Stealth Class Warfare: A Marxist Critique of Dishonored
Introduction: this is a paper I wrote for a class, which will explain its relative lack of tigerly finesse, that certain indecipherable dash of special I add to all the work I publish here. All the same, I think it’s worth sharing since there are a few paragraphs in there describing Marxist criticism in general, and those might be useful for anyone looking for an introduction to that topic. The other reason I decided to post this on the blog is that its genesis lies in a short little piece I wrote awhile ago, which can be found here. Consider the article through that link portal a TLl;DR version of what you see below. Enjoy, if that’s how you roll.
Dishonored, a stealth action video game developed by Arkane Studios and published in 2012, demonstrates perhaps better than any mainstream commercial video game the Marxist conceptions of ideology and class conflict. Set in a fantasy city of Dunwall, heavily based on nineteenth-century Great Britain, the game plunges players into the human suffering unleashed by an industrial revolution. The player spends the majority of the game navigating power politics and trudging through Dunwall’s slums in the wake of a rat-borne epidemic. Casting the player as the empress’ bodyguard turned assassin-for-hire, the game exposes the economic and social basis of power in Dunwall, showing how shifting cadres of aristocrats and military men seize power while leaving the class structure of exploitation intact. While its plot apparently indicts violence and greed in politics, it ultimately reproduces capitalist ideology through its valorization of the heroic individual at the expense of any real changes in the society it depicts. This is evident in the structure of its narrative, the ways in which the game restricts player freedom, and a formal reliance on (capitalist) power fantasy common to most video games.
In order to understand how Marxist criticism illuminates various contradictions within Dishonored, the theory deserves a brief introduction. At the basis of all Marxist theory is the philosophy of materialism. That is, “everything belonging to the world of ideas or concepts…grows from material conditions and practices” (Brummett 151). Though Marxist critical methods analyze the same texts as other forms of analysis, it distinguishes itself because it centers what Anatoly Lunacharsky calls “the decisive role…played by the most natural and material economic relationships,” and especially “forms of labour” (Lunacharsky 1928). In other words, Marxist criticism understands literature not as the freestanding creation of transcendent individuals but as the product of social forces. Terry Eagleton summarizes the task of Marxist criticism as understanding “the complex, indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit,” the ways in which objects of daily life, including video games, films, literature, and even web pages interact produce and are produced by the society in which they are born (Eagleton 6). When analyzing Dishonored, therefore, the critic must not only consider the internal logic of the work––its plot, characters, symbolism, etc.––but also the way that logic emerges from capitalist societies and helps to either reinforce or undermine capitalist hegemony.
Another vital aspect of Marxist critical theory and its application to Dishonored is how the game (re)produces capitalist ideology in the people who are meant to read, or, in this case, play them. Video games are not only passive products of capitalist social forces but also active participants in society. Though Marx distinguished between an economic “base” and an ideological “superstructure” for society, the former does not mechanically determine the latter in a straightforward fashion. Rather, the superstructure has what Althusser calls “the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base,” or the ability of ideological products, like video games and books, to reinforce or change the base (Althusser 1970). Though the material base remains the final determinant of the structure erected on top of it, products like Dishonored are not merely symptoms but actively help to shape the world. They accomplish this by imparting ideological messages to the people consuming them. As Eagleton notes, “Books [and video games] are not just structures of meaning, they are also commodities produced by publishers and sold on the market at a profit” (Eagleton 59). Therefore, video games and other cultural artifacts reproduce class structures at both an ideological level, influencing those who consume, and at an economic level by padding capitalist profits. Both of these factors place necessary limits on the ability of a corporate product like Dishonored to subvert or overthrow the powers that produced it.
Dishonored’s remarkably organic and developed setting sets it apart from most action video games and also reveals the sharp class distinctions of any capitalist society. At the top are Corvo’s, and by proxy the player’s, masters, who include a religious hierarch, an admiral, and an aristocrat. Their rooms are stocked with books, recording machines, fine wines, and fancy luggage. At one point, the player must assassinate or otherwise neutralize the tyrannical Lord Regent’s mistress at a party in her mansion. Before this mission, the player wanders through working class slums and brothels, witnessing the plague’s devastation. Buildings crumble, factories lie dormant, and victims scavenge for food in a daze while gangs sell black market elixirs to those who can pay. It eerily replicates Friedrich Engels’ description of urban conditions in the nineteenth century:
“In [slums], the germs hardly ever die out completely…[they] spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers” (Engels 1872).
