Chris Leffler on Jeux d’espace: Playing with de Certeau in Dishonored’s Dunwall

On 23 October 2015, I presented my paper, ‘Jeux d’espace: Playing with de Certeau in Dishonored’s Dunwall’, at the French Media Research Group conference ‘French & Francophone Videogames/Videogaming‘. You may find the abstract and full text of the paper below.

Abstract: Dishonored by Lyon-based developer Arkane Studios represents one of the most financially and critically successful games of 2012. Particularly praised is the game’s landscape, and the design of the fictional metropolis of Dunwall by Sebastien Mitton (collaborator on Bioshock 2’s Rapture) and Viktor Antonov (designer of Half Life 2’s City 17) creates a Victorian-inspired steampunk dystopia that is both darkly realist and artistically stylised. Through a variety of settings, from fortresses to sewers, the player must direct the protagonist Corvo, using superhuman powers to traverse this complex space.

Whilst videogames are increasingly studied across a range of disciplines, the spaces constructed therein remain underexplored. In this paper, therefore, I will examine the implications of reading the relationship between player and space in Dishonored (2012) alongside de Certeau’s ‘Pratiques d’espace’ (1990). I will begin by demonstrating the possibilities afforded an interpretation of Dishonored by de Certeau’s work, drawing on his understanding of urban spatio-temporal hybridity in my approach to Dunwall. Yet I will also suggest that the game’s designers playfully flout de Certeau’s theorisation in order to rewrite his understanding of our relationship with the urban landscape; from one in which the city and the individual are hermetically distinct, and narratives traced through its spaces leave no indelible mark, to one in which their interaction is necessarily inter-affective and mutually constitutive, irreversibly altering their respective natures. Thus, Corvo’s actions leave their mark on the city, rendering it increasingly more menacing, which consequently restructures the protagonist’s story-line as the city responds to his actions. The result is a narrative that is open to multiple endings, produced in a spatially that is both written and yet to be written, and I will conclude my paper with a brief reflection on the implications of this reading for cities more widely, both virtual and non-virtual.

Original image by Nordlicht at Deviant Art. Copyright Bethesda.

In my paper today, I will be exploring the city of Dunwall in Dishonored as exemplary of the possibilities afforded by the medium of the video game for both the construction of urban space and its transversal. This project represents something of a labour of love; I first encountered Dunwall as a player, and found the experience so compelling that, when I found out that it was a French-designed game, I was desperate to find an opportunity to study it in more detail. However, on seeking literature on the subject of virtual cities, I found very limited material; whilst waves have begun to be made in theorising video game spaces (notably in Nitsche’s eponymous work), the cities that underpin so many examples of this medium remain underexplored. In this paper, I would like to begin to redress that absence, taking influential approaches to the city and exploring the ways in which both Dunwall itself and the player’s interaction with it opens up new possibilities for their understandings of the urban. My paper will thus be divided into two broad sections. In the first, I will examine the construction of Dunwall as what Donald defines as an ‘imagined city’; one that, in spite of its lack of a defined material referent, can nevertheless inform our conception of the urban landscape in novel and provocative ways. I will argue that this opens of the possibility of engaging the urban environment differently, and this will lead me to the second and main section of my paper, in which I will explore Dishonored with reference de Certeau’s Les Marches dans la ville. Taking Thrift’s analysis of ‘automobility’ as a model, I will argue that playing with space in the video game creatively flouts de Certeau’s championing of walking as the primary practice through which the city is constituted, and creates an imbricated relationship between the individual and his environment. Consequently, I will argue that play represents a new and productive practice in the negotiation of urban landscapes.

Developed by by Arkane Studios and published in 2012, Dishonored is a first-person stealth game that follows the story of Corvo Attano. This former Lord Protector to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin has been wrongfully accused of her murder, and consequently must fight from the shadows to clear his name and restore the Princess Emily to the throne. Using a host of supernatural powers granted him by the God-like figure of the Outsider, Corvo must navigate the city of Dunwall, the plague-ridden capital of the Empire of the Isles. Whilst the game has received many plaudits, this landscape represents one of the most highly praised aspects of the game (indeed, earning it the IGA Award for Best Environmental Design), and this is hardly surprising, given that it was produced under the direction of Viktor Antonov (designer of Half Life 2’s City 17) and Sebastien Mitton (collaborator on Bioshock 2’s Rapture). The fictional metropolis is defined by its designers as ‘retro-futuristic’ (2012.3), combining British-inspired 18th century architecture, a brutalist industrial aesthetic and ‘oil-punk’ technology to create a unique cityscape that is at once darkly realist and artistically stylised.  As a consequence, the city of Dishonored represents an ideal prism through which to explore the potential of the virtual for the production of urban space, both through its designer-led construction and its negotiation by the player.

