The World of Dishonoured

So Dishonoured has been out for a week, and it’s pretty great. They really went to town on this thing, and it shows. It is not without its bugs and kinks, but it’s much more stable than you’d expect from a Bethesda game, even if they only did the publishing this time around. Arkane Studios are to be commended.

Oh noes blood!

While I could talk at length about the game itself: The stealth, the set-your-own-difficulty thing, the combat, the enemies, the powers, the story and so on (and I likely will in a later post); I felt like discussing the backdrop of the game first. The world that Dishonoured is set in fascinates me far more than the actual plot does.

This article pretty much assumes that you have some knowledge of Dishonoured’s world, but I wouldn’t mind getting an outside view on the whole thing either. Be warned that some spoilers will likely occur.

Dishonoured is set in an alternate world to our own where the use of whale oil never fell out of favour, and instead was used to usher in the industrial age because of its fantastical properties (it glows blue for one).

From what I gathered every ‘nation’ in the Empire of the Isles is (naturally) an island. That is pretty much the entirety of the known world. They have found and visited the mainland; even encountered some of the people there that the books (especially those written by the Abbey) refer to as barbarians and heretics; but they haven’t really explored those lands. So it makes sense that their access to fossil fuels would be limited, and access to sea creatures would be abundant.

I’ve always been a lore-sponge, and I read every book and note I could find in the game. I also listened in on conversations, studied posters and listened to the audiologs. I might have gotten some things wrong, but I feel like I’m talking from a very safe stand here.

Let us start with the whale oil: The mystical substance that works every bit as well as petroleum does for us, perhaps even more-so, and is at least as volatile. I can help but wonder what exactly gives the whale oil these properties. The natural historians that Piero (a genius ostracised from the community) seem to hold in such disdain believe that the energy contained in whale oil is there because the whales need it to survive at extreme sea depths. Piero would like to build a pressure chamber and put a human test subject in there to see if he can gradually (perhaps over several years) culture such fat generation in people. While not on sound ethical ground, I would nevertheless be interested in seeing the results of such an experiment.

My own theory is that the whales are somehow linked to the Outsider, or at least to his realm: The Void. They are no doubt special creatures. Not quite like our own whales; they have tentacles around their mouth, and a special organ I saw on a chart that I at first wondered if was like a bladder for the mystical oil.

Until I remembered those books I read about how they harvest the whale oil. The treatment they put the whales through is nothing short of utterly horrifying. They haul the magnificent creatures alive onto their enormous ships and carve off the fat while the whale is still alive. The fat is then converted into whale oil, and apparently they believe the whale has to be alive through the process for the oil to retain its potency. It just seems so utterly inhumane.

I suspected for quite some time that the plague would turn out to be some sort of punishment from the Outsider for hunting the whales to nigh-extinction, which seemed to be backed up by what the Heart would tell you if you just used it on the different environments. The fact that runes and bone charms seemed to have become more potent since they started carving them from whale bone also seemed like a point in favour of the theory of them being related to the Outsider more closely than most. As such he might have been upset about them dying out.

Since I’ve mentioned him a few times, let us talk about the Outsider. He appears as a man in a leather jacket and unruly hair, with ink-black eyes. Since we rarely see below the stomach on him I can’t be entirely sure, but I think I saw him wear jeans too. The Abbey of the Everyman (who are basically this reality’s version of the Catholic Church) believe him to be the devil. He seems more like some sort of trickster deity to me, watching everywhere at all times in the hopes of seeing something interesting, and trying to help things along a bit.

He doesn’t really judge on bad or good, he just watches and catalogues things as either interesting or dull. He does seem to have some amazing powers, but apart from granting people magical powers when he feels like it (I noticed that unlike the devil, he doesn’t need to ask or enter a contract, he just says “Here’s my mark, use it as you will”, and you can’t refuse. At least if Corvo is anything to go by) and talking to people in their dreams he otherwise stays out of things for the most part.

He is barely mentioned before he shows up. In fact, if you don’t read any of the books you might not even know the name. So I will agree with those who say he comes out of the blue. Almost like the writers figured: “Hm, we need magical powers, but how do we justify it? Oh I know! Let’s have this god-like entity show up and just hand them out.”

What he also gives you is the Heart. This weird thing which seems like a mixture of mad science and magic is the heart of a human being fitted with an enchanted apparatus that lets it communicate with its holder. And because it is beyond our world now, it can see through people and scry all their little secrets. And if you check in with Piero right after you get it, the Heart will tell you that the Outsider visits him in his dreams and feeds him ideas for his next inventions. Ideas that only his brilliant mind will comprehend. There is also an audio-log downstairs talking about how maybe part of a person’s soul lies in their heart, which he saw in a dream. It’s really not hard to figure out whose soul is in the Heart you have been given.

Though if the Outsider really only gives powers out to those he thinks are interesting, that must mean he found each and every one of Daud’s men to be fascinating in some way. Which is kinda undercut by the game designers giving all of them gas masks and identical uniforms. Granny Rags (a crazy old witch) and Daud (the supernatural assassin) himself I can understand to a degree, and how they’ve been warped by their powers over the years. But each and every one of Daud’s men? That’s a little harder to swallow. Also, Granny Rags is the only female magic user I was able to find in the game, which feels a little unfair. Perhaps women are just generally better at hiding it.

