Arkane Studios’ latest game, Dishonored 2, launched yesterday to humongous expectations, and you can read our impressions of its first hours here. The original Dishonored was one of the surprise hits of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era. A game of exploration and assassination in the rat-infested Victorian city of Dunwall, it was praised by critics and fans alike when released in 2012, but its reputation has been growing ever since. Much of that acclaim comes from Arkane Studios’ realization of the game’s sophisticated virtual world. Dunwall isn’t just a sandbox to house your supernatural-assassin fantasies. It has a rich history and culture, one that informs everything from the characters you meet to the buildings you visit and the minute details of the décor within them.
The sequel continues the story of Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress of the United Kingdom-like Empire Of The Isles, who was previously framed for his ruler’s murder and goes on a mission to clear his name, unravel the conspiracy surrounding her assassination, and rescue the daughter he fathered with her. In the 15 years since the original’s conclusion, that young lady, Emily, has become the rightful ruler of her kingdom and Corvo her royal protector. But a coup led by a powerful witch and the duke of a neighboring isle, Serkonos, removes her from the throne, and players, as either Corvo or Emily, must travel to its capital city of Karnaca to set things straight.
Back in October, I played one level from a nearly finished version of the game, a mission inside the mechanical mansion of Karnaca’s maniacal chief inventor. Afterward, I had the chance to speak with Harvey Smith, the game’s director and the series’ co-creator. He is a storied game designer whose work on titles that are rich in both atmosphere and player choice go back to 2000’s Deus Ex, the influence of which is still seeping into gaming at large. We chatted about what it takes to create a virtual world that feels as real as Dishonored’s and why it’s taken so long for games of this ilk to find their way into the limelight.
The A.V. Club: So many games nowadays like to tout their “living, breathing world,” which usually just means they take place in an open world, often an urban setting, and there are some non-player characters around on the street who interact with each other and sometimes you. I’ve always felt that isn’t exactly a great fit for what a “living, breathing world” in a video game could be, and one of the things I took away from the first Dishonored is that it’s the rare game that really deserves that descriptor.
Harvey Smith: We use that term off and on, and it’s interesting because if you ask 10 people, they would define it differently, I guess. Is The Sims a “living, breathing world”? I would think that it is, because you can reconfigure the environments so strongly. Your characters react to the environment, the other characters come and go, and they have social relationships. It’s a funny term, you know? I always feel Far Cry 2 is a good example because fires spread. Animals come across your path. You accidentally hit a zebra with your truck, and you feel bad about it. Characters are watching out for you, and if they see you, they drive after you. It does feel like it has a kind of ecological simulation.
But you know, Viva Piñata is one of my favorite games, too, and it definitely feels like a living, breathing world. There are probably many ways to achieve that, and what people are really getting at is—I guess, the more you define it, the more this feels globally true—but people want to be in some sort of sealed ecosystem where they can tweak the parameters and see a direct response to their actions. A lot of video games—even very good video games, like Tetris or Pac-Man—are traditionally more like, “You’re in an environment. You’re in an enclosed space with an artificial conflict. This thing is trying to kill you. You have some moves to get away from it.” I think it starts to gray over more into “living, breathing” when it’s not all about fight or flight. It’s about some other kind of interaction.
[At Arkane] we always talk about non-combat verbs. The more we can add a non-combat verb—even if it’s looking through a spyglass, or eavesdropping on a conversation, or reconfiguring the walls of a mechanistic house—that gives the player something else to do to change the environment, to interact with the environment. I guess it’s true that lots of games have a living, breathing world, but very often, like you say, there’s cars, there are flocking algorithms for pedestrian traffic, there are algorithms to handle traffic and occasionally an ambulance comes through or whatever, and that’s cool. I love those games. But one of the things we do differently, I think, is we focus on less characters but each one is a little deeper. Very often in Dishonored, you can go into a room where a character lives, and you can learn something about them just by looking at the decor and reading their notes and listening to their recordings. Looking at who they are as people. They’re not generic in any sense, and I think that’s one of the things that—I don’t know if that contributes to the “living, breathing” thing—but it definitely contributes to the mise en scène you have when moving through our environments.
AVC: That certainly is a part of it, and it’s the big thing that distinguishes Dishonored from those open-world games and the thing that really creates the feeling of “This is an actual living place” rather than some open-ended sandbox. It’s the sense of history and culture in Dunwall and now Karnaca in Dishonored 2. How important is that when building the game’s world?
