Originally published on September 17.
“Now I’m realizing the world’s off-kilter. Everything’s turned inside-out.”
– Emily Kaldwin
It’s an innocuous early line that strikes directly at the heart of Arkane Studios’ Dishonored 2. Cast from her home and throne of Dunwall, victim of a coup led by the Duke of Serkonos and now skulking through the foreign city of Karnaca, Emily discovers a mistreated, ignored people beaten into submission by a childish and self-centred ruler. She finds an industry cruelly exploited for the short-sighted gain of the elite. A Mediterranean coastline infested by poverty and disease, run rampant with parasitic bloodflies, left to rot by its rulers.
Among the creams and beige and its own twisted golden age of technological invention, Karnaca reveals the bile of corruption and greed that barely bubbled under the surface in Dunwall. It’s all suddenly exposed to its former Empress like a gaping wound.
In Serkonos, in the city of Karnaca, Emily sees Dunwall turned inside-out.
It starts early with Emily’s first target, Mortimer Ramsey. A petty and angry man whose name lost all power while the Kaldwins’ remained, Ramsey colludes with the coup’s leaders to reverse the unjust world he finds himself in, serving the elite instead of the opposite.
He represents a classism that pervades Dunwall like a cancer, stubborn and ingrained, rooted deep into its society and culture. It’s a vast divide that breeds frustration, anger, rage. Ramsey’s nothing in the wider scope – he doesn’t show up again, and I don’t think he’s ever even mentioned – but his legacy kickstarts Emily’s unravelling self-discovery.
Serkonos’ Grand Inventor Kirin Jindosh, meanwhile, has an obvious parallel. He’s an explicit reflection of Dunwall’s former Grand Inventor Anton Sokolov and mirrors Sokolov’s worst qualities: he’s a scientific wunderkind, unfiltered and cold, who’s as selfish as his Duke and consumed by a relentless ambition. He creates the expensive clockwork soldiers so beloved by the Duke and serves his tyrant just as Sokolov did in the previous title, inventing technologies that further oppress and divide his countrymen.
But his need of Sokolov’s help – to cut down the extravagant costs of his soldiers – signifies something deeper. Together, Jindosh and Sokolov represent the symbiotic reliance and co-operation of Dunwall and Karnaca. Through this co-operation, science is a tool of the elite that upholds the deep-seated corruption of both empires.
The real parallel though, is in the game’s main villain – the witch Delilah Copperspoon. A tall, graceful figure with a sharp jawline and insidious charisma, Delilah is – or so she says – the rejected sister of former Empress and Emily’s mother Jessamine Kaldwin, and a witch of the Void who seemingly can’t die. Her very existence speaks to a corruption and rotting core at the centre of the Kaldwins’ legacy and Dunwall overall.
Contacting Emily through a Void-tinged dream, Delilah spins stories of young Jessamine’s betrayal and undermines the character’s holiness emphasised in Dishonored – though never experienced first-hand by the player.
Her connection to the Void – the source of the supernatural in this world – reflects her sister’s power and influence: where Jessamine was born into power and glory, Delilah persevered through an unfair and difficult life before finally discovering her own.
Delilah’s paintings are the same: they’re her power, her means of discovering and envisioning her ideal world – a twisted, dark reflection of reality. They depict a world where Delilah was never betrayed and never hurt, where she can exist and rule without compromise. Her art lets her envision and create her perfect world.
Of course, Delilah’s vision is brutal and unempathetic and serves her whims alone – her perfect world is one of endless spite – but it also reflects the nature of power and ambition throughout Dishonored and its sequel. Jessamine’s vision was philanthropic, Emily’s is uncertain but well-intentioned, the Duke’s is openly self-serving, and Delilah’s is vengeful and violent. Each is distinct and personal, all reflecting a quest for grand, operatic power.
Delilah’s natural aesthetic – her body a warped concoction of leaf, vine and branches, her connection to the Void letting her summon monstrous vines that destroy anything in her way – acts as an ironic inverse of Dunwall’s grimy, oil-slick industrial aesthetic. She’s a literal force of nature, back to reclaim what modern industry exploited and replaced. Her connection to the Void adds a sly dimension to this, as if the Void and the natural world are one in the same, pursuing their revenge with Delilah as their avatar.
She can even represent the destruction and corruption that strict autocracy leads to over time, her overwhelming ability and drive a direct consequence of it – but this point is already driven home with a sledgehammer by Duke Abele.
Serkonos’ ruler is a cartoon of evil and greed and you only need to hear his voice to know it.
Next in a line of benevolent rulers, Duke Luca Abele assumes his mantle with the love and attention of a wrecking ball. He destroys the family estate to replace it with a hyper-modern structure of self-serving decadence; he shifts his nation’s silver mines into overdrive, bringing disease and poverty in exchange for his own comfort; he chokes Karnaca’s prize Addermire Institute of all ability and twists its hero into a terrifying weapon.
Duke Abele fracks Karnaca for everything it’s got.
Emily watches the Duke’s destruction and glimpses her own time on the throne – not the same abject villainy but glimpses all the same. How she endorsed the brutal silver mines by buying its output. How she ignored her work as Empress to skip across Dunwall behind a mask. How she follows her own line of benevolent rulers with a bored and almost careless demeanour, with little passion of her own.
Emily spots that same potential for ignorance in herself, that trajectory towards corruption and apathy, even if it’s impossible for someone like Emily to become a monster quite like Abele.
“I don’t know whether I want to get on a ship and sail to the opposite side of the world, or have everyone around me executed.”
In Dishonored 2, Emily Kaldwin is Dunwall: the good and the bad, the best and the worst of the industrialist hellhole it always seems to be. Even outside her home city, sleeking through Karnaca as a shadow, as bloody or bloodless as the player prefers, she can’t escape it. Its exploitation, corruption and violence haunts Emily like a curse.
By the game’s end, Dunwall’s future is uncertain – dependent on the player. But the lessons are clear: there’s a thin line between Dunwall and Karnaca, Jessamine and Delilah, Emily and Abele. There’s almost nothing keeping one from becoming the other.
A thin line between apathy and cruelty.
All images attributed to Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks.