This text started growing a few years ago. It grew large and lay dormant for a time. When the masks began to assert themselves, it woke, and stirred. And now that the mask of the Plague is in sight again, this text is mutating, growing new limbs, a time hybrid. In this form, this unexpected strain, it is finally ready to face the world.
A world that allows profound fears of the Plague to rule it, while turning a blind eye to its own slow massive burning and drowning. A world where inevitably the privileged will ensconce themselves in pockets of make-believe safety, content for a while in the delusion that the forces that sweep through the rabble will pass by their door, because they have painted it with the blood of their lessers.
It might, it might not. The poor, the disenfranchised, the Other, are always hit hardest in a crisis, and it is by design. But no one is truly safe. Retribution wears many masks, because any will do. And ultimately, it leaves no house unvisited.
Masks are about identity: in cultural and ritual contexts, they are a way of assuming a different persona, in a playful manner. Especially in group settings such as theatre or a masked ball, both those who wear masks and those who don’t take part in the illusion that the masks replace the original identities of their wearers. Play scholar Roger Caillois expresses it as follows:
[The mask-bearer] forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another. I prefer to designate these phenomena by the term mimicry, the English word for mimetism, notably of insects, so that the fundamental, elementary, and quasi-organic nature of the impulse that stimulates it can be stressed.[Roger Caillois (1961), Man, Play, and Games, p. 19–20]
This usage of masks can be designated as playful, because it relies on that shared illusion of feigned identity. An audience must be willing to pretend that masked and costumed actors represent a character, and guests at a bal masqué must be willing to uphold the mystique. In some cases, the guests will guess the identity of some other guests, and sometimes they will not, and this uncertainty is part of the appeal.
However, a mask can also serve to just hide your own identity, making your person unrecognisable to others:
It is only the spy and the fugitive who disguise themselves to really deceive because they are not playing.[Caillois, p. 21]
To this the superhero must be added, of course. While superheroes do in some sense play a role, they are serious in their pursuits: helping people, usually by beating up bad guys. Their masks protect their everyday identities, and thereby the safety of the people close to them, who might otherwise become the target of evildoers.
The wearing of a mask (or face-covering in a more general sense) can make one anonymous, though of course not necessarily inconspicuous. Covering your face in a cultural space not designated for it makes one stand out all the more. In such cases, the face-covering challenges the social rule that every individual must be recognisable and identifiable to onlookers in public spaces. Of course, such a rule depends on a whole set of cultural practices, and there are many exceptions to it throughout the world.
Finally, a mask may simply serve as a physical barrier between oneself and the Plague.
Dishonored is in many ways a game about masks, and about one in particular: the protagonist Corvo’s mask. This mask is a peculiar one, in the sense that in the game, it doesn’t really hide an identity; instead, it is its wearer’s most important identity marker. The ‘old’ Corvo Attano was in many ways a different man than the new Corvo, who sets out to avenge his lover Empress Jessamine, rescue his daughter princess Emily, and put her on the throne of the city of Dunwall.
At the same time, it is questionable whether masked Corvo is adopting a new identity that is different from his ‘true’ identity. Rather, he transforms, from Lord Protector to avenging spirit, the mask becoming his new face, one that hides the old one that was marked spiritually following Jessamine’s death.
The idea for what was to be Corvo’s mask came to inventor Piero Joplin in a dream, where he saw the looming figure of death staring at him. He created the skull-like mask, without yet knowing who it would be for. Would its wearer become death itself? The implications are interesting given the ways the game can play out. The bearer of the mask is certainly given the power to be a bringer of death to many, but the game can also be completed without killing anyone. The mask does not necessarily guide its bearer.
In series of tweets and follow-up article in 2016, literary scholar and games writer Hazel Monforton explains how Dishonored, through the divine figure of The Outsider, provides Corvo with the powers to either heal the society of Dunwall, or throw it deeper into chaos.
