishonored is showing this poor treatment of women in a positive light. There isn’t much in the game shown in a positive light actually….that I’ve encountered so far. I think I’m just exhausted of a woman’s backstory constantly being about her oppression and squalor at the hands of society and the men who inhabit it. I just wish writers were more inventive with their stories. Wishful thinking. :(

      • Nezumi says:

        Eh, I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I have some interest in the Victorian era, but I’m not as learned about it as I’d like and I’d really need to research more to be able to do such an article. Thanks for the offer, though.

  6. Bolegium says:

    First off, the Heart is one of the best things in Dishonored, and the fact that it is entirely optional is an important factor as to why. All the best things in Dishonored are optional – deciding not to kill people, finding out the history of the world and its characters, which powers you use or don’t use. Arguably the game encourages you to do all these things, playing stealthily with few or no kills instead of thoughtless murder, mostly through unfortunately non-“ludodiegetic” tutorial pop ups, but also through the completely diegetic Chaos mechanic.

    Why make these things optional? Because player choice is of utmost importance. The choice to not kill, or to uncover backstory, is all the more powerful because you can just as easily choose not to. This tumblr post explains why much better than I have, (spoiler warning) though I don’t agree with the author’s feeling that player frustration is a bad thing.

    If I had to describe the treatment of women in Dishonored succinctly, it would be that while the in-game setting is oppressive, the game itself is critical of this and is fairly respectful. Usually this nuance isn’t worth pointing out (if it is even present at all), but in the case of Dishonored i’d argue that it is. Consider the fact that this is a game with a silent “protagonist” whose only source of internal monologue is a female voice. Saying that this game is about a guy dealing with a woman being fridged and is told from his perspective, is a superficial (and inaccurate) reading for a game that almost entirely hides meaning in both subtext and scenery.

    Similarly I argue that pointing “out misogyny in yee olden tyme settings” is a disingenuous reading of the game. Firstly it isn’t a historical setting, and secondly the misogyny that is depicted is not some cartoony grotesque to make players “feel good about ourselves for feeling bad”. It is naturalistic enough to feel relevant regardless of timeframe, and is not there to say “look how good things are now”. Like many other aspects this is open to player interpretation/judgement, in other games I would call that lazy writing, in Dishonored i’d say that the game isn’t afraid to let the player be lazy, and hide the rewards for those who are willing to contemplate and search for themselves.

    Bathtub scene – i’m not sure what the point of that scene was, it felt like there was going to be some commentary on player choice but it ending up going nowhere. If Callista remained distrustful of Corvo afterwards it might have been worth keeping, maybe that is the case but as it stands now it feels unnecessary and probably should have been cut.

    Finally, I can’t overstate how fantastic the Heart is – this and the Narrator from Bastion are the most impressive developments for gaming narrative in recent times. Also important to point out is that the Heart was written by Terri Brosius, this is important not because she is a woman (sorry to pick on you QoT but “don’t let a team of only dudes write it” is lazy argument), but because she’s one of my favourite writers/level designers/voice actors/whatever else she does. I’m not sure how much input she had for the rest of the game, but what she gave was very much appreciated by me.

    • Maverynthia says:

      Similarly I argue that pointing “out misogyny in yee olden tyme settings” is a disingenuous reading of the game. Firstly it isn’t a historical setting, and secondly the misogyny that is depicted is not some cartoony grotesque to make players “feel good about ourselves for feeling bad”

      Oh it’s a fantasy? Then there doesn’t need to be misogyny at all! How many fantasy games have been made full of non-cartoony misogyny. Answer: Lots of them. Saying that it’s “disingenuous” is an insult really.
      So here we have YET another fantasy game with rampant sexism and misogyny, how REALISTIC it is, what a GREAT game!

      Yeah no.

      • Cuppycake says:

        Maverynthia,

        I understand that you may disagree with the commenter’s point, but please keep your comments constructive and cordial. We have a pretty careful moderation system so we will prevent any comments from new members that appear to be troll-y, but if we’ve let one through it generally means that we respect the time the commenter put into writing it and would like it to enhance the conversation.

