Space and Place in Karnaca

The idea that space might be more than just a hollow void into which ‘real things’ are placed goes all the way back to Aristotle. We can shape space, but it can also shape us. This means that rooms, buildings, and cities aren’t just passive expressions of popular taste: they’re sites of social negotiation.

Architecture can be a powerful tool. Built environments create a pervasive sense of place that affects our understanding of the natural order, limits our worldview, and structures our interpersonal relationships - usually to the sole benefit of the already rich and powerful. Simply put: space is a machine for producing and reproducing the dominant social system.

What better way could there be to pull at the seams of a social system than (immersive) simulation? In creating Karnaca, the developer of Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider, Arkane, put together an elaborate critique of class-based societies. Themes like wealth, status, entitlement, and corruption were given spatial expression in ways that go beyond mere game assets. Arkane somehow succeeded in turning Karnaca into a living, breathing, weeping city.

How did Arkane manage to make the city seem so lifelike?

Nestled in a deep valley between towering peaks, verticality is Karnaca’s most apparent physical feature. The city slinks up the slopes of the surrounding terrain like a virtual Rio de Janeiro. It’s hemmed in by mountains on all but one side.

Karnaca is structured by its vertical relationships

Verticality structures Karnaca’s physical geography, but also its human geography. Gawking at the commoners below, the wealthy wine and dine far above sea level in districts like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria. The poor hole themselves up in low-lying areas like the Campo Seta Dockyards. The Clockwork Mansion is a case in point: it visually dominates the surrounding cityscape. Kirin Jindosh looms large over Karnaca from this privileged position atop a stone spire in Upper Aventa. Gliding over the gap from the main district, players even teeter into his residence on a purposefully precarious elevated tram line.

The Clockwork Mansion dominates the city around it

What about the Dust District? Home to a street gang known as the Howlers, the Dust District is Karnaca’s haven for the downtrodden masses. This wasn’t always the case. While dilapidated in the present timeline, some of the Dust District’s earlier denizens were far from frugal - Aramis Stilton in particular. His mansion speaks for itself in either state, but the source of his former glory left an even more painful reminder of wealth and privilege: silver dust. Those greedy Howlers are literally coughing up cash.

Stilton's house in all its present glory

Related to verticality is the divide between organic and synthetic. Similar to so many things in Serkonos, nature’s grasp on Karnaca seems to weaken with distance from sea level.

The Campo Seta Dockyards are literally bursting with life. Mostly animal. The unbroken stream of whale guts running down its main thoroughfare even turns the place into a bona fide blood bath. But the vegetable kingdom also lays claim to the Campo Seta Dockyards. The district is cracking at the seams with scruffy trees, unkempt shrubs, wild grass, and every other kind of overgrowth. The building materials used in the area mostly reflect this bent for the biological: wood, stone, plaster, and a few stucco fittings for much-needed flair.

The Campo Seta Dockyards are a literal blood bath

Karnaca’s elite don’t bother with degradable materials - they build to last. The use of glass and metal for construction is noticeably more common in districts like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria than elsewhere in the city. But that’s only half the story. In contrast to the Campo Seta Dockyards, both districts try to curtail the forces of nature through art and artifice. The trees are trimmed, the shrubs are shorn, and the grass is nicely mowed. The wealthy clearly prefer to keep nature on the defensive.

The streets of Upper Cyria look pretty clean

The Royal Conservatory provides an interesting example of this war being waged on mother nature. Similar to the Addermire Institute, the Royal Conservatory is basically the pretentious paternalism of Karnaca’s elite having been made manifest. The Addermire Institute was founded to manipulate human bodies. The Royal Conservatory was founded to manipulate animal ones.

Located in the district called Cyria Gardens, the Royal Conservatory is an imposing structure of brick, iron, and glass. Tall windows, high ceilings, and a huge dome help to communicate the building’s role as an envelope for nature’s marvelous oddities: dozens of slain, slaughtered, and stuffed animals.

The Royal Conservatory preserves the mummified remains of many different species

Was cleanliness ever truly next to godliness? Well, it certainly isn’t in Serkonos. The wealthy are pretty corrupt in Karnaca, but they definitely have some nice digs. Take the time to sneak around some of the richer districts and you’ll find very little grime. (But lots of grimy people).

Few places in Karnaca exude privilege quite like Upper Cyria. With its perfectly clean and polished streets, the district’s remarkable spotlessness plays a big part in this. The resulting impression is even a bit overwhelming. Everything is trim and tidy enough to make you wonder what the wealthy do with all their trash. Maybe they blow it downslope? This would scarcely be surprising given their other predations on the poor. Never trust anybody who exploits workers, tramples on mobility rights, or performs human sacrifice for sport.

The wealthy have it rather easy in Karnaca

The Campo Seta Dockyards may offer a gorgeous view of Karnaca Bay, but they still fail to attract any refined residents. (Emily Kaldwin doesn’t count). Maybe it’s the muck? With its broken windows and peeling paint, the signs of decay and disrepair don’t take long to come across. The district is crammed with clutter. Graffiti adorn the walls. Filled with piles of random junk and overturned furniture, even the inhabited parts look strangely abandoned.

The streets are a mess in the Campo Seta Dockyards

The wealthy seem to get more personal space in Karnaca, too.

Creep around Upper Cyria for long enough and you’ll pick up on something strange: there’s nobody around. The guards are plentiful, but where is everyone else? In a town where even mimes can attract attention, you might expect a small crowd of loafers, loungers, and lingerers to be out and about on such a sunny day. They’d probably find the sweeper in Malveros Victory Plaza to be quite the stir. Maybe somebody locked them inside the Spectator Cub? There is of course a more likely explanation than a Howler conspiracy: Upper Cyria was designed this way. The district is a gated community for the one percent of people who can afford a bit of leg and elbow room.

Upper Cyria is (literally) a gated community

The poorest parts of Karnaca stand in total opposition to Upper Cyria. Flush with the sights and sounds of city life, the streets are comparably teeming with activity. Take a stroll down by the waterfront and you’ll stumble upon all kinds of (extra)ordinary people: sailors and singers of course, but merchants and mendicants, too. Everyone that couldn’t buy their way into a place like Upper Cyria.

Each of these four oppositions - up/ down, organic/ synthetic, clean/ dirty, empty/ crowded - have a spatial dimension in Karnaca. They’re coincident and mutually reinforcing, so different areas tend to have a strongly defined character. This helps to impart a clear sense of place.

The main fault line is class. Karnaca has wealthy districts like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria, but also poor ones like the Camp Seta Dockyards. The sense of place particular to each one is a lens through which residents view the world around them. The resulting picture mostly reinforces the dominant social system. Why do some live in squalor, but others in the lap of luxury?

Arkane’s critique of class-based societies involves using inversion to explore how space affects our social consciousness. The playable protagonists of Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider - Corvo Attano, Emily Kaldwin, and Billie Lurk - experience the full range of Karnaca’s diverse districts on their personal quests for revenge and redemption. But the player is right there beside them. Whether they uphold or overturn the status quo depends on your response to space.