Building on the theories of René Girard, Monforton points out two important principles that are at work in the story of the game. The first is the scapegoat principle; briefly summarised, it holds that in a situation of societal crisis (e.g. during a plague), the scapegoating and sacrifice of a particular figure may trigger a movement towards the cure of society’s ills. While done partly (or mainly) for political reasons, both the assassination of Empress Jessamine at the behest of Spymaster Hiram Burrows and the framing of Corvo for this murder fall under this header, the pair together acting as a scapegoat for the plague of Dunwall. To the people of the city, the murder of their beloved monarch may be seen as the climax of of their crisis, while the apprehension and execution of Corvo was supposed to be the first step towards catharsis and healing.
As Monforton explains, there is a more primal scapegoating as well, namely that of The Outsider himself. He serves as an outcast figure, a focal point of magic’s power in the world, feared and opposed by organisations such as the Abbey of the Everyman, who seek to expunge all traces of the occult, and blame everything that’s wrong in the empire on The Outsider’s influence. In his mythical origins, The Outsider was a boy infused with the powers of the Void in an abusive ritual. He was made into a powerful being, but through no choice of his own. In the game’s present, The Outsider offers some chosen others the choice he never had: power, the freedom to use this power as they see fit, but also the freedom to refuse it.
In short, The Outsider gives Corvo the power to be cure, poison, or a mix of both to the afflicted city of Dunwall and its people. Through his dialogue, we get the sense that The Outsider prefers people to use their powers for healing and justice. However, in my recent playthrough I decided, from a particular moment onward, to embrace the mask. I decided that Corvo was to become a bringer of vengeance and death. And not just any death; it would have to be the Black one.
I don’t know whether I carry the Plague. I have exchanged fluids with people. Has it travelled to me? My blood is being pored over somewhere, by someone. My doctor will inform me. In the mean time, the City is locked down, relatively speaking. All public evens are cancelled, the Citizens are discouraged from travelling. The grip of these changes on their minds seems profound. To those who were already confined to nursing homes, psychiatric wards, refugee camps, and prisons, the difference must be negligible. Except for the fact that the Plague is abroad, and they are forced to wait until it reaches them through whatever unfortunate vector, or hope for evacuation.
We put masks on the Plague and pretend it’s a conscious entity. We say it discriminates, or it doesn’t discriminate, depending on the situation. In the past, it appears as if it did, sometimes. The Plague was something that hit the sexual deviants, the gays, the people with unwanted colours. The chosen people were safe, for they did not traffic with the unclean. Except when they did, and thus became unclean. This is the law of the Plague. To teach when it is clean and when it is unclean.
This time around, it doesn’t appear to bother separating people into arbitrary categories. The fluids the Plague inhabits are cast copiously, by everyone, everywhere. It strikes with less deadly force, as far as we can currently tell, but its reach is far wider. The law breaks down, no matter how hard the chosen people try to uphold it.
In the sixth mission of Dishonored, the masked ball at the Boyle estate is a place forcibly separated from the rest of the city. Just over the walls of the estate, there are houses where plague victims live out their last moments as aggressive Weepers, and all around are the signs of a city in decay. The boundary between the disease-torn city and the estate is enforced by walls and guards. But also by the masks. The carefree aspect of holding a party while surrounded by people in unspeakable agony lends a symbolic layer to the separation. The party guests believe they truly are a different class of people.
Later in the game we are able to learn of that the spread of the plague itself was engineered by the Lord Regent (then Spymaster) Hiram Burrows to rid the city of the poor. Oh how they laugh.
The mask was the best symbol of superiority. In masked societies, the key question is whether one is masked and inspires fear or is not masked and is therefore afraid.[Caillois, p. 105]
But the barrier is not impenetrable. It takes someone with the skills to penetrate the guard barrier to force access to the estate. Someone with a mask of his own.
I hate how ugly and chimæric this text is becoming. I am ashamed of it. I am writing through a mind fog, a consequence of drugs I forced myself to take after another trip to the edge of the Abyss and back. In the mean time, the world is in subtle early stages of mass hysteria. At first I balked at the word, hysteria, used so freely in memes and posts that try to interact with what is going on currently. I have my own history with the word, a religious, philosophical, and emotional investment in it. But it is partly right. It describes people acting out in unpredictable and irrational ways in response to some kind of deep-seated fear or kernel of trauma that is hard to express directly. It forces itself out in random ‘survival strategies’, heightened tensions, xenophobia, obsessive engagement with information and news, etc.
