The Bard and Bethesda: Throwback Analysis of “Dishonored,” Part II.

You’ll recall that, a few days ago, I released the first part of a three-part analysis of “Dishonored” which I produced several years ago.  Today, I offer fans the second part of that analysis; following the third part, be on the lookout for up-to-date theory on what makes “Dishonored” an architecturally worthwhile piece of art.

(A reminder that this work is not entirely faithful to my current views on “Dishonored,” nor to my approach to video game analysis more generally — however, note also that it is not altogether incompatible with them.)

Corvo and Emily

Analysis by Definition: the Prophesied Meta-Role in Action

            Though they are separated by many years, “Macbeth” and “Dishonored” share a common paradigm: main characters with a driving passion are granted a vision of how the future could be, and are given the means to realize it by virtue of a supernatural force. Along the way, they are compelled to pursue this path by various external parties, and eventually – for better or worse – they realize the vision of their future. Though there are clear differences between the exact natures of these dynamics in each case, the paradigm may be boiled down to a single, core conception of a unique brand of meta-role. Though rooted in the presence of a supernatural force, we shall see in summation that our framework has applicability independent of such a presence.

The Prophesied Meta-Role Paradigm

As per our typical process, we consider a graphical representation of the prophesied role paradigm, above, and use it as our point of entry into understanding this meta-role. We will assess each of its five component parts in turn, before considering the broader implications of the paradigm in relation to the image-evolution paradox.

We may formally define the working paradigm as follows: the prophesied meta-role paradigm is defined as a framework wherein a character playing an operative role (A), the tenor of which is determined by a formative trait (B) in the role, is compelled by virtue of this formative trait and external compulsion by an actualizing impetus (E) to pursue assumption of a prophesied role (D) foretold and enabled by a potentiating body (C). The remainder of the treatment will be spent defining these five terms and understanding the dynamics at work between them.


A: The Operative Role

            The operative role is the player’s entry point into the meta-role paradigm, analagous to the primary role in our more general meta-role framework. In the case of “Dishonored,” Corvo is the operative role; in “Macbeth,” Macbeth is the operative role.

Upon further consideration of Corvo’s role as a silent, first-person avatar, we see many similarities between the way a player encounters the Royal Protector and the way an actor might encounter his role. In eliminating a god-point camera perspective and avatar dialogue reflective of a sentience separate from the player’s, the game works to approximate the avatar as a persona – a sleeve into which the player may slip such that he might experience the game’s reality more directly.

Such an approximation is necessarily imperfect. Sensory input is not directly correlated in “Dishonored” as it is in acting; senses of touch, smell, pain, and taste and entirely disembodied from the avatar, while senses of hearing and sight are incomplete inasmuch as the player is not isolated from the sounds and sights of his actual reality; so immersion in the game’s reality is limited. Another key difference, as we have previously noted, rests in the fact that NPC’s have no conception of the player outside of the game’s reality. No preconceptions about the player’s body or reminders of who he “really is” need to be surmounted, as is the case in theater.

The commonalities pertinent to the cases at hand are focused on impressionability and the external locus of the operative role’s direction. We have already touched on the way Corvo’s silence begets the external imposition of his directives; the very nature of the game’s setup reinforces this in how he is sent on assassination missions issued by the Loyalist hierarchy. Even after the Loyalists betray him, the Royal Protector is literally ferried on his way by Samuel the boatman. Thus, though Corvo’s journey is billed as a quest for personal vindication, he is at every juncture reacting as opposed to acting. The exact nature of these external forces will be treated further in our consideration of the actualizing impetus; for now, we simply note the manner in which Corvo, as an operative role, is a reactionary agent of choice.

This is closely related to the acting pedagogy of ‘scene presence’. It is not acting to simply await one’s cue onstage and recite the lines of one’s character; rather, in accordance with the heightened consciousness through mindfulness which we have previously discussed, the way in which the actor brings forth the lines as the character finds its organic quality in genuine reaction on the actor’s part to the stimuli being impressed upon him by the actions of other characters. Macbeth’s thirst for knowledge and assurance from the witches and spirits is not genuine unless the actor, armed with a clear conception of Macbeth’s defining character (something we will discuss more in the next section), reacts to the appearance of the witches, declaration of him as king, etc., through a methodology of resonance: he must pose the question of how each new stimulus informs his character, and act accordingly through reaction.

