Like all games that support stealth, Dishonored can be played by silently watching other people from the shadowy wings. In playing through the E3 demo mission without killing anyone, you’ll need to trail behind guards, eavesdropping on idle conversation to learn who’s running the show, what areas are most heavily guarded, and who might have certain items, like a key to one of the area’s protected rooms.
In most games this is accomplished just by waiting at corners and crouching in shadows, but Dishonored adds the ability to stare in at characters through keyholes. It’s a small touch but frames the idea of eavesdropping in an uncomfortably invasive way. Staring through the keyhole, the angle of view is limited, leaving you looking at elbows, waistlines, and potted plants while listening to people engaged in private conversation.
It’s one thing to follow a pair of guards around a semi-public space listening to their chatter, but it’s a much darker thing to look in on them through a closed door. That particular barrier is an unambiguous symbol that the people on the other side wanted their exchange to occur in privacy. Staring in through a keyhole is a conscious violation of that wish in a way that listening in on a courtyard conversation isn’t.
The sense of intimate intrusion is intensified by the setting of the demo, a brothel where one of the assassination targets is to be found in a towertop bedroom chatting with a prostitute in sheer pink lingerie. There is no sex to be seen through these keyhole stakeouts, but the insinuation given by the setting makes that stealthiness feel even more taboo.
The twisted grace note to this invasive surveillance comes with a possession mechanic that allows you to literally inhabit another person’s body. You can possess everything from a fish swimming in a nearby river to guards or the brothel’s prostitutes themselves. As if reminding you of how disturbingly immoral it is to occupy another person’s consciousness the game shows the conclusion of these moments with the subject suddenly convulsing in sickness, vomiting in response to the foreign presence.
In an age of unease over what is public and private information, the framing of stealth and surveillance in Dishonored has an especially uncomfortable resonance.