Colonial Power in ‘Dishonored 2’

Emily is no representative of lawful order in an otherwise chaotic world.

If you choose to play Dishonored 2 as Emily Kaldwin (and you should), you’ll find an amazing interplay between her role as a stealth assassin and her role as the leader of an imperial power. The empress’s near-fatal flaw at the beginning of Dishonored 2 is her ignorance. To gain information and to make the world legible is to exercise power as both a player and as an empire.

Within the larger world of Dishonored, the city of Karnaca sits at the southernmost point of the Empire. The setting for Dishonored 2 looks and feels markedly different than its predecessors. Where the first game in the series feels like a steampunk version of Victorian England, Karnaca is more tropical and recalls the architecture and feel of colonial Cuba or other parts of the West Indies. This callback to imperialism is important within the context of the game’s story. Emily is on the outskirts of the empire, ignorant of the people, the power players, and even the wildlife. Her return to power reflects her growing familiarity with (and, therefore, power over) this landscape.

Bloodfly poster in Dishonored 2.

The bloodflies in Dishonored 2 are the perfect reflection of Emily’s relationship to Karnaca. As a new gameplay addition in the series, they are as new to Emily as they are to the player. Even so, Emily’s action can still affect their level of infestation. The creatures build their nests within corpses and spread a disease known as Bloodfly Fever. Depending on the level of Chaos that Emily creates in Karnaca, the bloodfly population may increase. Emily’s power influences the environment, even while she’s ignorant of the degree to which it does so.

The bloodflies mirror mosquitos, which in real world colonial contexts were terrifying vectors of yellow fever and malaria. The practice of transforming colonial landscapes with foreign irrigation practices and non-native crops like sugar, cotton, and rice caused sudden epidemics among numerous colonies, and echoes of this are felt in the way that bloodflies spread across Karnaca should Emily sow chaos and leave bodies strewn about the streets.

Bloodflies mirror mosquitos in a colonial context.

Karnaca is dangerous because it is unknown. To exercise colonial power is to make a landscape legible, and in this way, Emily exhibits power through information. Prowling the scene listening in on conversations between locals and guards will unlock all sorts of useful information. Emily may discover the passcode to a safe or the location of an important character. Alternatively, she may just overhear mundane gossip. There is something gleefully voyeuristic about Emily’s snooping behavior, especially when you consider the Heart item that, when used, shares intimate and private information about Dishonored’s NPCs.

The wantonness with which Emily navigates Karnaca reaffirms the position of power that she holds over her subjects. Like the manifestation of imperial surveillance, a stealth-played Emily can regularly break into private homes and rummage around private quarters, discovering private notes and letters. Sometimes she might even bump into these residents, perhaps choking out a servant while the homeowners sip tea in the other room. Yes, Emily has a reason behind her actions. But from the perspective of a Karnaca local, it would seem strange to see the Empress herself so invasively use her subjects.

It’s impossible to ignore the Dust District mission when talking about the exercise of power in Dishonored 2. Once a boomtown fueled by a silver mine, the district is now in upheaval in the struggle between two factions: the Howlers and the Overseers. This turf war occurs in the backdrop of exploited labor and environmental degradation. The mining operation spews out billows of dust, causing violent sandstorms. The duke, ever in pursuit of greater profits, is running the mine at twice the speed, sacrificing the lives of overworked miners in the process.

Sandstorms from the mines also plague the city.

When entering the district, Emily laments the suffering caused in the pursuit of silver cups. Sokolov, a recurring ally of Emily’s, responds with a biting question: “And what are the cups at Dunwall Tower made from, Empress?” If I could have high-fived Sokolov through my television at that moment, I would have. Stilton, the mine owner whose disappearance ultimately led to the chaos in the Dust District, vanished years before the game takes place. Where was the benevolent Empress then? This is a character who professes a connection to the citizens of the empire, but whose ignorance of the actual context reveal her influence as a foreign power.

Emily is no representative of lawful order in an otherwise chaotic world. She’s no shining hero among the brigands of Karnaca. Dishonored 2 intelligently ties together the player’s cycle of information gathering and action during stealth gameplay to the exercise of imperial power on Karnaca as a long-distance colonial landscape.

The game’s measurement of Chaos of as a result of your actions testifies to Emily’s true relationship with the people of Karnaca. She is, essentially, a meddler — an outsider with no real connection to the people but who nevertheless stirs things up. If players achieve a low chaos ending, Emily’s benevolence could lead to a positive ending for the people of Karnaca. But regardless of how the world of Dishonored settles, when the silver dust clears, these are a people acted upon by an outside force which has only a shallow understanding of the world she purports to control.