Dishonored’s Dunwall Still Creeps Me Out 10 Years Later

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A Dunwall citizen is scorched in the face by Dishonored's oppressive Tallboys.

This tyranny knows no bounds.
Screenshot: Arkane Studios

Of the thousands of games I’ve played, a handful have worlds that are so vivid and memorable that I can instantly recall them. The Vibrant Holy Land of 2007 Assassin’s Creed1997 industrial Midgar Final Fantasy VII (and its solid 2020 remake), the massive 2011 Tamriel The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These are characteristic locations full of iconic architecture and landscapes, environments that I have always loved to get lost in for hours. But none of them come close to the atmospheric consistency of Dunwall in 2012 dishonored, a whale town so rich in details, so ecologically and thematically intertwined that it gives me the creeps. It’s a haunting backdrop to sneak and sting, one that has stayed with me all these years later.

Developed by Arkane Studios and launched in October 2012 (making it 10 years old this month), dishonored is a stealth action adventure game where you play as master bodyguard master assassin Corvo Attano. Because you are charged with a murder that you did not commit, mainly because you did not have the power or strength to prevent it, you are imprisoned and awaiting execution in the brutalist-esque Coldridge Prison. But just before your head is off, you escape your prison cell (with the help of a shadowy organization) and are gifted magic by a mysterious supernatural being known as the maverick to exact revenge and thwart a hostile government takeover by tyrannical jerks who shouldn’t be in power at all. This makes up for it dishonored‘s narrative core, sending you on a nine-mission adventure to kill the unsuspecting. But as compelling as the stories were, that wasn’t the draw for me. It was and always has been the disturbing world.

Everything is menacing, even the architecture

There is an awkward juxtaposition between classes in Dunwall. The industrial city, ravaged by a virulent and deadly infestation caused by the rat plague, shows that, for obvious reasons, the proletariats suffer far more than the aristocracy. Money goes a long way. But while the rich think they can escape death, Corvo and Dunwall have something else afoot. As the late Empress Jessamine Kaldwin said at the beginning of the game, everyone is stuck in the cursed city because of the virus, sentenced to death by infection in the body or a knife in the heart. It is a tragedy deliberately facilitated by heartless government officials who (aside from Kaldwin himself) are too unwilling to face the crisis, despite using the resources to combat it. And you can feel the weight of this inhumane decision all over Dunwall, as the disease that affects everyone and the heartless indifference of the powerful lead to alleys inevitably lined with corpses. The soullessness of those in power is terrifying, especially when they hold your life in their selfish hands. In any case, Dunwall’s oppressors suffer the same fate, as with the mandatory blockade of the religious monarchy, everyone in the largely walled city is doomed.

And those walls… They’re equally oppressive and intimidating. This isn’t Remedy Entertainment’s claustrophobic brutalism Checkbut dishonored‘s Dunwall strikes a similar chord. The buildings in this game are these hulking, towering structures that reach for the sky and make the occasional disturbing creaks and groans as if feeling the weight of your footsteps. Some are extravagant, decorated with beautiful curtains and opulent vases. Many are gothic, rusted, tired. But just about every building you come across, with the exception of a few heavily protected areas (like the pleasure house De Gouden Kat), has been somehow decimated by the plague. Rooms are left empty, often with the food still off and the fireplaces still on. Rats scurry across the floors and streets, munching on rotting flesh and bones. People are less frequent and those who are still there, having no choice but to stay, criticize the conditions under which they have been placed. Dunwall is a demoralized, dying city, a city filled with the ever-present nightmare that the rats brought with them.

A boat floats along a canal in a deserted part of Dunwall.

It is usually too quiet in Dunwall.
Screenshot: Arkane Studios

The decay, the plague, the rats … they are everywhere

That’s because the collapse of Dunwall was intentional. The disease, called The Downfall of Pandyssia, originated in the city’s slums and other poor neighborhoods before starting to climb the socioeconomic ladder. You’d think a rat infestation would start infecting people in the harbor since Dunwall is a whale town and rats love seaports. But instead, because the power-hungry obsessive Hiram Burrows coveting ultimate control, he introduced the plague to the poor as a means of ending poverty—yes, by simply killing all the poor people—and keeping the city in check. Assuming you can subjugate an entire population through unsanctioned and unnecessary death is megalomaniac enough. To think you’d sit at the top and rule supreme, unscathed by the aftermath of your evil decisions, is tyrannical bastard in the highest degree. It’s this kind of heartlessness, this level of hostility to the commonwealth, that has me scared by the game’s elite, but no less ready to stab a sword in their neck.

I mean, it’s the bourgeoisie’s fault that Dunwall is in decline. I’m not going to pretend it was a thriving city on the brink of technological innovation or anything, even though there were creative minds toiling in the corners of the city. However, it was the active choices of powerful bastards who for narcissistic reasons were determined to claim authority that drove the capital to its demise. The ego is a strong, intimidating aspect of the personality that can lead to frightening conditions if left unchecked. In this way, dishonored could be seen as an illustration of what happens when the ego gets its way, and that allusion continues to haunt me.

A huge industrial bridge overlooks a river road in Dunwall.

Despite the bridge, there is no escaping it.
Screenshot: Arkane Studios

I can’t forget the excellent score that underlines the disturbing tone of the game. A creepy series of songs mostly consisting of thin strings, dissonant piano and swelling organs, the soundtrack would fit almost perfectly with FromSoftware’s blood-borne, or even a slasher movie like Halloween or a spoopy movie like The nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a suitably eerie mix of music as you plot – and execute – your vengeance against those who wronged you. There’s also every level sound design that, while mostly absent, does a great job of solidifying Dunwall’s emptiness.

A decade later and I still shudder at the thought of pulling through dishonored again. Not because the game is terrible, far from it. I tremble at the empty city streets, the alarming rat plague, the dying citizens, the heartless aristocrats. This is a world that, though on the brink of death, still teems with so much life and fear. And it’s that dichotomy that makes me both fearful and willing to face the consequences of my actions, as I jump from roof to roof stabbing one rich bastard at a time.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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