The central aim of the designers of Dishonored (2012) was to to put ‘a new fictional place on the map of important, non-existing cities’. In so doing, they sought to produce it as a space that, whilst existing only within the digital, elicits the same emotional and visceral response on the part of player as any other city. This was achieved through an approach that Antonov describes as ‘virtual urbanism’; the urban landscape constructed is removed from the everyday experience of the player yet is built in such a way that it remains credible. As a result, it is both ‘foreign and mysterious’ and ‘realistic and believable’, and I could describe in detail the lengths to which the designers went to achieve this aim; that the project spent three years in pre-development speaks volumes, and Antonov describes it as ‘absolutely up there to the level of craftsmanship and love that a gaming world can get’.

Yet more interesting is the city’s construction as a heavily politicised space; a landscape and society that asks important questions of the class relations that produce an urban environment. Dunwall is a presented as riven by inequality; exacerbated by the rat plague, a widening gulf is depicted as growing between the wealthy and the impoverished, and it is within the concrete landscape that this is manifested. This can be seen through comparison between the Estate District and the Distillery District, both of which are key sites of the game’s narrative. The former, home to Dunwall’s aristocracy, uses what Worth describes as a ‘Queen Anne style of architecture’; the red-brick facades of its buildings adorned with intricate ornamentation and sash windows, and an intricate art déco glass roof. By contrast, the Distillery District has a ‘Victorian-esque’ architecture that reflects its lower-class occupants; cramped, angular and decorated only by graffiti. This contrast is reinforced by the city’s topography; the Estate District sits in what Worth describes as ‘elevated affluence’, whilst the Distillery District is in the lower part of the city, and rich and poor are physically separated by the Wrenhaven river. Furthermore, the differences between these two communities can be tangibly felt in the supplies to be found in their respective areas of the city. The nourishment and valuables to be found in the Estate District include fresh fruit and and pastries, expensive Tyvian wine and river pearls; by contrast, in the Distillery District one finds only canned Hagfish and Jellied Eels and small handfuls of coins. As a consequence, when the player navigates the city of Dishonored, it is as a space of stark inequality, and in which issues of wealth are both apparent and provocative.

What Dunwall reveals, then, is the powerful ability of the video game to produce a city that, whilst existing primarily within the virtual, can ask critical questions of the politics and culture of the urban. It represents what Donald defines as an ‘imagined city’; one that, whilst independent of materiality, nevertheless may inform our conception of it. Seeking to empower literature in the production of the urban, Donald argues that ‘The relationship between novel and city is not merely one of representation’, but instead that ‘The text is actively constitutive of the city’. Thus Donald asserts that literature should not be read merely as reflecting the city as it exists, but as contributing to its construction, so that the material landscape and the imagined of it become intertwined. This echoes the aims of Dishonored’s developers, Antonov describing his wish for players ‘to end the game with memories of Dunwall as if they had visited a real city that they found very exciting and intense’. Consequently, what we see in the the video game is a further possibility for expanding the media through which the urban may be produced; one that, whilst informed by materiality, is neither dependent upon it, nor any less constitutive of it for its independence. Indeed, as Donald asks, ‘why reduce the reality of cities to their thingness, or their thingness to a question of bricks and mortar?’

Embracing the ‘imagined city’ of video games as constitutive of the urban environment raises questions about what it means to play within this space. Indeed, if one follows de Certeau’s theorisation, playing is an unrecognised form of negotiating the city; for this writer, walking represents the ‘Forme élémentaire de cette expérience’, and walkers the ‘pratiquants ordinaires de la ville’. Yet Thrift argues that to valorise walking above all other practices risks ‘missing other languages which also have something to say’, and, as an example pertinent to the late twentieth century, argues that ‘the experience of driving is sinking into our ‘technological unconscious’ and producing a phenomenology that we increasingly take for granted but which in fact is historically novel.’ Consequently, it is my contention that playing represents a similarly novel yet unappreciated practice through which we experience the city, and Dishonored offers itself as exemplary of how designers have playfully flouted de Certeau’s theorisation to productive ends.