        Bolegium clearly played the game and gave this subject a lot of thought while doing so. Please respect his opinion and if you disagree, please reply constructively in a fashion that doesn’t make you come across as rude and dismissive of his viewpoint.

        Thank you.

      • Bolegium says:

        I posted before reading Nezumi’s comment, which does a better job of explaining what I thought about the setting and how that relates to the misogyny that is present. What I failed to say, but really meant was that while Dishonored is clearly inspired by/based on historical settings, it doesn’t use aspects of that setting as a crutch for actual story or as simple background filler. This applies to other topics besides misogyny as well. I didn’t want to go too off topic in my original post, but the game also explores issues such as ethnicity/nationality, class, and environmental sustainability in a similarly low-key fashion.

        (Spoilers ahead) In Dishonored foreigners are treated with contempt and distrust, and blamed for introducing the plague, yet through an entirely missable bit of dialogue/text you can discover that Corvo himself is a foreigner. This intersects with his class status, with characters having different opinions of him depending on their own prejudices. The entire industry of the Empire is built upon whale oil, and the one time that this practice is openly criticised is presented through the writings of someone mocking and dismissing said criticism. Saying that Dishonored itself is misogynistic, or xenophobic, or anti-environmentalist is an undeservedly shallow reading of it.

        It’s a fantasy in the sense that fantastical technology and characters exist in the world co-existing with more mundane things, and gameplay caters to the power fantasy of unlimited movement/observation and the power to kill or not kill. It’s not fantasy in the sense of “wouldn’t it be cool if this were real?”, at least not for me. I don’t know how to respond to the need for misogyny, the game doesn’t “need” corrupt government officials, characters living in poverty, Victorian inspired architecture, or pre-order DLC either. I suspect i’m misreading you by following this line of argument though.

        Back on track, I began by saying that all this isn’t presented as background filler, but actually it mostly is, and it’s for this exact reason that it speaks strongly to me. The whole point of Dishonored for me is to ignore the explicit – “Revenge solves everythingTM”, “kill this person/go here objective marker” – and instead discover the implicit. Dishonored isn’t always successful or consistent in this regard, and while it seems that some argue that it should have completely avoided these topics, I feel that it could and should have explored these ideas to a greater degree than it did. Dismissing it entirely as “yet another fantasy game with rampant sexism and misogyny” is unfair and disappointing.

        Sorry for being excessively defensive of Dishonored, but some of the best things I liked about it are also the most easily ignored. I probably sound like i’m trying too hard to find parts to hold up as things that are good from the game (and overstating its subtleties in the process), but isn’t this the whole point of Dishonored? All the best bits are hidden.

    • Didn't Mean to Intrude says:

      “Consider the fact that this is a game with a silent ‘protagonist’ whose only source of internal monologue is a female voice.

      This is probably not an argument that you want to make, for it employs some of the given background information, but misses crucial parts.

      If one uses the Living Heart on Piero, she informs us that the Outsider inpsires Piero’s inventions by visiting him in his dreams. Elsewhere in Piero’s lab is one of those audio devices (their name escapes me at the moment). If you listen to this (phonograph?) you hear Piero wondering both if a heart contains a soul and if that soul is trapped if the heart is kept alive (He also adds that pursuing the ideas he gets during his dreams makes him very uncomfortable).

      At this point I would like to point out that the Living Heart appears to be at least partially clockwork. The implication, then, is that the Outsider in some way manipulated Piero into creating the heart for Corvo, and that the voice of the heart belongs to the soul trapped inside.

      With just this information the interpretation I’ve given would be ambiguous– good for little more than entertaining fandomesque debates. However it is supported further by more of the Living Heart’s dialogue:

      If one uses the Living Heart while out and about in the larger city, she will periodically say things such as “I can’t wait to rest,” and “Why am I so cold?” Language which in fiction is very often utilized by spirits of the deceased.