So the operative role is defined first and foremost by its quality of reactivity. The choices it has to make are thrust upon it by external forces and preconditions, be they prophecy, assassination contracts, or the threat of a disruptive agent (in Macbeth’s case, Banquo). Though both “Macbeth” and “Dishonored” are colored by the impact of the choices the operative role makes, the operative role seems caught in the tragic quandry of always being put in a reactive position, rather than choosing through initiative. Not surprisingly, it is the fundamental drive within each operative role that determines which external forces will push it to a junction of reactive choice; this drive, consequently, is responsible for the most essential shape of the operative role.


B: The Formative Trait

            We consider here the primary internal drive motivating the actions of the operative role, which we will call the ‘formative trait’.

We may lean upon Freud to sketch a psychological framework for this trait; in so doing, we find it closely related to the concept of sublimation. In the Freudian construction of the mind, the id’s libidinal drive – i.e., the pleasure principle – is translated in the ego into narcissistic cathexes. It is not difficult to move this into our current meta-role paradigm: the ego, the mind’s evolutionary coping mechanism for reality, bridles the id’s primordial object cathexes by translating them into narcissistic energies expressed internally and externally.[1] Such sublimation leads to the differentiation of unbound libidinal energies into distinct ego-objects and drives – in our examples, platonic love and ambition.

We can think of the formative trait as the dominant sublimated drive present in the operative role – that drive which, in the diagram, literally gives the role its shape (triangularity, in the graphic) by directing its actions within the confines of the reality principle. Macbeth’s formative trait is ambition: from the first, we are introduced to the Thane of Glamis by reports of his slaying the traitor Macdonwald, after which he “unseamed him from the nave to th’ chaps and fixed his head upon [the] battlements.”[2] His initial ferocity, which could be perceived as patriotism or loyalty to the regency, is redefined as we see him react to the witches prophesying that he shall be king. He quickly becomes frightened by his own murderous thoughts of regicide: he refers in an aside to his acquisition of the titles of Thane of Glamis and Cawdor as “two truths” that are “happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme,”[3] and goes on to describe the terror with which he yields to his thought’s suggestion of regicide.[4]

We ought not to be surprised that Macbeth reacts in this way; as we shall later see, the prophesied role, as designed by the witches, inherently resonates with the operative role’s formative trait. Why would such resonance terrify Macbeth? Freud again aids us in explanation: he describes the ego as “a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido [of] the id, and from the severity of the super-ego.”[5] The superego, the policing force exerting the social expectations of without upon the ego, almost always stands in opposition to the desires of the instinctually driven id.[6] Sublimation as a defense mechanism, then, allows the ego to fulfill the instinctual desires of the id via a socially acceptable method, a process that placates both id and super-ego.

The witches appear and prophesy Macbeth king, providing “proof” in the form of first prophesying his acquisition of the Thane titles. This feeds Macbeth’s ambition by making his ascension to the throne seem plausible. Whence is ambition derived? The pleasure principle of the id, distorted through the process of sublimation. Thus, this potentiality for fulfillment of the sublimated drive (i.e., the formative trait) speaks, through translation, to the id, wherefrom emerges the regicidal impulse. This id-driven desire runs in direct opposition to the mental and behavioral proscriptions of the super-ego, and is even more alarming because it enters consciousness through the intermediate drive of a sublimated instinct, which both id and super-ego are meant to accept. A similar process occurs in “Dishonored,” where Corvo’s platonic love for Emily (and, perhaps by association, his sense of justice) is invoked in The Outsider’s actualization of his capacity to realize the desired ends of his formative drive: saving Emily and reinstating the proper monarchical lineage. Such power, in combination with external pressures in the form of actualizing impetuses (discussed below), compels him to step outside socially proscribed actions in order to effect fundamental social change in pursuit of fulfillment of his primary drive. He steps out of the role of Royal Protector and into the role of Masked Assassin because of a perceived path to fulfilling the will of his formative trait – a path provided by The Outsider.


C: The Potentiating Body

            The social dynamics of both “Dishonored” and “Macbeth” are rather ironic because, while they both project images of powerful – at times totalitarian – monarchies or otherwise regencies, the governmental structure is subordinate to supernatural occult authority. The supernatural entity responsible for establishment of the prophesied role is termed the ‘potentiating body’, in reference to the fact that the entire paradigm in consideration finds its genesis is their prophecies. Though we have just determined that a similar internal process occurs in both Corvo and Macbeth in learning of their foretold futures, The Outsider and the supernatural entities of Macbeth – the witches and Hecate – differ in several ways, which will help us to unpack the dynamics of the potentiating body.