To begin with, the video game, and Dishonored in particular, complicates a binary that de Certeau asserts between the view from on high and movement through the streets, positing a multi-tiered experience that playfully subverts such restrictions. In a famous anecdote, de Certeau opposes the view from the top of the World Trade Centre to that of the walker below. The former is defined by its ability to see and to read the city in its entirety; as he writes ‘La masse gigantesque s’immobilise sous les yeux. Elle se mue en texturologie’. Nevertheless, the object of the gaze is perceived to be untouchable by the ‘dieu voyeur’; he must ‘s’excepter de l’obscur entrelacs des conduites journalières et s’en faire l’étranger.’ By contrast, it is the walker whose movement is constitutive of the city text, and whose body ‘obéit aux pleins et aux déliés d’un “texte” urbain qu’ils écrivent’. Yet, plunged into the fabric of the city, de Certeau argues that they are unable to see what they produce, writing that, ‘C’est “en bas” […] où cesse la visibilité’. This creates what Donald describes as a ‘battle between the tower and the street’. The individual is restricted to a choice between two practices; a distanced gaze that can see everything yet influence nothing, or an immersed movement that can see nothing yet influence everything.

In Dishonored, however, no such binary exists; in Corvo’s ‘traversal of the multi-tiered, open environments of Dunwall’ any opposition between ‘the tower’ and ‘the street’ is undermined. Obstacles placed before the player represent, not restrictions upon his movement, but facilitators of creatity, and an assortment of supernatural abilities enable a complex negotiation of space impossible in material reality. Dunwall is designed as a city of oppression and containment; indeed, it’s very name deliberately alludes not only to walls, but to ‘dun’, the Scottish and Irish Gaelic for ‘fort’. High walls are omnipresent; automated watchtowers limit access through open spaces; and electrified ‘walls of light’ block passageways and entrances. Nevertheless, these attempts to restrict the movement of citizens are deliberately deployed by the game’s designers to both be transgressed and encourage a creative approach on the part of the player. One explores routes over roofs or underground, with multiple pathways possible; both watchtowers and walls of light can be rewired to attack, not the player, but the guards who oppose him. This renegotiation of the landscape is facilitated by a variety of supernatural powers that, in defiance of normal physics, allow for a movement with the city that is far more diverse in its nature than walking. Corvo is able to use Blink to teleport over short distances, climbing up or down high walls with ease. Bend time allows the player to move normally and unimpeded when obstacles are slowed or frozen. Finally, Possession allows Corvo to enter and control the bodies of those around him; possessing guards that will allow him to bypass security devices, and animals open up passageways that would ordinarily be too small. As a result, walking as the primary practice by which space is traversed is complicated, and a choice between the downward gaze and the earth-bound movement playfully flouted. By encouraging creativity in the face of restriction, and subverting physics as a limit on the possibility of movement, Dishonored reveals the way in which play within the video game may open up new ways of negotiating cities.

Furthermore, where de Certeau’s theorisation suggests that the narratives produced by one’s movement through space remain distinct from the space itself, and consequently always provisional, the gameplay of Dishonored suggests a relationship between the individual and the city that is far more intertwined. De Certeau argues that the walker’s actions are incapable of permanently influencing the city; movement ‘est transposée en points qui composent sur le plan une ligne totalisante et réversible’, so that the persistence of a narrative is entirely conditional. Furthermore, these narratives are perceived to be written onto, not into, the landscape; movement constitutes ‘une géographie seconde, poétique, sur la géographie du sens littéral’, and this is in accordance with many first-person games, in which, Taylor writes, ‘the player operates on the game world, but never within’.  Yet in Dishonored the case is markedly different; Corvo’s actions have consequences that inscribe themselves into the virtual environment and, in so doing, shape the player’s continued experience of the game. Emphasis in the game is placed on what Colantonio and Smith describe as ‘emergent, player-driven narrative’ over ‘embedded, designer-proscribed narrative’, and as a result, Praloix explains, ‘Ce qui est très intéressant dans Dishonored, c’est la possibilité pour le joueur de vraiment inventer son histoire’. Yet this freedom of action also comes with consequences that constantly influence the game’s unfurling; indeed, what makes Dishonored stand out as a game Gies argues, is a ‘brilliant sense of consequence and reciprocity […] even small actions seem like potential triggers for much greater cascades’. What results is a mutually affective relationship between the individual and the urban, one that calls into question the independence of the landscape from the actions of those who traverse it.

