Victorian culture is nuanced and presents a fascinating crossing point into our modern world - bridging the ‘old world’, with its presentations of nature and with how this meets modernity. It is this contrast, spreading grey against fading green that has defined portrayals of the Victorian world today, in being rooted in environmental, Marxist, and feminist critique. This essay will discuss how the modern world has portrayed an alternate world retelling of the Victorian age, with a focus on the 2012 revenge thriller world of Arkane Studios' Dishonored.
The game’s world is inspired by late nineteenth-century London and Edinburgh and revolves on the political assassination of the Empress of the Empire of The Isles - an interpretation of Victorian Europe. This sends the player protagonist, Corvo Attano, on a search to find the Empress’ daughter who is kidnapped by the killers who framed him for the assassination.
Dishonoured is highly effective in its use of imagery to create stark contrast against settings. The majority of the game is set in a grey, plague-ridden city. This oppressive colour highlights the industrial element of the Victorian era, with pockets of greenery providing welcome respite in the otherwise monotonous streets and sewers of The Isles. It is this basic premise upon which the environmental reading of its fictional world is built.
The world of Dishonoured diverges from our own in the beginning of the nineteenth century; where the process of whaling (an initiator for the Revolution) was banned over fears of extinction. In this world however, the process is allowed to continue, supplying power for The Isles.
Arkane Studios criticises the exploitation by setting a level in a slaughterhouse, where the player sees a half-dead whale. This draws attention to the fact that whales are far removed from their natural habitat. The whale’s suspension and subsequent lack of mobility also draws links to Dickens’ portrayal of the subservient servant, Toodle in Dombey and Son. Both are treated as machines, constrained from their natural abilities. In similar irony, the protagonist is always transported by boat to each destination, demonstrating the environmental critique as humans rob nature.
It is this recurring imagery of nature (as well as the pervasive sound of the whales’ distant cries throughout the level) against unnatural backdrops that reminds the player of the contrast in this period. This mirrors a great theme of Victorian culture, as demonstrated in William Blake’s hymn, Jerusalem, as evoked by the line referring to ‘Satanic Mills.’ This highlights how contentious the onset of modernity was in the era and how it was seen as a violation against nature and indeed God.
Photo by XBullitt68 on DeviantArt (licensed under CC BY 3.0 DEED)
The Marxist influences are made clear, with artistic and plot choices portraying an interpretation of class struggles in the mid-nineteenth century, with Karl Marx having written ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in 1848, emblematic of growing dissension of the upper-class.
The plague afflicting The Isles was initially created to kill the poor. It is uncovered in the antagonist, Lord Regent’s Confession which read: “My Poverty Eradication Plan was meant to bring prosperity to the City, to rid us of those scoundrels who waste their days in filth and drink, without homes or occupations other than to beg for the coin for which the rest of us toil… Soon it didn’t matter, rich, poor, all were falling sick.” The Lord Regent would eventually be apprehended and killed by mutinying guards upon hearing the confession broadcast.
The lower classes are hushed away in the sewers, living and dying among the rats. By contrast, the upper classes live in their high-rise buildings, seemingly far removed from the plague and strife infecting The Isles. Even small details such as the rich having gardens highlight their difference against the dying poor, confined to the grey sewers, hidden out of sight; the gardens providing pockets of nature seldom seen in the Industrial landscape. Just as is portrayed in North and South, attributing oneself to ‘the country’ heightens one’s social standing, distancing characters from the workers situated by machinery.
The upper class are presented in a comically villainous manner, an example being found in the slaughterhouse where guards discovering workers’ unionist sympathies are made to kill them. As the game provides the choice to save these workers, the theme of morality is tied into the battle of classes.
Dishonoured also acknowledges Victorian approaches to patriarchy and gender roles. Central to the story is the rescue of Emily, the Empress’ daughter; thus a hierarchy of sorts is established, playing into Victorian tropes of gender roles and the idea of ‘female fragility.’ Arkane Studios used this established expectation of gender roles to portray the anti-hero Delilah, a character bestowed with magic as cunning and power-hungry in what Victorian readers would have considered to be a distinctly female manner.