The Outsider is understood in occult lore to exist outside of morality, a fact symbolized by the way in which he literally exists outside the physical world, in the extra-spatiotemporal space known as The Void. Of course, as is natural in response to occult groups, he and his followers are branded heretical demons by the dominant, state-sanctioned religion – the “Abbey of the Everyman,” or, as The Outsider puts it, “a great cult dedicated to loathing me,” led by Overseers, “religious militants dedicated to fighting witchcraft.” The Void, likewise, is purported by Overseers to be a place of “turpitude,” against which one must guard one’s soul by devoting oneself to the Abbey. In contrast, those who have directly experienced the Void view it as welcoming and empowering. One work of fiction that is available for Corvo to find within Dunwall, Call to the Spheres, tells the story of a disciple of the Abbey who, on a journey with Abbey hierarchy, is called by and communes with The Outsider in the Void, and ultimately kills the Abbey men with whom he was traveling. The last excerpt reflects his awakening to The Outsider, referred to in the traditionally-biblical usage of “He.”

I do not fear the Void, nor am I concerned with the spiritual sanctity of the weak. For I am now His herald, His chosen, having seen His sublime vault, where eternally He feeds upon the substance of the Void.

Alone in Orchado’s ship, the floor painted red with life, I draw designs with my fingers and gaze through the portals at the land rising below. There I will build the first monument to His glory, a rotting wound in the flesh of nature.

Patiently, I’ll build, awaiting Your arrival, oh great scion of the Void!

We can contrast this account to that given by Daud, the leader of the assassins commissioned by the then-Spy Master, soon-to-be Lord Regent, to kill the Empress. After Corvo finally finds Daud, if he chooses to face Daud in combat, Daud, upon defeat, offers a plea and confession to his would-be assassin.

I ask for my life. When I killed your Empress and took her daughter, something broke inside me. Now I see the design on the back of your hand, the mark of the Outsider himself, and I remember all I’ve done. The years of waiting for the right moment to step forward from an alley and drive a knife between the ribs of some noble. All the money exchanging hands, from one rich bastard or another. Killing for one of them one year, then being paid to kill him in return the next. And what have I accomplished? More than you have, or much less?

I remember bending at the shrines, listening as the Outsider whispered that I was going to change things, that I was somehow important. It felt good, made me believe I was powerful. Now I want nothing but to leave this city. And fade from the memory of those who reside here. I’ve had enough killing. The men you worked for asked you to kill for them, but you always found another way. You took a path I could have followed, but did not. So my life is in your hands.

Daud is notable because he is the clearest example of a person marked by The Outsider other than Corvo. Taken in tandem with the excerpt from Call to the Spheres, what we have before us are bookends to a lifetime spent heeding The Outsider’s call, with practically diametrically opposed tones.

Before considering the two together, we dwell on Daud’s account for a moment. Firstly, it is interesting to compare his final appeal to the character of Macbeth. In particular, his recollection of The Outsider’s words to him sound as though they could have come directly from Macbeth. This is easily demonstrated by replacing a single word in Daud’s speech: “I remember bending at the shrines listening as the [witches] whispered that I was going to change things, that I was somehow important. It felt good, made me believe I was powerful.” Following our above considerations of Macbeth’s formative trait (ambition), we could rightly say that Daud was similarly bent on achieving power and status.

Further, two opposing perspectives juxtapose themselves starkly in Daud’s words: on the one hand, he seems to blame The Outsider for the emptiness he now finds in review of his life; on the other hand, he seems to blame himself by acknowledging that Corvo, in the same position as Daud once was, “took a path [Daud] could have followed, but did not.” This is a critical point to consider in analyzing the potentiating body. The Outsider, as we know from both lore and firsthand experience with Corvo, is largely amoral. He is an interested observer who gives those who peak His interest the supernatural tools to further their own designs. No deal is struck; no contract is signed. As He says to Corvo during their first meeting, “How you use what I have given you falls upon you, as it has to the others before you… but know that I will be watching with great interest.” The Outsider, then, is only at fault insofar as he allows those he marks to fulfill their own desires (i.e., their formative trait). The question, then, must follow: if The Outsider is enabling the fulfillment of a force which drives the mind and behavior of his chosen, then does the chosen (in this case, Daud) have any choice in the path he treads?

