Sunday, March 27, 2016

Where Dishonored went right, and speculation on why

A new post, a repeated warning:


One of the reasons why I suspect the unfortunate dedication to the idea of the silent protagonist was largely responsible for the character and story weakening sexist tropes for Corvo and the overall story of Dishonored is how well the game handled women and society outside the main story.

In many small ways Dishonored shows that at least some of the writers had been thinking a about gender issues (unsurprising since one of them has published feminist essays) and this influenced them and made the world a better realized and interesting place.  There's a number of games where the world is, at heart, populated by men with a few women tacked on as an afterthought at best.  We see less of this than we once did, but it still happens more often than it should.  Dishonored is not one of those games.

It's also a good example of how media doesn't have to take an overtly feminist approach, or have any examples of feminism in world, to have a positive, and indeed feminist, message. Despite the Empress apparently having a lot of real political power, its clear that the government and society of the Isles is not sexually egalitarian in the slightest.

This fits with the quasi-historic period the game inhabits, remember that it wasn't until 1884 that the first states in the USA began allowing married women to even own property.  Until then when a woman married she was, in the legal language of the day, covered by her husband's person.  Meaning basically that she ceased to exist as a person, from a legal standpoint, and was counted as part of her husband.  That didn't fully end until 1981 when the Supreme Court overturned a law in Louisiana that gave sole control of all marital property to the husband.  And it wasn't until 1998, just 18 years ago, that marital rape became a crime in all fifty states (Oklahoma and North Carolina were the holdouts)

Taking into consideration the legal restrictions on women for so much of history can be, if poorly thought out and implemented, nothing more than an excuse for a game basically having no women.  Or it can be a way to display the injustice of the past (and several places here and now) and get the player to think about it a bit and simply make a fictional world more realistic and believable.  Dishonored takes the second approach, and in a non-preachy sort of way that fits in with the game as a whole.

In a particularly good example, Emily expresses interest in pirates and mayhem to be told by Callista, her tutor/governess, that girls aren't supposed to be interested in such things.  But if you use the heart on Callista it tells you "She dreams of freedom, and the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts of sea. But alas, she is a woman."  That juxtaposition, a woman both as the victim of patriarchy and the enforcer of patriarchy, works on many levels, both artistically as a minor tragedy in the midst of a larger tragedy, historically and currently in that woman generally are among the prime instruments by which patriarchy is perpetuated, and thematically for the game.

By including women as more fully realized characters, and by giving thought and consideration to how patriarchy affects women and their place in the world, Dishonored became deeper, more complete, and the world (the best part of the game) also became richer.  You can't do good world building if you don't consider how half of humanity fits into the world, and clearly the design team at Arkane did.

Another example is one of the lines you might overhear from a maid talking to herself as she works: "I have to keep this position. He says to bring a bottle, I bring a bottle. He says to bring food, I bring food. He says to undress, I undress."  The voice actress sounded merely a bit beaten down and resigned at first but puts a mix of rage and despair into that last sentence that speaks volumes.  The historic reality of women who were vulnerable due to poverty or other needs, which is to say virtually all women, being sexually exploited by those with more power is one that rarely gets comment or thought in games unless it is for titillation.

In general, Dishonored is a world that simply includes women who fit the world and exist as people, and that's something that doesn't happen much in gaming, or most other media.  The default for characters, whether protagonists or background or anything in between, is male and in a lot of games and movies this results in everyone but a few hookers and party members being male.  Shopkeeper?  Dude.  Bartender?  Guy.  Quest giver?  Fella.  Big bad?  Chap.  Mooks?  Bros.  Etc.  Even simply including women at all is sometimes an achievement, sad as that is to say.  Including women well, including women who fit the world, especially if the world isn't egalitarian, is rare.

When it comes to sex and gender issues Dishonored isn't perfect, nothing is, but it handles those issues much better than most games that try and I commend the writing team for their efforts in that area.

