Dunwall: A Tale of Two Cities

Dunwall_cityIt seems there has been a resurgence of immersive game worlds as of late. However, the city that sticks out most prominently in my mind is Dishonored‘s Dunwall.

Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, a story of a supernatural assassin bent on revenge or rectitude, depending on how you play, was treated with well-deserved success upon arrival. The story centers around a political coup from one corrupt regime to another. Unbeknownst to you, you are the deciding factor in the fictional city of Dunwall. The exaggerated and yet expressionistic art design combined with a water-colored palette make for a unique and aesthetically appeasing world. Exciting game play powers, colorful characters, and an array of seemingly endless possibilities to achieve your goals make Dishonored decidedly one of the best games of the year. The silent protagonist, Corvo, and his infamous mask will also become iconic in the collective game mind of 2012. However, another silent protagonist will be remembered even more vividly, that character: the city of Dunwall itself.


The city of Dunwall was originally based on London in 1666 during the height of the last plague outbreak and before the great fire. A great deal of research went into the creation of Dunwall and it shows. Viktor Antonov, Lead Visual Designer, former industrial designer, and designer of Half-life 2‘s City 17 drew heavily on historic artist renderings, paintings, and maps and it is reflected in the final product. With the exception of some semblance from the Combine of City 17, Dunwall is completely unique. As production went on, the inspired period became later and later into the 18th-19th century. To achieve the allusion of believable mechanical technology, weapons, and infrastructure it was necessary to have a setting closer to our own, close but not too close. The result is a city that is both futuristic and one that could be an alternate version of Victorian London. In short, Dunwall is rife with steampunk aesthetic and weaponry. However, it should be noted Dunwall isn’t “pure” steampunk. The walls of light, arc pylons run, and majority of the city run on whale oil not steam. But there are enough gadgets, cogs, and whimsical industrial tech to keep the imagination satisfied. Even Corvo’s mask adds to the milieu. If the player sits back and looks at the horizon they will see an industrialized dystopia with its fate within your hands.

Unlike Rapture, where the game takes place after the civil war and its inhabitants have either all been killed or genetically altered beyond human, Dunwall is still a living city hanging on by a thread. One unexpected plus to Dishonored is every NPC you meet isn’t out to kill you. Though I first feared citizens hiding in the shadows assuming they would attack on sight, it soon became apparent that talking to NPCs would reveal information about their past and the city. While the city isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis, this makes sense in the narrative of the game. Dunwall’s population has been decimated by the plague. Corvo repeatedly finds himself encountering horrific scenes of truckloads of bodies being dumped into the river or mass graves.

Corvo also finds more intimate portrayals of death scattered throughout the city often accompanied with journals or audio logs revealing the final moments of their lives. The corpses of two lovers embracing each other, their journal revealing they only had enough of Sokolov’s elixir for one of them and both chose to die. Exploring through abandoned homes also reveals a peak into the lives of the cities inhabitants and the paganisitc rituals that drove some of them mad.

One point of note is that none of Dunwall’s citizens seem to be very good people. The City Watch are corrupt, often harassing people just trying to survive. The guards can also be seen urinating and spitting all over the city streets with some the worst case of coprolalia ever captured in a game. No wonder the city is overrun with the plague. The few NPCs you encounter are not very likable either. Granny Rags, a mysterious mistress of the black arts, often has you doing favors for her such as infecting Dunwall’s supply of bootleg elixir with the plague. Slackjaw is a bootlegger that runs the Bottle Street Gang. He treats you gentlemanlike but you can never tell who is friend of foe. The aristocracy vocally abhors the lower class. Even your comrades aren’t friendly considering that you are essentially single-handedly running their revolution. Admiral Havelock praises you before telling you that he could do just as much as Corvo in his youth. Treavor Pendleton is as smarmy as his painting suggests and even sends you blindly into an old-fashioned duel to the death. The housing staff is equally snarky. Wallace, the manservant, questions everyone’s class in society and Lydia, always a breath of fresh air remarks, “I had a boyfriend who was a sailor once, he drowned.”

There are a few “good” protagonists, though, and even the ethically questionable are still interesting in their own right. Emily Kaldwin, the heiress to the throne, is the embodiment of innocence, though she can be corrupted depending on how you play the game. Callista Curnow, Emily’s teacher and caretaker, is the conscious of the Hounds Pit Pub. Samuel the boatsman, is possibly the most humble and sincere character of the game. Samuel respects Corvo and expresses this often unless you choose to play in high chaos; then he will then turn on you. Then there are the quirky mad scientists Piero Joplin and Sokolov. Their social awkwardness is endearing and personable. However, you never get a sense that these are real people or if they are you never develop a sense of empathy for them. There is a cool sense of detachment to the world of Dunwall that extends beyond the city walls inhabiting its residents. This makes sense from a gameplay standpoint. The game allows the player to play as they see fit. Corvo can be ruthless, seek revenge, or vengeance, or choose to not kill at all. That is not to say these morally questionable individuals won’t be harmed, it just won’t be by your hand. Corvo’s actions must be justified anyway the player chooses to play so the characters must straddle the questionably moral gray area.

Dunwall is a landscape of a time long past. Its decaying city walls tell a narrative of a declining great era. Like the decline of so many great civilizations its inhabitants are hardly aware of it. The architecture brings life to the city of Dunwall but also adds to the melancholia the mechanical heart so effectively delivers. The run down building tenements show more of what happened in this city, to these people, than any words can say. Personal belongings left behind, tell the story of how their owners lived. All these small details the player might miss if they choose not to explore – are so meticulously laid out by designers and artists – truly brings Dunwall to life. Dunwall isn’t an open world city but it deceptively feels like one. This is because the verisimilitude of the city. Dunwall feels so real the player cant help but believe its not only bigger than its design but also that it’s an actual living, breathing city; perhaps this is because Dunwall was based on industrial era London or it could be expert level design and world-building. Regardless, Dunwall is much more three-dimensional than any of its characters.