‘A Ruined and Drowning World’: The pertinence of Dishonored’s psychological horror

If there’s anything Bethesda’s Dishonored franchise is known for, it’s whiskey, whales, and brilliant stealth mechanics.

Framed for Empress Jessamine’s murder, the player – as her bodyguard Corvo Attano – must navigate the city of Dunwall to eliminate the authority figures complicit in her death, and rescue Princess Emily from their clutches. Whether to commit mass murder in the name of revenge, or take a more creative approach, is left up to the player – but when Corvo attracts the attention of the mysterious Outsider, his supernatural aid might prove to be the deciding factor in Corvo’s success…

Between the game’s unique approach to stealth-based combat and its take on the steampunk aesthetic, its elements of psychological horror can sometimes be lost in translation. You won’t find a lot of discussions contextualising Dishonored as a horror game, but eight years after its release, there’s more in this game that speaks to our present anxieties and fears than might be imagined.

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‘A crawling foulness will overcome you…’

Guards are swarmed and eaten alive by a hoard of feral rats

There’s a moment during Dishonored’s first hour that all players remember well. While Corvo makes his escape from Dunwall Prison, we hear the voices of two approaching guards. Crouched out of sight, we watch as the doors open, and the guards are swarmed and eaten alive by a hoard of feral rats. All that remains are two splatters of blood and the otherwise innocuous rats lingering in the passageway.

It’s not quite a gore-fest, not the way the game’s visuals have it play out. But it provides an introduction to Dishonored’s brand of body horror, one that’s horrifying for reasons beyond providing shock value.

When we first encounter Dunwall, the city is in the shadow of the rat plague. As the disease takes root, its sufferers develop broken, yellowish skin, a chronic cough, and extreme weight loss. For those unable to afford the expensive cures, it ends in blood pouring from the eyes, parasites infesting the body, and degeneration into a zombie-like figure, colloquially termed a “weeper”. These are encountered throughout the game, begging for an end to their pain, together with the bodies of those killed by the affliction. The latter are often found piled through the streets, bleeding through their shrouds, or else rotting in abandoned houses and hidden alleys. And the rats, scavenging in the gutters or swarming old buildings, remain a lingering threat.

It’s hardly extreme, especially compared to other titans of the horror genre. But Dishonored’s version of the grotesque exists not only to shock but to represent the moral decay of Dunwall society.

Between the Bottle Street Gang, Daud’s cohort of assassins, and scavengers like Granny Rags, there’s a sense that the city’s underprivileged inhabitants have become increasingly desperate as those in power hoard more and more money and medicine for themselves. While the upper classes hole up in their lavish mansions, the poor have become penurious survivalists, discarding moral sensibilities simply because they cannot afford them. We see this corruption of spirit transmogrified into the putrefaction of their bodies. The plague is a symbol for the spread of apathy stemming from the city’s rulers. As such the horror comes not simply from gruesome visuals, but the lack of moral awareness that is Dunwall’s real sickness.

It goes without saying that we might be particularly unsettled today by the depiction of rampant sickness. But where Dishonored really succeeds is in capturing the horror of the real consequences that authoritarian politics can have on disadvantaged populations. Those who have power over Dunwall might not be outwardly sick, but their particular corruptions are hinted at in their sexual depravity, murderous intentions, and the warped, ghoulish masks they hide behind at parties. Playing as an assassin, your task is not only to remove these corrupt icons of Dunwall but to remind them of their corporeality. And in this day and age, it’s no surprise that this resonates as a genuine source of fear.

‘The rest is void.’

Dunwall, as per its name, is a grim metropolis. Its colour palette is a perpetual blend of blues and greys, the sky barely distinguishable from the river. The buildings are invariably tall and sit close together. On the ground, it makes the player feel small and closed in. This, together with the patrolling guards, rats, and graffitied slogans like “The Outsider walks among us,” make for a foreboding, claustrophobic space.

Small, tower-like structures protrude like spines from around the riverbank...

Yet there’s also the feeling that Dunwall is trying to ward off some outside threat. The riverbank is so littered with strange, clunky debris that it feels like armour, the wreckage seeming to conceal the city at times. Small, tower-like structures protrude like spines from around the riverbank, and at times there’s a feeling that the tall buildings seem less to be keeping the inhabitants in than keeping out prying eyes.

Only when we visit the Void does it become clear what this unseen threat might be. Composed of floating rocks and fragments of buildings against a blue backdrop, replete with floating lanterns and the occasional whale floating in the distance, there’s the sense that this alternate dimension might exist at the bottom of the ocean: sprouted up in the dark recesses of a natural environment that human society has long since become alienated from. Back in Dunwall, it’s hard not to take a closer look at the lamps that float on the river’s surface, on the small, tower-like structures that protrude around the riverbank, and imagine that the Void is the last fragment of a world long since drowned.

In this way, Dishonored achieves that sense of claustrophobia and confinement that’s such a staple of the horror game. There’s a constant feeling of being watched, whether by the Overseers or the Bottle Street Gang or something more sinister. The awareness of another world lurking beneath the city underscores both the supernatural element of the game and the running theme of being on the fringes of normality – which, after all, is where all forms of horror begin.

Dishonored asks us what is truly more terrifying: the cramped yet familiar space of the city? Or the vast unknowability of the world outside? This another anxiety that today is exacerbated by our reliance on technology – not dissimilar from Dunwall itself. The vastness of the internet, in itself another void, has perhaps made us feel more confined than ever: we are constantly aware of the world beyond our own lived experience. Yet the Void in Dishonored also dramatizes our increasing alienation from the natural world, imagining that perhaps it might be looking back at us, waiting to devour what we have created.

‘Favours from unfriendly spirits’

Slogans such as ‘OBEY THE CITY WATCH’ and announcements from loudspeakers remind us of how closely the authorities are monitoring Dunwall’s streets

Perhaps the most lingering element of Dishonored’s gameplay, however, is the feeling of paranoia engendered by the constant feeling of being spied upon. As well as guards and weepers, there are booby traps, alarm systems, and watchtowers to avoid around the city. Slogans such as “OBEY THE CITY WATCH” and announcements from loudspeakers remind us of how closely the authorities are monitoring Dunwall’s streets – it’s no accident that religious leaders call themselves “Overseers”. But as Corvo, it’s not only the Overseers who have their eyes out for us. It’s the Loyalists, the rats, and perhaps most ominously of all, the Outsider.

Dunwall’s religion is based around warding off the threat of the Outsider, never explicating what that is and without holding else as sacred. In this way, paranoia, fear of the Other, is what dominates the world of Dishonored. We find ourselves also forced into the role of the Other, always attempting to escape the domineering gaze of those who have excluded us from the social order. After playing the game for a short while it’s impossible to escape this feeling, to stop anticipating a new threat around every corner. It keeps you tense in the way that every good horror game should.

Dishonored’s paranoid edge is what truly lingers once the game is done, the creeping unease that we’re not alone and that, perhaps, there’s a perverse kind of comfort to be found in that. Because we also fear exclusion. None of us truly want to be in the position of Corvo or the Outsider, but in a culture of comparison, it’s a latent fear within all us all, almost as if we were in imposter in our own society, hiding out and terrified to be discovered. But, as Dishonored reminds us, sometimes it’s only those on the fringes of these constructs that can truly begin to change them.

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