I knew right away that my first playthrough of Dishonored 2 was going to be as Emily rather than her father Corvo, the fan-favorite protagonist of the first Dishonored. For a deeper view of the story, it’s best to do at least two playthroughs, one as each potential protagonist, but for me, I knew Emily was going to be my preferred experience.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Dishonored 2 are two recent AAA releases that feature a female playable protagonist, and I hope the success of both games proves that female characters are compelling—and profitable.
Emily is a great character: skilled and deadly, with a devoted father, a heaping of responsibility in her role as empress, and with past tragedy that informs her present. If you’ve played Dishonored, it’s a gratifying paradigm shift to go from seeing Emily as a child and a moral gauge to an adult with agency and depth. She is very much a whole person.
Throughout the game, you have the choice to take down targets nonlethally—and taking the lethal option increases chaos. If you’re a player who finds the assassination/murdery aspects of stealth games distasteful, or you want to give yourself (a lot) more of a challenge, the game does not increase its chaos level for nonlethal takedowns.
Chaos destabilizes the world and has a discernible effect on dialog options, and ultimately the ending. I’m just not patient enough to play nonlethally. I made my choices and lived with them, but Emily does take on a darker cast if she’s murdering people left and right, not to mention the game’s outcome if one plays with high chaos (hint: it’s not great). Still, she’s fighting for good things—taking back her throne from a dangerous usurper, finding a serial killer, rescuing her imprisoned father and others—and I never felt as though I were being asked to relate to a perspective that I found especially distasteful. Emily’s protecting her own, and most people find that noble.
Perhaps because of the audience’s inherent alliance with Emily, I noticed how morally ambiguous or dark the other female characters were in comparison. I love moral complexity, especially in women, who are often reviled for sins male characters are praised for, and this game was rife with it.
There wasn’t a single major female character who didn’t fit the bill. And that pattern? Well, it started to get old.
Warning: spoilers for Dishonored 2
Delilah is the first major female player we meet after Emily herself, and she’s the game’s big bad. I appreciated that she had a chance to explicate her own narrative, showing that in her eyes she’s a victim seeking vengeance. A childhood friend to Empress Jessamine (Emily’s late mother) and daughter of a maid, she grew up in the liminal space between two worlds: privilege and servitude. Jessamine betrayed her as a child, and Delilah and her mother were tossed out into the streets and in very tough circumstances that eventually led to Delilah’s mother’s death.
Delilah did what any desperate, miserable young woman would: she positioned herself to gain as much power and agency as she could by becoming a witch. And then she sought revenge against the system—and family—that betrayed her.
The game allows for some sympathy for Delilah, but she’s also designed to be scary and extreme. Her voice has an underlying deep, almost metallic tone, her aesthetic is severe, and you discover she’ll go to frightening, inhuman lengths for power. She started out a tragedy but became a villain.
Delilah was, to me, a compelling villain and character, existing in a moral gray area.
Emily discovers that Empress Jessamine was assassinated for her betrayal of Delilah. She still plays a major role in Dishonored 2, in part because Emily has inherited her throne and the trauma of her death as character motivation, but she’s also there to guide her daughter as a disembodied voice. Heart. Voice/heart. (It’s neat, but it’s creepy.)
Children make mistakes; children lie to avoid punishment, and that’s what Jessamine did. Her lie put Delilah and her mother out on the street and arguably led to the creation of a murderer. Emily and the audience has to reconcile Jessamine’s image as a sanctified dead parent—and royal—with her childhood cruelty.
Meagan Foster, captain of the Dreadful Whale where Emily takes sanctuary and a stone-cold one-armed, one-eyed badass, is my second-favorite character in the game. I was really into her competence and her character design, and I loved that she was willing to help Sokolov and Emily despite the danger it put her in.
We find out later that she’s really Billie Lurk, a gang member who aided in assassinating Jessamine. Her past is murky and treacherous, and the audience (or at least I) is left to decide if she’s atoned for her actions, or if that’s even possible.
I believe Doctor Hypatia may be the most tragic of all of the women in Dishonored 2. Inventor of the Addermire Institute restorative (a godsend for you as a player) and respected for her work the institute in researching diseases, she accidentally turns murderous after testing a serum on herself.
To compound matters, Duke Abele discovers this, and instead of stopping her or trying to develop a counter-serum, he uses her to commit murders—and to frame Emily and her father as said murder, the Crown Killer.
It’s even sadder if you choose to kill her to stop the Crown Killer rather than sparing her by creating a counter-serum. In either case, it’s a sad fate for a woman who dedicated her life to helping people and ended up killing them instead. I saved her, and all interactions with her seem tinged with grief and horror, as she attempts to put her life back together.
I know the least about Breanna, but the facts laid out in the game are:
- She runs the Royal Conservatory, and thus has a position of power;
- She’s a witch working with Delilah;
- Breanna brought Delilah back from the void in return for promises of wealth and power;
- Killing her doesn’t add to your chaos rating.
Her role in the game is brief but vital: as someone aligned with Delilah, she’s another malevolent figure for Emily to take down (lethally or otherwise). If you do cursory research on the character, she’s from a wealthy family and was promised to marry a man three times her age until she ran away.
She’s another character who, when robbed of her agency, turns to witchcraft and dangerous means to get what she wants.
Breanna’s backstory is somewhat sympathetic, though at this point I think it’s thematic overkill.
I feel heartened that I was given enough female characters with large enough roles to write this article about a game. That feels like a step in the right direction, even if I would prefer less stories told about women losing agency or doing terrible things because of victimization—seriously, why were so many of the women victims?
Why were so many of the women villains?
Is everyone in Serkonos just kind of terrible? Is that the answer?
In any case, casting women as bitter witches intent on revenge is an old trope I’ll be happy to see die. Robbing women of agency is another one. Dishonored 2 used both of those tropes and more. Even if they did so with nuance and decent storytelling, it still struck me as outmoded. In a game where I can play a thoroughly realized female protagonist, being pitted against so many women and being forced to confront the worst of their natures was a letdown.
Leave in moral ambiguity. Show what victimization can do, for sure—but maybe temper it with characters less apt to murder, or characters who retain their agency. If every woman in the game is ambiguous, ambiguity loses its impact.
And if Emily, the protagonist, can fall into darkness and chaos, how can we expect her to be the singular light with which to contrast the dark?