The Phoenix: An Analysis of Dishonored 2
A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander
The Dishonored games are about sneaking your way past enemies using supernatural abilities – or, alternatively, aggressively fighting enemies with supernatural abilities. Both approaches are equally valid approaches. While certain achievements and endings can only be obtained through one method, the gameplay itself encourages both styles and sets up opportunities for both lethal and nonlethal action.
Because of this open-ended design, finding the meaning behind the Dishonored games can pose a bit of a challenge as so much of the story is dependent on player choice. Therefore, this analysis will focus on immutable elements – things that can’t be changed or altered while playing. Gameplay is still a factor, though the events and stories that arise from it will be given less weight. This is the approach we’re taking as we talk about the themes behind the second title in the series, Dishonored 2.
The focus of the second game in the Dishonored series is Emily Kaldwin, daughter of Jessamine Kaldwin and Empress of the Isles. Her storyline is the canon experience and the story is tailored around her seeing the isle of Serkonos for the first time, as opposed to her father Corvo who would be returning home. The game opens with Emily being deposed in a coup led by the witch Delilah and the Duke of Serkonos. This leads to her escaping the royal palace and allying herself with Meagan Foster, a sea captain who ferries her to the south where she searches for answers and ultimately discovers the circumstances leading to her downfall – as well as a means to restore herself. She then returns north to Dunwall and takes back her throne.
When it comes to gameplay, Dishonored 2 is a very vertical game – much more so than its predecessor. Levels are structured in a way that makes full use of the traversal abilities (Far Reach for Emily, Blink for Corvo) and are packed with hidden secrets that can only be found by exploring the world fully. The levels are full of tall buildings housing multiple rooms, with treasures or objectives often found at their peaks. Having the high ground is also advantageous when encountering enemies, as you can avoid detection or drop down on unsuspecting foes. In this way, Dishonored 2 routinely incentivizes players to climb upwards in an attempt to achieve as high a position as possible.
That element of ascension is just as key to the story of Dishonored 2 as it is to the gameplay. Most characters you encounter – especially the targets – are seeking to ascend to some greater level. In particular, they seek to ascend into the future from some troubled or fraught past. We see this in Alexandria Hypatia, whose work to uplift the miners of Karanaca stems directly from the historic injustices inflicted upon them in the name of production. We see it again in Kirin Jindosh, who seeks to elevate his work on the Clockwork Soldier to new heights by using the genius of Anton Sokolov (a scientist of the previous generation and an ally from the previous game). We see it especially in the game’s main antagonist, Delilah, who has risen from her life of squalor and misery to become a powerful witch and, now seeks to rise even further.
These characters who wish to move beyond their pasts are typically the antagonists of their levels, as they need to be eliminated in order for you to move past them. Part of their villainy stems from the ways they treat the past. Jindosh sees it as merely a stepping stone in his own ambitions and several notes can be found in his mansion showing that he views Sokolov as ultimately disposable. Byrne and Paolo of the Dust District see the historic grievances and discord in Serkonos as fuel for their ambitions. Neither of them really care about helping the people rise up the world – just their own desires to rise.
However, there are two targets whose haunted pasts can be handled in much more constructive ways. Alexandria Hypatia is suffering due to the imperfect serum meant to remedy the miners’ ails, which she tested on herself. This twisted and corrupted her into the assassin Grim Alex, though by exploring the level and digging through the old labs, you can help her recover. Aramis Stilton is another example. When you first encounter him, he’s been driven mad by exposure to the Void. His level is driven entirely by the past, as you are given temporary access to a timepiece that allows you to jump backwards into an older version of the mansion. There, you can prevent him from peering into the Void and give him the opportunity to reckon with his attachments to the Duke, leading to him becoming an ally in the present.
These two characters are ones you can help deal with their pasts in healthier ways. Rather than trying to forget about it or move beyond it, they need to confront it. Hypatia needs to deal with her failure to create an effective serum, and Stilton needs to question his alliance with the Duke, which is based on nothing but his feelings for the man’s father. Your presence can uniquely help them accomplish these breakthroughs in ways that it can’t with the rest of the targets can’t. Jindosh isn’t going to give up his ambitions, Byrne and Paolo won’t stop seeking power, and even the Duke is forever in the shadow of his late father.
Dishonored 2 is a game about rising from the ashes of the past – like a Phoenix, which is certainly a metaphor that has been done to death, but it does fit rather nicely here. The game ends when Emily deals with her own past, regarding Delilah’s status as her mother’s half-sister who was cast out at a young age. It’s not a past she asked for – but then, characters in this story rarely ask for their flawed pasts. She still has to deal with it, and in doing so in a healthy way as she acknowledges and accepts it, she can ascend above it to greater things.