      So you are indeed correct, Dishonored features a silent male protagonist with a female narrator. This narrator, however, is a product of what I would argue is the most horrific instance of abuse perpetrated within this narrative: a masculine figure (the Outsider) employs another masculine figure (Piero) to kill (Piero’s use of the phrase “keep alive” rather than “bring back to life” strongly implies the heart was alive when he got his hands on it) a woman and trap her soul, literally transforming her into an object for the use of a third masculine entity (Corvo).

      It might be possible to speculate that this woman willingly sacrificed herself for the good of the resistance, but again the given dialogue strongly suggests that this is not her preference.

      • Didn't Mean to Intrude says:

        Sorry for the quick addition!

        In my rambling I forgot to include a crucial piece of the various exchanges. Again from Piero’s phonograph, he not only asks the above questions, but explicitly states that he has the ability to keep a heart alive if he so chooses.

  7. Juushika says:

    The subtleties of my feelings on these subjects are mixed, but most sides of them have already been explored in the post and comments. While I want to give the game the benefit of the doubt, and it has some aspects–the character and often the role of Emily, in particular–which warrant it, what makes me halt first and foremost in this: as evidenced by the Empress and of course Emily, the world of Dishonored has some, if limited, potential for women in positions of power, and of course any fictional/manufactured story has the potential for active female roles, but Dishonored is chock a block full of male characters who influence plot and has not a single female character that does likewise, or really any that have any agency at all (the Empress and Emily provide impetus to plot, but nothing else; the other female characters Corvo encounters can be interesting, but have no meaningful impact on his journey, and often are only at the whim–even if it’s occasionally a meta-sympathetic whim–of active male characters).

    You can break down the details of how women are presented and what sort of commentary it does or doesn’t make, and I loved a lot of Dishonored and wish it would come out on top in this sort of thing too, but I can’t put much of my faith in a game which is sexist in its simple construction–so even what it does right, or what I can interpret in a good light, remains tainted.

    • That sums up a lot of it for me- the Empress and Emily seem to exist in a bubble of female privilege that has in no way trickled down through the rest of the society. It’s weirdly glaring and obvious, a surprisingly progressive move that is literally cut down in the first few minutes and never addressed throughout the rest of the world. If this country is answering to a female leader, how are its women exponentially worse off than actual women in 19th century England?

  8. Pingback: Review: Dishonored (PS3/X360/PC) | Games Are Evil: The Home of Alternative Gaming

  9. Laurentius says:

    Why Corvo isn’t a woman? Absurd low number of woman protagonist in video games and especially FPS (Portal 1, 2 and Mirror’s Edge, that’s all I can think of) isn’t going up at all.

  10. Canisa says:

    In Dishonoured, you play as a White Man who is galvanised into action by a powerful woman being fridged. The game portrays misogyny identical to that present in reality despite its being set in a fantasy world making that totally unnecessary, unjustifiable and gratuitous. Misogyny that nobody makes any attempt to criticise or ameliorate. It is yet another game that disingenuously rabbits on about the ‘importance of player choice’, then unthinkingly and uncritically forces you into a male viewpoint. For these reasons I think that Dishonoured is an utterly worthless game of no merit whatsoever and I will not be playing it.

    • Cuppycake says:

      “For these reasons I think that Dishonoured is an utterly worthless game of no merit whatsoever”

      I completely disagree with that statement. Part of critiquing games is recognizing weaknesses in one area and strengths in another. Story aside, gamers would be missing out on some truly great mechanics and uniqueness if they skipped out on Dishonored completely. Those things certainly have merit. But, your opinion is your own. :)

  11. I think I’m just tired of the “look, look, we’re pointing out oppression! Look how BOLD and SUPPORTIVE we are of your plight,” attitude in my media. There is a place for it, yes, but there’s also a place for narratives that don’t spend most of their time dealing with a disenfranchised group by feeling sorry for them. Yes, life was crappy for a good number of people, but it’s an oversimplification to obsessively focus on that, and never give (in this instance) your female characters the agency to step out of that role, or address it, or just act like normal people. Especially when it’s just a white dude perceiving that oppression- I’d much rather run into sexism/racism as a female character/character of color. As it is, I’m just… Exhausted. So tired of playing games where they play the realism/history card to make it so I see little or no positive representation of my gender. Blah.

