Applied Theology: Death of the Outsider

Spoilers within, you have been warned.

 

There is a sense of endings permeating Death of the Outsider, right from the title. The last remnants of the coup that briefly deposed Emily Kaldwin from the imperial throne in Dishonored 2 are being methodically hunted down. Whale oil – this world’s equivalent of fossil fuels – is slowly running out as the whales inch closer to extinction. None of the main characters are young anymore – especially not the titular enigmatic deity. As you get settled into this world, it becomes difficult to imagine that the ending to Billie Lurk’s “one last job” will be happy in any way.

Billie is probably the game’s biggest strength. Previous Dishonored titles put you in the shoes of the royal bodyguard Corvo Attano, the assassin Daud and the young dethroned empress Emily. I’m going to be very honest: Emily and Corvo don’t even feel like real people to me. I don’t feel any kind of way about them.

Corvo comes into existence in the rowboat sequence that opens the first game; we learn that he has a daughter, that her mother is the Empress, and within the next four minutes of gameplay, the Empress is murdered and the blame pinned on him. Presumably Corvo has a past, alluded to very lightly in Dishonored, but I feel like he was kept as a relatively blank slate due to the prevalent view of game protagonist design: that more character detail impedes player identification. This is doubly reinforced by the iconic mask that Corvo wears on his escapades as he works to restore his good name: behind it, it could be anyone.

It doesn’t work for me, and I don’t think that it even works in principle. What this school of design accomplishes is making the character maximally “marketable” – at least according to a very narrow understanding of what sells and what doesn’t – and not maximally relatable or interesting.

Corvo gets fleshed out a bit more in Dishonored 2, which also introduces his daughter, Emily, as a playable character. There isn’t very much to her either, frankly – she’s the heiress to the throne who sneaks out of the palace because she can’t stand her gilded cage, and yet, despite multiple attempts on her life by various plotters, the thought of abdication never once crosses her mind. Both of the main games are about the restoration of the rightful dynasty, and the only way in which final outcomes differ is as a consequence of whether you go about it in a nice way, or a mean way.

Is there really such a contingent of overt or latent monarchist game fans who want to keep being told about the return of the queen bringing order to the realm again and again? Is the vast weight of half-baked pop criticism about the monomyth responsible? I don’t know, but I don’t like it – not only because of my political commitments, but also because it’s boring.

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The first game’s DLCs focus on Empress Jessamine’s killer, Daud, suddenly overcome with doubt after a lifetime of plying his bloody trade. I like him better than Corvo, in part because I’m a gigantic sucker for characters like him – older, world-weary, penitent people who made a lot of bad choices, or had bad choices thrust upon them – but also because he’s contextualized much better. The world of Dishonored is painted in dark, unpleasant, naturalist brushstrokes, and at times seems to revel in the squalor, brutality and desperation that are ever-present in the lives of the inhabitants of the Empire of the Isles – which itself is evocative of Victorian Britain. Playing as Corvo and Emily, I can’t shake the feeling that part of the “dishonour” is being brought down so low as to dwell among these people. Daud, in contrast, is a natural product of that world, and its apex predator.

Billie Lurk is Daud’s former protégé and collaborator in Jessamine’s murder, the most talented among his gang of assassins. She, too, is the furthest away from royalty one could possibly be, a street urchin turned killer. The games are explicit about how for Daud and his followers, the Whalers, murder for hire was in part a way to get back at the city and the world that considered them disposable, to make the rich and powerful quake in fear. Their name comes from the masks they wear, formerly used by workers in whale oil processing plants; they make their home in a flooded district of the city of Dunwall, squatting in rusting factories and homes abandoned by the wealthy. The Whalers are a destructive, undirected force of class anger, and as soon as the aristocratic plotters who financed their hit on the Empress have no more use for them, they order their extermination.

All of this makes Billie the best protagonist the series has had up to this point. Corvo got a retroactive backstory in the second game, but in practice, he was created by Daud at the moment of Jessamine’s murder, and his character arc revolves around the question: having been pulled, out of the aether, into a cycle of violence, will he perpetuate it, or break it?

Billie does not have the luxury to answer this question in the abstract. Her life had been a cycle of violence, poverty and misfortune all along; Daud was the only stable and supportive presence she’s ever known, and taught her the ways of the underworld so well that, in The Knife of Dunwall, she betrays him the second she senses him waver. Where Corvo and Emily could listen in on people’s thoughts, she hears the whispers of rats, who declare her “one of us.” She’s efficient, straightforward and outwardly unsentimental – which is why her interiority is all the more interesting, and the choices she makes all the more weighty. In Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider, she’s also older, more tired, more thoughtful and regretful – very much mirroring Daud’s own implied arc.