Speaking of women: in spite of having an Empress at the top, the world is decidedly misogynistic. Most people, and the overseers at the Abbey, seem to believe that a woman should cook and clean. And if any woman or girl ever wishes for anything more or something else, she is clearly touched by the Outsider might need purging, or at least punishing.

That kinda fits with the whole world though, as it even was in our own world back in that era (and is still a dominant belief among certain people and cultures to this day). Even before the plague I have this feeling that the world of Dishonoured was not a particularly happy or bright place. The plague made things worse, but even before that they didn’t seem particularly good. Dystopian is a word that springs to mind.

It is also fascinating to get a look back into a society where class is such an open subject. The difference between the low-class and high-class part of society is very clear, and strictly enforced. The guardsmen are on the side of the nobility, and so are the overseers for the most part, though I’d say they are mainly on their own side.

As for the Abbey of the Everyman there isn’t that much to say. They’re your fairly typical “amg u guise, religion is totally like, bad and stuff” faction that a lot of fiction feels like it has to include.

The technology they’ve managed to bring forth under the power of whale oil is fascinating though. Electric lights. Trains. Power tools. Medicine. Electric walls and pylons that can distinguish friend from foe, and fry anyone who falls into the wrong category. How it functions is actually hinted at if you stop and listen at the right conversation. I don’t recall word for word, but there’s a charged item that the Overseers protect and they carry it around to let the guards touch regularly so that their body will carry the right charge to safely pass by the walls and pylons. It’s remarkable.

And the way audiologs work is rather fascinating. It seems they’ve found a way to have something like a gramophone translate a punch-card into speech, and likewise record it as well. I wonder if that is one of Sokolov’s inventions? Sokolov gives off the impression of being like Leonardo da Vinci if Leonardo didn’t care one wit about ethics. He paints, he invents, he likes experiments and he has a beard. I can’t really deny that he’s made a lot of fantastic stuff though, including health potions.

What else is there to say? I like a world that feels deep. And the fact that one of the overseers said that there might be dragons on the mainland is definitely something I won’t forget. I don’t think this game would benefit from a direct sequel, but I wouldn’t mind another game set in the same world. Maybe on one of the other islands of the Empire. Or as part of an expedition exploring the mainland. Keep the story contained as was done here. Not everything has to be be about saving the world.

I would not mind more discussion around this title and its world, so if there’s anything you’d like to comment on, disagree about, noticed I got wrong or just want to add that I forgot, please leave a comment and we’ll hopefully keep it going.

~Wulf

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Posted on October 19, 2012, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Spoiler warning on this comment for the completely witless… Sigh (can’t believe I have to even say this, but, well, you know.)

    Hm. Slight aspects about the granny – she definitely paid a price to get her powers, though – it’s said that she basicaly gave her entire family to the outsider (so, sacrificed them? killed them?) to get the outsider’s attention. Same situation could have been with Daud’s men, they might have an ‘initiation’ that asks for large-scale offering to draw the outsider’s attention.

    I’d say that there is a fair bit of the “deal with the devil” thing going with him, in fact. Corvo’s case itself is, well, something: after all, the outsider takes Jessamine’s heart and traps her soul in it.. That could be seen as a pre-initiated sacrifice as far as Corvo’s concerned – the outsider took something dear to him and gave access to powers as a tradeoff.

    On women using magic – there’s a fair bit of implications and references beyond Granny. In the mission where you sneak out of Overseer complex after all’s done, you come across a guard/overseer trying to protect his sister against two other overseers willing to take her in for magic-use. And she has her hands covered in gloves… Seems like she really is a magicuser.
    In the overseer complex, there are several notes mentioning magic practicers, suspected and confirmed, that were women.
    In the whale oil factory where Daud traps you, there’s a note lying on the floor saying how one of his assassin’s had trouble fulfilling a contract because the place had a whole family of magic-using women. So on the whole, I’d say that there really is not a case of “magic mainly for men”.

    As for the mysoginism. Well, yes; the world is heavily modelled after 1600s London (they had the original location pegged as althistory London, and decided to move away from it once the whole whale-oil-thing was brought into the lore). Both mysoginism and class divisions are quite authentic to that premise.

    • That is a fair point about both Granny and Daud’s men. While the Outsider said you had to be interesting to get his attention, he never specified what he found interesting. Though he seemed to also claim that there was no set way to invoke him. Mainly just “don’t be dull”.

      And yes, there is a fair bit in the lore about women using magic, I just meant that we never actually see them. Apart from maybe the aforementioned sister. Because of the setting it makes sense that women wouldn’t be part of gangs or the guard though. It wouldn’t fit with the era they’re going for.

      As for Corvo… I don’t know. I would think it was the special circumstances around his situation that drew the Outsider’s interest, and not just specifically that he lost a loved one. He was in a pivotal role, and since I believe we can safely assume that the Outsider can scry people’s secrets at least as easily as the Heart, he must have had a fair idea of where it was going. As such he might simply have been interested in how it would play out.

      I do wonder how Corvo felt about the Heart though. We occasionally get small glimpses into him, mainly whenever he meets Emily, but on the whole he’s firmly in the silent protagonist category of “I have no personality”. Then again, giving him a voice could easily have been detrimental as much as enriching. I do like to imagine that after the game he found a way to put Jessamine to rest.

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