NOTE: This article includes SPOILERS.
But the game's story also portrays a world of class divisions and power struggles between elites, a subject that animates us today. How far does Dishonored 2 go in tackling these issues, rather than merely presenting them as narrative fodder?
The story is a dark fairy tale, in which a young queen is robbed of her title by an evil imposter. As empress Emily Kaldwin works to regain her crown (or you can play as her father, Corvo), she visits the Mediterranean-style city of Karnaca, crossing paths with various strata of citizenry.
Class divisions are central to Dunwall's mythos.
The people of Karnaca and of the capital city of Dunwall inhabit factions within this society, representative of a political perspective that underpins the Dishonored series. This is a layered class system in which elites vie for power while downtrodden plebeians serve and suffer.
Dunwall was originally inspired by British cities in the 19th century, a time when intense class stratification was being threatened by societal changes such as industrialization, a widening franchise and nascent consumerism.
The Dishonored series takes many leads from British history, and specifically from the Victorian era. It's worth making comparisons between this fictional world, and the real history that inspires it, while looking at the relevance of its message today.
Emily and Delilah
Class divisions are central to the Dishonored 2 mythos. This theme plays out in the plot's relationship between Emily and the usurper Delilah Copperspoon.
Emily is the official heir to the throne, taking over from her murdered mother. But Delilah mounts a successful coup. She is the elder child of Emily's grandfather, though her mother was a castle maid. As a child born outside marriage, she has no claim.
Only one person born outside a marriage has ever been king of England. Like Copperspoon, William the Conqueror's mother was a servant. His father was Duke of Normandy. William took the English throne by force. In the centuries since, the illegitimate children of English and British royalty have often wielded influence and titles, but many were simply ignored.
Delilah is a temptress, a cheat and a liar.
Delilah was once a childhood playmate of Emily's mother, but was often blamed for her half-sister's mishaps, and was eventually kicked out of the castle. She lived a life of hardship. She is shaped by the bitterness of poverty and rejection. But rather than accept her lot, she turns to the occult in order to effect a rise to power, and revenge.
Delilah's name is a strong clue to her character and background. In the Hebrew Bible, Delilah is a temptress who brings a powerful man to ruin. She is a cheat and a liar. In Tom Jones' hit song, Delilah makes him "a slave," who drives him insane. He stabs her to death in a doorway.
Copperspoon sounds like something straight out of Dickens, a play on the old custom of giving the children of the wealthy silver spoons. There is a reason spoons are rarely made of copper. It leaves a nasty taste, not unlike the taste of blood.
Power and continuity
Power, once attained by Delilah, is abused. In her home base of Karnaca, the people are plagued by blood-sucking insects and environmental disaster. Once she settles into Dunwall, she engages in a torrent of executions, reflecting a deep Anglo-Saxon suspicion of revolutions that transfer power away from elites.
The British Empire in the 19th Century prospered due to the elimination of France as a serious international rival, in the aftermath of that country's bloody revolution and its defeat under Napoleon, an outsider and a usurper.
One of the joys of Dishonored 2 is that the story features many interesting women in positions of authority. But Delilah conforms to fictional norms for villainesses.
Emily disdains the sycophantic posturing of upper class elites.
She cuts a Disney-esque figure. Her manner is vaguely sexual, yet she is physically distant from popular standards of female beauty, with the narrow face and ghostly pallor often associated with evil women in fiction. Still, she inspires devotion in men even while she is cruel to them. She is literally a witch, an unnatural being who meddles in the correct order of things for gain.
On the other hand, Emily represents order and continuity, the rightful heir. This is odd, given that she is said to be the issue of an affair between her unmarried mother and bodyguard Corvo. In purely lineage terms, she surely has no greater claim than Delilah, possibly less of a claim given that Delilah is older than her, and the daughter of Emperor Euhorn Jacob Kaldwin, Emily's grandfather.
At the finale of both the first and second games, in low chaos play-throughs, the epilogues stress that Emily is a "wise" and inclusive ruler. But if the player kills lots of enemies, she presides over darker, totalitarian regimes.
Emily disdains the sycophantic posturing of upper class elites, which makes her seem sympathetic. But, arguably, this marks her as an incompetent ruler.
When Delilah stages a series of murders against Emily's rivals, the court is quick to go along with the idea that the murders were instigated by Emily. Her entry into the throne room early in the game does not suggest any great love between her and the empire's most powerful people. This leads to her downfall.
It's reminiscent of the different styles of Charles I and Charles II in England. The father was haughty and arrogant. The son was pragmatic and accommodating. One died on the scaffold, the other, in his bed.