    I am enjoying Dishonored, but it seems contradictory to have a game with an Empress who is killed off in the first five minutes, and then… Next to no other visible women in places of power throughout the rest of the game. Granted, I haven’t finished, maybe there’s some entirely female garrison that I’ll meet later on, but it just seems dishonest.

    -C

  12. Eric says:

    I don’t know how to articulate this properly, but I feel that we shouldn’t shy away from making these kinds of worlds. It’s kind of empowering cutting through a world this dark and laying waste those arbiters of filth.

    Again, I have no proper way to articulate this but I’m trying my best, I feel like focusing on the whole “White Man empowered by Fridged woman” is kind of missing the -overall- point and scope of what’s going on. Yes, those tropes are over used and we -should- be trying to move past them, but I think it’s -also- important to focus on the story we have in our hands now. What -is- created. And I think there’s an interesting story to be had here.

    For instance, I can’t name you the number of games that feature these types of settings in a really disgusting manner. Normal brothel scenes are used for titillation as often as they are used to show just “how bad!” the villians are. Games don’t usually want you to feel anything beyond “this is bad mmkay?” But -really- digging in there and voicing just about each person you run across with the heart here is fascinating.

    Lastly, I don’t think we can drive home in enough games how this kind of stuff is bad. Is it the 500th time? Sure. But this stuff still exists. It still pervades and seeps in our culture. This kind of passive voice to the listener is -very- effective to me. It doesn’t condemn or wag it’s finger but instead lets you experience and understand it at your own pace.

    I know from my own transition from homophobic misogynist to ally, that it took that kind of passive judgement. “This is wrong, see?” Sometimes that repetition, it gets through. And it helps. So I commend Dishonored for doing that. Anyhow, apologies for rambling, I just don’t have the right words.

  13. Shannon says:

    I completely disagree that the passive watcher is of any use at all to highlight any kind of oppression in media. Because the passive voice is also the neutral voice; it is the insert your own thoughts here voice. If you’re not accustomed to noticing when women are fridged or treated like chattel on a whole, you probably wont notice and you’ll throw in your own values. So if the game was for a socially-aware audience there may be merit… As a mainstream release, it is despicable.
    The game comes across like valueless, message-less grimdark, where misogyny and racism is just another thing that makes life hard for people.

    • Shannon says:

      Also: “but this happens to people in the real world!” is an awful excuse for terrible story-writing, particularly in the fiction genre.

      • Eric says:

        Actually there is a good use for that trope. It’s useful to connect with a reader because it evokes more of our own world and expectations. It’s easier to connect with a horrible setting on that level than it is to connect with a more erudite homogenized setting.
        “Setting with women being treated badly in a highly stylized victorian era” has more verisimilitude than the reverse of that.

        But all that said, it really comes down to how the story plays out, how the tropes are used. We simply can’t say “no killing women” because that’s creatively stifling. It has to mean something and in that, dishonored may have its merits and flaws.

    • Nezumi says:

      I’d say I don’t mean to contradict you… but I do. Your reading seems shallow and reactionary, possibly obtained without real examination of the game. You can argue about the value and efficacy of the message, you can question whether the message is sufficient to cover its failings with regards to misogyny and discrimination, you can argue about its value independent of its message, but claiming Dishonored has no message is honestly laughable. It has messages about corruption, about how our dependence on unsustainable industries will damn us, about how our choices shape us and those around us, about the nature of people, about class divides and accessibility of health care. You’ll miss many of these messages if you fail to use the heart and read the various books and documents in the game, but arguably that’s an extension of its messages about persona choice.

  14. Anjasa says:

    I haven’t actually played this game, but I found the analysis of it still pretty interesting. I especially enjoyed:

    If the game wants to go anywhere with that, it has to offer a way to rebel, to do something about it beyond allowing you to wallow in self-complacency about how nice you are for caring about the victims, the way Avatar did.

    It’s something I’ve come to notice about a lot of things, the way we self-congratulate for not being a sociopath, or not being a cruel person. Even with a way to rebel (like in SWTOR), I’m not sure it’s really a solution to that self-complacency, though. There were plenty of people who thought they were AMAZING because they ALWAYS choose light side!!!!