There are moments where the more aware writing in Dishonored falters, but even there it does a better job than most other media, games or otherwise, would in a similar situation.  The sequence with Lord Brisby, the creepy stalker, who offers you the non-lethal option of dealing with Lady Boyle is a good example of Dishonored failing on this front, but not too badly.

Lord Brisby is infatuated with one of the ladies Boyle (there are three, all masked, and you have to figure out which one to eliminate), she's rebuffed his advances and he will tell Corvo which of the three is the target, and not coincidentally the lady Boyle he is infatuated with, on the condition that Corvo agree to kidnap her and bring her to Brisby.

In Dishonored none of the non-lethal options are particularly nice, and many seem to be more cruel than simply killing the target.  In this respect, handing Lady Boyle over to a man who is sexually obsessed with her and who intends to spirit her away to a private island and make her his sex slave is not all that different from the other horrible, but non-lethal, fates that you can chose.

I'd argue that the failing is twofold, first in choosing a sexually associated non-lethal option for the only woman on Corvo's list of targets seems to show a certain lazy acceptance of patriarchal tropes.  There's a depressing tendency for writers who don't know what to do with women in their fiction to have them get raped as a way of showing pathos and the brutality of the world.  And it is regrettably true that in the real world rape, even in the USA, is much more common than we'd like to admit  (1 in 6 women in the USA are the victims of an attempted or completed rape [1], statistics for other nations are often higher).

However the trope of women as rape victims, or having fates and circumstances that basically center around sex, is so over used that I think if writers tried to avoid for the most part it would be the sort of self imposed limit that makes for better writing.  

But, while the lazy deployment of an overused trope is not exactly ideal, I believe the true failing is in the writers trying to downplay and minimize the rape at the core of Lady Boyle's non-lethal option.  In the other non-lethal options the brutality, cruelty, and general awfulness of the option is not downplayed, in fact it's often reveled in.  

Not only do you brand High Overseer Campbell's face, but as a result of that he is stripped of everything he owns, cast out in the street to die, and later you find that he has survived somehow, starved and frail, beaten and abused, fallen victim to the plague and become a weeper.  There's a poetic justice there, since he was part of the conspiracy that brought the plague to the Isles, but it is undeniably a horrible and cruel fate, arguably worse than a clean death would have been.

You send the Pendelton Brothers to be slaves in their own mine, and it is emphasized that this is a fate worse than death, that they will spend the remainder of their very short lives being worked to death in a gulag style destructive labor facility and tortured if they refuse to work.

Yet the game tries to present the option of turning Lady Boyle over to a man who clearly intends to turn her into a sex slave and rape her until he's exhausted his infatuation, as not that bad.  Lord Brisby gives you rather obviously fake assurances that he totally doesn't plan to rape Lady Boyle, instead he claims that he'll merely keep her imprisoned until she "voluntarily" chooses to let him fuck her, as if somehow that's better, and as if somehow you're expected to believe that.

I think it would have been better, and certainly more honest, to present Lady Boyle's fate as the cruel, brutal, and horrible one it actually is rather than trying to paint it in a better light.  No one pretended that somehow what you did to the Pendelton brothers wasn't horrible, there's no need to pretend that Lady Boyle's fate is especially better.

But even in where it fails, the Dishonored writing team still managed to do better than virtually every other game.  While there's an effort to pretend that Lady Boyle's fate isn't awful, you can clearly see that it is, no pretense is made that somehow this is something she will enjoy or would secretly desire, and its not difficult to see that Lord Brisby is actually a rapist, however much he might protest to the contrary.

All told, Dishonored presents a world where women exist, have their own personalities and characters, interact with the patriarchy in realistic and generally well thought out ways, and act like people, and moreover people who make up 50% of society.  While I may have quibbles from time to time with certain details, the overall success is undeniable.  I count Dishonored, for all its failings, as one of the better games out there when it comes to the presentation of women and thinking about patriarchal societies. 

And then there's the Golden Cat, which needs its own posting.

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