Dishonored is over four years old at this point, but there are many patient gamer types out there who may not have played it yet. For those who haven't played it but plan to, there are spoilers ahead. Read on at your own risk.
I'll be looking at the ways in which Dishonored did good things from a gender and storytelling standpoint in a later blog post. This one is about the ways in which a lazy acceptance of patriarchal tropes weakened the story and characters. A flawed ideology can lead directly to bad writing, anything written by Ayn Rand is a good example of this. While Rand may have also simply been a bad writer, I think it is undeniable that her deeply flawed ideology contributed directly to just how bad her writing was. Since real people don't act like Rand's ideology demands, her writing depicts people acting not like people, and situations that simply would never, could never, arise in the real world.
Much the same, I think, applies to some of the deeper failures of plot and characterization in Dishonored.
The truly interesting thing, to me, is that Dishonored was written by three people, two of whom were women, and one of those women has written about feminism in general and specifically feminism in gaming. So how did a group of people with a not insignificant feminist influence wind up producing a game that relied on worn out, boring, and above all deeply patriarchal tropes?
I suspect it began with the decision to make Corvo a silent protagonist. A number of people in the gaming industry have bought into the idea that the silent protagonist, originally a creation of desperation due to limited hardware resources and the necessarily very simplistic plots of early gaming, is a positive thing in a game. The argument goes that by making the protagonist silent the player can project themselves into the protagonist, thus making the silent protagonist a fully realized character without any work on the part of the writing team at all and even better drawing the player more deeply into the game than they would with any other sort of character because the silent protagonist is the gamer themselves.
The only thing wrong with this argument is that it's total bullshit in the context of modern, story driven, gaming.
If you have a character willing to go out on a killing spree, you need to have a motive for that character. Games without much story don't bother with much motive. Doom, for example, gave your character the simple motive of survival against literal demons seeking to kill him. The plot was essentially nonexistent (something something demons something something Mars), so it didn't much matter that the character was also essentially nonexistent. Doom was, at heart, not all that different from Space Invaders or Galaga, in that the mechanics of the game were really all there was to the game.
In that sort of game, perhaps the argument for a silent protagonist make sense. But once you move beyond "something something demons something something Mars", and into actual plots and stories, the silent protagonist fails, and fails badly. Games with a deeper plot and story require characters who are more than a void labeled Player 1.
And that, I'd argue, is where a wrongful devotion to the myth of the silent protagonist merges and amplifies the inevitable tendency in our culture to go along with patriarchal tropes. Having eliminated the possibility of making Corvo a real character, who would require real motives and a richer story, the writers fell back onto the easy emotional hooks provided by a patriarchal society. Not out of any deep rooted commitment to patriarchy, not out of any anti-feminist ideology, but simply because those tropes are easiest to implement with a character who is forbidden from being a character. The failing, at worst, was laziness.
Corvo is not a completely empty shell, much as the developers might have wanted him to be, he's a person. He's just also a kind of boring and very predictable, and to be brutally honest not all that bright, person. And he is all of those things because in trying to make him the empty shell into which the player can project themselves, the writers of Dishonored fell into lazy, or easy, thinking that went directly for bog standard patriarchal tropes. Its possible that "lazy" is entirely the wrong word here, given the limits imposed by the silent protagonist I'm not sure what other tropes would be available.
As mentioned earlier, a person on a killing spree needs a motive. Since Corvo hadn't been developed as a character, since he has no background, no history, no beliefs or convictions, not the slightest shred of personality, the only motive they could think to give him was one of the most boring and overused: a dead and/or kidnapped lover. The dead and/or kidnapped love interest has been the go to motive for male game protagonists since the earliest games because its cheap and easy. You can introduce the motive in a few lines of text (Kung-Fu Master, in 1984, managed it in 30 words), and then get right into the game.
Worse, since the central character was banned from being a character, the plot and story of the game weren't allowed to go much of anywhere or have much depth. Even the best writer can't tell a very good story if they aren't allowed to make their central character more than a hollow shell of a person.
The typical game with a kidnapped and/or dead love interest has a plot that can usually be summed up in a few short sentences. Again, in the early days of gaming this was also enforced by hardware limits, there's just not much room in the 63kb that the Legend of Zelda had to work with to store both all the game resources, logic, and a plot deeper than "the princess is kidnapped by an evil wizard, you must save her and the kingdom".
Modern games, now free from the minuscule storage sizes of the old days, tell bigger, deeper, stories because people like stories. Or at least they try to tell stories. Often they fail.
