Saturday, May 31, 2014

Being the Protagonist in Dishonored

(WARNING: The following post contains spoilers pertaining to the game Dishonored and its DLC episodes.)

There comes a moment at the end of the game Dishonored—or, more accurately, at the end of the DLC episode The Witches of Brigmore—when the player uncovers a nefarious plot involving a powerful witch named Delilah and her attempt to usurp the imperial throne. By way of some arcane ritual, Delilah has discovered a way to transform any painted canvas into a kind of magical portal, allowing her to possess the physical form of its real-life subject—in this case, the young Empress Emily Kaldwin. By assuming control of the empress (think of it as a bloodless coup in which no one, save for the members of her loyal coven, will ever be the wiser of it ever occurring) she will direct the fate of the empire.

The added significance of this event has to do with the fact that Emily's mother, the former Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, has recently died at the hands of the deadly assassin known as Daud—who also happens to be the player character for this particular episode. Thus, by saving the daughter from a fate perhaps as grim as death, Daud has a chance to find a measure of redemption for murdering the mother.

At first I was kind of impressed by the game's mysterious turn of events. It seemed like both a clever and unexpected way in which to expand upon the story of the main game (in which the player assumes the role of an entirely different character), delving further into the saga of Dunwall—a place where even the lowliest members of society may be scheming and conspiring to "reign in hell," so to speak.

Then, after I gave the whole thing slightly more thought, I realized it was also kind of preposterous.

First of all, how the hell does something like that actually work? I'm talking about a magic ritual that lets you turn an ordinary painting into your very own John Malkovich possession tunnel. Does the painting have to be any good for the ritual to work? What happens to the consciousness of the possessed victim? Is the soul of the victim essentially banished or does it coexist with the usurper, helpless to enact its own will at the hands of their new puppet master? What happens to the possessor when the targeted victim dies?

I could generate an endless list of questions and it wouldn't really matter, because these aren't the sorts of questions the game intends to answer. This magic ritual exists not so much for the purpose of metaphorical insight—nor to be explored in any matter of depth as a hypothetical reality. It exists primarily because the game says it does, because it makes for an exciting, high-stakes finale. If it comes off as brilliant writing, it's because its brilliance lies in the fact that it so deftly obscures its own imaginative effortlessness. You forget the writer is literally making up whatever flimsy rules they can think of in order to wrap up some neat little plot. It's the same type of storytelling that makes an episode of Dr. Who so mindlessly enjoyable. The fictionalized universe becomes a never-ending Mary Poppins bag full of narrative tricks and pseudo-scientific non-explanations for the way things work.

Then I had another thought. Despite all of this, isn't it nevertheless interesting how the player already mimics what the character Delilah is attempting to do? Consider a few of the written passages from the game, including this brief excerpt from one of Delilah's hand-written notes:
"Once young Emily assumes the throne I'll already be looking out of those brown eyes."
And here's this partial entry from Delilah's journal:
"Now that the painting is finished, I will sit in young Emily's skin and wear her face like a mummer's mask. Havelock and his lickspittles will put the child on the throne, but it is ME they will be crowning. Delilah."
In a sense, isn't this the same kind of virtual immersion the player is intended to feel by the very act of playing Dishonored—or any other number of first-person perspective games? Only instead of an enchanted painting to make this immersion possible, we have a computer simulation. Instead of inhabiting the flesh of the targeted individual and peering directly through their eye sockets, we rely on the mediation of a game controller and television monitor. It's not really Corvo (the protagonist of the main game) or Daud wandering through the fictional city of Dunwall. It's us—or at least some hybrid creation of us and the simulated other. Whether Corvo dons his mechanical mask or not, whether he's mingling with a bunch of aristocrats at a masquerade ball or sharing drinks with his fellow co-conspirators at The Hounds Pit Pub, this is perhaps the greatest trick and conspiracy of all.

At any rate, this is about where my train of thought hits a dead end.

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