Navigating the septic tunnels and sewers of Dunwall, I wield a specially crafted blade, crossbow, and pistol. I harness magical powers in a dour, oppressive, steampunk analogue of Victorian London, full of the equally gratuitous frivolities of the rich and suffering of the poor. A plague has overtaken the city, killing half the population and inflicting a horrific, zombie-like condition in its late stages. Powerful oligarchs and institutional functionaries use the plague to buttress existing power structures and perpetrate plunder on the assets of the middle class, plunging them into poverty. Witches, gangsters, assassins, and conspirators scurry across the devastated and vacated portions of the city in the hopes of carving out their own little kingdoms in the wreckage. But I am traversing the city’s literal and figurative underground – the muck– in pursuit of a much higher, more selfless calling, getting blood on my hands to avenge the assassination of the Empress and restore the rightful heir to the throne. And as I exalt in my righteous bloodletting, I realize….
…just how vacuous the whole exercise is. Sure, I – Corvo, the protagonist – am fighting against “evil” and “corruption”, but what am I fighting for. The game begins with the assassination of the Empress and my being framed for her murder, and it ends with the restoration of the rightful heir to the throne. But at no point in the narrative does anybody – narrator or character – explain what the Empress or her heir do, in the way of policy or substantive action as rulers, to justify the desire to have them on the throne. We bear witness to plenty of terrible, malicious policy, but never are we told what it displaced, or what we replace it with.
What surprised me as I played through Dishonored was how little seemed to be happening in a narrative where I spend all my playtime in a high-stakes game of stealth and murder. There are mechanics in the game which change the state of the world in various ways based on how you play the game. For example, if you choose to kill every enemy you come across, rather than sneak your way through the levels non-lethally, the game world fills up with more late-stage victims of the plague, known as “weepers” in the game’s world. But these idiosyncrasies are only noticeable upon a second play-through in a different style – experiencing the story for the first time, the effect you are told you have on the world is largely circumstantial, and circuitously traced. Beyond these cosmetic effects, the narrative itself is repetitive, and derives any momentum it possesses from the pragmatic challenges associated with getting past Stage 3 to kill Schmuck C and D because a non-player character (NPC) told you to.
This narrative vacuity is, in part, a function of the fact that Dishonored is a corruption narrative. “Corruption,” as a concept, can only be defined as a deviation from moral purity, a negative that is, itself, meaningless without reference to corruption – you are corrupt when you are not morally pure, you are morally pure when you are not corrupt. This is evidenced by the fact that when one tries to define “corruption,” it is in terms of things that you do that undermine morality, but the morality being undermined is almost universally defined in terms of the things one does not do, e.g. a corrupt politician accepts bribes (an action that undermines his moral purity), whereas a pure politician is one who doesn’t accept bribes. In other words, when a politician accepts bribes, it undermines his characteristic of not taking bribes. Of course, not all definitions of corruption are oriented toward praxis; there are many definitions inflected with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. But I will return to these later.
So, in Dishonored, when any protagonist tries to explain what makes the Empress morally different from other nobility, they come up with transparently arbitrary distinctions, “Another noble steps in to replace the last one…all equally corrupt. Why should an Empress be different? But she was.” The words are from Daud, the character who killed the Empress, who is haunted by his actions. But he never gives us any more concrete a reason that he should feel any guiltier about killing the Empress than about killing any other noble. Interestingly, when the overarching antagonists of the main story pay Daud to kill the Empress, the newly-minted Lord Regent (the chief conspirator) simply moves into the Empress’s old mansion. When the corrupted enemy seeks to set themselves apart and above the people, they simply do as the Empress did. So why should we be so morally affronted by her assassination, as we are told we should be?
The game never musters an answer more convincing than, “I told you so.” And, because it is a narrative about corruption, it really can’t. The idea that the Empress is morally pure – that she is “different” – is supposed to be taken for granted. So is the villainy of your targets. As I mentioned earlier, we are told plenty about the terrible things that the corrupt do. Various bureaucrats and politicians use plague quarantine policies to force dissidents and opponents into destitution by fraudulently accusing them of harboring a plague victim in their family and seizing their property as part of the quarantine procedure. The Lord Regent shelters and aids a notorious torturer who sadistically mutilates his prisoners. The nobility have luxurious parties that mock the poverty of the masses. They falsely proclaim religious piety, and then flout their ideals in favor of Bacchanalian delights. They betray their steadfast allies and seek to manipulate the 12-year-old heir to the throne, Emily Kaldwin.
But, as I also mentioned, we’re not given a concrete reason to reminisce on the Empress’s reign, or look forward to the Princess’s ascension. The Empress speaks sincerely of the plight of the people, but the most courageous concrete step she takes, to the knowledge of the audience, is to oppose the arbitrary imprisonment and execution of plague victims, meant as a suggestion by an advisor. When we complete the game (using the ‘low-chaos’ approach to gameplay), and restore Emily Kaldwin to the throne, we are told that the plague has all-but-magically abated. Formerly ineffective treatments become potent, or a cure is invented – the narrative doesn’t really care. What matters is that the Empress and her daughter are pure souls, and when such pure souls are in power, all of society’s problems are solved. When they are not, darkness falls.
