It’s been well over a year since I played Dishonored, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. The smitten city. The caricatured faces. The rotting Leviathans all stuck with me. But one thing in particular has kept nibbling my brain like a plague rat: the Outsider. By far the most intriguing character in Dishonored – if “character” is the right word, elemental force might be more appropriate-the game’s screen text calls the Outsider “a figure of myth, neither good nor evil.”
Well, I don’t buy it. That impartial, “neither good nor evil” thing doesn’t pass the sniff test. Not for a minute.
Examining the evidence leads to one conclusion in my mind: the Outsider is clearly Satan, or at least the closest thing that exists in Dishonored. He’s no impartial arbiter, every step on Corvo’s journey, the Outsider has his thumb on the scale. And since The Brigmore Witches DLC recently came out, I’m taking the opportunity to make my case.
Now understand, I don’t mean that the Outsider is Satanic in the sense many people understand it today. He’s not The Devil™. He doesn’t rule over an underworld punishing wicked souls or fight a cosmic battle against the divine. He’s not the Satan we’re used to from the Book of Revelations and popular media. The Outsider’s more an Old Testament version-a being, not necessarily evil, that tests men’s souls. In fact, in the Book of Job where Satan has his best starring role, the name “Ha-Satan” is frequently translated as “the prosecutor” or “the accuser,” a being that cross-examines human souls. In this story, Satan (operating under God’s approval) tries to cause Job to curse God-and stacks the deck toward that outcome. He wipes out the man’s wealth, kills his family, afflicts him with boils and, indirectly at least, causes Job’s wife to plead with him to curse God and die. Nevertheless, Job holds true and is rewarded.
While this story is by no means the only appearance Satan makes, it’s by far the most influential. After his appearance in Job, nearly every time Satan appears in religious texts or not, he’s depicted as a deceiver who tricks people into selling out long-term spiritual fulfilment for short-term gain. Later Christian theologians re-interpreted Genesis to make him the snake that tempts Eve. The New Testament has him spirit Jesus onto a mountaintop and promise him an earthly kingdom. These stories entered popular culture through the German legend of Doctor Faust, who sells his soul in exchange for knowledge and magic. Themes of Satanic temptation have stayed popular over the years because they’re so relevant-any procrastinator, chain smoker, or adulterer can relate to the idea that giving in to an urge today may have dire consequences tomorrow. The Outsider is a character in this same mold.
The first time I played Dishonored, I had one major problem with it: I couldn’t play half the game. I was on a nonlethal run. It was a strategic decision at first-fewer bodies now, fewer weepers later – but my no-kill policy solidified after I slaughtered half a dozen Bottle Street gangers to protect Granny Rags. Seeing pistol shot blow their bodies apart and watching Corvo cut their throats felt wrong, even more so after Granny flashed me a cruel smile and directed me to her shrine to the Outsider. I wanted to protect an old insane woman, and instead I’d murdered men at her behest. Stealing away on the pipes, far above the streets, I tried to think my bloodstained conscience away. Bad men die badly, I thought. They were murderers, and deserved what they got. But it didn’t wash. I wasn’t a hero, I was a murderer like the Bottle Street boys. Nothing but another plague rat nibbling the city’s corpse.
I didn’t kill again. Well, that’s not true. I killed the witch, the woman who egged me on to my first murder. The blood came full circle, as blood always does.
Pacifism limited my options. Foreswearing lethal tools meant that Blink, Dark Vision, Bend Time and sleep darts became my best friends. I gave up the sword-it became nothing but a tool to parry attacks. Devouring Swarm only produced rats for me to possess. Blood Thirsty and Shadow Kill served no purpose. My pistol, incendiary bolts, explosive bolts, grenades and Spring Razors only appeared when I equipped them by accident. It was terrible game design. Why give the player two paths if you’re going to make one less interesting than the other? Choosing a different tactical approach should be about giving the player more gameplay, not less. The thought continually infuriated me as the game progressed. I’d see a Watch Officer standing on a balcony and think: I could blow him over the edge with Windblast, if I wanted. Picking my way past a group of enemies, I’d pause and fantasize about attaching Spring Razors to their faces, or summoning a rat horde to pick their bones clean. They deserve it, don’t they? And God, I thought, this would be so much easier. I’d be so much more powerful. Killing them would be so much fun.
That, my friends, is called temptation. And that’s why I don’t believe the Outsider wants Corvo to reach the good ending.
