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.

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