Games like Dishonored are power fantasies. The appeal of sneaking and strangling your way past hapless foes, unraveling nefarious plots by assassinating evil masterminds who cower at your name, and breaking the laws of physics with magic that baffles and terrifies anyone foolish enough to stand before you is obvious to anyone who’s ever picked up a controller. An implicit element of this fantasy is the assurance of your own unique importance: you are deemed one of the few people in the world capable and interesting enough to be trusted with your powers, and with them you will alter the course of fictional history.
But in revisiting Dishonored while in isolation, another aspect of that fantasy emerges. Dunwall is being ravaged by a plague that condemns the sick to a painful descent into insanity and death. The game never hesitates to show you the dead and dying, at one point even dumping you in a quarantine zone where the doomed are sent to expire amid growing corpse pits. Fail to be stealthy and delirious victims will spew bile in your face. But as bleak as this all is, it’s only a backdrop to your adventures. The vomit of the sick will lower your health bar, but there’s no question of you actually acquiring the disease and dying in anticlimactic agony before you can confront the final boss. As the protagonist, the conventions of storytelling offer you greater immunity than any medicine or distancing measure.
That you can wallow in filth and emerge unscathed would have been an unremarkable feature at Dishonored’s 2012 launch, but it feels different at a time when every trip to the grocery store has a twinge of mortal peril. Your raw power ends up less interesting than your ability to stroll public streets, explore houses occupied by the sick, and choke guards unconscious without having to then wash the hand you put over their mouths. Dunwall’s plague is your concern only in the sense that you have a personal investment in what the society rebuilt in its aftermath looks like. But to worry about its physical properties, to restrain yourself from fulfilling and enjoying your role as the protagonist, would be absurd.
That same fantasy—that the protagonist plays by different rules in a society built to serve their story—can bleed into reality. Over the past few weeks there have been anti-lockdown protests, the re-opening of American states even as COVID case numbers continue to climb, a shift in polling where concern for the health of other citizens was superseded by concern for the health of an economy that was offered little tangible support from the government that should have been propping it up, and warnings of a second wave even as the first still laps at our feet. The country is deciding that the worst of the virus is over, even if the virus itself has other thoughts on the matter.
America is not the only country to shrug its shoulders at stark reality—Sweden’s inept laissez-faire approach has given it one of the world’s highest mortality per capita rates—but headlines like “Why is America’s death toll so high?” and “Graph shows stark difference in US and EU responses to Covid-19” say a lot. To argue, in essence, that while the survival of strangers would be ideal, the need to get a professional haircut and a patio beer shares an equal moral weight, is an en masse indulgence of that power fantasy; the fantasy that you are the hero of this reality, and that everyone outside of your immediate circle is just a soulless NPC who vanishes from existence once they leave your thoughts.
“Surely I, life’s protagonist, will not get sick” is a belief that should be tested by headlines of bar hopping friends getting infected together, reopened restaurants being forced to close right back down, and celebrities who flouted common sense being punished for their hubris. But the more someone indulges in this fantasy, the less likely they are to be snapped out of it and accept that the stories of real people tend to end, not with cinematic grandeur, but with abrupt pointlessness. To protestors demanding they be allowed to “live their lives” without acknowledging that their lives are intertwined with others, the ironic victims of headlines are just more scaremongering NPCs programmed with bad luck.
Dishonored, then, offers yet another fantasy. As horrific as Dunwall’s plague is, there’s also a strange comfort in the fact that no one, on either side of the game’s conflict, is denying the realities of its existence. Heroes, villains, and everyone caught in-between are equally cautious about their own safety. Self-proclaimed patriots aren’t politicising the science of plague prevention by disputing basic facts, or suggesting what number of dead workers would be an acceptable sacrifice to get their places of entertainment working again. The wealthy villains isolate and dispose of the sick with a cruel pragmatism, but don’t console them with the twisted fact that their swift demise will help the stock market recover faster. Everyone accepts that they have a supporting role to play in this drama, not a starring one.
There are conspiracy theories about the plague’s origins, but not even the most unhinged citizens suggest that the plague is fake or overblown. Everyone—even the villain who secretly unleashed plague rats to cull the poor and create a crisis that would let him heroically seize power, only for that crisis to spiral out of control—wants to see the plague come to a reasonable end. Dunwall’s greatest obstacle is competence, but at least they’re not dealing with denial on top of it. If there’s anything unsettling about this consensus, it’s that any denial must have been snuffed out by the sight of the corpse piles growing and growing.
But belief doesn’t solve ineptitude, and it’s clear where the subsequent burden falls. Dunwall’s high society complains that curfews and movement restrictions have put a damper on their entertainment, that one can only enjoy so many carefully controlled costume parties before the whole affair becomes passé. It’s the working class that performs dangerous essential duties, and it’s the working class that’s left to die in the gutters if their contributions to anti-plague efforts lead to their own infection. The expensive, carefully rationed elixirs that keep the disease at bay are not meant for them. We may not have a rare anti-COVID elixir, but wealth is still a powerful preventative measure, and work is still seen as disposable even as it’s dubbed essential.
Before Dunwall’s workers are disposed of, they need to have every last penny wrung from them. The city sees a rush to profit from its most vulnerable: protection rackets, corrupt law enforcement, dehumanising employers, malicious landlords, back alley pseudosciences and superstitions that may hurt more than they help. That there are currently television ads for overpriced masks featuring “breakthrough Fiber Matrix Copper Technology” in-between reports of corrupt law enforcement, dehumanising employers, and malicious landlords is a grim reminder that while circumstances may change, profiteering will always loom.
Dishonored’s plague is by no means a perfect analogy for COVID, and the comparison shouldn’t be stretched too far. But, perhaps most importantly, it captures the callous horror of a bungling response to a crisis. As the coup begins to collapse, its leader can be caught lamenting “But you can see how my plan should have worked. Would have worked! If everyone had just followed orders.” Leadership which credits itself for good intentions but refuses to take any blame for the misfired implementation of their ideas is a problem now intimately familiar to us all. The only difference is that America’s can’t be corrected with an invincible hero in a whirlwind of supernatural violence, but by people who recognise they aren’t the sole protagonist of this story.