Sure, the Outsider gives Corvo the tools to rescue Emily, clear his name and stop the plague-but those only exist at the dusty bottom of the toolbox. All the abilities that are the most effective, visually striking and fun to use lead Corvo down the path of chaos and worsen the plague. While the Outsider never advocates Corvo ripping every jugular vein in his path, the equipment and powers he provides run decidedly pro-murder. Corvo ultimately decides whether to use lethal force, but it’s by no means an impartial decision-the Outsider sets him up for failure by making the lethal option more effective and satisfying. Of course, in choosing the easier and more pleasurable path, Corvo damns both the city and himself.
But that’s not the only tool that tempts you-the Heart plays a role too. Point it at any enemy and it reveals their inner secrets. Most of the time, the revelation makes you hate them, and seems to justify their murder. This City Watchman beats his son. That one is a drunk. Another will kill twice more before he takes his own life-unless he dies tonight. Not only does the Outsider hand you the weapons, he spoons-feeds the justification as well. These are bad people. You’re doing the city a favor. Taking their lives may save others.
But that path is a whirling drain. You may start killing selectively, using the Heart to find the worst men. But after you find so many bad Watchmen, you start assuming there are no good ones. You stop using the Heart, meaning that along with the child abusers and murderers you kill men who are mentally handicapped, in love, or searching for their family. Righteousness makes you feel like the city’s avenger, removing the human filth-and in your moral certitude, you keep spilling blood until it clots in the gutters and floods the street. But of course, it’s not only Corvo who can fall into thinking this way-almost every character in Dishonored suffers the corrosive effects of righteousness. Lord Pendleton orders his brothers executed for political reasons, but underneath that is simmering personal resentment. The Loyalists wrap themselves in the flag to justify their ambition. Overseers torture the populace because it suspects their sins brought the rat plague. And in the end, that self-justification does nothing to assuage the guilt. Pendleton resents Corvo for dealing with his brothers. The Loyalists destroy themselves through infighting or are poisoned to hide their shame. Rather than curing the plague, the Overseers cause the city to fall further into darkness. The overriding message is that violence may be useful in the short term but leads to misery down the road-and no self-serving moral justification can change that.
But those that accept the Outsider’s “assistance” have even worse fates. Daud ends the game an emotional wreck having sacrificed his principles for money. Piero’s brilliant visions (of weapons that worsen the plague, note, not a permanent cure) poison his mind with fever dreams. Granny Rags, once an aristocrat who wanted knowledge, wanders the streets as a homeless cannibal, her mental faculties long gone. People who bear the Outsider’s Mark, it seems, don’t meet a good end, and they always seem to contribute toward destabilizing Dunwall. For what purpose is open to debate-the Outsider may simply like chaos, or else he may be the giant Leviathan we see in the void, wrecking Dunwall so its fishing industry doesn’t wipe out his kin. In any case, it’s undeniable that the Outsider has some unspoken agenda and tries to guide these “interesting” people into serving him. Look closely enough and you’ll see the proof tattooed on Corvo’s hand. The Outsider’s Mark is in the shape of a compass. A device for finding your way, true, but also a device that only ever points one way.
So let’s take stock here. The Outsider is a cosmic being that picks favorites and tests them. In the case of Corvo he, through Daud, destroys everything he holds dear and puts him in a bad situation. Once there, he appears to Corvo and gives him the tools that can destroy the city if used improperly, and the Heart which makes Corvo feel like killing is normal or justified. Given these circumstances, the player either gets the “good” or “bad” ending depending on whether they can resist temptation or not. In the High Chaos endings, Corvo gives into the city’s righteous violence, joining gleefully in the dance of destruction. In contrast, the Low Chaos narrative isn’t so much a redemption story as it is the story of a good man who holds onto his morals as the world beats him down. Like Job, Corvo refuses to give into his baser instincts even as his family dies, plagues infect his city, and the heart of his lover feeds him justifications for why he should join the chaos. Now, am I suggesting that Dishonored is re-telling the Book of Job? Not exactly, but I think that it borrows from the narrative, consciously or not.
Dishonored is a complex game with a lot of layers. I’ve praised it in the past for effectively invoking British honor culture, a visually impressive magic system, and mature depiction of 19th century whaling, but the way it manipulates and tempts the player is by far its most impressive deceit. Rather than show Corvo’s internal struggle over whether to use violence, the designers use the Outsider’s gifts to nudge the player to commit violent acts, fully informing them they’re trading long-term prosperity for short-term pleasure and power. This temptation creates an internal narrative as the player tries to resist giving in and becoming one with the city’s violence-a situation that ads layers to what otherwise would be a cut-and-dried moral choice system. The fact that it echoes depictions of Satan isn’t necessarily making a religious statement as much as it’s tapping into older stories guaranteed to resonate with an audience. It’s a sly technique, and the fact that I only noticed it after a year away from Dunwall only makes me admire it more.
After all, the devil with obvious tricks is no devil at all.