Emily Kaldwin’s life would make a great reality show.
It really does have everything. There’s glamour (she’s the daughter of Empress Jessamine, and later Empress herself), there’s fortune (she lives in the White Tower, surrounded by wealth, servants and picturesque gardens), there’s drama (her mother gets her throat cut in front of her). There are plagues of rats and zombies (which doesn’t happen on The Bachelor). It would be great. The Simple Life with crossbows. Keeping up with the Kaldwins.
Until such a time, we’ll have to make do with Dishonored 2. Emily, the tortured little soul from the first Dishonored who spends the game alternating between being kidnapped and drawing lovely flowers/terrifying charcoal monsters (depending on what sort of influence you are), has grown up to control all of the Empire of the Isles, Dishonored’s steampunk Victorian dystopia. She’s also now graduated from teen abductee to player character, with her unique set of powers to rival those of her father and teleporting, neck stabbing bodyguard, Corvo – hero of the first game and the other playable character in the second.
How has this happened? And why is Emily – the formerly demure child ruler who used to be so happy with her crayons and/or fantasies of grisly murder – now in the tropical southern land of Karnaca, creeping around in the shadows and lancing people with ghostly tentacles? Don’t fret, we asked someone: Dishonored 2’s lead designer, Dinga Bakaba.
“I would say that first of all, it’s this weird thing where she had a dark childhood,” says Bakaba. “Her mother was killed in front of her eyes, she was trapped in a brothel for weeks or months, her father suddenly comes to free her with a scary mask on… She was clearly exposed to some of the darkness of the world.
“But now, she’s the empress, right?” He continues, more chirpily. “She grew up as a privileged young girl and then young woman, and I think she has an interesting relationship with her father and her late mother, because, yes, she stepped into her mother’s shoes in becoming an empress, her father is always close to her – and that’s the fantasy of every father: to be your daughter’s bodyguard – and he’s taking his job very seriously. I would say that this all mixes to create this character who is proud to be the empress, but also sometimes finds the life as ruler of a country very boring – all these meetings with ministers, and so on. So she goes out at night and she trains with her father, or goes about by herself jumping from rooftop to rooftop. She’s a thrillseeker.”
Emily was central to the first Dishonored, the moral heart at the pommel of your throat-seeking blade. As a player, you were connected. You had a father-daughter relationship that blossomed long before you found out that it was literal. The genius of the first game was twisting that affection into something murderous. You could – and probably, you know, should – be relatively sparing with the murdering of the corrupt cabal of political elites who make up your roster of assassination targets (and their whiskey-and-cigar-loving henchmen). But they’re all so damnably dastardly, with their callous disregard for human life and posh voices. Stabbing them up is the right thing to do, surely? Well, no. If you do, you end up with the High Chaos ending – the city overrun with flesh-eating rats and Emily a death-obsessed basket case. Spare them and she’s a teen Miss Dunwall. So where is she, canonically, in the sequel?
“It’s somewhere in the lower levels of Chaos,” Bakaba explains, obviously trying to give nothing away. “We don’t really imply, for instance, that Corvo killed no-one, but we do say things like, ‘Overseer Campbell [one of Corvo’s earlier marks] disappeared.’ So it’s closer to low Chaos in the canon. But we still liked some of her reactions, the scarred version of Emily where she would dream of The Outsider [the maleficent God figure who appears to Corvo at shrines and revels in disaster] or crashing ships into each other, like when you played high Chaos. So we still kept this vision of what Emily could become. It’s not the canon, but it’s looming over her head. If that’s the kind of ruler you want to be, you can be that in Dishonored 2.”
That murky system of thumbs-up-thumbs-down returns in Dishonored 2. This time, the more obvious sign that maybe you’re being a bit overzealous with the purging are the Bloodflies – giant mosquitoes that lay eggs in dead bodies. Bump off too many of new setting Karnaca’s populace and they’ll be everywhere, buzzing after you like you’re reading cake recipes by torchlight in a swamp. But neither Emily nor Corvo is designed to be a High Chaos character. You can, says Bakaba, be as gentle, or as bloodthirsty, as you like with either.
“Clearly, we would like players to see all the aspects of our game and try out the different combinations and playstyles for themselves,” he says. “We try to find many ways to encourage replayability, but in terms of the characters themselves, clearly from the moment we decided that Corvo and Emily would have different power sets, we wanted both of them to be versatile: able to dish out Chaos as [well as] play with subtlety and intelligence. It was really our main game design challenge when we defined both the power sets. We didn’t want one to be the Warrior and the other to be the Rogue… You don’t lock yourself into a particular playstyle if you choose Corvo or Emily.”
In Dishonored 2, Emily and Corvo have different suites of powers. Corvo’s, if you played the first game, you’ll recognise. You can still Blink – a lightning fast teleport move that defined the original and lets you snap across exposed areas or vanish to high-up ledges. You can still Bend Time, which lets you pause everything for a moment while you contemplate the best way to eviscerate someone. Or you can just summon a swarm of rats and have them devour all your problems.
The world is your gory, dripping playground
As Emily, you can play equally duplicitously. Domino lets you link NPCs’ fates together – if one dies, or gets surprisingly chucked into the air, their partner does too. Shadow Walk lets you skulk about with the ghost tentacles we mentioned earlier. Or why not deploy a Doppelganger (does what it says on the tin) and do both? The world is your gory, dripping playground.
