Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how game mechanics can communicate a game’s theme. We talked about it with Signs of the Sojourner, where the game mechanic of joining dominoes together explored the theme of communication, of building something together by finding connections between two people. I’ve also been writing a bit about job simulators, games like Rover Mechanic Simulator and – even Forager last year, actually, although it’s not so much a job simulator. Today, I wanted to return to Dishonored, and consider how one of its most basic game mechanics speaks to its core themes.
So if you’re not familiar, Dishonored is a 2012 game from Arkane Studios, who made 2017’s Prey and co-developed Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Cyberpilot with MachineGames. It follows the adventures of Corvo Attano, the Empress’s bodyguard in steampunk Victorian London. At the start of the game, Corvo is framed for the murder of the Empress, and has to go on a journey to expose the real villains and clear his name – all standard stuff. One of the key game mechanics is a thing called Blinking – you essentially have the ability to teleport short distances, thanks to a magic teenager who gives you supernatural powers. And that’s where our work begins.
As a mechanic, Blinking allows you to move through the environment in non-standard ways. In the image above, for instance, normal people would enter this building above by walking in through the front entrance. You, however, can teleport up to the balcony on the second floor, navigating through the building in a way that was not anticipated by its architects. Your ability opens up the world, allowing you to pick your own path through the levels. It allows you to circumvent authority and power, slipping by them in ways that are not available to normal people. There’s a really good example in one of the later levels, actually – at one point, you travel across Kaldwin’s Bridge, which is named after the line of the late Empress, Jessamine Kaldwin. An announcement declares that “no pedestrian movement is allowed along Kaldwin’s Bridge.” Guards patrol the area, a curfew is in place, and normal citizens are unable to move through. Your ability to Blink isn’t the only thing that gets you across the Bridge, but it’s emblematic of the ways in which you can sidestep past authority and around the normal systems of control that are used to govern the city. The fact that the bridge is named after the Empress indicates how the actual built environment, the physical bricks and mortar of the city, are identified with political power. The bridge belongs to the Empress, belongs to the system of government that rules over the city, and they’re going to enforce how and when people travel across it. But you can avoid those systems of control. You can Blink, moving from one place to another in a way that confounds the traditional methods of controlling people’s movement.
And it’s important to note that political power in Dunwall (steampunk Victorian London) is not benign. Even before the Empress was murdered, there’s definitely this sense that the Empire is built on exploitation and oppression. From an economic perspective, Dunwall runs on the whaling industry. A text file you can find within the game describes a banned trade treatise where one Pacotti argues against the industry; the file notes that Pacotti’s arguments against whaling “threaten the economic underpinnings of the Empire,” showing Dunwall’s reliance on the industry. The in-game descriptions of the whaling process are pretty horrific, describing the pain and suffering of the whales, the way in which they’re tortured in order to make the city function. Quite aside from the historical literary practice of using whaling as a metaphor for slavery (see especially Moby Dick, as I noted when we talked about Assassin’s Creed IV), it’s also worth noting how the whales feature in a broader network of magic and the foreign. The bones of the whales are regularly carved into ‘bone charms’, small magical charms that provide some minor protection or benefit. Throughout the course of the game, you can upgrade your magic powers with whalebone runes or with the smaller, more moderate charms, thematically linking Corvo’s Blink ability with the violently exploited whales – who, again, can be read as a symbol of the horrors of slavery. Even the magic teenager who grants Corvo his powers – he’s called the Outsider, for fuck’s sake. Of course it’s a game about xenophobia and colonialism.
For Corvo, then, his Blink ability is integrated into this broader framework of violent imperialism. It’s a form of resistance, of subverting and undermining the systems of colonial oppression and violence that run deep throughout the city. In that context, it’s worth noting that Corvo Attano is an immigrant. He’s risen through the ranks to become the Empress’s personal bodyguard, but he’s also still a foreigner. He exists in this complicated space where he both belongs and does not belong. The mechanic of Blinking speaks to that doubled nature – you’re still in the city of Dunwall, you’re still able to walk down its streets and operate (to a degree) within the bounds of its systems of control. But you can also, at need, move outside and around those systems, using the powers granted to you by the Outsider and reinforced by the bones of the violently murdered symbols of the slave trade to resist and undermine the controlling systems of Dunwall.
I guess the final thing to note here is that although Blink serves as a useful metaphor in this first Dishonored game, there are two or three other games and expansions and so on – and it doesn’t have quite the same force in all of them. In the first Dishonored, the bad guys are a bunch of shitty aristocrats jockeying for political power. You play a falsely accused immigrant and spend your time murdering aristocrats to protect your precarious existence inside a shitty, violent system. In Dishonored 2, the bad guy is the impoverished bastard daughter of a previous Emperor, who orchestrates a coup and takes over, arguing that being a bastard shouldn’t stop her from being treated as a legitimate heir to the throne – which is fair enough! She’s a fucking legend, resisting the oppressive and violent structures of Dunwall just as you did in the first game. But here your job is to cast down her little peasant’s rebellion and consolidate your own position at the heart of political power. What does Blink mean in that context? How can you claim to undermine and subvert the systems of power and state authority when you play the legitimate representative of the state? I dunno – from a thematic perspective, the first game definitely has the strongest pairing between theme and game mechanic. Dishonored 2 is a bit of a weird fish.