    Though still, I do agree it’s better to have a way to stand up to the hatred in the world, since most of us don’t have that many options to in our every day life.

  15. KA101 says:

    I’d appreciate hearing the Heart-users’ thoughts on Didn’tMeanToIntrude’s comments. I know that I’d have a very difficult time justifying its use, knowing that it represents an *enslaved* rather than a *simply-communicating* Empress.

    Is there any option to dismantle the Heart & let the Empress rest?

    • Didn't Mean to Intrude says:

      A couple of things quickly before I genuinely reply to your post:

      1) After submitting my initial post, I went back into the game searching for more of the Heart of the Living Thing’s dialogue to get a better picture of what it might actually be. Most pointedly, she says “What did they do to me?” and “I am not alive, but neither was I given the gift of death.” With these, it appears that my interpretation is even more explicit than I initially suggested.

      2) It is this thread that motivated me to push my playthrough beyond the 50% mark, so I have yet to complete the game. I am devoutly hoping that there is an opportunity to in some way “save” the Heart of a Living thing. It would be wonderful if someone with more knowledge than I could weigh in on this.

      Back to the topic at hand!

      I will admit (confess) that– even knowing what I know now– I continued to make use of the Heart of a Living Thing’s powers. Runes and bone charms represent a substantial amount of Corvo’s potential power, and I found the temptation to hunt for them to be overwhelming. You may judge me as you see fit!

      Using the Heart, however, put me in mind of the big Foxconn/Smart Phone stories from a few months back. We’ve known for a while about the… poor business practices that go into the creation of our modern products, but the Foxconn scandal brought that to the forefront of mainstream thought and spawned a host of articles that unveiled the pervasiveness of abuse and oppression and explored the struggle between maintaing one’s principles against the practicality of existing/engaging with the modern world.

      One of the main challenges of social justice– or so I feel anyway– is communicating this kind of pervasiveness. Of explaining to people that these hatreds are so deep in the fabric of our culture that it’s not about being “not sexist,” or “not racist,” or “not homophobic,” or… or… or…. It’s about developing the knowledge and the self-awareness to catch these internalized assumptions about an “innate” superiority and/or inferiority so that we can do good in spite of them.

      I would argue that Dishonored actually does a good job of setting up this kind of message. It creates a world steeped in oppression, then it turns to the player and it says to them, “You cannot stop this. You cannot save them. This is the world and you cannot change it. Do you resign yourself to the ways of this world, or do you languish beneath the weight of your principles?” (The use of “languish” here is a little hyperbolic, but again a Corvo with runes and bone charms is significantly stronger than one without). By placing the theme of morality vs power (or success) into the very core mechanics of the game it forces a player to engage with the idea that our world is actually a very dark place.

      Several posters above me have already discussed where Dishonored fails however:

      As with all the other instances of abuse or oppression within the game, Dishonored makes no value judgements about the Heart of a Living Thing. None of the other npcs seem not able to even see the thing, let alone react to it in any sort of meaningful way. This lack of commentary means that one will only see these themes if one is already inclined to look for them. At it’s best, a disappointing notion..

      • Bolegium says:

        I agree regarding the Heart, but would argue that while adding an unambiguously “good” option to destroy/free the spirit trapped within might be emotionally gratifying, it would foremost be incongruous when you consider that almost every other decision the game lets you make is deliberately engineered to be as ambiguous as possible, no matter how (in)significant the decision may seem. I don’t think many players will overlook their unease felt when exploiting the Heart, and I think the game encourages you, both passively and actively, to pay attention. It would have been nice to have characters be more reactive towards its existence, and some closure regarding it during the epilogue, but maybe that’s more of a personal desire for an expository narrative style.

