An Inquiry into the Beasts of Dishonored
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.
The slaughterhouse victimises not just the sea creatures processed within, but also its human workers. One text, “Meat, Death, Bones and Song” is a despondent account of work in the slaughterhouse:
“Every day, I drive my screaming saw into the beasts, eyes wide open. I studied them for years at the Academy and on my trips into the field. Now, working in the Slaughterhouse, the wrongness is like a wound in my head. The first months I worked in a numb state. Then my predominant mood was anger. Now the wound is scabbing over and on some days I feel a kind of power. My entire existence is meat. All there is in my mind is meat, death, bones and song. The terrifying songs, they come to me in my sleep now.
I look into the great eye as I take away life slowly. There’s a kind of deep connection, with the beast knowing I’ll be coming back again and again, removing pieces for hours, sometimes days.
They sing for us, a funeral lament that causes me to tremble.
Leona and I still share a bed, but the more she tries to make me feel something, the more I recede. The person I was is dead now.”
Dishonored essentially presents the brutality of factory farming, as well as species extinction, as one text in Dishonored 2 tells us that the whale population that Gristol’s industry depends on is rapidly thinning out (“The Shindaerey Gift”). Those are very contemporary crises, but ones whose origins can be traced to the emerging industrialisation, mass culture and population growth of the 19th century, of which Dishonored presents a fictionalised version. Interestingly, the same century (in England) also saw the rise of concerns about animal welfare, as the Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847, and philosophers like Jeremy Bentham posed questions like “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation). In “The Leviathan’s Sorrow”, a “report on a treatise banned by the Rudshore Trade Council”, the author tries to discredit the claims of one Pacotti, who argues against what he calls the “enslavement” of the whales, and the “dissolution” of their herds. The author mocks the idea that whales might be creatures worthy of respect, citing sailors’ tales of their “savagery” and the “great and terrible Ocean that ever-threatens to swallow us” as evidence. This view resonates with a real pre- or anti-Romantic conception that sees nature and its non-human inhabitants not as beautiful or worthy of protection, but as dangerous antagonists of humanity.
The sights of this virtual world speak a very different language. Outside the slaughterhouse, we are confronted with a spectacle that poignantly combines and contrasts industrial-scale cruelty and a Romanticised impression of the ocean as seen in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) in a jarring mash-up full of pathos.
J. M. W. Turner, Flint Castle
Bridges to the Void
While the Rothwild Slaughterhouse churns out meat and oil, the player is looking for a very different refined part of the whale’s body; bones in the form of carved bonecharms and runes that give their owner a glimpse at the powers of the Void. Whales, of all the animals in Dishonored’s bestiary, are the ones most associated with witchcraft, the occult, and otherworldly realms. The mutilated body of a whale towers over Granny Rags’ lair in the Dunwall Sewers, overshadowing her sinister rituals.
Whale songs have a way of entrancing humans, giving them occult insights or driving them insane. “Whale song is my anthem. Sing fishy sing!” proclaims one graffiti in the Rothwild Slaughterhouse. In “Deep Watchers”, the explorer Douglas Church, trapped at the bottom of the ocean, writes: “Their song is different here. I’ve heard it for years on the surface, but here it is soulful and moving. The natural philosopher in me is beginning to suspect that the song has notes that we cannot even detect. But here in the depths they can be felt. I believe they are trying to comfort me while I die.” Wyman in “Answer from Wyman” writes about bad omens hinting at war between Morley and Gristol: “We’ve heard about soldiers made of metal, women commanding the trees, and whales gathering in the harbour, singing their songs in reverse.”
As the bonecharms and runes suggest, this association between whales and occult forces isn’t mere folkloric superstition within this world. In one of your outings to the Void in Dishonored 2, a whale floats past you, seemingly the only creature existing in this otherworld apart from the Outsider.
In “Cobbled Bits of Bone” we are told that Granny Rags “carves and polishes the bones of whales, stringing them together and opening them to the Void until they moan like the fever-sick on a cold night.” According to “Bonecharms”, runes carved from whale bone are somewhat special, as they “sing in the night”. But whales are not unique, and we learn that “in old times, sailors cut into the tusks of ice seals and into the arm-long fangs of the bears that roamed the islets north of Tyvia.” Some affinity to the terrible depth of the ocean seems to be the defining factor in a creature’s connection to the Void. Whales, being powerful, enormous creatures haunting the depths far below seals and bears must logically possess a deeper intimacy with the occult.