Military oppression is omnipresent, with armed guards and electrified fences barricading the streets. By contrast, the mission in the mansion is a picture of luxury and indulgence. Food overflows the tables, the player, in disguise, can mingle with the industrial barons and landowners who form the real basis of power in society. Even here, however, someone needs to prepare the food and keep the alcoholic cider flowing as the upper crust attempts to forget that disease respects no social distinctions. The player encounters servants, maids, and soldiers as well as merchants and lords, who in their own way embody and support their rulers’ hegemony, albeit in different ways. The game poignantly demonstrates Marx’s notion of capital as a “coercive relation” that subordinates workers and forces them to sell their ability to work to survive (Marx 424-425). Through exploration and talking to various people, the player begins to understand the extent of economic exploitation in the society, as the wealthy extract profit from the labor of others and only feel anxiety when the plague begins to dry up their labor supply. As the player experiences the setting of Dunwall in Dishonored, therefore, s/he sees a society riven with divisions and injustice, and the narrative explicitly makes righting these injustices part of his/her mission. The game’s narrator, a strange disembodied heart that gives the player exposition, speaks a string of moral condemnations of various people in the world, especially those whom the player has to assassinate. “Such corruption! Such hypocrisy! Make it last no more,” it implores the player, thus setting up the plot as a story about justice in society and not merely a naked exercise of violence by an avatar at the player’s behest (Arkane Studios).
Though it belongs to the action game genre, Dishonored encourages players to win using nonlethal means. After each mission, the game evaluates the player’s performance, indicating whether his or her actions improved or destroyed the city. In “high chaos,” Dunwall is progressively swarmed by rats and plague victims. After making crucial decisions, the player receives a visit from “the Outsider,” a spectral figure who passes judgment on him or her. This “morality system” allows the player to embody the society itself, as his or her personal choices determine the fates of an entire civilization. Developer Harvey Smith, creative director for the game, writes that “the game is definitely built around the appeal of being very powerful in different ways…You can play the game like guns blazing [sic] and kicking in the door…then there’s even a further approach to our game where…you ca literally finish the game without killing anyone” (Nutt 2012). Arkane Studios encourages players to choose their own path through the game, and the morality mechanic only enhances the player’s sense of agency. This conflation of individual action and social forces simultaneously reinforces and subverts the power fantasy of the game, giving the player more control while also giving negative feedback (i.e. making the game more difficult) to punish “excessive” aggression.
The game’s most pointed illustration of this idea is in a confrontation with another assassin named Daud, who notes that, though Corvo imagines that he is serving the cause of justice, he is actually just killing one group of aristocrats on behalf of another group. At the end of the game, depending on whether the player has acted morally according to the game’s criteria, the city is either overcome by plague and plunged into chaos or the rightful heir is put back on the throne and all is well, with a few subtle graded possibilities in between. Though the game allows the player to kill or be merciful, this morality system is circumscribed by the class society in which the game takes place and the ideology of the society that created it. Though the player’s is meant to consider his or her motivations and actions, he or she can only salvage the existing society, not create a new one. Even in the best ending, where scientists cure the plague and order is restored under a noble monarch, the game leaves the lives of the vast majority untouched. Doubtless the toilers in the factories continue to toil, and though the “bad” aristocrats have been removed through violence or intrigue, democracy and social equality remain inaccessible.
Marxist critic Theodor Adorno describes this phenomenon this way: “[F]reedom to choose an ideology–since ideology always reflects economic coercion–everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same” (Adorno 167). Thus Dishonored, though it attempts and often succeeds in bringing a living world to life and giving the player “freedom to choose” remains firmly embedded in capitalist ideology. A just ruler, not a just society, solves the narrative’s problems. Given that the game’s publisher is part of a capitalist monopoly system, just “business…made into an ideology,” creating a narrative and interactive systems that allow the player to feel a sense of accomplishment when she or he has changed very little. Though it responds to contemporary social concerns about rising inequality and class struggle over wealth and power, it “merely reflects the despair and ennui of late bourgeois society” without “revealing positive possibilities behind it” (Eagleton 52). Within the world of the game, it is easier to bring the extinction of Dunwall than to overturn the bosses and landowners. Given that the game alerts the player to this idea, it opens the possibility for a more subversive reading of the material, but there is no room to attempt such a reading here.
Dishonored, therefore, creates one of the most complex and comprehensive pictures of capitalist society in video games. With its rich setting that includes all social classes––not only military elites or princes as in many games––it exposes some of the inherent barbarism of early industrial capitalism and urban life. Although it recognizes these problems, and gives the player the power to act morally in order to restore peace and sanity to society, it restricts the player from making fundamental changes to society. Dishonored is socially conscious, but its consciousness reflects the prevailing capitalist ideology without presenting any real alternative. Though this does not diminish its enjoyability as a power fantasy, it shows the stark limitations of how far a cultural artifact produced in a capitalist culture industry can go in criticizing the existing order.
Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. 167.
Arkane Studios. Dishonored. Bethesda Softworks, 2012. PlayStation 3.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Marxists.org., 1970. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm>.
Brummett, Barry. Rhetoric in Popular Culture. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. 151.
Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976. 6-59. Print.
Engels, Friedrich. “Conditions of the Working Class in England.” Marxists.org. N.p., 1845. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx//works/1845/condition-working-class/>.
Lunacharsky, Anatoly. “Theses on Problems in Marxist Criticism.” Marxists.org. 1928. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1928/criticism.htm>
Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin, 1976. 425. 3 vols.
Nutt, Christian. Gamasutra. Gamasutra, 20 July 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/174450/not_really_artists_the_creative_.php?page=2>.