Panoptic Power | Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

Visibility is a trap.” – Michel Foucault

In his seminal work, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault illustrates how cities sought to contain outbreaks of plague by means of:

“strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death…It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.”

Foucault’s description is at the service of his social theory known as Panopticism, the idea that behavior can be controlled and modified through the built environment. While he is describing a seventeenth century city struck with plague, his description echoes that of another setting, the world of Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

The Dishonored series has always relied on an overarching narrative thread to justify its need for a panoptic built environment. The first entry in the series saw players fight against violent political upheaval in the shadow of the increasingly overwhelming rat plague, which provided the context for a city under surveillance, on lockdown. Walking watchtowers known as “tallboys” empowered authorities with a bird’s-eye view of the city. Series mainstays like fortified checkpoints, deadly arc walls and floors, religious zealots, and fanatical cultists created “spatial partitioning” formed obstacles for the player to overcome. While the original Dishonored was responsible for making the mould, Dishonored 2 continued to build upon that foundation by relocating the franchise to the arid city of Karnaca amid a political coup which once again led to the fortification and territorialisation of its urban spaces. Death of the Outsider sees players remain in Karnacca, but in the role of thief and murderer Billie Lurk. Abandoning political crisis and plague, Death of the Outsider resorts to Billie’s criminal past as well as the eradication of heretical cults to maintain the narrative need for the series defining panopticism.

Sight being utilized as the ultimate disciplinary force

The key to Death of the Outsider‘s panoptic architecture lies in the theoretical building type known as the Panopticon from which Foucault’s theory gets its name. Originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in the seventeenth century, the Panopticon is architecture’s answer to the problem of surveillance. If, as Le Corbusier says, the house is a machine for living, than the Panopticon is a machine for discipline. The hypothetical building places a single guard at the center of a circular gallery with a clear line of sight into every cell, cage, or labratory on a particular floor. Each room is lit in a particular way so that the watchmen at the center can easily observe each rooms’ occupants while remaining unseen. The purpose of the Panopticon is not to constantly observe each cell simultaneously, that would be impossible for a single guard to do. The Panopticon is designed precisely to overcome the practical limitations of individual human guards by hiding them within an omnipresent monument to the power of the state. Those subject to its power are forced to operate under the assumption that they are constantly being watched; therefore creating a psychological effect of self-censorship, in which they “discipline” themselves for constant fear of being caught misbehaving. Foucault describes it as, “a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogenous effects of power.” That power stems from sight being utilized as the ultimate disciplinary force.

Those under the subjugation of Panopticism live in constant, paralyzing fear of being seen being somewhere or doing something from which they are prohibited. Death of the Outsider fully embraces this innate power of sight in multiple regards. While the game’s outdoor spaces masquerade as a stage for a civil and obedient culture, behind closed doors society shows its true colors as the morally corrupt thrive, and civic order unravels. If Panopticism is intended to create order and discipline through sight, it only stands to reason that a lack of surveillance would encourage, or at the very least, allow for more nefarious deeds. While the clear delineation between the rules of acceptability across indoor and outdoor spaces may initially seem to encourage players to behave in a particular manner, the truth is that the logic behind the surveilled streets and the concealed apartments, clubs, and basements also allows for Death of the Outsider’s citizens to exercise their perversions. In one level, a religion cult operates a secret underground boxing ring. In another, a heavily guarded private club enables the social elite of that cult to siphon blood from the homeless to experience a drug-like euphoria. One particular instance off the beaten path sees a local taxidermist who welcomes the player into her store, by all appearances she is an upstanding citizen. However, investigate her basement and you’ll soon discover she kidnaps and imprisons people to feed them to her bloodflies so she can incinerate their bodies and harvest the resulting blood amber. Moral depravity continuously lies just underneath the surface.

Panoptic power can empower and corrupt a ruling order

While Death of the Outsider establishes and abides by the rules of Panopticism, it goes so far as to weave in sight into its narrative. It is no coincidence that the fanatical cult who serve as the main antagonists and conduct illicit activities refer to themselves as “The Eyeless.” The name serves as a show of devotion to their deity, the The Outsider, an immortal eyeless man capable of granting immense power who is an everlasting presence in the series lore. His worship is seen as heretical and his followers frequently disobey societal decorum in an effort to be acknowledged or marked by him. The Eyeless are not the only enemy faction, they (and the player) must contend with the ruling religious group of watchmen (and personal embodiment of Panopticism) known as “Overseers.” On the surface, these law abiding religious enforcers are tasked with sniffing out and eliminating all those who practice heresy. However, the truth of the matter is that the Overseers possess the same capacity for moral depravity as The Eyeless and while the latter exercises it in the shadows as a classic example of rebelling against Panopticism, the former proves an example of the ways in which panoptic power can empower and corrupt a ruling order. While The Eyeless and the Overseers stand as factions built on opposing philosophies, in truth they embody two sides of the same coin.