A passage from “Delilah’s Diary” reads: “I painted the Ocean today. The clever tide left messages in froth and detritus on the rocks. The waves use a secret language to synchronize their efforts. If I could learn to speak as the waves do, then I would have a powerful ally. And why should I not learn the language of the Ocean? Those years in the Void changed my senses, and now I perceive things other cannot know.” Delilah’s musing are reminiscent of the so-called music or harmony of the spheres, a philosophical idea that posited the existence of a sort of divine or mathematical music that humans are unable to hear. A more direct appropriation of this idea can be seen in Dishonored’s music boxes that, unlike the whale songs of the deep, do not strengthen arcane powers, but hinder them.
Closeness to the ocean isn’t the only indication of occult potentials. Dishonored’s witches, it seems, recognise the power in creatures that are commonly described as ‘vermin’, plague rats and bloodflies, animals known for carrying sickness or poison. Some witches, we are told in “Cobbled Bits of Bone”, “command armies of rats or poisonous flies as easily as they wriggle their fingers and toes.” The player too, as Corvo, can command rats, and the witches of Karnaca keep bloodflies in their haunts. Rats in particular are depicted in many occult diagrams found in both Dunwall and Karnaca. Their bodies dominate the centre, connecting the spikes of compass-like diagrams or the branches and roots of trees.
The poison of the bloodfly, however, seems to possess occult powers as well, as we are told in “Séance Notes”: “I convinced our little group that less gentle methods were needed if our desire to meet the Outsider was sincere. Bloodfly fever, voluntarily induced. That will be our way to the Void. […] The fever was quick to set in. As I faded in and out of consciousness, ocean waves pounded above me. There were silhouettes in the distance, and shimmering black rocks.”
Disease, delirium, and the deep of the ocean are all connected, through animal bodies, in the same occult web.
Objects of Study
The ‘middling’ class of society, the capitalist bourgeois between the working poor and the vestiges of the aristocracy, are just as intrigued by animals as the ‘common folk’ and practitioners of witchcraft. But while the latter view and (ab)use animals, their body parts, and their depictions as mediums of the Void, the former have adopted the soberer lens of natural philosophy. Dunwall and Karnaca are replete with scientific treatises, sketches of animal forms, and taxidermized and displayed animal bodies. From this point of view, the animal is something to be fixed in place, dissected, classified, and finally understood. It’s a contradictory process that strips animals of their life and individuality even as it produces awe in the face of nature’s biological complexity and elegance.
In the apartments of the bourgeoisie, we find, among other things, naturalistic drawings of diverse species of birds and fish, lavish collections of neatly arranged butterflies, taxidermized caimans and heads of antelopes, and even bloodflies, kept alive in terrariums or dissected and pinned down in cases. Some of the most prominent characters of Dishonored 2, such as Anton Sokolov, Doctor Alexandria Hypatia or the mine baron Aramis Stilton are ardent professional or hobby naturalists whose interests become immediately apparent as soon as you enter their living spaces. In fact, Stilton’s enormous manor has a room that contains nothing but rows of terrariums displaying diverse plant life, and showcases full of butterflies. Another room serves as a miner’s museum and presents, among many other things, paleontological objects such as a bloodfly encased in amber, and a fossil of what seems to be a dinosaur’s skull.
Dishonored 2 even has a whole mission that takes place in a museum of natural history: the Royal Conservatory. Entering from the main entrance, one of the first sights a hypothetical visitor encounters is that of a dramatically lighted giant tortoise, head reared high, beak opened in a lifelike pose. In the main hall, giant owls, arranged as if in mid-flight, hang suspended from the ceiling above the visitors’ heads. These main exhibits use their architectural environment to inspire feelings of surprise and awe. This emotional or aesthetic attitude towards objects of scientific curiosity is especially strong in the Royal Conservatory, but it’s also present elsewhere, whether in Hypatia’s apartment or Stilton’s manor. After all, the animal objects found by the player are displays, sitting on desks and hanging from walls, and intended not only for scientific purposes, but also for aesthetic pleasure derived from the close and detailed observation of natural forms.
