You might think Dishonored’s Outsider is an angry god, a Loki-style trickster, or perhaps a bored deity who exists solely to tempt mortals into hurting each other. In both games, he’s always there behind the scenes, seemingly pulling the strings. But there’s much more to this otherworldly observer than it seems.
If you like Dishonored 2, check out our list of the best games of 2016.
Violence doesn’t please the Outsider - it only compounds his cynicism, his seething hatred for a dirty world that betrayed him. I only came to realise this truth when I read a tweet thread by Hazel Monforton, one of the writers on Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, following the release of Dishonored 2.
In the thread, Monforton likens the Outsider to pharmakos, an ancient Greek ritual where a slave, disabled person, or a criminal takes on the role of a human scapegoat and is expelled from a community during times of turmoil. The sins of the Greeks are cast onto these victims and they become literal outsiders. As we learn in Dishonored 2, the Outsider was once a human who was sacrificed for similar reasons by an unknown cult. Now, from the void between worlds, he bestows powers on the less fortunate.
Monforton’s observations were so accurate that they caught the attention of Dishonored game director Harvey Smith, and he asked her to work on the upcoming, Outsider-centric standalone expansion. Imagine doing tweets so good that you’re hired by Harvey Smith.
That’s not to say Monforton lacks the credentials, however. For years prior she’d been exploring untold stories in games, digging into things that are hinted at but not quite fully fleshed out in game worlds, writing her own fanfiction to explore a game’s themes. In education, Monforton gained a first class degree at Lancaster University in English and Creative Writing, she has a master’s degree in Women’s Studies at Oxford, and she’s currently undergoing a PhD at Durham University in English Literature - her research focused on ritual violence and women’s writing. Yes, ritual violence.
While Death of the Outsider is the first game she has worked on, those studies give Monforton a unique perspective on the Outsider. That’s essentially what drew Smith to her take on the Dishonored mythos. Monforton herself tells me she was pulled to Dishonored a different way: by realising she could hide under tables.
“I can’t believe I can do this,” she remembers thinking while crouched underneath one such piece of furniture, eavesdropping on High Overseer Campbell. “I can just be under the table and hear all this shit go down. I had switched the poison in the glasses, so I watched as he poisoned himself and he fell over, and he looked right at me. I was like ‘Haha, I got you’. It was really cool to have that moment emerge from what I’d done.”
This anecdote distills Monforton’s love for the series. While, for me, Dishonored is a game about stabbing people in increasingly creative ways, Monforton was drawn to Dunwall, to the rats, to the institutions and characters of Arkane’s world. “I like that element,” she tells me, “the eavesdropping and exploring such an intricate world where characters have all their own motivations.”
Regarding the Outsider in particular, Monforton didn’t realise his true nature until the second game, following a scene that shows his creation via ritualistic sacrifice. “It’s very easy to read him as a trickster god and that’s what I did in the beginning,” Monforton explains. “He does kind of meddle, but he does so in a way that I didn’t really pick up on first - he wants you to make moral choices and he cynically assumes that you will kill everybody, but he’s kind of pleased when you don’t.
“It took me a while to piece that together with what we learned about the Outsider’s backstory. It was when I made that connection with sacrifice and ideas of curative violence being used in a ritual context against scapegoats, I figured it out and that opened up the game’s themes for me in a lot of ways. ‘Eldritch twink Jesus’ sort of encapsulates how I feel about that character - he’s an androgynous-looking figure who has these Lovecraftian elements, he’s in the Void, he’s this spectral ‘other’ that’s reviled by the church institutions, but he’s also a victim of ritual violence, like Jesus.”
Monforton later turned these thoughts into an excellent PC Gamer article, and shortly after its publication, she was working with Arkane as a remote freelancer. Monforton and Smith became Twitter mutuals and the pair used to chat about Dishonored and its themes prior to the article’s publication, but this must have been what embedded his faith in her that she truly understood the source material.
That article was originally published because the commissioning editor saw Monforton’s tweet thread. It was then passed around and enjoyed by the staff at Arkane, serving as an icebreaker for Monforton when she went down to the Lyon studio to work for a week when she was drafted onto the project. “Every contact and paying gig I’ve had in the game industry and around the game industry is through Twitter,” Monforton tells me. “It’s a great networking tool. I think we can forget how great Twitter can be, between the Nazis, the beef, and the discourse. It’s how I’ve met a lot of really cool people and got these opportunities.”
Monforton was brought onto Death of the Outsider at the same time as Anna Megill, a senior game writer who currently works at Remedy. Megill, a seasoned professional, wrote dialogue for a host of characters in collaboration with Smith and lead narrative designer Sachka Sandra Duval. Monforton focused more on main-path cinematics, collaborating with Smith and Duval to write dialogue for the three lead characters and to help flesh out the lore.
“Anything that was lore-heavy was assigned to me,” Monforton explains. “I had a lot of responsibility, but it was really thrilling. For the main characters, for Billie Lurk - so, Rosario Dawson - and Daud - Michael Madsen - I sat in on their recording sessions. I was there to give a little context to lines when they needed it, and to kind of redirect stuff to help them understand the tone or the emotions happening in those particular lines. It was really fun to hear these things I’d helped work on come to life.”
Despite the months of writing work, Monforton can’t wait to get her hands on Death of the Outsider to see it come alive properly. Being remote, often sitting in on recording sessions over Skype at 3am from her bed, Monforton’s influence on the game has been like an ethereal arm reaching over to Lyon. It must be surreal for the Dishonored fan to see her passion for the game bleed into such an important project. In that way, Monforton has taken on the role of the Outsider herself, tugging away behind the scenes. I guess that means Twitter really is the Void.
We have a hands-on preview of Dishonored: Death of the Outsider going live at 08:00 (BST) tomorrow, August 24.