The Unsettling Political Power Fantasy of 'Dishonored 2'

Protagonists Emily and Corvo are less interested in the hard work of governance than the flashy ascent to power. Sound familiar?

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Dec 17 2016, 7:23pm

Insofar as it's warranted to feel pity for triple-A video game developers, spare a thought for Arkane Studios. In development for years, Arkane's Dishonored 2 happened to release three days after Donald J. Trump upset the world by winning its highest political office in the manner of Veruca Salt screaming for a chocolate goose.

In the raw, urgent panic of those early days, it was impossible, irresponsible, to think about anything else. That a pathologically careless demagogue who marshalled racial hatred, bragged about sexual assault, and openly disdained the country he sought to lead could be rewarded with the stewardship of the free world registered as a stupid and senselessly cruel act of brutality; a warning shot that there are no marginalized groups in America who have made gains that can not still be destroyed. Nobody knew what was going to happen, perhaps him least of all. And into that bitter chaos entered Dishonored 2 to ask, you know, uh, we also need your help with the problems in the fantasy city of Karnaca.

Released at a time when the first African-American president is forced to pass the baton to the candidate of the KKK, there's not a lot of other ways to read a game that opens with a hostile transfer of power: Clockwork soldiers lopping the heads off palace guards, a villain strutting smugly onto the throne. From there, Dishonored 2 is like post-election fear writ large. Karnaca is marked by sharp class divide, hostility to immigrants, corrupt law enforcement, and bodies in the streets. The world sucks down to its margins. If players whip out the Heart—a mystical tool that whispers the secrets of the world—they might learn that a generic NPC shopkeeper has a secret family, that he murdered.

All images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

A bleak setting, then, but Dishonored 2 makes no bones about being standard-issue video game power fantasy. "We're giving you two different fantasies that are both powerful," creative director Harvey Smith told Glixel of the game's supported playstyles. "One is, 'I'm so good they didn't even know I was there.' And the other is, 'I left that fucking city burning at my back.'"  

It's true that on these terms, Dishonored 2's a triumph. In a couple levels, the player even gets to take a victory lap: A train ride back through territory you've conquered and remade by blood or by hiding behind dumpsters. It feels like a crowd should be applauding as you sweep through, if only you'd left anyone alive to applaud.

Dishonored 2's dual protagonists—Empress Emily Kaldwin, and her father, Royal Protector Corvo Attano—can do both. Deposed in a coup, Emily fights her way back to her throne with telekinesis, throwing around clones of herself like pennies, killing three guys with one swing of her blade; Corvo teleports, bends time, walks an enemy in front of his own fired bullet, possesses hounds and rats (he can eat the rats, too, but that's a different sort of power fantasy). Each of them are exceptionally powerful and dangerous individuals, who must fight the whole world in order to save it. It's exactly the same deal as the first Dishonored—and indeed most video games—but the fantasy isn't empowering here. It's unsettling.

Dishonored 2's underdog narrative requires it to wipe out the gains Emily and Corvo have made since the last game, so they can quest for them again. But they're not underdogs. What Emily and Corvo seem to forget along with their powers and abilities is the fact that they've been in power for decades. What's so galling, when they gape at the state of Karnaca, isn't that those problems happened on their watch, but that they seem to be learning about them for the first time.

For political leaders, Emily and Corvo demonstrate a remarkable lack of interest in governance. The game shares their apathy, getting them out of power and back on the streets with comical brevity. Hard to feel much sympathy for them, though, when on the streets is clearly where Emily and Corvo want to be. The throne room, meetings, policy briefings—that doesn't suit them. And that's not where we, as players, like to think of them.

We want them stabbing guards in the neck, teleporting across rooftops, exploding sentry towers, playing with grenades, crossbows and dark magic. We want to see those characters fight for the throne, not sit on it. You can't tell me, when a freshly dishonored Corvo Attano slaps on his steampunk mask and prepares for bloody vengeance, that that guy's not the happiest he's been in sixteen years.

However inadvertently, Dishonored 2 reflects the politics of its time: A world of fear, xenophobia, corruption, instability. It's a game for Trump's America, but if anyone in this story is Donald Trump, it's not the villain. It's Emily and Corvo.

Donald Trump's a new kind of leader: One who fought hard but never wanted the job. He wanted to win, which is different. Plainly unprepared for victory or the work that would follow—"replace [Obamacare] with something terrific""I don't want to broadcast to [ISIS] exactly what my plan is"—Trump would have been as happy as a pig in gold-plated shit doing nothing but tweeting insults at Hillary Clinton for years. Instead, he got stuck with a horrible, complex job that demands his constant attention. As Jia Tolentino wrote recently in the  New Yorkerhe played himself.

Trump's moves, after his victory, are those of a man who still doesn't want it. Reportedly, he's offered his vice-president control of all domestic and foreign policy; he'd like to spend as much time out of the White House as possible; he'd like to "[continue] to hold the large rallies that were a staple of his candidacy", because "[h]e likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide". He likes his rallies, his businesses, his TV show, his Twitter account; you see now his reluctance to leave any of them behind.

He wants the fun parts. He's the video game protagonist who'd like to check out along with the players when the credits roll, rather than deal with the aftermath.

As would Emily Kaldwin. As a head of state, she's sabotaged by being the player character in an action game: She's built for violence, not trade deals. When she sees firsthand the plight of the working class in Karnaca, she affects concern and makes vague promises, but the finale of Dishonored 2 isn't devising a policy plan to tackle inequality, it's a boss battle against a witch—literally, 'a nasty woman'; Donald Trump would approve.

The parallels don't stop at Emily's temperament. Her administration's so corrupt and susceptible to outside influence that the pivotal coup plays out less like Pinochet than Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Trump, Emily keeps her family as her closest counsel. Like Trump, Emily makes a point of destroying wind turbines.

Dishonored 2's ending is informed by how well the player behaves. In the well-behaved version, Emily and Corvo become more effective and democratic rulers. In the other, darker ending, they're instead hardened by the experience and turn tyrannical, purging dissenters. Neither ending is canon, but the suggestion Emily and Corvo would be even worse once they got back into power feels unhappily authentic to the zeitgeist. "Are things going to be bad?" was the question of 2016, and the answer was always: Yeah, pretty bad.

The cliche about video games is that people play them to temporarily escape their reality. Didn't work out so well here. Dishonored 2's power fantasy—you fight for power because you feel entitled to it, and it's fun; you want to win, and you do; you don't have to care about what happens next—is Donald Trump's actual life. Dishonored 2 doesn't make you feel like the most powerful person in the world. It reminds you who is.