You might also come across scientific texts, such as Sokolov’s “Bloodfly Study” or Hypatia’s “A Lecture on Bloodfly Fever”. These are especially interesting, since they essentially describe behaviour that is simulated elsewhere in the game. In a sense, the player can – like some sort of hobby naturalist – attempt to test the claims made in those texts through empirical methods, i.e. experimentation. Hypatia’s lecture mentions the nest keepers, infected humans that try to protect the bloodfly nest. Sokolov’s notes state, for example, that “in groups of 3 or fewer, they are harmless. Individuals won’t attack, leading me to speculate that each emits a scent that has a collective effect on larger numbers of bloodflies”, or “the insects require fresh corpses to lay their eggs, which hatch in breath-taking fashion, after a very short time. More corpses in a Serkonan city, say during a crisis or plague, mean more bloodflies.” These notes contain more than ‘flavour text’. World building and animal simulation dovetail and inform each other.
The aim of science, in Dishonored’s as well as in our own world, is not simply knowledge, but also dominance over ‘nature’. In one example from The Knife of Dunwall’s “The Deep Watchers”, however, the tables are turned. A scientist, trapped helplessly at the bottom of the ocean, becomes the object of the whales’ curiosity: “As I stare into the orb, it is clear to me that the thing is not mindlessly searching for prey, it is - observing me. It is curious. One by one they approach and peer in my window. There is an unnerving sense of intelligence in that gaze, devoid of malevolence. For a time they examine me, my predicament, and allow themselves to drift off to trace the broken cables along the sea floor.”
Forms to be Imitated
The natural philosopher isn’t the only one intrigued by the forms of non-human creatures. Artists of all kinds use animal bodies as inspirations for their work, and unlike the naturalist, they play with their forms and freely distort, exaggerate, stylise, abstract… Animal forms manifest themselves on advertisements selling meat, and as striking logos for businesses like the Golden Cat, or Rothwild’s golden relief whale. They fill the empty spaces of globes as maritime ‘monsters’, and the wallpaper of the bourgeoisie as fanciful long-necked birds on top of floral patterns. They are the subjects of children’s drawings and the luxurious paintings adorning the living spaces of the well-to-do, some of them depicting gorillas or Serkonan night birds and owls in semi-naturalistic manner, others fantastical creatures like the moth king, or a Lovecraftian monstrosity rising from the ocean.
The rich and powerful especially like to display art inspired by animals. The Boyle mansion of Dishonored 1 is decorated with lively whale sculptures flanking the doors, and many of the party guests wear colourful and grotesque animal masks. In Dishonored 2, a visitor to Kirin Jindosh’s Clockwork Mansion will be dwarfed by tall wooden animal sculptures of ‘proud’ and strong beasts like lions, horses, octopi and birds of prey. And Aramis Stilton’s pool is filled by a fountain in the form of a ray. In each case, animal-inspired art is used to convey luxury, authority and socio-economic standing. Interestingly, however, they differ subtly and tell us something about the people who commissioned the art. For the Boyles, animal forms are whimsical, gaudy and extravagant, connoting both festivity and wasteful wealth. Jindosh uses his sculptures to dominate and intimidate his visitors, as he’s attended both metaphorically and literally (in the form of his bird-like clockwork soldiers) by beasts that are both beautiful and lethal. Stilton’s ray, by contrast, is comparatively humble and tasteful, emphasising Stilton’s penchant for refined, cool elegance.
But the rich aren’t the only ones who use animal forms as a means of expression. The lower classes may not be able to afford paintings or sculptures, but they (especially those associated with the occult or gangs) do have access to tattoos. From the Dead Eels gangsters in The Brigmore Witches DLC to the whale-adorned dock workers of Karnaca, there are quite a few examples of animal tattoos that communicate both bestial strength or beauty, and affiliation with certain groups. In Mindy Blanchard’s tattoo shop, we find designs inspired by bloodflies and bird skulls, and even a drawing of Mindy’s own arm tattoos, which incorporate, among floral patterns, a bird, a fish, a bloodfly, and what looks like an octopus’ tentacle.
Animals are many things in the world of Dishonored, and they intersect with most aspects of human existence presented in these games, sometimes in surprising or interesting ways. Yes, the Dishonored games take place in a very human world and revolve around human characters, and animals are mostly found in the margins. But that is exactly why the Dishonored series is so important: There are quite a few (indie) games, like Abzu or Shelter, that show an intense and overt interest in animals and their habitats, but there’s very few that manage (or even try) to acknowledge the presence of animals even within the most human stories and environments. The creators of Dishonored realise that in order to create an illusion of a believable world, it’s impossible to ignore the many ways in which the existence of humans and animals collide, however subtly.