Merchants, Whores, and Swineherds: the Narrative of Xenophobia in Dishonored

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 todaySCREAM), 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.

Indications of Corvo’s foreign status come early in the game, immediately after he escapes execution and vanishes into the sewers beneath the prison. While skulking through the grimy tunnels, Corvo comes upon a barred-off area blocking his path, its interior infested with killer plague rats. Two guardsmen can be heard talking in the background, and it quickly becomes obvious they are discussing Corvo.  Last seen vanishing into the sewers (or believed to have done so, if the player is particularly sneaky), Corvo is the talk of the area: one of the guards mentions how formidable Corvo is, calling him a “whirlwind” with a sword and remarking on the threat he poses. His comrade is less impressed, responding, “You’re afraid of him? He’s Serkonan. It’s all merchants and whores down there.”

There is not much to make of this statement at first, as at this point, the player is unaware of what Serkonos is. An island country south of Dunwall, it is Corvo’s birthplace, and one of the four nations that make up the Empire of Isles. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Corvo’s origins are worthy of special note: a book entitled The Royal Protector found late in the game reveals that Corvo is the only Royal Protector (royal bodyguard to the ruling Emperor/Empress, and theoretically one of the most powerful people in the Empire) in history to be born outside the Empire’s head state of Gristol. Because this information is not made available until later, the player does not have the context necessary to fully understand the guards’ dialogue—it is, therefore, easy to miss the significance of their words. Further, the game is designed so that Corvo is forced to climb over the cell; when he reaches its center, the guards enter through an unlocked door and are eaten alive by the rats.

Lovely.

Dealing with this very visual representation of danger, it is easy for players to disregard their previous conversation—it is even possible to miss it entirely, if the guards are triggered to enter the room mid-conversation. However, it is important in that it is the first mention made of Corvo’s nationality, and a hint about the world in which he lives: he is a foreigner in a position of power, and an average Gristol citizen is comfortable generalizing the people of his homeland.

This subtle dynamic continues as the player progresses through the game, interacting with the citizens of Dunwall. Much of what is heard throughout the city—either by eavesdropping on unsuspecting passersby or engaging non-player characters—accentuates the environment, giving glimpses into the city’s culture, universe lore, or hints about Corvo’s various missions. (“What is that you say, a McGuffin that can conveniently be used against my current target? Go on.”)

I’m sure this brand you speak of won’t be at all useful.

As often as these sources reveal information about Corvo himself, they also reveal how people of his nationality are viewed in Gristol society. In another conversation between Corvo and Wallace, the servant mentions that a forbearer of his master’s family once married a Serkonan woman. He then quickly recants, claiming that he should not speak of matters which blacken the family name. On another occasion, when Corvo is sneaking through the Office of the High Overseer in search of his first target, he can come across a library where an investigator is pouring over a map. If the player stays in the room long enough, the investigator wonders aloud if Corvo could be using black magic to evade capture; he decides that it might be possible, rationalizing, “Well, [Corvo] is Serkonan.” Again, both Corvo and the player encounter an expression of forthright and casual xenophobia, implying an understood superiority of Gristolites over Serkonans.

Perhaps the boldest attack against Corvo himself, and the most direct in its xenophobia, can be found in The Royal Protector, which delves into a discussion of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin’s death at what was understood to be Corvo’s hand. After covering the tragedy wrought by the Empress’ death and praising Corvo’s “deserved execution,” the writer adds a brief, but pointed aside: “Some argue that it is worth noting that Corvo Attano is the first Royal Protector in the history of the Empire born outside of the Isle of Gristol.” While the language of the statement attempts to be coy, its meaning is clear: it should not be a surprise that Corvo killed the Empress, because Serkonans are barbarous. This excerpt also does not come from a written note or a diary, but a published book on positions within the Imperial Government. The fact that such a statement was deemed acceptable to print likewise suggests that such prejudices are seen as appropriate, if not common.

A sense of national eminence on the part of Gristolites is not unique to their relationship with Serkonos; the other two nations of the Empire, Tyvia and Morley, are regarded with a similar sense of ‘otherness.’ Gristol nationalism is made obvious in the form of condescension (a traveler from Gristol theorizes that he finds Morley tiresome because he “suffer[s] from being excessively cultured”) as well as fetishization (a homoerotic in-game play entitled The Young Prince of Tyvia features the titular Tyvian royal seducing a Gristol nobleman, particularly scandalous in a society shown to condemn homosexuality).