Delilah, in a twist, plots to take control of Emly and the throne, much like the assassins. Instead of resorting to violence, Delilah uses deception to take control of Emily, creating a portrait to possess her - thus bringing to the foreground, her manipulative brand of villainy. This femininity is redoubled by her domain - an unnaturally green forest, far removed from the concrete jungles of the city with its violent male soldiers. Dishonoured draws on novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles as inspiration here, attributing Delilah’s character to Tess’s fecundity and ties with the natural world. It is this contrast in character to what is expected of her that demonstrates how far early notions of nineteenth-century femme fatale inspired Dishonoured.
One needs only look at art about this subject matter to find Victorian outlooks on the female villain and what defined her figure. Looking at Vampire II by Galerie Thomas: the figure of the female villain in Victorian culture was built upon that which was outwardly womanly, yet exuded Victorian societal undesirability. This is best put by Alison W Chang: “Portraying the femme fatale as a monstrous creature gave visible form to those traits that artists considered grotesque in a woman: a predilection for lascivious behavior, deception, and manipulation.”
Dishonoured portrays a character so far removed from the established villainy, that she is not considered a villain almost until it is too late.
Photo by Community Mag on Flickr (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)
Victorian influence permeates the game's aesthetics, characters, and also its mechanics. As established early on, player choices impact the narrative. Embracing a nonlethal approach triggers various changes, including guards' morale, doubts about the protagonist's wanted status, and Princess Emily drawing inspiration from your mercy upon her eventual coronation.
On the contrary, if the player chooses death where avoidable, the world reacts, with more wary guards and more rats, symbolic of the bloodshed and filth that follows Corvo - this too leads to the eventual Queen learning of the power of violence and oppression, sinking The Isles into a period of chaos. This is built upon the Victorian fascination of morality - with texts such as Jekyll and Hyde presenting this perfectly, with Hyde’s murder of Sir Danvers Carew leading to his death, where Jekyll poisons him(self) pointing towards nature’s prevailing vengeance over immorality.
This too extends into the theme of nature versus modernity, with Corvo being given the choice to euthanise the gutted whale, thus putting it out of its misery in contravention to guards audibly discussing how the whale’s continued living would improve the yield of whale oil. Clearly, a link can be drawn to the debate on ethics regarding the inhumane test performed on frogs where the works of Christina Rossetti highlight Victorians changing sentiments in morality regarding animal ethics and how they are ‘dehumanised’, especially against the distinctly human presentation of frogs in ‘A Frog’s Fate.’ This demonstrates changing attitudes towards morality between human and non-human subjects - as tackled in Dishonoured, providing the player the choice to act against conformity in the game’s industrial setting and act in accordance with what is considered by the individual as moral.
In conclusion, Dishonoured’s visual element provides a fine canvas upon which to critique its Victorian aspects; with Arkane Studios demonstrating their depth of understanding as regards themes of nature and modernity, morality and class struggles as well the presentation of the patriarchy and women. In combining these elements, Dishonoured provides a deep exploration into a world where the darker elements of the Victorian era were allowed to live on, with environmental critiques and class struggles forming vital elements of the plot and, critically how the player tackles the game, and with the choice offered to players, each playthrough provides a uniquely insightful look into a larger than life Victorian world. Bibliography
Porter, Will, ‘Dishonored Preview: The Ways of System Shock and Thief Return’, Eurogamer, 2012 <https://www.eurogamer.net/dishonored-preview-the-ways-of-system-shock-and-thief-return> [accessed 11 December 2022]
‘The Lord Regent’s Confession’ <https://dishonored.fandom.com/wiki/The_Lord_Regent%27s_Confession> [accessed 11 Spring 2022]
Chang, Alison W., ‘How Women of the 19th Century Were Cast as Dangerous Vampires and Femmes Fatales’, Artsy, 2016 <https://www.artsy.net/article/the-art-genome-project-how-female-lovers-were-cast-as-dangerous-femmes-fatales-in-19th-century-art> [accessed 11 Spring 2022]
Edited by Gio Eldred Mitre, Gaming Editor