Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored

A new post at Tor.com: Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored:

To me, Dishonored is more an interesting failure, one whose failings annoy me more the more I think on them.

…The second thing I noticed: Dunwall, although explicitly characterised as a port city and the heart of an empire, is populated only by the whitest of white people. Do I have to point out why this is alienating and wrong, or can we all agree that port cities, even plague-ridden ones, can be expected to present a wider palette of humanity?

Which brings us to item the third: presenting and portraying female characters.

Some thoughts on Dishonored

I spent much of the past four days sleeping and playing Dishonored.

Spoilers.

It’s an interesting failure, by me: I like stealth games, have ever since I played Metal Gear Solid for the old Playstation, but I like RPGs much better. And at least half my problem with Dishonored is that it would’ve made a very good RPG. A mixed RPG, like ME2. Some of the decisions made by the greater narrative were obvious from very early on. One Big Twist, that your allies are using you for their own ends and will end up betraying you, was pretty obvious from the get-go. But there’s no way to get the drop on them, even if you see it coming, or change the straightforward progression of the narrative.

Choices in-game are limited largely to performing the missions with minimum chaos or maximum bloodshed. This apparently affects endgame outcomes. (Save the child-empress and the city/cause everything to go to hell, it seems: these are the opposing poles of the outcomes.) For me, it would’ve been a far more satisfying experience as an RPG: interesting story-hook, but I’m not interested in playing through a film, y’know?

The other half of my problem is… I found its choices with regard to gender utterly alienating. You never see your own character’s face, and there is no real reason to gender that character. You could write all the incidental dialogue without gendered pronouns.

All of the other characters in the game, with the exception of servants, a dead empress, a child heir, an evil witch, random participants in a masked ball you have to sneak through and a woman who’s mainly important to eliminate because she’s Top Bad Guy’s lover – they’re all men. And all white.

Is it really so much to ask, in a game set explicitly in a port city, that they not be ALL SO WHITE? That some of the chief schemers and powerful movers-and-shakers be not ALL SO MALE?

I was pointed at this article from The Mary Sue when I complained about it on Twitter. Said article points out that there is subtle pointing-out of the unfairness/misery/unpleasantness of discriminatory gender roles.

Which is cool, but. I already know all this shit. (And it doesn’t explain why Dunwall, the port city of the setting, is so bloody white.) I don’t need the social disabilities of my gender (is “social disabilities” too strong? But there do remain bars to success for women that men don’t have to surmount in the same ways) in my face in a gaslamp fantasy stealth-assassination game. And if they are in my face, then I bloody well want more range: noblewomen scheming to control their dead husbands’ fortunes, courtesans getting in and out of the trade, struggling merchants’ widows on the edge of collapse: more women-as-active-participants, less women-as-passive-sufferers.

And the more I think about it, the more it annoys me. It’s a massive failure in a game that’s smart about all kinds of things – but only as long as white men are the whole of the foreground. Only that long.