“But Alas, She Is A Woman”: How Dishonored Uses Gender Roles To Tell A Story
I beat Dishonored on Tuesday. I began my second playthrough on Wednesday. Suffice it to say, I like this game. A lot. Stealth games make me go weak in the knees, and this is one of the finest of such I’ve ever played. I could write pages on all the things that make this game such a treat, but rather than sing the praises of spell combinations and clever means of murder, I’m here to focus on one of the game’s less noticeable elements: female characters. There aren’t many of them, and they are not treated well. But Dishonored is a rare example of a game that is self-aware about such things, and it addresses the volatile issue of gender discrimination in a way that is both subtle and — dare I say — justifiable.
Spoiler warning: I’ll be talking about basic plot threads and a few of the secrets you can find in the game, some of which reveal interesting twists. None of it will spoil the main story, but if you don’t want to ruin any surprises, save this article for later.
Let’s set the scene: The backdrop of Dishonored is the fictional city of Dunwall, a place that could’ve been pulled right out of the Industrial Revolution, were it not for the Lovecraftian magic and steampunkish technology. Despite the fantastical elements, Dunwall feels like a real place. You can practically smell the stink of the docks, full of refuse and whale blood. This is a city riddled with plague and crippled by greed. Even when the sun shines, Dunwall feels bleak. Our protagonist, Corvo Attano, is the former bodyguard of the Empress, a just ruler assassinated within the first moments of the game. He is framed and imprisoned for her murder, and what follows is a bloody tale of revenge and redemption.
Dishonored is an exceptional example of environmental storytelling, and though the women within it are not the main focus, they are nonetheless a key component. At first glance, the women here are unimportant people, relegated to sweeping floors and serving drinks. The exceptions are the Empress, who is dead, and her young heir, Emily, who becomes the pawn of powerful men grappling for supremacy. In the upper echelons of society, we see shallow, bored socialites who serve no purpose other than to be courted and danced with. And there’s a brothel, too, because every game made for adults has a brothel. This stuff is old hat in terms of gender portrayal, and at the start, I felt like I’d seen it all before. But Dishonored, in every respect, is a game about what happens out of plain sight. The story presents itself in much the same way the gameplay does. When finding your way into a building, you can take the well-lit path, which is obvious and brash. Or, you can prowl around, discovering shadowy passageways and valuable secrets that are far more satisfying. The story unfolds in a similar fashion. No one can be trusted at face value, and the real meat and potatoes of what’s going on happens not in dialogue, but in diaries and stolen letters and graffiti scrawled in alleyways.
This is where the Heart comes in — a gruesome item that can be used to direct you toward hidden trinkets or to reveal things about the people and places you encounter (and yes, it is literally a circulatory organ sewn up with cogs). For example, during the masquerade ball, I spoke to a guest named Miss White, a charming (though somewhat vapid) noblewoman. I brought her a drink. She gushed over my “scandalous” costume and eagerly shared some helpful gossip. As she walked away, off to mingle, I equipped the Heart and pointed it at her back. “She beats her servants,” the Heart told me.
The Heart has become an obsession of mine. I point it everywhere and click and click and click until it begins to repeat itself. In doing this, I discovered something interesting about the female characters I’d encountered. Not that they weren’t interesting to begin with. Even marginalized as they were, I quickly noticed that there was a praiseworthy variety of characters at hand. Among your allies, there’s Callista (voiced by Lena Headey), an aloof, educated gentlewoman, and Cecelia, a shy servant who seems to believe she’s not good for much. There’s Emily (Chloë Grace Moretz), who pesters people for stories about pirates and spies, even though she’s constantly told that such topics aren’t appropriate for little girls. On the more ambiguous side, there’s Granny Rags (Susan Sarandon), a crazy old woman living behind the plague line, far more powerful than she seems. Already, Dishonored offers a less cookie-cutter selection of female characters than many games do.
But then the Heart comes into play, and new layers appear. When I used the Heart on Callista, it told me this:
She dreams of freedom, and the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts of sea. But alas, she is a woman.
Consider that the Heart speaks with a woman’s voice. Consider that as the Heart told me about Callista, the lady in question was patiently conducting Emily’s daily lessons, teaching her the things that are appropriate for little girls. Consider that later in the game, it is strongly implied that the Heart is that of the Empress, and that the voice speaking is her imprisoned spirit.
After that line, the game had my undivided attention. I ran off in search of Cecelia, a woman with overworked hands and a meek voice, someone who has internalized the way the world sees her. And the Heart said:
The fabric of the city is made of stuff such as she.
