A charge for the warden
I might never have touched this game if it weren’t for my friend telling me about the mechanic where you can listen to the thoughts of rats. Which of course would’ve been a great shame because what an experience it turned out to be!
My history with the Dishonored series is limited, I played a fairly small amount of the original game and intermittently watched my partner play through the second, catching enough glimpses to become enamoured with aspects of its world – the rats, the whales, the witches but never truly becoming attached to it. Protagonists Corvo and Emily never felt like people I was interested in exploring, in this world of grimy alleys, underworld organisation and cruel monarchs navigating through the eyes of the briefly deposed Empress just seemed distasteful. The leanings on the history of the witch hunts, the reflections of the real world religion and scientific establishments found in Abbey of The Everyman and the Academy of Natural Philosophy who find themselves in allegiance against a collective working class and female coded scourge of “heresy” and “irrationality”. While they were never simply presented as the villains of the world in the other games, the street rats, witches and mystical assassins on the underworld of Dishonored’s world where always in conflict with the upper class agent protagonists on offer. So much of Dishonored felt to me like an incomplete puzzle, a world I desperately wanted to explore but couldn’t find a way in.
A truth for the seeker
Enter Billie Lurk, the protagonist of Death of the Outsider. As stated in my friend’s piece Billie feels like part of the fabric of this world, not a figure from on-high dropped below their station. Her history feels important, real and understandable. She exists with motivations, grudges, regrets and fears, she isn’t a young empress coming to terms with the lives of the common folk and she isn’t an old royal enforcer questioning herself. She is simply a street kid turned killer because she never had much of a choice to begin with, though dulled with time and battered by regrets and mistakes within her burns a sense of the youthful rage and energy that drove her to her profession to begin with. She was a nobody, a kid off the street with every reason to loathe the world that put her there, granted against all odds the means to redress the balance.
A hold for the hollow
From her vantage point on the other side of her vengeful assassin life she finds herself right back there, just another struggling nobody who couldn’t really outrun her past. Billie was the change Dishonored needed to draw me in, hearing about her rat telepathy merely confirmed to me the writers really understood what it was I wanted out of this setting (her being a black lesbian protagonist of a major video game release certainly helped too). As the rats thought’s whisper of Billie and refer to her as “one of them” they take on a metaphorical life they were so very close to claiming in previous instalments. Billie has lived her life in the dark, surviving in the dark places created in the shadows of the grand institutions of Dunwall and Karnaca. She and those she lived and worked alongside pass mostly unseen, scavenge for scraps that fall down from on high and are routinely viewed with disgust when passing into the light of day. Rats though don’t simply survive in these settings, they thrive, just as Dunwall could never rid itself of its dreaded rats it will, existing as it is, never stop producing the downtrodden who in turn will never stop finding new ways to grow and learn to exploit the world right back.
A knife for the knowing
Both the rats and Billie have at one point run the streets of Dunwall striking fear into the populace and leaving a trail of blood and indulgent destruction, both too granted the power to do so by something much bigger than themselves. Billie’s old days are made easy to imagine by the core power fantasy of the stealth genre in play here. Stealth games always worked for me more than any other in that regard because in the feeling of vulnerability they create they make the moments of success feel both earned and real. Your power isn’t overwhelming physical force and one wrong step could bring the whole thing crashing down on you and as such it really feels like you’re achieving something as someone who should not be able to, acting above your station. Nowhere is this more clear than sneaking your way into the back rooms, secret societies and the middle of raids by the ruling class and their agents. The elite appear as cruel, invasive human experimenters, self-absorbed power seekers, disconnected and uncaring academics or at points literally bloodsuckers. They feel good to kill, to drag down to the level of all their victims at moments where they feel the most powerful and untouchable, grand actors rendered just another NPC subject to the rules of any other.
