Story Analysis: Dishonored 2 Has a Protagonist Problem

[ Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers for Dishonored 2. ]

Delilah Copperspoon was the product of an affair between a servant and the Emperor of the Isles, shuffled off to the side like so many other royal bastards. A lie from her half-sister and future Empress, Jessamine Kaldwin, got Delilah and her mother kicked out onto the street. Her mother died in a debtor’s prison while Delilah was out begging. By all accounts, when Jessamine died, Delilah should have been a contender to the throne, finally receiving some modicum of justice for her years of torment. After all, with the release of Dishonored 2, the Dishonored series has borne out themes of unjust rule, reclaiming what’s yours, and justice by any means necessary. Write out Delilah’s story in plain text and she looks like a perfect Video Game Protagonist. In any other story, she would be the hero, looking to depose an impotent, inattentive ruler.

Delilah Copperspoon is not the hero of Dishonored 2. She’s a sadistic, brutal, conniving villain, front-loaded with negative traits in what feels like a desperate attempt to stave off the obvious: she does kinda have a point.

In Dishonored 2, I chose to play as Emily Kaldwin, because she was in the E3 reveal trailer, she’s the character you play in the tutorial, and the story feels like it was written for her (with Corvo as an option for players who want to just Blink like normal without any sort of magic tendrils involved). Emily is no longer the scared little girl from Dishonored — she’s a full-fledged Empress with years of combat training, courtesy of her father Corvo Attano. She’s bored of the throne, as is so often the case, and wishes for a little more excitement. Uh-oh! A group of usurpers are here to kick her off the throne and install Delilah. As the proverbial monkey’s paw curls, Emily is suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world: the slums and alleyways of her Empire’s southernmost point.

Such is the long game of Dishonored 2 The Streets, where Emily learns to better appreciate her station in life and vows to become a better empress. It reads like a darker version of The Prince and the Pauper (Trading Places, if you’re nasty), where the only way to appreciate privilege is to see how the other half lives. There’s certainly a ring of truth to that — both in real life and in the game itself — but Dishonored 2 seems to assume Emily will be a more sympathetic character by virtue of no longer living in an ivory tower filled with gold. I imagine it would be difficult for most players to relate, giving her a disadvantage from the moment you’re put in control.

It’s great that Emily is an active character in her own narrative; reclaiming her old life and saving her father from Delilah’s clutches is a definable, concrete goal and she’s constantly making proactive strides towards that endpoint. But the Empire shown in Dishonored 2 is a mean, antagonistic place, and it’s clearly Emily’s fault. Her character arc comes at the expense of many innocent lives, even if you’re playing non-lethally. This isn’t even an extrapolation on my part, characters repeatedly tell Emily that everything would be much better if she had been a more attentive ruler instead of getting down with anonymous nobles and sneaking out of the tower. Maybe there would be fewer plagues, maybe the nobles would be less excited to usher in a new Empress, maybe she would have a group of Loyalists of her own to form a resistance. The Crown Killer wouldn’t have been a viable plan if people thought she was a great leader.

Obviously, if you want to get into some old-fashioned Murder She Did, then Emily’s arc takes a whole different path, but we’re operating under the assumption that Low Chaos is canon, as was the case with the first Dishonored and its associated DLC. High Chaos Emily is a terrible person and I don’t really need to argue my case. But the version of Emily the game presents as the hero, the good person walking on the side of the angels, is still not an ideal hero. She freely admits that she’s been a crummy ruler, and it’s hard to side against her dissenters on principle alone.

Maybe if Dishonored 2 was trying to paint both sides of the conflict as painting with shades of grey, leaving it up to the player to choose whether Emily takes the high road and disproves her detractors or whether she stoops to their level, that would be a different conversation entirely. In reality, the game makes your foes so heinous that Emily looks like Jesus 2: The Sequel by comparison. The game takes great pains to portray each member of the coup as a cartoonishly evil mustache twirler: Delilah performs nightmarish experiments on humans and wants to create a magic painting that will rewrite all of reality, the Duke of Serkonos is a horrible tyrant that profits off the misery of his lower-class subjects, the Crown Killer is a Jekyll & Hyde-esque blood-stained monstrosity who also performs nightmarish experiments on humans, and Jindosh the inventor performs nightmarish experiments on humans and, uh, taunts you like GLADOS.

For a game that spends so much time lambasting the ineffective ruling class, it’s curious that Dishonored 2 would give its starring roles to an aristocrat and her bodyguard. Yes, Corvo works better as a counterpoint to Delilah, a man who pulled himself up from poverty to a noble station without turning into a violent cannibal, but nothing else about the story feels like it would fit with Corvo as the main character. It’s Emily’s throne to lose, her blood relative orchestrating the coup, her good name smeared. 

The main antagonist is a lower-class revolutionary who overthrew a ruler who was blind to the ails of the working man — Delilah’s last name is Copperspoon, for God’s sake — but she also happens to be a literal witch because otherwise players would be constantly wondering why they should be putting Emily back on the throne. I suppose Emily not being a literal cannibal like her aunt is good enough for Arkane, but it’s not good enough for me.