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