And it was just getting to the good part.

Tyvia and Morley are also subject to common degradation in the same fashion as Serkonos. Special effort is made, for instance, to refer to Anton Sokolov (an expatriate from Tyvia, brilliant engineer, and head of the prestigious Academy of Natural Philosophy) as having the “manner of a Tyvian swineherd,” his nationality functioning as an adjective to describe a uniquely awful sort of filth.

The xenophobia expressed toward these nations is perhaps not blatant at first glance: books on all three speak highly of their respective cultures, remarking on the creativity of Morleans, the steadfastness of Tyvians, and the sensuality of the Serkonans. However, closer inspection shows that much of this praise comes with an implied disclaimer: the other nations are exotic and novel, but they have nowhere near the esteem of Gristol. They are regarded with an imperialistic eye, valued for what can be extracted from their cultures and resources, from dances and food to oil and cigars. This mindset is perhaps no clearer than in the case of Morley, its attempts at independence prior to Dishonored squashed by Gristol’s superior navy. In the end, Gristol is simply the superior nation, bearing superior specimens of humanity. It is, therefore, a widespread and shallowly buried jingoism that colors the reactions of Gristolites to foreigners such as Corvo.

This concept is clear in how Corvo is treated by his contemporaries. Robert Rath of the Escapist wrote a fascinating article, about honor culture in 18th and 19th century England and its relation to Dishonored. Among many interesting observations, he makes a particularly good point about the way Corvo is treated by his allies in the Loyalist Conspiracy:

Throughout the course of Dishonored, the leaders of the Loyalist Conspiracy regard Corvo with a formal friendliness – but they don’t treat him with respect. Despite his centrality to the Loyalist plans, Corvo’s attic room in the Hound Pits is the worst in the building, both dirtier and in poorer repair than the servant’s quarters. Even though he was formally Lord Protector and the Loyalists know the title was unfairly stripped from him, he is the only noble in the conspiracy that everyone – even the servants – refers to by first name. Worse still, they order him around like a servant, sending him out on dangerous missions to do the conspiracy’s dirtiest wetwork, that is, when he’s not delivering messages or filling whale oil tanks[…]Corvo does all the tasks the blue bloods of the Loyalist Conspiracy are unable to perform because it might sully their reputations.

The Conspiracy’s disrespectful treatment of Corvo (namely on the part of its leaders, Admiral Farley Havelock, nobleman Treavor Pendleton, and Overseer Teague Martin) is subtle at first. However, as Rath shows, their contempt becomes more obvious as the game progresses. Despite being aware of Corvo’s prestigious former position and knowing he did not commit the crime for which he was condemned, the three do not see Corvo as equal unto themselves. He is never asked to join in mission strategizing, despite the tactical ability he likely possesses. They congratulate his successes, but more harshly condemn small failures; Pendleton, for instance, passive-aggressively berates Corvo if the assassin does not deliver a message during a mission, ignoring his successful elimination of the target. (If Corvo does deliver the letter, the plainness of Pendleton’s disrespect increases threefold, as the note volunteers Corvo to be Pendleton’s dueling stand-in without the former’s knowledge or consent.) In some capacities, they even regard his victories as negative: Havelock spends as much time mulling over the threat Corvo might pose as he does on the man’s near-impossible victories in the Conspiracy’s name.

It is possible, as Rath suggests, that it is Corvo’s disgrace that earns him their disrespect. However, Havelock, Pendleton, and Martin have all experienced their own (if less infamous) social scorn: Havelock was forced out of the Admirality when he refused to serve under Burrows, Pendleton has always been the most disrespected and disliked of the Pendleton brothers, and betraying the Abbey of the Everyman is arguably the least of Martin’s crimes. For them to disrespect Corvo solely on the matter of his disgrace seems too simple, and rings hollow.