        I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that there is a “lack of commentary/makes no value judgements” regarding these issues when the rest of your post reads like the game did inspire a lot of thought for you on these issues. I don’t exactly agree that players “already inclined to look for them” will be the only ones to notice any commentary, when it’s fairly easy to find forum comments from various people complaining about the perceived overbearing commentaries on environmentalism, classism, and pacifism (I can only imagine the kind of vitriolic complaining worsening if equality had also been more obvious in-game). Nor do I consider relying on personal responsibility to discover these messages to be disappointing. Maybe this is only a personal preference shared by few others, but I find most didacticism, regardless of the medium, to be patronising or ineffective, both, or worse. For me, “earned” knowledge has always been more powerful than dictation, and it’s one of the reasons why something as “simple” as awareness raising is so powerful and important.

        Anyway, thanks for not completely dismissing the game (without even playing it). I had decided to give up replying to comments when they started to veer from criticism into sarcastic venting (and I usually quite enjoy reading ventic sarcasm :) ). Despite my apparent fan gushing, i’m more than happy to discuss every big or little flaw Dishonored has. It’s been a while since any game has deservedly inspired this much thought from me.

        • Didn't Mean to Intrude says:

          “Anyway, thanks for not completely dismissing the game (without even playing it).”

          Certainly! As you can probably tell by my overly long posts, I have an immense fondness for analysis and critique. And make no mistake, I too am fan of Dishonored; many times after overcoming some obstacle or occurrence during my playthrough I could be heard exclaiming quite loudly, “I love this game!” Much like you, I feel, it is precisely because I like this game that I engage in critiquing it.

          ‘I don’t exactly agree that players “already inclined to look for them’ will be the only ones to notice any commentary, when it’s fairly easy to find forum comments from various people

          On the one hand I agree with you. If you will permit a personal example, I know that because of Cuppycake’s article I certainly paid far more attention to how I treated the prostitutes at the Golden Cat than I would have otherwise. But, for me, this raises two very important questions. How far outside the primary source can we be asked/forced to search while still considering the writers to have been successful in communicating the themes of their narrative? (This is question that has been debated for centuries, and I will leave it to each individual to answer it for themselves).

          The other is a question of authorial intent. I believe you were correct in calling me out as incorrect when I stated that the game made no value judgements about it’s subject matter. By asking us to relate to some characters more than others (predominantly the protagonist, Corvo) it clearly does ask us to evaluate subject matters in particular ways. However where I feel the the game is lacking is in its version of morality mechanics. Or more specifically of how those mechanics handle the subject of praise.

          As I’m sure you’ll remember, rather than setting us up with “good” and “bad” options, Dishonored instead asks us to choose between lethal and nonlethal approaches towards combat and assassination. It then codes these choices as “good” or “bad” both explicitly in terms of how characters react to you (npcs tend to like nonlethal Corvo better, and express higher amounts of gratitude) and implicitly in how it impacts the world (nonlethal options generate fewer vermin and “Weepers,” or plague victims).

          You’ll be quick to note, however, that this dichotomy is false for there is no such thing as a “good” Corvo. Even nonlethal Corvo is a man who will [SPOILERS] brand the High Overseers face and thus condemn him to an existence of abuse and neglect, facilitate the kidnapping of the two Pendleton brother’s who will then have their tongues ripped from their mouths and be forced to toil in the mines, and (again) facilitate the kidnapping of Lady Boyle by handing her off to a hitherto unknown man who claims to love her and intends to detain her indefinitely. Because of the high level of suffering involved, I would actually go so far as to argue that, in these instances, nonlethal Corvo is less moral than lethal Corvo, who offers his targets a comparatively quick death.

          I feel what we have here isn’t necessarily a matter of “success” versus “failure” (which is why I agreed with you earlier), but rather of a missed opportunity. What if the writers had fully embraced this idea of Corvo as wholly “non-good?” What if none of the npcs liked Corvo no matter what you did and instead were always quietly disdainful of him?

