Put your favorite hoodie on; it’s about to get cold and kind of icky in here. Also SPOILERY.
Rich in lore. Crammed with goodies like teleportation and summoned rat swarms. Haunting art and NPCs with superhuman hearing. Scary masks and dead whales. What more could you want in a pseudo-mystical-speculative-fiction-alternate-world-not-quite-steampunk-political-stealth-thriller?
How about one single empowered significant female character who’s not a sex worker, maid, caretaker, mistress, kidnapped, or dead?
Whoops. Looks like I’m on the wrong islands.
Those of you who know me IRL know that “feminism in games” is…not really my thing. My philosophy is pretty much what it’s always been—talking about this stuff is kind of boring, and with all the incendiary drama of late, the conversation becomes less about the real issue (women in games) and more about the conversations about the conversations. I like a good internet meltdown as much as the next no-life dork, but eventually, a part of me whispers “psst…you could be playing a game right now, instead of reading a semantic trollfest about the word “dick.”
And back to Rapture I go.
So I’m surprised that the role of women in Dishonored bothers me as much as it does. And it really does, so much so that it’s affecting my enjoyment and immersion in what is frankly, a unique game (a rare quantity in AAA titles, and desperately needed to refresh the industry.)
A friend pointed out (in a devil’s advocate kind of way) that Dunwall’s influences clearly draw from an Industrial-age, neo-Victorian sensibility, and therefore, the role of women as Arkane presented could be justified, even expected, given the historical sources.
“Yikes,” I said in response.
Because that’s where the subject gets touchy and weird.
With the exception of architecture, almost everything about Dishonored unfolds as something that strives to be brave, fresh and new. Sure it plays with the concepts of emerging technology vs. traditional beliefs; the struggles of a growing underclass; superstition in the face of unstoppable change—all issues that challenged and confounded the fin de siècle crowd a century ago. But it also plays a futuristic “what if” game very well, one where Dunwall appears to be embarking on a weird version of our atomic age, where robotic suits patrol alongside epaulet-clad soldiers. In this world, this speculative world, everything looks to the future, except the realities of their women.
They are, as a rule, quiet. As they dust shelves or slink toward johns, they might lament, or coo, or ask a service-based question. They are obedient, and found mostly indoors. Men in this world are out in this world. On the streets they run, shout, joke, spit. They brag, complain, give orders, intimidate. The women say, “Yes sir,” or “I hope it pleases you,” or, if they’re wealthy, gossip idly about idle gossips.
The few women Corvo encounters who aren’t rich, maids, or sex workers are placid at best and incapacitated or demonic at worst. Callista-the-governess is just that: a quiet caretaker. A mousy, silent girl in a newsboy cap who looks as if she were initially tagged for a “plucky sidekick” to Corvo offers the option of an emergency refuge, and that’s it. He could have found that just by exploring. A lone, hysterical woman begs for help in a rat-infested basement. Granny Rags…the character I most wanted to like, the one who doddered about, unbroken by the atrocities sweeping Dunwall, well…her ultimate outcome, while not surprising, in light of the portrayal of the rest of the women in the universe, belies a real unspoken contempt for any power females might dare to exercise here. Compare her to Dragon Age’s Flemeth: a similar archetype, but one who commands respect, rather than revulsion.
I have absolutely no problem playing male characters in a male-dominated world. John Marston and Arkham’s Batman both gave me phenomenal, almost transcendent adventures. My most-played game is Bioshock, where my Jack has lurked and charged and shocked what must be cumulatively thousands of Splicers. In these universes, women aren’t high on the NPC priority list. They’re a percentage. They exist, even somewhat realistically and in light of cultural and political restrictions in their worlds. And in each of these games, there are at least two (and sometimes more) empowered, feisty, female characters, who, for good or ill, take significant initiative in their world and command respect as a result of their (usually sweeping) actions. Not one female character in Dishonored participates to that game-affecting degree.
An argument might be made at this point for the infamous Lady Boyle, who has an entire Clue-like level devoted to her inevitable removal from the corrupt power structure. Promising at first, it becomes clear that her power is as the mistress of a usurper; her infamy comes from a portrait that obscures her face and features her derriere; and, fully masked throughout the course of her level, she barely speaks, preferring instead to glide waxenly about her estate, cosseted by questionably-gained wealth and her lover’s military, political, and municipal protection. What a memorable woman.
Another argument might be made for the late Empress Jessamine, for reasons both obvious and some better-left-unmentioned; but, as I said earlier—she’s dead. Her memory, meant to cast an insistent pall over the rest of the game, is still just that: a memory, an echo of a woman once deeply invested in the survival of her people.
The dozens of books and painstakingly-created cosmologies, ontologies, technologies, and so on found in Dishonored clearly point to an IP, not a single game. Dunwall is bleak, but there’s a screaming hope emanating from the meta-story Arkane developed, a wish for the player to embrace the conflicts and mysteries and clamor for more through DLC or sequels. So much of the gameplay and levels can go untouched in a single playthrough that it’s obvious the player is meant to return, seeking a reason and method to save this strange world.
The problem is, if it continues in the vein of this game, all the oddments and whale-borne wonder in Dunwall and her sphere-filled skies won’t make up for a reality where half the population is silent, submissive, and unchallenging. It’s the characterization of a world top-heavy with lore but ultimately empty of life, like a Kinkade painting.
And no one wants to play that.