The obvious answer is that this choice absolutely exists, because the entire storyline is dependent upon the choices that Corvo makes. Yet, as tempting as this answer is, the dilemma is not so easily waved off – it could, after all, very well be that the particular nature of Corvo’s formative trait enables him to choose from a multitude of paths, in a way that Daud’s did not. Furthermore, we noted earlier that the nature of the game’s perceptual dynamics is such that the player is not even aware until late in the game that Corvo is fighting for his daughter. Therefore, as a player, Corvo’s formative trait is largely opaque, which may mean that freedom of choice manifests because the player is able to arrive at the realization of Corvo’s formative trait via multiple, unique paths. This idea will be treated later in consideration of the prophesied role itself; suffice it to say now that Corvo’s case cannot be automatically equated with Daud’s.

A more relevant piece of information is provided by the mechanical “heart of a living thing” which the Outsider gives Corvo at the beginning of the game to guide him to the Outsider’s relics. The heart has the ability to whisper secrets to Corvo about the things he sees; if Corvo points it at Daud after his plea is issued, the heart tells him that “His hands do violence, but there is a different dream in his heart.” The statement, of course, is so psychologically opaque that it’s almost intractable. We can say, however, that the heart tells us Daud’s motives were not violent ones. Presumably, this means that his formative trait’s fulfillment was not contingent upon violence – in the same way that a necessary condition for becoming king is not regicide, Daud did not have to become an assassin lord of crime to realize his wish for power and importance.

The powers The Outsider grants are multifarious, with some tending towards violent elements and some towards nonviolent solutions. Corvo can acquire the ability to see through walls, aiding him in stealth; or, he can learn to summon a rat swarm to devour his enemies (or, he can learn both abilities). There is nothing in the gift of The Outsider that inherently pushes the chosen in the direction of violence or nonviolence. The Outsider sets up a choice, merely giving people the capacity to walk whatever path they like. Clearly, there are different ways to fulfill the ends of any formative trait. Perhaps the seat of choice rests within the chosen, or perhaps the chosen’s external environment compels him; either way, it is clear that The Outsider is not an agent of determinism – rather, he an enabler of choice.

In direct contrast to the neutrality of The Outsider, the witches of Macbeth make no secret of their malevolent bent: Hecate, upon arrival in the third act, refers to herself as “the mistress of [the witches’ charms], the close contriver of all harms.”[7] They are also characterized as vengeful – for example, see their meeting prior to first speaking wih Macbeth, during which the first witch tells a story of her latest exploit.

A sailor’ wife had chestnuts in her lap

And munched and munched and munched. “Give me,” quoth I.

“Aroit thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.

But i a sieve I’ll thither sail

And like a rat without a tail,

I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.[8]

The three then plot the coming torment of the sailor, all in revenge for his wife’s refusal to share chestnuts.[9] This is clearly unlike the distant, amoral force we saw in “Dishonored.” Quite to the contrary: in perhaps their most famous line, the witches declare in deciding to meet with Macbeth that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”[10] Instead of exempting themselves from the moral order, the witches are intentionally subverting it. Their goal might be seen as a sort of deadly mischief: the witches are like a hugely hyperbolized, malevolent sorority, pulling pranks for their own petty amusement.

Their tenor, then, is distinct from The Outsider in that they fully substantiate the evil, demonic rumors about them, whereas The Outsider is merely disparaged because the reigning religion seeks to maintain order. But is there a distinction between the way in which the witches interact with Macbeth and the way in which The Outsider interacts with Corvo? Yes: The Outsider appears after Corvo already has an active goal (the rescue and reinstatement of Emily) and provides him with the means to achieve this goal; the witches appear before Macbeth has an active goal, and implant within him the idea of an end goal.

Stated so starkly, we might wonder how two such cases are related at all. We must remember that both are grounded in an operative role that is offered a path to fulfillment of its formative trait; the only difference here is the presence of an active goal at the time when the path is presented. The path to Corvo’s fulfillment is offered as a way to realize the goal he has already selected as the end desire of his formative trait, whereas the witches are presenting Macbeth with an end desire (being king) which, if at all present previously, was presumably not conscious. It is no surprise that the presence and absence of active goals segregate in this manner: there is something inherently manipulative in directing the drive of someone towards a previously unconscious goal, suggesting some sort of ulterior motive; whereas, on the other hand, providing them with tools to realize their own goal is far less insidious. This coalesces with our assessment of The Outsider and the witches thus far.

Further distinctions that we must consider are multiplicity and hierarchy versus singularity. In “Dishonored,” there is one potentiating body, The Outsider, whereas “Macbeth” hosts three witches, subordinate under Hecate, a demon or pagan entity of sorts, serving as an entire “potentiating system,” so to speak. Upon examination, we immediately see that hierarchy is the more real and interesting than multiplicity.