With what is known about Corvo’s background and how his people are regarded by Gristolites, one could easily assert that prejudice plays a role in their poor treatment of him. Rath hints at a coming together of honor and nationality in his comparison of Serkonos to 18th century Italy:  “[Corvo’s] not from Gristol like the other members of the conspiracy[…]Serkonos seems to be Mediterranean in nature, which opens up an exciting line of inquiry in our discussion of honorable combat. See, Corvo’s actions don’t seem to line up with English honor culture but they do resemble the Italian vendetta…”

Because Corvo does not subscribe to the same type of honor combat as Gristolites, Rath argues, he is inherently seen as a dishonorable man. This concept seems to be the root of the issue between Corvo and the Loyalists: Corvo is dishonorable because his actions reflect the beliefs of an “inferior” culture; that they happen to benefit the Loyalists’ plans makes them no more respectable. He is only considered noble for a time because the Empress (whose open-minded nature helped  incite the ire of her paranoid and traitorous Spymaster) named him to the position of Royal Protector. With her gone, Corvo’s anchor to prestige and honor is lost, and neither Spymaster Burrows nor the Loyalists take issue with casting him aside.

When the Loyalists reach their goals and subsequently poison Corvo, their rationale is a familiar one: Corvo must be done away with, “vilified,” according to Havelock, because he is “dangerous.” While Corvo’s formidable skill certainly plays a role in their fear of him, the influence of underlying prejudice is also easy to see: because Corvo is different, he is unpredictable; because he is unpredictable, he is to be feared.

Ultimately, xenophobia in Dishonored functions in a way similar to how less hostile—but equally destructive—undercurrents of racism do in reality: it is the act of dehumanizing others in small ways that allows for the acceptance of harsher and starker abuse. It also reflects, with impressive grace, the lack of insight which allows for blindness to prejudice. It is entirely likely that Gristolites don’t perceive themselves as prejudiced toward others—in their minds, they are simply superior. Perhaps from Wallace’s perspective, talking to Corvo about the foolishness of intermarriage does not display bigotry, but reflects a reality which he and Corvo both certainly understand. Further, the presence of the narrative effectively explains itself: the player may not detect xenophobia in Dishonored, because even if Corvo is Serkonan, the player is not. An awareness of how Corvo would perceive a slight against his people can show events in a new light, interpreted from the perspective of the party targeted.

All in all, this narrative can add a new layer to Corvo’s story, sometimes even altering the impact of game events and interactions. The most subtly horrifying example comes during the game’s first mission: Corvo breaks out of confinement on the eve of his execution and sneaks (or rampages) through the prison toward freedom. Throughout the level, announcements can be heard coming over the area broadcast system, with one decreeing, “Tomorrow’s execution will be restricted to the personnel assigned to the event and approved dignitaries only.” Eavesdropping on prison guards reveals that there is great public interest in Corvo’s execution, and they are expecting a large turn-out at the gates. Without proper context, these messages seem to be no more than background noise, reminding the player of just how close Corvo came to being killed. However, for a player starting a second run of the game, this information and hints from throughout the story come together to paint a horrifying picture: a throng of excited Gristolites coming to the prison, hoping to witness the execution of a barbaric foreigner, fallen from a position that he never should have attained. His beheading, his lynching, becomes the social event of the year.

The magic of Dishonored is that the story can be very different for each player, depending on what he or she encounters. She may discover that the assassin Daud is remorseful by eavesdropping on his personal reflections, or may bypass them entirely and perceive him as merely a cold-blooded killer. He may uncover the truth of Granny Rags’ identity, or think of her only as a blind and feeble vagabond. If they do not riffle through Burrows’ safe at Dunwall Tower, they may never know the origin of the plague and how it came to Dunwall. Such is the case with the narrative of xenophobia in Dishonored, which is similarly easy to miss if the player does not uncover the right books or hear the right conversations. Many players will have ideas of their own about this game that do not incorporate the concepts expressed here. That too is legitimate, for Corvo is nothing less than each player’s conception of him. However, there remains just enough insistence on the part of this narrative to demand attention, to reveal itself the more it is prodded.

Where it is encountered—through racial remarks casually expressed, concerns over miscegenation, or a social environment that makes race a determining factor in a person’s predisposition to murder—it adds an additional layer to the world of Dishonored. More than that, it adds to Corvo’s personal struggle, showing how even the society in which he lives acts to keep him from clawing back his honor.

Late in the game, when Corvo removes his mask to reveal his identity to the traitor Burrows, the man shrieks, “I will put you down like a dog!” Without this narrative, the player still sees a raving man, lashing out in rage at another, who has come to take revenge—but with it, she might see something else, too, and may begin to wonder what lies beneath the surface of Burrows’ words.

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