Emily's experience of working class people is distant, at best. She harks back to her brief childhood stay in The Hound Pits pub as evidence of her street-cred, but this comes across as hollow, when confronted with the miseries of actual working life, which mirror familiar Fagin-like images of squalor and want.
In the early game, Emily whines about her responsibilities. To her credit, she later wakes up to the fact that power is also a responsibility, that her role is to take a wider view. But, like a murderous Marie Antoinette, she offers little in the way of useful specifics.
Workers go about their filthy lives.
In Dishonored 2, the various classes are all represented in mostly negative hues. Nobody can claim to be heroic, with the exception of Emily and her associates. This gives the game an authoritarian tone, not uncommon in fairy tales, in which only the wise and the true are really to be trusted.
Workers go about their filthy livelihoods, caring little for anything other than their own profits and safety. Emily's sidekick Meagan Foster is a working class women who has been badly maimed. By the end of the game, she confesses to a previous life as an assassin, part of the plot to kill Emily's mother.
She is full of regret at her own lapse in moral judgment, even though she trained as an assassin as a child looking for her only escape from extreme poverty. Even when choosing the most sympathetic response to this confession, Emily is cold and dismissive.
The soldiers who stand in Emily's way gossip among themselves as soldiers will, complaining about their lot. They yearn for a better posting or look forward to some sordid diversions. Once they're in combat, they take a gleeful pleasure in violence, but while at rest, they seem to want only a quiet life. It's difficult not to feel sorry for them. Underpaid and undertrained, they serve distant masters with no clear mission.
At the other end of the spectrum, a party at Duke Ebele's grand palace is filled with chattering snobs, dismissing the lower classes as beyond the pale while manoeuvring for whatever influence they can find. Nobody in their right mind would want to be ruled by rich narcissists, who hold nothing but contempt for the working classes.
Their presence should be a reminder for Emily to put them back in their boxes, once she returns to power, though she is mostly silent on the matter.
Nobody in their right mind would want to be ruled by a rich narcissist.
Aramis Stilton represents the nouveau riche. A former miner, he now lives as a recluse in a shambling mansion. His name suggests noisome decay. It's revealing that, when confronted by Delilah's mystical resurrection during a seance, he loses his mind, apparently incapable of beholding true power.
One of the most fascinating and perhaps troubling factional divisions is represented by mid-game missions against both the Overseers and the Witches, which reflect ossified Victorian attitudes towards gender roles.
The Overseers, led by Vice Overseer Liam Byrne, are a militant group of religious fanatics made up overwhelmingly if not exclusively by men.
Their personal, quasi-philosophical monologues speak of extreme violence against outsiders and heretics, followed by moral justification and even hints of regret. There is a hint of self-hatred about them as they gaze into their own souls, searching for some greater connection. Their faces are hidden behind masks.
Their constant self-flagellation sits alongside an oversight of a mining district almost entirely ruined by environmental misuse. They speak of an intense brotherhood, but they behave like loners who turn themselves inwards, while the external world runs to ruin.
Contrast this with the witches, led by the sorceress Breanna Ashworth. When they are at rest, the witches are much more communal than the Overseers. There is something whimsical about their manner and a real intensity to their relationships with one another. Instead of wrestling with internal moral conflicts, they are keen to impress one another and to curry favor with Ashworth.
They understand the potential of the world around them, celebrate the diversity of life and harvest plants and wildlife in order to concoct spells.
The values they exhibit fall into line with patronizing Victorian ideas about womanhood, a time when the professional lives of women were limited to work such as teaching, nursing and communal administration.
It's disappointingly unclear how far Dishonored 2 seeks to critique the paternal authoritarianism of its world, how far the game merely replicates Victorian social divisions, or even how far it honors those values.
Unlike those passionate indie games that tackle political topics, AAA games from major publishers are often non-committal or vague about the worlds they create. Either that, or they are downright cack-handed when attempting to address modern politics through fantasy, historical fiction and sci-fi.
Polygon contacted Dishonored 2's publisher to request an interview with the game's director on these issues, but did not receive a reply.
Dishonored 2 raises the subject of class, power and elitism, but resists offering much more than a fantasy world in which these things are portrayed without much in the way of context. Ultimately, the narrative's most arresting possibilities are lost in a swirl of supernatural blah-blah and good-vs-evil archetypes.
Despite this reticence to commit, Dishonored 2 remains an engaging universe where the portrayal of social divisions helps to augment pretty locations and exacting mechanics.