What the World of Dishonored can Teach us about History
How video games teach us more than just the source of inspiration and can be used to explore deeper concepts.
Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, and Dishonored 2, are both highly popular action-stealth video games, published by Bethesda Softwork, and set in the fiction world of Dunwall, and the surrounding Empire. At a first glance, it may be assumed that the game’s Victorian inspired aesthetic is the only link between this world and our own in terms of history, with the developers gifting the player with an entirely different world of advanced technology (for a civilization going through an Industrial Revolution), occult magic, and frequent plagues and political upheaval. The main similarities between the game world and Victorian England that can be seen on the surface are shown with a colonial empire ruled from the London inspired city of Dunwall, complete with Empress, the 19th century aesthetic in the guard uniforms, and the issues of class and poverty, one of the major themes of the series. In fact, the differences are even more pronounced; colonialism being shown not by the rule of natives, but by the rule of closely related nationalities, and the inequalities of race and gender being barely noticeable in the setting, with the few examples sharing the common denominator of class. And then we have the two obvious differences, the presence of magic in the form of the Outsider, an ethereal half-God, half-Devil figure associated with witchcraft, and the advanced technology provided by the discovery of whale oil being a powerful energy source.
So how does this teach us anything about history, if the obvious source of inspiration is only skin deep and provides a primarily aesthetic approach? By examining Dishonored from both a postcolonial and Marxist point of view, we can delve deeper into the history and gain further understanding. Instead of examining the world from the perspective of a Victorian world, we should instead look from our own post-Victorian, post-Empire history. From here we can see that many of the historical themes more prevalent in the past, such as colonialism, witchcraft, and religious control, are being combined with themes that current audiences are more able to relate to, such as environmentalism, police state brutality, classism, and even technological based state oppression. By ensuring that there are more relatable themes in the game world, it increased immersion and allows for the exploration of these themes that can be found deeper within the game world and story. However, this can run the risk of also masking these said themes. It can be a slippery slope when balancing modern issues and providing a historically authentic experience to further enhance the aesthetic.
There is also, however, the issue of both race and gender (and to a small extent, sexuality — which is subtly referenced in the optional history of certain characters), which the game takes an interesting approach towards. This approach being near complete equality, with the second installment of the series having almost a 50/50 split of male/female story characters. Women are also shown as being shop owners, guard captains (exclusively, in fact, the female members of the guard are all seen in superior roles), and the three heads of the Imperial throne throughout the series are all Empresses, one of which being a protagonist of Dishonored 2.
Likewise, race is not shown as being specifically singled out, although there are very few people of colour in Dishonored, with Meagan Foster of the second game being the most prominent, and her origin story showing no indication of race playing any part in her circumstances in life. In fact, Meagan is revealed to be the second in command to the leader of a larger faction in the first game, and is possible the most important character next to the protagonist in the second game, due to her role as ship captain and intelligence gatherer. To emphasise these points, the games make specific mentions of class being the only reason explaining the situations that befall Meagan in her backstory, prostitution in the game world, or the reason why women turn to crime or witchcraft (both of which are practiced by members of both gender).
From a business perspective, it is likely that by removing race and gender as an issue, the world becomes less complex and therefore more marketable. An argument one can make because of this is that it dumbs down any historical context that could have otherwise been shown, perhaps removing the authenticity of the Victorian Aesthetic, being associated with gender and racial inequality. However, by doing this, it allows for much greater focus on the main form of oppression in Dishonored, and therefore allows for greater analysis of the class dynamics shown.
This all boils down to the main uniting theme then: Class. The ruling classes oppressing the working classes. From a historical perspective one can easily provide a purely Marxist commentary on the entire story due to the importance of the working class in this industrial setting, and this would be perfectly fine, and great example of how this game gives access to deeper concepts of history. However, I personally believe that this world benefits from both a look into this approach, and the previously mentioned postcolonial approach, which has some origins in the Marxist school. Class is used as the principle form of oppression; not race, not gender, not even nationality (Serkonans — people from an island bearing the same name — are present as two of the most important characters in the series, one the protagonist of both games, Corvo, and the other as the secondary antagonist of the second), and this is therefore where the analysis needs to be pointed.
Class is used as a form of colonial oppression in Dishonored, with the character Emily (who is an Empress in Exile during the second game) being viewed by one of the characters as an enabler of oppression of the workers through the institution of Imperial rule, being the appointment of a tyrannical Duke who is responsible for the plight of the lower classes. Technology is used to separate the classes from one another, in the form of terrifying Walls of Light, gates possessing Tesla inspired technology which kills anyone passing through unauthorised. And the religious elite further antagonize the workers with archaic threats of witchcraft and heresy, using the all too real presence of magic as a tool to control the masses. Even the modern concept of Environmentalism is used as a form of oppression, with the source of industry being the harvesting of oil from whales (a species which is rapidly approaching extinction) the job of which falls upon the working class, and the success of which is what keeps the working class from being further oppressed.
On the surface Dishonored provides very little in terms of historical interaction with it’s audience. However, once under the surface one can see the interaction of contemporary themes in society and the themes prevalent in the past. And by analysing the relationship between the past and present, we can see historical concepts such as postcolonialism and marxism in action, repeating historical patterns that are found in both the game world, and the real world.