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Speaking of choices, the chaos system is mercifully gone. Chaos was Dishonored’s version of a morality tracker – the more people you murdered, the shittier the game world and the endings would become. Many players consider this an annoying punishment for using all the tools the game gives you, especially since so much work has clearly gone into making all the magical abilities and lethal contraptions fun. Personally, I was more bothered by how much more horrific some of the nonlethal options for disposing of your targets were – this would be fine on its own, but not when everything about the game implies that this is the “good path” to take. I take particular issue with handing a noble lady over to her creepy stalker, to be shipped off to who knows where, and with how inflicting brain damage on the brilliant and amoral inventor turns him into a kind, gentle airhead.

Dishonored is a spiritual successor to the Thief series, and those games also punished you for killing, sometimes failing the mission outright if you did it, but the framing was different. Garrett in Thief didn’t kill because he considered it unprofessional and unnecessary, rather than fundamentally wrong; on easier difficulties, the game allowed you some leeway with the murder – as if saying, well, accidents happen in this line of work. I felt that chaos was a big step backwards in this respect – a good idea on paper, reflecting the consequences of your actions in the state of the world dynamically, but implemented in a way that was at once Manichean and internally inconsistent. Certainly the main characters, all gifted with supernatural abilities, should be held to an exceptional moral standard as far as unintentionally injuring their opponents goes – but what if Dunwall would actually turn out to be a better place without all these cops and religious fanatics? The game spares no detail about the harm they do, after all, so why would turning the other cheek visibly result in a better and kinder world, rather than more of the same?

(I’ve complained a fair bit about the series, but I’d like it to be clear that these are sympathetic criticisms, ones I wouldn’t bother making if some other things about it didn’t resonate with me strongly. Dishonored is immense fun, has a fantastic look, and as strange and inconsistent as its ethics can be, it definitely has a social conscience underneath.)

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Daud has his own plan to make a better world: he wants to kill the Outsider, the relentlessly cryptic avatar of the Void beyond the world, who gifted him, Corvo, Emily and many others with magic powers for no obvious reason. The Outsider’s motivations are deliberately and consistently intractable, provoking years of theological debate among fans: does he enjoy watching the mayhem? Is he benevolent? Would he kiss Corvo? Does he act at random, or find the points where his intervention will have the greatest effect and give them a push? Is he a whale? Does he have a plan? Would he kiss Daud? What does he want?

I’ll return to those questions in a bit, but I want to note that all this interminable speculation – mirroring real-life religious discussions – suggests that Arkane have done something very right in their depiction of the ineffable. Daud, for his part, is determined to resolve this scholastic quandary the same way he’d solved all the previous problems in his life – with a well-placed knife. The Outsider, he claims, is responsible for everything that was done in his name and with the use of his powers, and the world must be relieved of this wellspring of suffering. Billie isn’t so sure; she makes the obvious point that she, Daud, the Whalers and everyone else still chose to use those powers in a particular way – for personal gain, more often than not, but not exclusively. Either way, events are set in motion towards Billie’s confrontation with the deity.

It feels like the Void in Death of the Outsider has evolved beyond its initial conceptual boundaries. It had always been a disconcerting dreamscape non-space, the source of magic, and possibly the location of the afterlife; evocative in its aesthetic, but not a very meaningful element of the story on its own. Now it’s slowly bleeding into reality, seemingly visible only to Billie’s transformed eye, and questions about its nature become much more pressing, though no easier to answer. The game speaks of it a number of times as an emptiness at the heart of being, a hole in the world, a lacuna or discontinuity. (The parallels to Night in the Woods are difficult to ignore, especially considering the game’s final level.) It’s frustrating to try and pinpoint what it is exactly, because it’s several things at once: both a sci-fi-fantasy “other dimension” underneath our own, and a locus of extreme and traumatic states of human life, which people in the game try to approach with controlled near-death experiences.

The Outsider, created who knows how long ago in a ritual of human sacrifice, is the “face” of the Void. A dark cult found a boy no one would miss, a street kid, and murdered him – all to give this gaping wound in existence a human shape, a semblance of approachable meaning. This obviously says something about religion, but also about all the other systems of significance we invent to paint over the gaps and omissions we can sense in the world around us, over the pain and fear we feel when confronted with things in the world that we have no words or frameworks for. Learning the extent to which you’ve been wrong, or ignorant, can feel like the ground crumbling underneath your feet, leaving you adrift in an alien expanse where nothing you’ve known has meaning anymore.

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Does the Outsider have to die for us to find better words and shapes for the emptiness? Well, yes. It’s in the title. But before there was an Outsider, there was a scared, trembling, lonely child, bereft of everything, with no recourse in this world, used by more powerful people for their stupid and selfish goals. Just like Billie Lurk.

Maybe, says Death of the Outsider, we should make sure this kid gets justice too.