This is achieved through the Chaos system, a mechanism according to which choices made by players aggregate within the game as a series of subtle alterations within the landscape. One’s experience of the game thus changes according to the level of violence or stealth one employs to achieve objectives, resulting in low, medium or high chaos. On an aesthetic level, Corvo’s actions can change the artwork displayed throughout the city; wanted posters displayed throughout the city can range in wording from a ‘masked miscreant’ wanted for ‘murders of various individuals of note’, to an ‘unknown assailant’ wanted for ‘abduction’. Pictures drawn by Princess Emily are similarly dependent on chaos level. Low chaos causes her to draw a picture that describes Corvo as ‘Daddy’, and gives us one of the very few depictions of his actual face within the game; medium chaos produces the masked Corvo, surrounded by a city in chaos; and high chaos results in a disturbing image of a dark Corvo, stood atop a mound of corpses and brandishing a bloodied sword. Yet such changes are not limited to the superficial; indeed, a much more fundamental restructuring of the game environment takes place that in turn impacts upon play. Low chaos will result in a reduction of the number of guards and security devices present throughout the city, whereas high chaos sees their increase, making it significantly more difficult to navigate to one’s objectives. Similarly, a less violent path will produce a healthier city with fewer plague victims and a reduced rat problem, whereas the opposite can produce swarms of both whose attacks impinge upon the player’s movement. These differences extend to one’s relationships with other characters, with their willingness either to help or to betray you dependent on the path one chooses.

Ultimately, the chaos system produces highly different endings as you attempt to infiltrate Kingsparrow Island to finally liberate Emily once and for all. Low chaos will result in a bright day-time attack, assisted by your courier Sam who expresses his admiration, and will result in the liberation of Emily and the restoration of her reign. By contrast, High chaos produces a dark and stormy night, Sam will both disdain and betray you to the guards, and Princess Emily may die, rendering your primary objective throughout the game unachieved. Importantly, whilst this suggests a moral dimension to the game, that there was a right or wrong way to play the game was not the understanding of its designers; they argue that this represents, not a question of ‘am I punished or am I rewarded’. What is asserted instead is a relationship between the player and the urban environment that is defined by reciprocity, mutually impacting upon one another in an evolving and dynamic way, so that it always represents ‘a reflection of what I did’. The flexibility of the central narrative, its inflection within Dunwall as a city, and its ability to subsequently influence gameplay is consequently both highly novel and suggests an intertwining between the individual and the urban environment that is more fundamental than de Certeau suggests.

To come to some conclusions, what the study of Dishonored’s Dunwall suggests is that not only should the video game be taken seriously as a medium through which we can experience the urban, but that doing so can open up the possibility of novel engagements that inform our conception of the city more widely. In exploring its production, it has not been my intention to refute the work of de Certeau, but merely to demonstrate how some of the restrictions he perceives within the material city may be usefully and interestingly opened through video game play. Not limited by the laws of physics, the mechanics of Dishonored allow the player to navigate space in ways that are materially impossible, and to see this navigation fundamentally reproduce the landscape itself. Consequently, we see the practice of virtual play as a tool by means of which we might re-examine the urban, and this opens up interesting questions within the ‘imagined’ cities of other video games. How, for instance, might we approach the near-future city of Watchdog’s Chicago, whose technological fabric can be unlocked at will by hacker Aiden Pierce? What are the implications of reproducing a historical city that can be explored from top to bottom, as we have seen in the revolutionary Paris of Assassin’s Creed? And, perhaps most intiguingly, what new insights lay in store for us in Karnaca, the urban landscape that will form the setting of the next in the Dishonored franchise?

Chris Leffler is a PhD student in French Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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