The narrative represents this darkness in a number of ways, the most obvious symbol being the plague itself. As the conspirators against the Empress take control, the plague intensifies, and we learn later on that the Lord Regent, the conspirator-in-chief, deliberately imported the plague from a foreign land in an attempt to wipe out the poor. Not only does he demonstrate his corruption by assassinating the Empress, he does so by placing the plague in Dunwall, as if by hand. Blatant hatred for the poor is perhaps the most concrete characteristic of corruption that is ever given to us, but again, the Lord Regent’s behavior largely resembles the behavior of the Empress. Where this is not the case, it is largely because we lack any reference for the Empress’s behavior and policies.
This dizzying lack of reference, the circular morality, the vacuum the audience encounters where concrete principles might go – this all leads to a sort of frenzy of symbolism, an attempt to lend substance to the idea of corruption without ever really saying what is meant by the word. The idea of good citizens turning into incomprehensible, hunger-driven creatures under the influence of a foreign plague is a transparently Orientalist one, which relies on stereotypes of incomprehensible, irrational, barely sentient Orientals and panic about domestic populations succumbing to foreign influence. The plague is the single most concrete manifestation of corruption in the narrative’s universe, and it is also a symbol embodying racist moral hysteria.
But the game relies on an expansive suite of symbols to convey the corruption of Dunwall. One of the main story’s major organizations is a gang, the Bottle Street Boys, that sells watered down anti-plague elixir at extortionist prices, and is in conflict with an old widow named Granny Rags. It becomes apparent very soon that Granny Rags is a witch, and she mumbles incessantly about eldritch recipes and high-society parties she used to throw. An early side mission has you retaliating against the gang on behalf of Granny Rags by placing plague-infected biomass in the gang’s elixir still, infecting a huge population with the plague. Later on, you kill Granny Rags in the game’s only boss fight, in a sequence where she transforms into a swarm of plague rats whenever you shoot her. In the “Brigmore Witches” DLC, you learn that a witch named Delilah Copperspoon has literally bewitched the City Barrister, Arnold Timsh, who is primarily responsible for using quarantine policies to steal his rivals’ property. And so, the game – in a decidedly misogynist turn – defines unmarried women who like to cook and throw parties as all-but-literally equivalent to the plague and the city’s political corruption.
The game also invokes longstanding stigma against sex workers to substantiate its accusations of corruption against its antagonists. One early mission has you assassinating two Parliamentarians who are in cahoots with the Lord Regent, and who spend almost all of their time at the city’s most expensive brothel. The High Overseer, another target, is seen as morally compromised in his piety for the fact that he, too, hires prostitutes. Virtually every antagonist also happens to be a john, at some time or other, and so the idea that they pay for sex is used to signify their moral tarnish.
The biggest symbol of corruption, however, is the Outsider, a nebulously described entity who intervenes in the story to give various characters magical powers, including the witches and the Empress’s assassin. Corvo obtains magical powers from the Outsider that are bolstered by in-game runes and charms that are carved by witches and devotees. If you use these powers to kill your enemies, summon plague rats, and proliferate weepers throughout the world, aiding and abetting the city’s manifest corruption, the ending turns out decidedly darker, seeing the plague retrench. The outwardly pious Abbey of the Everyman sees the Outsider as the preeminent corrupting influence in their world, and the game more-or-less agrees, as everything from the plague to the witches derives its power from this amoral entity who deliberately gives power to the world’s most violent and unpredictable actors. The Outsider, in sum, represents a unilaterally corrupting influence, akin to a 13th-century Christian portrait of “the impostor, Mohammed”.
The narrative relies on a series of thinly-veiled racist and misogynist tropes to add weight to its hysterical fears of corruption – but none of this would be particularly worrisome if these stories were just vapidly entertaining empowerment fantasies. The much more concerning issue arises when these fictional narratives lend substance and framework to political narratives, as they did in the 2016 presidential election. Trump, in the century’s most laughable irony, built his whole campaign around eliminating Washington corruption. But, in a strategically dubious way, so did Bernie Sanders.
This focus has had questionable results on the integrity of America’s political system. While Trump continues to elevate oligarchs and shady political operatives, he has launched an all-out assault against immigrants, people of color, women, and queer people. Sanders, for his part, ran a populist campaign focusing on “colorblind,” “universal” solutions to class inequality, while making significant space for racism and misogyny in a supposedly progressive movement and neglecting voter enfranchisement issues that are salient to the largely of-color Democratic base.
In essence, corruption, as a narrative trope, serves to lead political momentum into strategic dead-ends, distract from any discussion of power and concrete policy, and makes space for racism and misogyny to exert force in politics (it is easy to imagine that toxic myths of diseased homosexuals and money-grabbing Jewish bankers might be bolstered by corruption narratives, as well). Such stories provide easy narrative structures of victimization, empowerment, and vengeance, and produce convenient neutral masks, like Corvo, who never speaks in a story that is about him. Fighting corruption creates simple moral arcs, replete with obvious heroes and villains that we can easily revere and scorn. But they also provide comfort by assuring the moral virtue of the audience without challenging them to endorse a concrete ethical stance, creating a moral vacuum that is conveniently filled by racist and sexist ideas that pander to insecurity and prejudice. Fictional corruption narratives aid and abet political corruption narratives in these tendencies, exposing people to the manipulation of charismatic plutocrats and the ineffectual promises of self-styled lefty populists, and in the meantime, we all weep and lumber from adventure to campaign.