There are many other examples, but those were the two that made me realize that Dishonored is fully aware of how the women within it are treated. It knows how unfair that treatment is. It knows how unhappy these women are. When I played this game, I did not get the sense that gender discrimination was included simply because it’s habitual or historically accurate (more on that in a moment). Dishonored is, first and foremost, a story about corruption. Everywhere you turn, you see how broken Dunwall is. You climb through stained rooms stacked with insect-ridden corpses and disgusting cans of jellied meat while the nobility throws a lavish party on the other end of town. Religious leaders lecture about piety, then poison their rivals’ drinks. Police officers laugh as they kill people breaking curfew. Wagons full of dead plague victims are dumped into the river, and the men at the controls joke about how if any of the bodies were still moving, “they’re not anymore.” There is nothing good about this city.
So, yes, the way this game treated women made me uncomfortable — which, I think, is exactly what it intended to do. At one point, I discovered some graffiti reading “Long Live The Empress!” Someone else had crossed it out and written “SHE WAS A WENCH!” below. This wasn’t done for laughs or a cheap dig. Keep in mind that this is a first-person game. You’re seeing everything through Corvo’s eyes. The Empress was a good person who Corvo cared deeply about. He spends the entire game trying to avenge her death and protect her daughter. How does he feel, seeing those words? And by the same turn, how is the player supposed to feel? To me, that graffiti and the things the Heart exposes in female characters are some of the game’s many ways of illustrating that something is very wrong in Dunwall. Could they have made those same points without showing oppressive gender roles? Yes. Does that make it wrong to include them at all? I’d argue no.
But that doesn’t mean that using gender discrimination as a plot element — in any medium — is a good idea by base. There have been many attempts at this that have gone horribly wrong, resulting in instances that do nothing but insult women in the audience without adding anything to the narrative. What did Dishonored do right? Simple — it told a good story. In the end, the success of a story such as this depends on skill. Dishonored’s writers knew what they were doing, and they pulled it off. Of course, not all women will see Dishonored the way I did, just as not all women think of Game of Thrones in a favorable light. Much of it, too, lies in the eye of the beholder.
In my recent article about female protagonists, I wrote that when seeking out a power fantasy (one of my primary desires in a game), I dislike it when NPCs make negative comments about a character’s gender, especially if we’re talking about the player character. There was a lively conversation in the comment thread concerning historical accuracy, and whether or not it was regressive to depict women as they were treated in eras gone by (to those of you who were kicking around the idea of a WWII game with a female codebreaker/resistance member as the protagonist — oh my god, yes, please). In general, if we’re talking about a game that depicts a real, historical place, then yes, accurate portrayals of social stratification can belong there. I’m curious to see how Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation turns out for that very reason. But I will also say that such portrayals are really only interesting if the story explores them, or at least acknowledges the conflict within them, as we see with Callista secretly dreaming of a life at sea (and no, Dishonored is not a historically accurate game — I’m getting there).
Fictional worlds are an entirely different can of worms. They obviously borrow from real historical periods — high fantasy in particular — but they make up their own rules. Generally speaking, I’m opposed to the argument that since women have been largely suppressed and oppressed in our own history, they don’t belong in our fantasy worlds, either. That feels like a cop-out to me. And yet, I’m totally okay with the imaginary city of Dunwall being a terrible place for women. Here’s the distinction:
If I play a game in which women have been pushed to the sidelines, and I were to ask the developers why that choice was made, the rationale of “that’s just how it is in that world” is not good enough. That’s not a reason. That’s defaulting to the status quo, and it’s lazy. And boring. And unnecessary. If a game sells itself as an escapist experience that will make the player feel like a hero, the developers should remind themselves that sometimes the player is a woman.
However, if the developers gave female characters lesser roles because they consciously wanted to say something specific about them, that’s a valid storytelling decision (even though I may not like the reasons for it or the way that it’s executed). I’ve used this example before, but Sten in Dragon Age: Origins does this masterfully well. Sten doesn’t have issues with women being warriors because he’s a misogynist — or because the writers were misogynists — but rather because Sten comes from a culture with strict social castes. What begins as a typical jab against women in combat becomes a rather sophisticated discussion about gender roles. Conversations with Sten reveal something about the world we’re playing in, and the game is richer for it.
Dishonored does the same thing. The fact that the game points out inequality shows that it’s not complicit in it. It wants you to think about it. It wants you to know that such things aren’t right. In this particular case, I felt that it served the story well.
When we talk about the role of women in video games, the conversation is often about large-scale gaming trends — which is fine. We do need more female protagonists, and we do need more stories that portray women in a fair and equal light. The existence of a game like Dishonored doesn’t run counter to that. While I would love to see a similar game with a heroine at the helm (I admit to having a detailed headcanon version along those lines), Dishonored has its place as it is. On the surface, it’s a game that would be easy to write off as not being woman-friendly. But as the Heart knows, sometimes the most interesting truths are the ones you have to search for.