In myself too, things have been stirring. The fear of the Plague brings out my morbidity and Todestrieb, my rebellion in the face of calls for safety and responsibility, my desire to (cry-)laugh in the face of impending doom, and my tendencies to aestheticise everything. I do not act upon it, because this side of me is tempered by others. But if there would be any indication that the time for safety and precaution is past, and that there is nothing more an individual can do to save lives, I’ll be on the front lines. I’ll put the fest in ad mortem festinamus.
The conceit of Corvo showing up at the party wearing his own mask is a powerful one. No one suspects that the ‘real’ Corvo—known to the aristocracy as the Masked Felon—would be so daring as to show up as himself, ergo, it must be someone else with a wry sense of humour. Sure, let’s dress up as the infamous masked assassin that the nobility is starting to fear. Or it may also be that the partygoers simply can’t conceive of any unwanted guest being able to break through the layered barrier they’ve set up that night.
Corvo’s, as said, doesn’t really function as a mask in the traditional sense. However, in the context of the Boyle estate, it does, since the people there can’t imagine it being anything else. It is this—and the pilfering of an invitation or other means of entry, of course—that allows him to attend the party without suspicion. He is hidden in plain sight.
Corvo’s mask isn’t the only important one at the party: the hostesses themselves, Lady Boyle and her two sisters, have a little trick of their own. They all wear identical masks, but simply in different colours (red, white, and black). They’ve made it into a game to have the guests guessing as to which sister is which, and at least one of them plans to use this temporary blurring of identities for sexual license, according to her journal.
I’m sick to death. Not of the people who are doing what they can to protect themselves and their kin. Not even, really, of those who are indifferent to the threat of disease and put themselves and others at risk by going out. They are wrong, and irresponsible, acting like swarming rats. But I’m not that sick of them. I see in them part of me. I’m especially not sick of those who risk their own health and safety to help others. Blessed be our masked healers.
I’m sick to death of the ones in power who tarry to take necessary measures, who refuse to see that human lives are more than percentages of mortality and statistics, who put their precious ephemeral ‘economy’ above those lives. Sick to death of those who herd the unwanted into camps and take no heed for their safety when the Plague rears its head. Sick to death of the ones who argue that a culling of ‘the weak and the elderly’ would be good for us. I’m sick to death of you, and the Plague will come for you too. Soon. It only needs to find the right vector.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death”, the thousand-strong nobility at a secluded masked ball are disturbed by an unexpected guest. The stranger, dressed and masked as a victim of the Red Death, penetrates the seventh of the ball’s mysterious chambers, finally bringing the plague raging in the land outside into the heart of a corrupt ruling class that had sought to shield itself from it, to feast in decadence while the people perished. The parallels to this particular episode in Dishonored are unmistakable.
In that spirit, during my playthrough, I decided to bring the plague within the Boyle Estate’s guarded walls. Corvo is himself of foreign and lower class origin. Who better to act as the vector that would make the plague a true equaliser?
To Corvo the mask game of the Boyle sisters is of little consequence. While the goals of the mission state that you should eliminate Lady Boyle in particular, it has no qualms at all about you killing all of them. In choosing to embody the rat plague, I never had to go to the trouble of finding out which sister was which. Once I unleashed chaos on the party, and the sisters had locked themselves in their rooms, I simply had Corvo visit each of them in turn, unleashing a devouring swarm of rats on them as they begged for a mercy they didn’t deserve.
Having everybody devoured by rats is what the game considers “High Chaos”. The Outsider isn’t particularly thrilled if you use his powers to push the city deeper into its own death, as is evidenced by his tone when you finish the game in High Chaos mode. All the same, it is a choice he allowed you to make, to be the cure for an ailing city, or the poison that puts it out of its misery.
Isn’t it a bit messed up that it doesn’t seem to matter that many citizens of Dunwall are already dead or dying, but Corvo unleashing the rats on a few nobles causes High Chaos? Here’s where the game’s rhetoric breaks down, in my opinion.
High Chaos is already there, the whole time, because people are dying to the Plague. To have it reach those who think themselves better would be mere justice.
There may not be enough masks to protect our healers, because those with the means and the audacity to have been hoarding them.
The Plague laughs behind its mask, because it can wear any.