A Kingdom Restored: Finishing Dishonored 2

Having finished Dishonored 2, there are all sorts of things which strike me about the similarities and difference between the sequel and its predecessor. Most obviously, there is Emily, a child-NPC and victim–daughter of the murdered empress and the protagonist, kidnapping victim, and precocious little girl–who has not only “grown up” by the setting of D2, but is an optional protagonist with powers and abilities of her own. More on her in a bit.

There is also the setting, which (as I mentioned in my last post) begins and ends in Dunwall, just like D1, but takes the player (through Emily/Corvo) to other parts of the empire which have their own distinct regional styles and environments–and are very different (sunshine and colors!) from the Victorian-London-dismal atmosphere of Dunwall. There is–of course–the Outsider, the quasi-human Trickster-god who grants powers to Corvo in D1 and to Emily (if she is chosen) in D2. He remains more or less the same between games, although we learn more about his origins in D2… it turns out, he was once human, sacrificed to the void for the gain of power and treated as a dying god (a la Attis or Adonis), which is what granted him his powers. He’s still a little bitter about this, we learn, which I suppose is understandable, but also explains why he is drawn to the downtrodden and betrayed (and they to him). He is, interestingly, the god of both Emily/Corvo and Delilah, who usurped Emily’s throne, adding an interesting twist to the religious opposition between the official church and Corvo from D1. Finally, there is the overarching theme of power, both personal and political, which critiques, in D1, the attempt to use violence and physical force to control both government and society, and emphasizes the danger of “class-blindness” and economically-motivated discrimination in D2.

But back to Emily.

Although the player has the option to play as Corvo Attano–just as in D1–I am going to write about the game from Emily’s perspective, not only because that is how I played through D2 (although that is certainly part of it), but also because Emily herself is the element of difference: not only is she narratively different (she is younger than Corvo, is an empress, is less experienced), but also because she has different powers. Players of D1 who choose Corvo play with familiar powers like Possession and Plague of Rats. Emily, on the other hand, does not have these. Instead, she has powers of her own, such as Doppelganger, Enthrall, and Spirit Chain (one of my personal favorites). They share the most useful powers–Dark Vision, Blink–and both now have the capacity to craft Runes and Bonecharms.

That said, these differences do not in fact substantively change the gameplay or the narrative of D2 from Emily to Corvo. But even though both Emily and Corvo must eliminate the same targets, rescue the same allies, and remove the same usurper in order to free the other from literal stone, having Emily as the protagonist significantly alters the tenor of the story, which is why Arkane should have–I think–not presented us with a choice.

I understand why they did–players like consistency of powers, weapons, and protagonists. When they enjoy the fantasy, they want that fantasy to repeat, at least if you give us a choice. Gamers are shockingly risk-averse; they remain loyal to a game series, platforms, characters, and fandoms at a functionally obsessive level, and developers who significantly challenge those paradigms risk (sometimes vitriolic) pushback from fans who really wanted more of the same.

Given all the pressure Arkane must have had to keep Corvo as the player-character, it should be considered positive that playing as Emily was even an option. However, that doesn’t mean the game wouldn’t have been different—and, I think, better—if Emily had been the only protagonist.

On the most straightforward, simple level, having a female protagonist is more feminist and inclusive than having a male one. Similarly, a game in which the powerful, martial male must be rescued by a woman is far more progressive than yet another damsel-in-distress story in which the woman becomes a literal object to be repossessed by her father.

Putting those (admittedly important) considerations aside, the power-dynamics featured in the game change radically when the player is Emily rather than Corvo. Again, gender plays a role, as Emily’s femininity makes her physical prowess and potential ruthlessness disjunctive to most players, requiring them to at least consider the plausibility of a woman in a position of physical as well as political power. But, even more importantly, Emily’s role as Empress—as a figure of legitimate and referent power—makes her foray into the streets of her empire much more complex.

For Corvo, acting as an agent, himself a known “assassin,” the role of thief, killer, or spy is a comfortable one. His position justifies the actions demanded by the game as well within his purview. For Emily, they are absolutely not. As Empress, she might order such actions, but would never be expected to engage in them herself. Being forced by Delilah’s usurpation to do so not only requires Emily to get her hands (literally) dirty, it also demands that she become immersed in the living conditions of her common subjects and holds her accountable for their poverty and oppression. In short, D2 with Emily as protagonist presents an argument for leaders and leadership that acknowledges, empathizes with, and even experiences (or at least understands) the conditions of the common people. With Corvo, however, D2 remains a standard fantasy of a kingmaker, a powerful man whose will shapes politics and society. But with Emily, the player has to confront Emily’s personal responsibility for the suffering of her people, raising the stakes and demanding that she—and, through her, the player—became an active and engaged leader to all her people, not just those who are a part of her immediate court.

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