Class Warfare in Dishonored
The central plot of Dishonored is as follows:
1. Monarch is murdered, and her loyal bodyguard (the player) named Corvo is framed for her assassination. The former spymaster now serves as a regent and imposes tyrannical state rule while combating a horrible plague.
2. Corvo joins a conspiracy, kills or neutralizes a bunch of noblemen, and after being betrayed by his allies, eventually restores the true monarch to the throne.
There are some variations to this plot, since the game has a few different endings that are more or less dark. Emily, the empress you put back on the throne, might end up a wise ruler or a cruel tyrant. Perhaps the plague is cured, or maybe it isn’t. None of these variations change the overall arc of the plot, however, and no matter which route you take, it’s fairly boring stuff. Sure, the presentation is more than adequate and there the plot payoffs, while standard and expected, are occasionally satisfying. But most of the best storytelling in Dishonored is accomplished on the margins, especially in its depictions of class relations in a rapidly industrializing society.
Throughout your bloody campaign to replace one opportunistic dictator with another, killing some aristocrats on behalf of others and then killing your former employers, you come across a whole swathe of society. This includes dozens of plague survivors and lower-class types, who are going to have it hard no matter which side wins. Eventually, you discover that the plague was introduced as a weapon of class warfare, a biological agent for killing off the empire’s undesirables. Of course, being a pathogen, Rat Plague, as it is named, ravages everyone, devastating the lower classes but also killing off many of the nobility and causing disasters like the flooding of the city’s financial district. Essentially, the game shows Wall Street as a flooded swamp that hosts a den of assassins.
Ultimately, if you take down enemies non-lethally and generally act in a morally upright fashion, you get a Victorian fantasy payoff in the form of a royal utopia under Empress Emily. So I’m not arguing that the game is some kind of Marxist propaganda piece, merely that its treatment of class and the rampant suffering and inequality, not to mention disease and urban squalor brought on by industrialization, are both its most valuable aspects and far more sophisticated than in most games. Dishonored reveals a potential benefit of games being more expansive–it leaves much more room for the environment and lore to make up for what are generally disappointing central plots.
Not to mention it sheds light on just how elite-centred most game plots are, including this one. After all, the actions the player takes in the game end up restoring another elite onto the throne, even after some commentary from another assassin in the game, Daud, who explicitly questions the value of such an enterprise. Maybe the game is still too much of a power fantasy to put so much trust in disreputable non-player characters or a democracy–maybe the entire medium of video games is inherently individualistic and, in that sense, elitist. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see the effects of a game’s events play out across an entire social spectrum, even giving some voice to the marginalized people that either don’t exist or are stripped of a voice in interactive works.