          For example, Samuel– one of the only genuinely likeable characters in the game– could have been a phenomenal catalyst for just such a thing. We spend a lot of time with Samuel as he ferries us to and from our various missions. What if the writers had taken the opportunities presented in these low action cutscenes to have him say things such as, “Wow, that was brutal. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemies, but I guess you do what you have to…” Suddenly these scenes serve not only to break up the pace of the game, but also actively encourage the player to reflect on the actions they have just taken.
          Another such opportunity would be [SPOILERS] during the eleventh hour twist, when Havelock and Pendleton poison Corvo. Instead of just having them be power hungry jerks, what if they had turned to each other and said something along lines of, “You’ve seen what he’s done. There’s no place for a man like this in the world we’re creating.” They’re still power hungry, they’re still perpetrating an immense injustice, but now they’re not only bringing the game’s themes of morality to the forefront of the player’s thoughts, but they’re also forcing us to ask ourselves (through the narrative device of Corvo), “am I really such a bad person?”

          I think it’s clear that we both agree there is an immense amount of depth to this game. I think what we disagree over is the relative value of Active versus Passive Voice.

          • Didn't Mean to Intrude says:

            Sorry for double posting (again) but I failed to communicate a crucial part of my analysis!

            The reason I believe it would be effective to have the ingame characters actively critiquing and/or distasteful of Corvo is because, as others have noted, Corvo is either indifferent to, or complicit in (depending on how one interprets his use of the Heart), the suffering and oppression presented in the game. By coding Corvo as “protagonist but not hero” or as ‘non-good” it also codes these stances as not good.

          • Bolegium says:

            It’s funny you mention Samuel, in a high Chaos playthrough he does exactly what you’ve described above. Unfortunately it seems the general response to him criticising your actions is the player shooting him dead instead of self-reflection on their own actions (talk about missing the point entirely). If active criticism failed so spectacularly, I expect passive criticism would have been even more easily rejected in this case :( so there goes my argument.

            The final monologues of the three Loyalist conspirators also seem to be along the lines of “you’re just as bad as we are” – it appears that most of the reactions to your choices are confined to just the final chapter, though i’m fairly sure Samuel at least does have sustained commentary throughout the game that correlates with your Chaos level. This is all second-hand knowledge as I don’t think i’ll ever be doing a high Chaos run.

            The Chaos system is quite interesting, but I fear the “didn’t kill anyone” checkbox is at odds with it. The Chaos system allows the player to honestly consider the ethics of opting to kill at both an individual and collective level, whereas the “no-kills” box feels like a regressive oversimplification of things to a binary win-lose/good-bad. Also the character reactions seem to be based mostly on your cumulative Chaos rather than much recognition of your individual choices. Basically the game only calls you out if you have been killing *lots* of people, it’s too quick to call you a hero simply for not killing everything.

            I still think the actual fiction of the game works well, it’s mainly the intersection of it with the mechanics and meta-mechanics that contradicts and dilutes its messages. Also only on high Chaos is most of the commentary even visible, which creates a Catch-22 problem of people looking for a message thinking that the game doesn’t have one, and people not looking for a message complaining about it being heavy-handed and overly judgemental.

            • KA101 says:

              I was afraid of that catch-22, but since I’m unlikely to play the game (hardware!) I wasn’t about to presume it.

              Games requiring a certain antisocial type of action (see: combat/killing) and then calling the player out on it get old. Dishonored doesn’t per se *require* that one be a killer but I’ll agree that death may well be more merciful than some of those piously sadistic less-lethal options.

              Setting up the PC to be called out on however one played the game (killer/exploiter) forces me to conclude that the only moral move is not to play. Sorry.

  16. Samir says:

    I’m about to finish the last mission in Dishonored and I still can’t find any compelling in-world argument as to why women are restricted to being maids / noblewomen / courtesans / prostitutes and unfit to serve as soldiers or sailors or coppers or inquisitors. And no, game, lampshading patriarchy in your goddamn fantasy setting doesn’t count, no matter what the heart says when you point it at tutor-lady.

    In this, I guess I disagree with the overall argument Becky Chambers makes – that the gender discrimination as a plot element is handled well. I don’t see it as a necessary plot element, or handled well. And christ, the brothel level. Less bad than DX:HR’s Hengsha, but only by virtue of not having exotic(tm) oriental(tm) accents.

    I get it, designers, class struggles are a thing, power corrupts, sometimes men must do bad things for the greater good, etc. I still don’t get why women aren’t actively part of the power structures operating in Dunwall.

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