"If he really wants to meet me, all he has to do is be a little more interesting."
‘The Outsider’ on Anton Solokov
It’s a rare feat when a game’s environment intrigues me more than the characters that inhabit it. Bioshock may have had the erudite charm of Andrew Ryan but what kept me coming back was the broken dream of his legacy: Rapture, the submerged utopia gone awry.
Going further back, I recall when I first threw myself into Morrowind that the story was of secondary concern. What mattered for me was the isle of Vvardenfell, a harsh spit of fantasy landscape with an alien quality its successors never quite mustered.
In both cases the environments evolved into living, breathing characters. I got to know these worlds. I learnt their ticks and their foibles; their history and their culture. With every fresh piece of information gleamed their personalities became more overt, effectively dwarfing the personalities of NPCs I was supposed to empathise with. As I skulked and slashed my way through the city of Dunwall I felt a familiar sense of a world I’d fallen in love with, a world with fleshed out idiosyncrasies communicating an astounding sense of place and culture.
It’s no wonder the Outsider spends all his time here, this is one of the most interesting settings I've seen in years.
From the moment Corvo breaks from captivity the diseased playground of Dunwall is yours to explore. Decaying buildings cut into the sky like the putrid ribs of a colossal whale, whilst all around you the policies of a repugnant Regent chip away at an already crumbling city. The hastily scrawled response from Dunwall’s lower orders is the anti-establishment graffiti that litters the slum districts. The aggressive etchings of its citizens may be a small touch, but it acts as a subtle means to emphasise the desperation of Dunwall’s dying class. It’s these minute details that bring this decaying metropolis to life. Everywhere you look there’s a new story to be found and a new facet of Dunwall’s culture to be unearthed.
Possibly the bluntest way that Dishonored achieves this is through a swathe of text. Books and notes litter Dunwall’s many alcoves, but what else would we come to expect from one bearing the mark of Bethesda? In many ways the stories they tell are irrelevant. Nobody needs to know the core rubrics of the Abbey of the Everyman and nobody needs to know the eating habits of the isle of Morley. But by virtue of telling these stories the world feels far larger than Corvo’s vendetta. Dunwall’s history, sociology and culture are laid out before you, and if you don’t care, then it’s easily ignored. When the lore occurs as an optional bonus for the committed then it doesn’t have to bloat the narrative by existing as spoken dialogue. Flavour text is an acquired taste, but for those looking to immerse themselves in Dunwall’s dank underbelly then each discarded tome is a must read.
Dunwall’s prolific authors may dump servings of backstory with admirable rigour but the details that really shine are subtle. It’s only when you stop to absorb them do you appreciate their value. Take the posters that fight a ceaseless war for space amidst the intruding graffiti. From an aesthetic standpoint they add a welcome dose of colour to an otherwise drab pallet, but beyond the visual rests a much deeper significance. Each seemingly insignificant detail - such as a local dog-fight or an advert for jellied eels - forms an energetic whole, injecting a tragic measure of life into Dunwall’s decrepit thoroughfares. It feels as if there was once a lot more to this withered burgh: An electric atmosphere that was sapped by rampaging disease, kept alive for the elite through the Gatsby-esque frivolities of the Boyle Estate. When contrasted against the heartrending reality of disease and brutal oppression we get a true sense of Dishonored’s grim (yet brilliant) tone; revealing a wonderfully crafted world built on a strong foundation of tiny details.
The magical gifts of the Outsider go a long way in aiding Corvo in his quest for vengeance, but one gift in particular has a power more potent than any other: the power to change the way you play the game. Rock Paper Shotgun’s Paul Walker describes the ‘Heart’ as a perfect symbol of Dishonored’s fascinating blend of enigmatic mysticism and post-industrial squalor. Stating that it’s ‘characterised by the intersection of the mystical and the technological, it distils the very essence of the pseudo-Victorian steampunk landscape in which Dishonored’s tale unfolds’. On the surface the Heart is a useful tool for tracking down occult trinkets, highlighting them on the HUD and beating fiercely as you zero in on their location, but beyond its practical application rests a compelling gateway into Dunwall’s hidden secrets.
Point the Heart at an object, person, or hulking mass of architecture and it responds with a succinct datum, ranging from inner turmoil to long quashed hopes and dreams. The secrets it whispers throughout Corvo’s journey inject life into characters you might otherwise have stolen it away from. They become more than just walking shells for Corvo to inhabit or eradicate on a sociopathic whim; they become people, walking products of the dank city that’s become their prison. Thanks to the Heart, the plight of the poor and the avarice of the elite are subtly highlighted, giving dark meaning to Dunwall’s unjust social structures.
Even literal structures can’t escape from the Heart’s omniscience. With it we learn of the deaths accrued in the construction of Kaldwin’s Bridge and of the watered-down wine in the Hound Pits Pub. With the insider knowledge the Heart grants the significant structures of Dunwall are bestowed with a history of their own. They have a place amidst the rats and the rubble. They feel a part of Dunwall, not just a convenient corner to disappear into the shadows.
Much like the other intricacies, the Heart and its secrets are completely optional. You could finish the game quite contented without ever using it; leaving it to stain whichever pocket Corvo stashes it in. Its role in the narrative may be a secondary one, but to ignore would be to dash through Dunwall with blinkers on. It illuminates aspects of the game that otherwise stay draped in darkness. It’s an old, trustworthy voice that disentangles the mysteries of an enigmatic city with secretive citizens, and in many ways is one of the only constants throughout Corvo’s journey. The Heart’s grim self-awareness and the relationship it shares with Corvo add a tragic layer that could be missed entirely if ignored. Towards the games closure I felt a strange attachment to the Heart. It had evolved into more than inventory item, it had become a companion.
When Corvo’s adventures came to an end I was sad to see the back of this enchanting city. Its rundown streets and complex history had gripped my imagination and I was eager to discover more. It’s a testament to the worlds creators that each carefully crafted detail can form a space I can’t wait to dive back into. If you’re planning a plunge into Dunwall yourself just remember these tips: take it slow, breath in the atmosphere, and always, always follow your Heart.