SPOILERS. Be warned.
I swear to Talos that this will be my last post on Dishonored, at least for a while. Consider it a credit to Arkane’s spectacular ambition that I can’t let this shit go, despite my teeth- grinding problems with the mechanics and narrative.
Becky Chambers wrote this commentary about women in Dishonored over at the always-insightful TheMarySue. In it, she asserts that the deep division between men and women in Dunwall is handled in a “justifiable” manner, one that shows consideration regarding the overt misogyny and ‘Silent Scream’ dying dreams of a subjugated gender. Most of this, Chambers argues, is through the use of The Heart, a…well, a heart, used as a kind of metal detector and all-purpose confessional, likely cut from the dying Empress’s body and wielded by Corvo as he avenges his way through the city.
As we played, both my partner and I thought it was comedy of the highest (and blackest) order that a lone figure, dressed like Satan’s android, marched around the ballrooms and back alleys of the city carrying a live, beating, talking heart that whispered peoples’ darkest secrets out loud and no one said anything. To be fair, one bootlegger said my Corvo looked like an idiot, but I think he was referring to the mask, and not the live, still-beating heart.
And while The Heart was a fascinating mechanic in an already-unusual title, it exists in-world to serve a purpose that feels more janitorial than essential, and betrays that hoary crucial dictum of all Great Art: Show, Don’t Tell.
I can’t speak for Arkane’s intentions or creative process, but the impression that I get is not one of a deliberate, considered portrayal of a disempowered gender during a pseudo-historical Industrial Age, but rather their dawning realization post-alpha that “Hey, we might have painted ourselves into a corner with all these maids and courtesans…is there any way we can get some backstory in cheaply that can retcon this oversight?”
It doesn’t seem like it, given the past week’s rantings, but I prefer to avoid addressing the treatment of women in games altogether. As I mentioned before, it’s because the argument itself is, frankly, not as compelling as actually playing games, but also to a great degree, because casual sexism pales in light of genuine oppression. I know, I know, it’s death-by-degrees; every callous ‘bitch’ or ‘make me a sandwich’ or ‘we didn’t have the budget to mocap women models’ adds to an already treacherously-unbalanced stasis that is the boys’ club in this industry (and others.) But I’m a big fan of going the ‘Bic-Pens-for-Ladies’ route: snickering, pointing and spending money elsewhere, rather than lighting pitchforks, sharpening torches, or angrily mangling other metaphors just to prove I can fight.
So, two things:
First-if Arkane really had wanted to portray women as maginalized in their society, they could have done so. Simple enough: make sure Corvo had to speak to a woman, possibly the same woman, just as he was compelled to speak with the Admiral and the Aristocrat (and to a close degree, Piero and Samuel) after every mission in order to move the game forward. Listen to what Callista chooses to say to Corvo about Dunwall and her place in it, instead of creepily eavesdropping on her deferred desires, ones perhaps not even consciously voiced to herself. Or local (essential) gossip from the maid. Or scuttlebutt from the not-plucky, not-sidekick (seriously, what’s her job?) Cecilia.
As the game exists, Corvo has no reason at all to seek any woman out in the same necessary manner that he speaks to the leaders of the Loyalists. Sure, an offhand admission adds color, but nothing vital. Nothing binding. Nothing to stimulate genuine ties to the citizens of Dunwall, or attest to its history. It’s not there, and The Heart’s pretty lamentations just makes the world and its people feel more disconnected and inessential.
Second-don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. “But…but…Granny Rags! She was totally powerful!” Yep, she was. And she was literally demonized. I’m still trying to work out the nature of ‘Nature’ in Dunwall, but this is an old motif, that of women using mystical hoo-ha to get what they want while men get down to the business of science. Or the science of business. Either way, something faint and nasty pervades the culture of Dishonored, and it’s not just the rats and plague. With the greatest admiration and respect for Ms. Chambers, I don’t see their narrative depiction of women as justifiable at all, because it all feels too much like hasty backpedaling. If it were intentional, the tiny, crafted details, hallmarks of deliberate development would (like so much else in this universe that’s been given great care,) permeate this game.
Instead, we got voiceovers.