Building an environment is no easy feat. An environment is not a ‘map’, it’s a lived in space. It’s an area conscious of its context, a place that understands and supports the events that occur in its space. The best environments have history, they have story, and they have character. Which is why the standout character in Dishonored 2 isn’t human, nor beast. It’s the city, Karnaca.
Dishonored gave us Dunwall; a dark and dingy Dickensian London mix of two parts whale oil to three parts soot, with a shot of whiskey to taste. The dank stone tenements confidently shoulder the overcast skies, but the interior plasterwork struggles against the cold humidity – peeling and showing signs of damp. The city itself is a clear metaphor for the themes explored in the narrative; deception, political intrigue and inner decay – but it’s also a city unto itself. The environment is architecturally consistent throughout, and decisions had clearly been made regarding the character of the districts the player moves through. Decay, for instance, is clearly felt in the working class, gang heavy, fishing districts – where boarded up houses are heavy with the bodies of the dead, and collapsed ceilings give access to otherwise inaccessible flats.
Karnaca is an entirely different city. The cloudy skies are swept clear by tremendous winds, channelled through the alleys and gullies hidden within the mountains. Further south than Dunwall, Karnaca benefits from a far warmer climate, which influences the architecture significantly; high ceilings, large openable windows and extensive balconies. There is an emphasis on plazas and public spaces, streets lined with market stalls and forgotten stock – indicating that the weather is conductive to working outside (to a degree). Interiors are lined with light net curtains, walls painted in summery pastel colours and an absence of large fireplaces. Summer extends into the home in Karnaca. The outside is invited in at every opportunity, which is drastically different to the approach in Dunwall, where the architecture is constantly keeping the dreariness out.
Later, the player experiences these winds through dust storms. Stirring up the dust from the mining areas further inland, the fierce winds gather the sandy soil and hurl it through the streets of the city. I found myself comparing these infrequent storms with the Bora; a katabaric wind that tears through Croatia, Italy, Bulgaria and others. This stormy current blows through late autumn and winter, creating sea smoke on coastal areas, tearing up trees, freezing oceans and throwing fish out of the sea. But the in-game storm is not simply a visual gimmick; it’s also a power source. Wind turbines twisting in gale force winds help to power the observation towers and electrical gates that impede your progress.
There is a clear understanding of cause and effect in the world design of Dishonored 2. Sachka Duval admits as much in his exchange with Motherboard when asked about the supposed 4,000 year imagined history of Karnaca; “Of course, the game can’t hold 4,000 years all in it, but it gives you a sense that you’re looking at an iceberg.” He later states, “You cannot build a city if you don’t think about the past of that city […] For Karnaca, we started two centuries before the action takes place.’ The storms, the narrow alleys, and the variations in aesthetic design in Dishonored 2 hints at that extensive history in a way that feels naturally chaotic. Karnaca is a character because it’s aspects are so human – the city design is so ramshackle – considered – but uncoordinated. Years of change have shaped the cities growth through abandonment, prosperity, immigration and resettlement.
But the people of Dishonored have to live with the decisions of the past; the poor tuck themselves behind the shielding walls of long abandoned buildings – tenements left to rot in the path of the dust storms. Other buildings have been repurposed or continue to see regular use. These combined create an interesting dynamic in the city, where there is at once a sense of hopelessness, homelessness, and unsettling upper class comfort. There is no real ‘inbetween’, no middle class – only excess and absence. Environmental storytelling at its finest – using architecture and urban degredation to highlight corruption and political mismanagement.
It could even be said that many of the environments act as metaphors for specific characters. Consider A Crack in the Slab; the rotten, paint-stripped, mouldy mansion of the present mirrors completely the mental fatigue of Aramis Stilton. His mutterings in the present allude to the past, which indicate the focus of his damaged psyche. The timepiece handed to you by the Outsider allows you to shift between the broken present and the grandious, splendorous past. The sturdy nature of the building in its prime reflects the Duke’s social, economic and psychological standing. This is also true in the Clockwork Mansion; the mechanical nature of the building echoes the mental processes of Kirin Jindosh.
More can be seen when these two levels are compared to one another. The Clockwork Mansion is mechanical, sure – but it’s aesthetic design is more modern and minimal than that seen in the Dukes Manor. Jindosh’s mansion features the art nouveau swirls we see throughout the game, but the rooms glint and shine with brass and steel, there is a focus on stiff, straight walls and boxy corridors. It focusses on the internal rather than the external – though it could be argued that in the Clockwork Mansion the spaces between rooms that house the machinery is the levels version of outside space. This internalisation again echoes the mentality of the character the building represents – Jindosh, inventor and genius, living in a mad mansion on the fringes of town, in an enormous steel and glass house on the edge of a cliff.
The Duke’s Manor is constructed around guests, parties and entertaining visitors. Rooms are filled with pianos and lavish decorations. Framed artworks, benches in corridors, and a number of internal gardens. The building itself is located in a central area of town; surrounded by tenements and other decaying noble houses. It’s no surprise that the seance was held here, and that very event recalls the Victorian fascinaton with ghosts, spiritualism and psychic phenomenon. I’d even posit that the Manor is a microcosm of Karnaca; it’s past offers the player a glimpse of a city that benefited extensively from trade, a city free from the dust storms that now batter its citizens. The internal/external movements copy your own movements through the city to a large interior location, then through to another, and another.
Much has been written about the similarities between Karnaca and Cuban, Spanish, French and even Italian styles, but the game so smoothly blends these influences that they’re hard to grasp definitely. In Inverse‘s article with Sebastien Mitton (Art Director, Arkane Studios), Mitton places Karnaca within a Mediterranean climate, “with crescent-shaped shorelines and a giant port” and the European street design is evident – with alleyways and hidden plazas that resemble the tucked away gardens of Venice, or even the closes of Edinburgh. Yet the ornamentation is suggestive of the Italian Liberty style, fused with Gothic, Art Nouveau/Deco and into more modern finishes.
For many of us, however, Karnaca is an exotic location, which makes the sense of desolation and abandonment feel all the more present. Dunwall was a rainy, grey, slate-topped, Londonesque, pseudo-Gotham city, and this negative, somewhat oppressive environment legitimised abandonment. Who would want to live in a city where it rains all the time? In a city drowning in plague? But Karnaca’s pleasant and exotic aesthetic befuddles the player. A gorgeous flat with high ceilings situated on the corner of a street in the centre of town with views over to the sea should, theoretically, be more than habitable. But the flat is uninhabited. Abandonment doesnt necessarily mean destruction, and Dishonored 2 makes a further statement – that no one is safe. That even the most stable countries, cities or empires can come crashing down. An exotic environment. A pleasant sunset. Deep, clear blue seas. They mean nothing if people are pressured to the extent that they no longer feel comfortable in their environs.
Karnaca is an accomplished environment that I am more than willing to lose myself in over and over again. It’s strength lies in the developers dedication to building a history for this fictional location, giving it breath (albeit, breath full of dust), and then populating these environments with posters, colourful characters and fallen buildings.