“We didn’t want the powers to be exact mirrors of each other,” says Bakaba. “So, you’ve probably seen that people play very violently with both of the characters, and you can also play very subtly and ghost the whole game with both characters. Then, for replayability, there’s also the No Powers mode: that is like a challenge all in itself.”
But perhaps the most interesting part of Dishonored 2 is the setting. While you’ll start the game in Dunwall – a City 17-esque urban sprawl of tall grey buildings, bleak lighting and authoritarianism – the real playground is Karnaca: a Mediterranean-inspired world of sun, sand, and Bloodflies. For Corvo, it’s home. For Emily, it’s a province formerly subject to her rule.
“Karnaca, on the island of Serkonos, [is] at the very South of the Empire,” says Bakaba of the new setting. “This city is Corvo’s birthplace, so he knows the city, he’s been there already, and while Emily knows about it [because] it’s part of her origins, she always saw it as something very abstract – a place on the map. She hasn’t gotten to know [what] life is [like] in this place. So clearly, they’ve got different perspectives on that. For Corvo, it’s a homecoming. For Emily, it’s about discovering what life is like outside of the walls of the White Tower.”
The promise of Karnaca is a different kind of horror. It’s insidious; it’s less pointed. It’s not the Orwellian vision of a concrete superstate, but rather the postcard exterior of the European south. You could have cocktails in Karnaca. Swim with turtles. Ride a jetski! Be executed at gunpoint. It’s several expensive plates being spun at once: how do you create a place that’s bright and beautiful, that’s also mired in corruption and death?
“That’s a question that was very integral to the beginning of the project,” Bakaba explains. “There was a lot of back and forth, looking for references in literature and the world. I think the first thing was, ‘Let’s look at what we have. What does the lore say about Karnaca?’ And it’s clearly described as more of a nice place. If you look at some of the books in Dishonored, you will get the sense that people smoke cigars, you hear about food, dances, poetry – it’s a place where the aristocrats go to end their days in a warmer climate. So you get the sense that it’s more of a nice place. So that’s why we decided the Duke [Emily and Corvo’s latest arch-enemy] would be a very different ruler.
“He’s basically running Karnaca like the ruler of a banana republic. He only cares about immediate satisfaction. He’ll work people to death in the silver mines. He just doesn’t care. Where the [the first game’s usurper] Regent was oppressive and almost totalitarian, the Duke is more the kind of ruler who seeks his own personal interests and pleasures.”
Mantling this contradiction of sun and sorrow is Bakaba, whose own life experience breathes life – and pertinent, real-world horror – in a tropical paradise gone sideways.
“I lived for a few years in a country in a civil war: Ivory Coast. And, I mean, it’s a sunny place, with palm trees and beaches etc. But when people are going at each other with machetes and AK-47s it doesn’t seem [that nice]. And today, when you look at the political landscape, there are lots of places that could be almost paradises that are very dangerous and very scary: the favelas in Rio and São Paulo, Syria… Places that are very nice in a lot of ways, but you don’t feel safe anywhere. There was a will to get that kind of climate of tension and that contrast between the beauty of the nature and culture of Karnaca and the fact that it’s a decaying city that’s about to explode.”
Politics aside, the functional heart of the game is still all about creative mass murder
But Dishonored 2 is, Bakaba assures us, is still Dishonored. Politics aside, the functional heart of the game is still all about creative mass murder (or creative mass-not-murder, if you’re a peaceful soul).
“It’s always difficult [to give examples of creative kills], because there’s so much going on everyday,” says Bakaba. “We are creating a world to foster these kinds of chain reactions and to encourage players to experiment, so sometimes it’s hard to remember all the things you’ve seen.
“At E3, I was looking at the judges playing the game, and one of them used the Domino power on three characters… He used that on several characters when he was on top of a building and pulled one of them off the ground with the Far Reach power [Far Reach is Emily’s alternative to Blink; it allows her to pull herself to distant areas, but also grapple opponents for grisly and/or hilarious assassinations], and they all jumped from the ground to the roof [before falling to their deaths]. That was the very first time we saw that, and while it sounds obvious [now], it was very surprising and cool.”
Bakaba is especially fond of the Domino power, which seems to be to Dishonored 2 what the Possession power (which still appears in Corvo’s other-worldly arsenal, and lets you walk assassination targets off high ledges) was to the original.
“There’s a lot of fun to be had with Domino. I was playing a level and I think the [build] crashed, so we said, ‘OK, let’s do this differently’. It was a sequence where you see a bunch of Overseers [Dishonored’s masked secret police] executing civilians, like a firing squad. So, I opened the Power Wheel and thought, ‘What can I do?’ So, I choose Domino and linked the Overseer that had the gun to the civilian he was about to kill, and basically he killed himself in the process [of executing the civilian]. That’s exactly the kind of thing we love to discover.”
Dishonored 2 begins and ends in Dunwall. You are Corvo. You are Emily. You are, per the marketing tagline, out to “Take back what’s yours.” And you surely will, and reap the consequences of it when you do so. But if you’re just out to stick mines on people, daisy-chain them together with Domino and launch them up into an aerial pink mist, Dishonored 2’s got that too.