The 2012-2013 winter season—or fall-to-spring season, if you, dear reader, live in a balmier climate than I—has seen something very interesting going on in the world of gaming: not one, but two major game franchises incorporating self-aware elements of racism in their story lines. Assassin’s Creed III, released in October 2012, tells the story of a Native American man in the late 1700’s who sees as much willful discounting of his people from his allies as he does his enemies. Bioshock Infinite, set 100 years earlier than its March 2013 release date (Editor’s Note: a little day called today; SCREAM), also deals with elements of racism inherent to the time period, as Ken Levine discusses here in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
However, this essay is not about Assassin’s Creed or Bioshock; it is about a third game, one that preceded the former’s release by two weeks, and shares distinct gameplay similarities with the latter: Dishonored.
Set in the fictional, plague-ravaged capitol city of Dunwall, Dishonored follows a royal bodyguard named Corvo who is framed for the murder of the Empress and the abduction of her daughter. After escaping from prison, he sets out to seek revenge (or justice, or both) with the help of a pro-Royal group called the Loyalist Conspiracy. The game was a smash-hit, winning 28 gaming awards (including Best Overall Action Game from IGN; Action/Adventure Game of the Year, PS3 Game of the Year, and XBox 360 Game of the Year from GameSpot’s Best Games; and 12 different Game of the Year titles), and was so successful that producer Bethesda declared it a series-starter within a month of release. The gameplay is stellar, the story engaging, the world expansive and the experience grand. This author would—and does—highly recommend it to just about anyone.
That said, it’s also not a game that seems to incorporate racism in the same fashion as the two games mentioned above. An interesting aspect of Dishonored is how much the story can change based on information the player may or may not encounter. Hundreds of in-game books litter its nine levels; dozens of conversations can be overheard throughout the city; and various advertisements, notes, and splashes of graffiti help flesh out the setting of Dunwall and the Empire it heads. It is in these places that Dishonored‘s narrative of prejudice lives. Blink, and you might miss it—but once it is uncovered, it paints a stomach-turning picture of Corvo as an outsider, subject to hidden and overt prejudice, that comes to shape his circumstances in palpable ways.