A wound for the wanting
The powerful in Dishonored are a class obsessed with death, though the Abbey forbids contact with The Outsider, the upper ranks of society and indeed the academics of the Abbey and the Academy themselves have a deep and enduring investment in him. The Abbey tortures witches with an obsessive fervor, a product of a violent misogynist doctrine of purity mingled with what appears almost as a kind of sexual jealousy. The Academy tests the boundaries of religious law with how much study can be portrayed as a healthy bulwark against forbidden knowledge and how much of the latter can be acquired under said pretences. Privately the upper classes covet artifacts of the void, they trade in paintings of the void, stories of outsider contact and fantasies of power. A private club in an upper class district of Karnaca siphons the blood of victims they keep just on the edge of death so they can ride the wave of their trauma on pleasure cruises to The Void. At the focal point of all this obsession is The Outsider, a being beyond death, the face given to The Void, an endless and powerful thing it is clear the upper classes want nothing more than to become. More than anything they fear threats to their power and with a brutally subjugated and downtrodden populace offering little threat, the real thing any comfortable lord fears is death, the one problem they cannot buy or brutalise their way out of. Compounded in this is the memory of Billie Lurk and the gang of mystical assassins she ran with, the witches that seized power and the tales of Emily Kaldwin and her superhuman royal protector. Power exists in the dark that they cannot see, an entity above their own existence doles out boons seemingly only to those who find themselves in opposition to the powers that be, even the empress and her bodyguard only receive his mark when they find themselves disgraced and deposed by forces stronger than themselves. The Void and its personalisation then represent not just the boundary of the unknown but the constant anxiety of the powerful that the servants are waiting around every corner ready to turn the tables, the old horror story of what the workers get up to at night.
A body for the darkness
What many of them don’t know is that The Outsider himself is an older order’s solution to this fear. He was created from the sacrifice of just another street kid to give face and voice to the terrifying beyond. This symbolic act encapsulates not only the desperate attempt to make death into something human but in involving the eternal bondage of a street orphan the sacrifice writes the dominion of the powerful into natural law. Suffering and death becomes the dominion of the abandoned, the worker and the oppressed, their existences will forever intertwine and being placed on the forefront of the barriers between this world and the next an entire class become the eyes through which the powerful gaze beyond. Though power and agency is granted to The Outsider in becoming effectively a god of death he remains a tool and a plaything of the people that created him. He sees empires rise and fall, he causes such in turn, the world turns on his gifts and humanity lives out a cycle of obsession to merely achieve brief contact with him but the cult that brought him into being doesn’t care much for the world beyond their library.
A face for the terror
The cult by the present day are descendants of the original performers of the ritual living in the original site, the very worldly heart of The Void. They live an existence of timeless academia, beyond new volumes published to one another they and their library give the impression that these could actually just be the original members from 4000 years ago still caught up in a timeless debate on the minutiae of The Outsider and the personality he gives the unknown. Indeed some beings exist among them that no longer truly exist within time or even human discourse, they simply observe The Void coming and going through the barrier between it and their library for inscrutable purposes above that of the rank and file. They live out a dream of life beyond death, a continuation of their academic dominion into eternity, impact on the world long fading from their desires and conceptions of power. To write and debate on the nature of hidden traumas of the underworld and to make it into an easily subjugated human form is enough for them and for many eventually merely silently gazing upon it becomes an even greater elevation of the experience. They have become timeless monuments to their own idealised intellectual superiority, their skin becomes as the stone of the quarry they made their home in, a site of tragedy and a symbol of ruling class dominion reclaimed by The Void as all in it fades into the background of existence. In so doing they define forever a distinction between them and all else, they have bound death, they have bound the masses and they are untouchable, time never has to progress for them and in the halls of their library they can congratulate each other for eternity on their elevation from the chaotic world and its crudeness they left behind.
A voice for the silence
The Eyeless can never fully unmake their humanity though, the desire to hold secrets even from their fellows fills them necessitating laws preventing the knowledge of the upper echelons filtering down, creating internal subterfuge and even just fantasies of sensual encounters with the human subject of their obsessions. Just as their less in the know cousins out in the world are reducible to their petty desires and fears that lead them to ghoulish self-aggrandising via cannibalism, torture and sacrifice they too only become all the more human the more they fear their own natures. After sweeping through the elites of Karnaca, putting the Outsider’s gifts to use in sending them to the void of their obsessions Billie finds herself sneaking through lectures and debates of the very same nature as the decadent blood imbibing club of rich Karnaca. At the end of her journey being a tool of various powers above herself right up to and including the Outsider himself she finds just a young boy held as a trophy by an elite that wants his life without his loss. If the creation of the Outsider was a ritual of dominion, freeing him is an act with greater meaning than the end of a human font for magic, it is an act writing a future of uprising, of a destruction of chains. Billie, the Outsider and even the rats were tools of the powerful made to exercise a power that was never totally in their own hands, all of whom found ways to turn it to their own ends and free their own kind from the fates written onto their being. The fears of the powerful are realised as after all:
What is ‘Us’, what is ‘They’, without the Outsider to create that distinction?