I adore stealth games, and the Dishonored series is right at the top of my list. Aside from satisfying my need for sneaky stabs (or stabby sneaks, take your pick), both games are a treasure trove of background art. I often hear the setting described as steampunk, but that misses the mark. This, my friends, is straight-up whalepunk.
Staged in a magic-tinged analog of late-1800s London, Dishonored exists in a world of gilt and grime. Mechanical marvels clank past packs of plague rats. Street gangs clash with oppressive clergy. The excitement of scientific discovery shines alongside the shadow of grisly occultism. Everywhere you turn, there’s beautiful paintings, filthy beggars, brass gadgets, sticky-looking pubs, and tins of jellied eels. This is a place where everything is possible and nothing will ever be okay.
While the dialogue and readables within the game tell that story wonderfully, the environment is what sells it, and the skill with which it does so makes my job of choosing just one thing to write about very difficult. I was tempted to dig into the amateur naturalist labs you find in ordinary apartments, or the varied graffiti scrawled across brick. But if we’re going with the thing that left the biggest impression on me, one choice stands above the rest.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present: the sleeping nook in Emily Kaldwin’s safe room.
Time for the dramatis personae. Jessamine Kaldwin is the empress of the land, and a damn good one, too. So good that she’s assassinated in cold blood within the opening moments of the first game. You play as Corvo Attano, Jessamine’s bodyguard and — gasp! — long-time paramour. The relationship between Jessamine and Corvo is one of the worst-kept secrets in the land, particularly because they have a ten-year-old daughter, Emily. It’s worth noting that Corvo does not publicly claim parentage, nor does Emily call him “dad.” A badly kept secret is still a secret, and the game lets you piece together how these three relate to each other all on your own. Anyway, Corvo is framed for the Empress’ murder, and Emily is stolen away to prevent her from taking the crown. It’s now up to you to unmask the conspirators, save Emily, and take your revenge, as stealthily or gruesomely as you choose.
That’s the first game (and it’s freaking great). The second game takes place fourteen years later (it is also great), with grown-up Emily on the throne and Corvo at her side as Royal Protector. As these things go, there’s a bloody coup, and the player is given a choice: play as Corvo, or play as Emily. There was no way I wasn’t playing Emily. I mean, look at her.
This brings us to the Kaldwin safe room, which the player is tasked with finding in the opening sequence of the game. Once you gain access, it’d be easy to just grab the usable items inside and run along to the next level. But if you slow down and look for a while…oh, man. You learn so much about who our little girl has grown up into.
Dishonored 2 makes a gutsy character choice here: Emily’s not a good ruler. She’s not a bad ruler, either, but she hasn’t found her footing. She tries. She means well. But she’s living under the shadow of her mother — who, by all accounts, did a bang-up job — and she’s bored by the tedium of government negotiations. Like all things in these games, this comes out in bits and pieces — in newspaper articles, in diary entries, in propaganda. When we meet Emily in the throne room, she’s poised and regal, and if you played the first game, you already have affection for her. There’s nothing to suggest that things aren’t going well. Until, y’know, the coup.
As I explored Emily’s safe room, I began to understand just how heavy her crown rested. Though intended for emergencies, the safe room had clearly been used often. There was fresh food in there, and recent journal entries. But most telling was the bed and what lay around it: bowls of fruit, bottles of wine, used glasses, a fancy hookah, stacks of fat books, rumpled pillows, maps on the walls. I knew from the letter lying on the mattress that Emily had a lover, a noble named Wyman (gender unspecified!) who sounded awfully nice. A picture began to emerge: An inexperienced ruler who could never be herself in public, who desperately needed to hide away sometimes. A young woman who liked reading books, drinking wine, having sex, finding quiet. A cultured, complicated person still sorting herself out.
There was nothing tawdry about the scene, nothing that suggested laziness or avarice. We get a prime example of those later in the game at Duke Luca Abele’s estate, a decadent place of drunken nobles, circular beds, and bathtubs with camera tripods at the ready. Emily’s hideaway, on the other hand, felt honest. It felt human. It felt cool. Fictional though the setting is, it’s got enough of a toehold in the real world that it’s hard to not view these characters in a historical context. Imagine you were reading a book about Europe in the late Industrial Age, and you came to a chapter about a young queen who did a good job of playing the part in public, but in her spare time, she had a lover and liked smart books and she smoked hookah and drank really good wine. Cool, right? So cool. Cool before we even get to the part about how she’s got crazy assassin skills because she trains with her fight dad on rooftops after dark.
That one quiet corner I could’ve run right past shaped how I viewed Emily through the rest of the game. No detection/no kill is my sweet spot with stealth games anyway, but now there was an added layer of investment in keeping her hands clean. Yes, I wanted her to kick some ass and right some wrongs and be every bit as good a ruler as her mom. But more than anything else, I wanted the woman who hung out in that room to be happy.