Until now, Panopticism has only been discussed in relatively convention means as a result of infrastructure and an totalitarian ruling class. Yet, Death of the Outsider emboldens the player to fight against these oppressive disciplinary tactics by allowing them to use panopticism to their advantage. One would be remiss to examine the panoptic nature of Dishonored without discussing the unique powers at the player’s disposal. These powers, granted by the Outsider, allow the player to escape the panoptic confines of the built environment and perpetuated by the Overseers. In many ways, Dishonored has come to be defined by these unique abilities and proves that, even here among the supernatural, sight is the ultimate power.

“They can see everything, even inside my mind”

Equipped with fewer powers than previous protagonists Corvo or Emily before her, Billie must make the most of what she is given. While “Displace” is used primarily for traversal, her other abilities showcase the power and potential to wield sight as a weapon. Designed for infiltration, “Semblance” allows the player to adopt the visage of an citizen for the purpose of sneaking into locations under a false guise. “Semblance” exists because of the fact that Billie is a criminal whose very existence and appearance is beyond the limits of acceptability in Karnaca. Rather than being restricted to the alleyways and shadows, “Semblance” allows the player to hide in plain sight. Billie’s last ability fully embraces the power of complete perception. Called “Foresight,” Billie’s surveillance power is a modified version of “Dark Vision” from the previous games. “Foresight” not only lets Billie see through solid objects, perceive enemy cones of vision, and tag those enemies, but it lets her move throughout the environment. Couple that movement with the ability to use “Displace” and “Foresight” allows her to access previously unreachable locations. Not only does the power render opaque surfaces transparent, but it allows the player to ignore the restrictive and oppressive built environment. Death of the Outsider, just like Bentham’s Panopticon, gives authority to the ruling bodies by equipping them with the principles of Panopticism. “Foresight” and “Semblance” seek to balance the playing field and empower the player through sight.

While Death of the Outsider is filled with subversive references to Panopticism and the power dynamic it creates through optics, Arkane Studios utilized the Overseers as a direct example of panopticism acting on the occult. One particular stage sees players visiting the Royal Conservatory. Once occupied by witches, the building has since been purged of all heretics by Overseers and members of the so-called “Oracular Order.” The district has been put under quarantine and in many ways resembles Foucault’s description of plague era Panopticism. Shut out from the rest of the city, the Overseers need not pretend to uphold decorum. They can enact swift murderous genocide on the occult-worshipping witches of the conservatory. While murder and fanaticism are par for the course in Death of the Outsider, the objects of true note are the quarantine posters. It is in these posters that one finds an edict which—were it not for a few choice words—would fit right onto the pages of Disciple and Punish:

“By order of the Abbey of the Everyman, Cyria Gardens District is closed for quarantine. All residents are to evacuate the area immediately. There will be no entry until the sisters of the Oracular Order complete their thorough investigation of heretical acts at the Royal Conservatory. Trespassers will be arrested on suspicion of blasphemous activities. Look to the strictures. Watch over one another. And remain faithful to the abbey.”

“It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place”

If the scene outside of the Royal Conservatory is a direct reference to Foucault, then one need only venture inside its walls to witness the twisted implications of Bentham’s machine. Players who find themselves in the basement of the conservatory will discover that not only have the Overseers murdered the witches, but that they are imprisoning and torturing them beforehand. Dispose of all the Overseers and you’ll find a single witch, broken and beaten, both physically and spiritually. Free her from her confines and she’ll tell you about the suffering she’s endured. One particular sentence stands out among all the horror, “They can see everything, even inside my mind.” The purpose of the panopticon is to impose on the subject the idea that they are being surveilled at all times. This is meant to create a debilitating effect by which the subject believes their actions and even thoughts are being observed. The witch, confined to a quarantined district, trapped in a conservatory, and imprisoned in a cell proclaims that the Overseers can see everything, “even inside my mind.” Her words attest to the effectiveness of panopticism.

In a game that relies so heavily on the built environment to not only confine, but also facilitate movement and experience an understanding of the nature by which the architectural space is constructed is crucial. The nature of world of Death of the Outsider lies in its utilization of panopticism as its guiding design principle, not just in the construction of space and narrative, but in its design of gameplay. The world is meant to feel confining, yet exploitable. It is in the exploitation of it, through sight, that the player is able to feel that they have broken free from the oppressive nature of the panoptic world. The truth of Death of the Outsider lies in the interplay it creates with sight, space, and power and the manner in which each of those seemingly disparate principles fundamentally relies upon an understanding of Panopticism and the ways in which sight can simultaneously subjugate and empower.

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