Multiplicity is largely superficial. The very nature of The Outsider, as previously described (a completely average-looking, non-remarkable young man), suggests that there could be any number of such entities – paradoxically, there is nothing particularly special about this supremely powerful deity. This line of reasoning is supplemented by the way in which Granny Rags, a fallen aristocrat in Dunwall, driven to madness and blindness by an encounter with The Outsider, achieved partial immortality by infusing a cameo of herself with her soul. If one could elevate oneself to a level of partial immortality through occult magic, it seems naïve to believe The Outsider is any sort of true singularity. It is interesting, also, to consider the way Shakespeare implies the witches could “be anyone” through the indeterminate nature of their sex, as Banquo notes when he tells the witches that “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.”[11] Both the Bard and Bethesda apparently go out of their way to point out that the potentiating body could be anyone or anything – a statement that, as suggested earlier, greatly relieves this paradigm of any implied relation to a deity or other actual religious framework.

Hierarchy, however, cannot be found even implicitly as far as The Outsider is concerned. In point of fact, this is one of the key differentiating traits of his: in contrast to the rigid, hierarchical structure of Dunwall’s corrupt government and religion, The Outsider does not answer to anyone – a fact which makes exchanges with him much more intimate than with anyone else Corvo encounters. The Loyalists are still part of a system, with responsibilities divided out amongst them; thus, speaking with them typically amounts speaking with a system, for, even though their aim is to oust the current hierarchy, it is only for the end of replacing it with their own hierarchy. This sensation of being bound to a system is elicited by the gameplay in subtle ways, such as how Corvo must often speak to and conduct business with many different Loyalists between each mission in order to keep the organization running smoothly. In contrast, he meets the Outsider at small, intimate shrines, one-on-one, invoking a far more personal, unassuming experience.

The witches, on the other hand, are part of the “corporation” of the occult, serving under Hecate. We noted above how Hecate sees herself as the overseer of the witches’ machinations, which is why she is so offended when they act of their own accord;[12] when next they perform black magic before meeting with Macbeth, she takes on her role as manager, praising them in due course: “O, well done!” she tells her witches, “I commend your pains, and every one shall share i’ th’ gains.”[13] Upon her first interaction with the witches, she intimates her relationship to them by saying that they are the instruments of her ill will.

Your vessels and your spells provide,

Your charms and every thing beside.

I am for the air; this night I’ll spend

Unto a dismal and a fatal end:

Great business must be wrought ere noon:

Upon the corner of the moon

There hangs a vaporous drop profound;

I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:

And that distill’d by magic sleights

Shall raise such artificial sprites

As by the strength of their illusion

Shall draw him on to his confusion:

He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear

He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:

And you all know, security

Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.[14]

The witches are the vessels, or agents, of Hecate’s malicious will against man – in this case, against Macbeth. Yet Hecate herself is not hierarchically singular either – the entire latter half of the scene where she asserts herself to her witches is spent with three spirits calling her back, presumably to Hell or some other demonic other-realm.[15] So we see that even the supposed mastermind of the prophesied role is at the top of the food chain.

We have, then, the model of an entity that can be anyone or anything, moral or amoral, which actualizes the fulfillment of the operative role’s formative trait in either a direct or neutral way. This entity is preeminently separate – not only is it mysterious with respect to the operative role, but it is largely separated from reality as the operative role conceives it. The potentiating body is seen as a visitor to the operative role’s world, which, in a subtle way imputed here by the notion of “supernatural-ness,” validates their capacity for prophecy – particularly, as we have seen, when their authority is validated by events in reality. This puts them in the ideal position to establish for the operative role a picture of its future self in the form of a prophesied role. It is this prophesied role that we consider next.

[1] The Ego and the Id, p. 44-45 & 58.

[2] “Macbeth,” I.2.22-23.

[3] Ibid, I.3.127-129.

[4] Ibid, I.3.134-142.

[5] The Ego and the Id, p. 58.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Macbeth,” III.5.7-8.

[8] Ibid, 1.3.4-10.

[9] Ibid, I.3.3-25.

[10] Ibid, I.1 12.

[11] Ibid, I.3.45-47.

[12] Ibid, III.5.1-9.

[13] Ibid, IV.1.39-40.

[14] Ibid, III.5.18-33.

[15] Ibid, III.5.36-68.

3 thoughts on “The Bard and Bethesda: Throwback Analysis of “Dishonored,” Part II.

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