Unfortunately, having settled on the most boring and predictable of character motives, driven by the twin engines of the limits of the silent protagonist and casual acceptance of patriarchal tropes, the writers then had little choice but to settle on a rather boring and predictable plot.
The characters, the story, and possibly even the setting, would have improved drastically simply by refusing to buy into the easy availability of the dead/kidnapped loved one trope.
Imagine a different Dishonored. A Dishonored where the writing team chose not to fall back on hacknied, patriarchal, plot and character development, and as a consistence were forced to abandon the silent protagonist shtick. Here's one possible way it could have gone, and how the decision to abandon the easy way out, the sexist way out, might produce a better and deeper story.
In this Dishonored they would need to make Corvo a person, not a shell, in order to provide a motive. It would have required a bit more storytelling, and a change in pacing, and put the story more at the forefront. Rather than beginning with Corvo being told that he's returned from a failed trip to gather support (bad and lazy anyway, why would the guards tell him what he just did?) begin with Corvo at his last destination, delivering Jessamine's plea for help to an unsympathetic ruler of one of the allied powers in the Isles.
And suddenly we have an explosion of questions that demand better storytelling to answer. Why Corvo? Why would the Protector of all people be playing diplomat? Surely Jessamine has a professional diplomatic corps, why send her Protector instead of one of them? It was never addressed in Dishonored. But once the writers are allowed, or forced, to look more at the story they want to tell it forces them to improve it, to fill in plot holes. Clearly Corvo was sent on a diplomat's errand because Jessamine doesn't trust her diplomats. This Jessamine knows that her government is filled with people seeking to bring it down and she doesn't know who she can trust. She suspects the plague is deliberate, because in this Dishonored both Jessamine and Corvo are a bit smarter. But why would Jessamine trust Corvo?
This Corvo, a Corvo developed without reliance on the easy sexist tropes, would need a background; not one told up front but one that comes out in bits and pieces in overheard snippets of conversion and discovered in books and letters. Perhaps he's a commoner, not from a poor family but his father was merely a successful merchant and therefore no matter how good a soldier he was Corvo could never rise far in the military. His rise to what little power and position he attained is due entirely to his martial prowess being so amazing that even the class ridden military of Gristol had to let him advance, though not too far of course. Still, far enough that years ago Jessamine, realizing that she was being undermined by her own advisers and privy council saw him in action and realized that because he was an outsider, a commoner, that made him one of the few people she could count on as being not part of the conspiracy. So she broke convention and elevated him above his station to make him the Royal Protector.
This Corvo has a reason to favor Jessamine beyond the simple and easy explanation that he loves her. This Jessamine has politics that give the conspiracy a real reason to hate her, make her elevation of Corvo part of a pattern of loosening the grip of the aristocracy and a direct threat to the conspirators, a threat that must be eliminated, ideally eliminated in a way that casts doubt on Jessamine's acceptance of loosening of the class structure. Now, rather than merely being personally ambitious, Hiram Burrows and the other conspirators have a deeper motive for their betrayal of Jessamine, they see their entire social order being threatened, and they have a better reason to oppose Corvo personally because he embodies the very thing they fear the most and their desire to frame him for her murder seems to make more sense. This Corvo, a more politically motivated man, both needs more complicated motives and produces them, needs more complicated enemies and produces them. And by his demand for a better supporting cast forces the other characters and the story to become deeper and more fully realized as well.
Heck, this Corvo doesn't need to be Jessamine's lover at all, and I argue that he'd be lessened as a character if he was. Add an Imperial Consort, a man Corvo gets along with and respects, as Jessamine's lover and Emily's father, he'd be murdered by the conspirators towards the beginning of course. The false rumor that Corvo was Jessamine's lover might have become part of the smear campaign Hiram and the others waged against him, and against her own support of weakening the class barriers.
From the simple, if difficult, changes of making Corvo a real character and choosing to abandon the easy road of sexist tropes, the whole game would have improved significantly. Better characters, a better plot, and a better story all become not merely possible but necessary.
All of which is why I'm hoping that Dishonored 2 sets aside the vengeance for a loved one trope. It isn't bad per se, but it's far too over used and encourages lazy thinking and shallow characters. So far the rumor is that you can play either Emily or Corvo, not both nor switch between the two. If that means that they're planning to motivate the player by having Emily/Corvo kidnapped or killed so that the one you chose to play is motivated by basically a repeat of Dishonored I'll be greatly disappointed. Reversing the gender on the kidnapped or killed loved one isn't an improvement.