Video games are made by humans, for humans. As a result, they deal with very human concerns. This is so self-obvious that saying it out loud may seem redundant at best, intellectually insulting at worst. And yet, it’s important to be occasionally reminded of one’s biases, however natural they may be. The anthropocentricity of games shows itself in virtual worlds in which non-human life is an afterthought, something that is either absent, or could easily be omitted, replaced, displaced. In our real world, meanwhile, non-human life is an integral part of our evolutionary heritage, our economies & industries, the metaphors we think and communicate with, our myths, our scientific understanding, the way we understand ourselves as a species… Writing a human history from any angle, whether biological, cultural, economic etc., would be impossible without factoring in animals.
The Dishonored series presents one of the very few game worlds in which an animal presence isn’t ignored or added like an exotic spice, but instead intricately, inextricably interlaced with all the other layers. We’re still in a world dominated by human agents, human environments, human ambitions, but the Dishonored games do an admirable job of showing the myriad ways in which these human concerns intersect with a broader world that includes countless other kinds of creatures. In the world of Dishonored, animals are many things.
Co-inhabitants of an Urban Landscape
In both Dishonored 1 & 2, we spend almost all our time in dystopian cityscapes, (ab)using artificial structures for our benefit to create pathways and opportunities. But Corvo and Emily aren’t the only interlopers that try to make those spaces their own. In the first Dishonored, rats use the streets – intended for human movement – as their feeding grounds, devouring corpses and attacking humans. If Corvo causes a lot of chaos, the streets will effectively become rat territory, swallowed up and dominated by deadly swarms. The rats are a challenge to human dominion, but they aren’t simply ‘enemies’. Rather, they are parasites within the body of Dunwall, depending on human architecture and biology for survival, feeding off an ecosystem that originally developed around humans.
Still, the rats are easy enough to understand. They’re a cataclysmic danger, something to be feared (or, for the player, something to be manipulated for one’s advantage). The bloodflies of Dishonored 2 are slightly more complex and interesting in that regard. In a way, they follow the same logic as the rats, but intensified. Their invasions are deeper and more troubling, reaching into the homes of Karnaca’s citizens, and, even more horrifyingly, into their bodies and minds. The hives you discover often spread vertically along multiple floors, adapting their growth to fit pre-existing architectural frames. Any bodies within reach are either used to hatch fresh flies, or they are ‘mind-controlled’ and transformed into nest keepers. Despite their nightmarishly lurid behaviour, the bloodflies are subtler beasts than the rats. Moving through the streets, it is hard to tell which buildings have been turned into infected husks. In a way, they are more contained, and more ‘respectful’ of the human spaces they take over; like humans and their families, bloodfly colonies count on the protection that is promised by the enclosed spaces of the house.
Also, the relationship between humans and bloodflies isn’t simply a ‘kill-or-be-killed’ affair, but seems almost symbiotic in some cases. Some people keep bloodflies in terrariums, to profit from collecting blood amber, or, like Sokolov, to study them. In “A Lecture on Bloodfly Fever”, Doctor Alexandria Hypatia states about the “beneficial qualities” of the “fully mature insect, after its post-bloodfly transformation”: “Without these insects many crops across Serkonos would suffer, leading to loss of yield and a marked reduction in profits.” A treatise called “The Foreign Curse, Written and Researched by Tabitha Alba” tells us that the bloodfly population may have saved Serkonos from the rat plague that devastated Gristol, since the two species are natural enemies.
Through their rats and especially bloodflies, the Dishonored games hint at the complexity of urban ecosystems and reveal that cities are far more than just human spaces.
Grease in the Wheels of the Moloch
Dunwall and Karnaca are sprawling, industrialised places that require food and energy to power the muscles of workers and machines. Those resources, we are shown, are being harvested from animals like whales or fish. Whale oil, in standardised and refillable canisters, can be found powering machines and security devices all over Dunwall and Karnaca, and industrially pre-packaged food like tinned eels serves as a pick-me-up for the battered assassin. Advertising for these food products can be seen practically anywhere in Dunwall: We learn that its citizens consume “Pratchett Jellied Eels”, “Brined Hagfish”, and Tyvian “Dabokva Brand Whale Meat in Tomato Sauce”.
Much like the average citizen in this nascent capitalist world, we do not witness how these products are made – with one very notable exception: The first mission of the The Knife of Dunwall DLC leads us to one of the most horrific places in the whole series, the Rothwild Slaughterhouse. The company’s adverts present an agreeable, romanticised picture of one of its products, potted whale meat. There’s a stylised whale, holding a whale oil canister under its right flipper, and a trident with its mythological, maritime associations under the left. An accompanying text proudly proclaims: “Collected from the terrible deep of the Ocean and tinned at various canneries associated with the well-respected Rothwild Slaughterhouse.” The ad evokes both the reliability and trustworthiness of the company, as well as a sense of adventurous domination of nature.
As you enter the slaughterhouse, this friendly façade is immediately stripped away. It is an abject place filled with dead and suffering bodies, and their blood, flesh and offal. In a large hall, a still-living whale hangs suspended over a gory pit, invaded by tubes that harvest its oil. You can grant it a mercy killing by pulling a few levers, then steal one of its pain-filled eyes for one of Granny Rags’ rituals.