Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a standalone spinoff of the video game Dishonored 2, both made by Arkane Studios and released in 2017. In both, you play a supernatural assassin hunting targets in an industrial-revolution era fantasy, set in the southern-european inspired city of Karnaca. Typical gameplay in Dishonored involves sneaking past or fighting guards using magical powers, collecting clues and information, and occasionally fleeing if everything goes wrong. The combat in Dishonored has a lethal or non-lethal option, and in my personal play I usually play non-lethally. Thus, going into this project my character already had certain upgrades to enhance sneaking and non-lethal attacks. That is also how I approached creating this body pile: I only knocked people unconscious and never killed them. The level I chose to create the pile in is "The Stolen Archive", in which a museum is occupied by a militant, magic-hating religious organization on the hunt for witches.
Making the body pile in this game underlines how difficult it is to distinguish death from unconscious life in video games and how they must compensate by introducing subtle markers. In games like Metal Gear Solid V or Hitman there are visible floating symbols that indicate whether a body is dead or just unconscious, but there is nothing like that in Dishonored. Instead, unconsciousness is defined with two small features: tooltips (when the bodies are moused over), and snoring. When I approach the body pile in the video it becomes very clear as there is a roar of snoring that erupts when I get close enough. The ultimate power over the life or death is always present, as when the cursor is placed over an unconscious body in Dishonored, a small skull symbol alongside a clicking symbol appears letting the player know they can choose to kill this person with just a click. This “single button press between sleep and death” also appears in Hitman, which has a similar mechanic.
A common thread that runs through both Viscera Cleanup Detail and Dishonored in this project is the use of bodies as props. Not only are they “created” by choking guards, but dead bodies already exist in the level to represent previous violence that has occurred before the player arrived. Most of the bodies of guards or important characters will have a name or at least their profession when moused over, but these prop bodies only say “Body (dead)” despite them being otherwise identical. This is an infrastructural depersonalization that demarcates violence enacted by the player and violence discovered by the player.
Bodies in Dishonored are fluid and twitchy, and the pile frequently slides down into more of a puddle. Humans in video games are always illusions of liveness, but this is an illusion of liveness of another sort- a liveness that is dismissable as error, not true fake life. This is only perceivable as fake fake life due to the hand-off of governing systems that occurs at the moment of violence. When my character strangles a guard, there is a movement from AI and animation systems governing their behavior and movement to physics systems. Even though these bodies move, because that movement is clearly being governed by the interactions of bodies as physical objects instead of along scripted routines, as a player we know that these bodies aren't actually alive. Normally we might associate the independent motion of a body as indicative of life, but because we know that physics is the domain of death in Dishonored, we can understand it as only the illusion of life performing an illusion of life. Visual cues and aesthetic cues are subordinate to infrastructural understanding in this case. How intimately tied the infrastructural is to the representation of aliveness and death!