HS: It’s one of our main things. On the narrative front, I worked with Sachka Duval, a narrative designer, and Austin Grossman was one of the early principal writers behind the game. Terri Brosius was another writer. And it’s very important to us to have characters that don’t feel like stock characters. Kirin Jindosh, for example—you might have seen the mad scientist before, and I think at some loose level you could describe him as such, but he’s very specific. He’s the grand inventor for the duke of Serkonos, a guy who looks at people like a puzzle that he wants to take apart and doesn’t care whether he has to put them back together or not. He studies people like machine parts. He’s full of himself. He believes he’s the great mind of his age, and it comes across in everything he says. That’s one character, and we put a lot of work into that character. The artists are heavily involved in that, too. The look and feel—he has a little John Waters mustache, and he had an industrial accident where he lost a finger and thumb in one hand, and he replaced that with ceramic pipe. He loads that with tobacco and smokes. So these characters are very distinct, very specific, and it’s the work of many people.
On top of that, it’s the location. Jindosh’s house is unlike anything you’ve seen in a video game before, it’s unlike anything we’ve made before. And on top of that, the culture of the place, the city of Karnaca, is different. It’s all about being very specific and giving the player an experience that’s full of wonder, that they haven’t seen before. At the end of the day, that’s what we do. I always say that some video games are like a roller-coaster ride, and that’s fine. There are people out there designing roller-coasters. At this moment, the lights change, and there’s a puff of cold air. At this moment, there’s a drop. At this moment, you get a vista of the rest of the track. There’s an art to designing roller-coasters. We don’t do that. What we do is much more like you and some friends, when you’re 15, go into an abandoned house down the street and spend the afternoon exploring it, afraid you’ll get caught. Maybe something gets broken. You hear a creek upstairs and everybody gets freaked out. You find a drawer with old postcards in it, and you read one and it’s like, “What are they talking about? Who were these people?” That’s closer to what we do. As we go through the world, there’s a sense of environmental storytelling that we’re constantly working on, through lines of dialogue, through vivid characters, their costumes, the setting, the way the props are arranged in the world.
AVC: One thing I noticed in the clockwork mansion is an incredible consistency to the look of a lot of the props and everything you’re seeing. That goes down to the repeating basic geometric shapes that form many of the props and the architecture—it’s this sort of spiraling, fanned-out teeth design. You can see it in the corridor to Jindosh’s laboratory, as the floor folds open, and then you have those same mechanized elements in his bedroom. That kind of distinct, cohesive art design is really what I think of when I think about Dishonored. Is that a big focus for Arkane?
HS: We don’t just hire video game artists. We hire industrial designers and architects, and we hire people with classical backgrounds. So very often, they’re not just coming in and saying, “Yeah, I’ve seen Aliens and the most recent Iron Man movie. Here are some effects and here are some animations.” They’re coming in and their favorite painters are Goya or Sargent. They have a rich history, and they’re very modern also. They’re very into people painting today. A trip through our art department is pretty wild.
Sébastien Mitton is our art director. He was the art director on Dishonored 1, and he’s pretty over the top in his demands for the visuals and the design. We talk about something like, “Hey, we’re going to put a lion statue in the corner here.” And it’s unlike any lion statue you’ve ever seen. First of all, it’s the size of a giant lion, but it has ears more like a lynx, because we always think, “Let’s twist all the animals in our world so they’re unique.” Part of that comes from the way Victorian scientists would sketch in their books and sometimes the style of the person would come across. Before that, before people would take trips, they would often get the animals slightly wrong, or they would do it based on someone’s description of the animal. And so we like those fantastical twists on the animal, but it’s also unique to our world. And so we have this statue of the lion. It’s huge and it has the lynx-like ears, and then on top of that, we say that Karnaca has silver mines and huge trees that are like sequoias or redwoods, so a lot of things are made with this polished wood, this umbra wood. So the lion is wood for a reason, and then it blackens in some spots. It’s a blond wood in some places, and then it goes red and then it blackens. It’s just an amazingly executed object in a world. It has a particular style to it, and it has the underpinnings of all that stuff. That’s just one object. It’s crazy.
AVC: Dishonored does not take place in one big seamless open world. It’s built from smaller, discrete chunks that are themselves open, but they don’t link together. I imagine having that smaller scale lets you author spaces more closely and create those amazing objects.
HS: There’s a great pleasure in having a single open world where you can steal a jet and fly it across the map and crash it into Chinatown or whatever. Or get on a motorcycle and just ride the freeways and wind up at a laundromat. Those are super pleasant because it’s antisocial behavior, or it’s just calming behavior, whatever you’re going for, and it feels complete and cohesive. But in our case, we’re driving toward a particular mission, thematically, and so we want all of the elements in that mission to serve a unified purpose. It’s what Poe called “Unity Of Effect” and why he thought short stories were more effective than novels, because you absorb all the things that are related to the point of that work at one time and you can keep it all in your head instead of stretching it out over a week or whatever. We kinda feel the same way about the mission design in Dishonored.
That said, you can do it really well the other way as well, and in fact the other game Arkane is working on, Prey, is one big open-world mission. That’s being done in Austin, Texas, by Raphael Colantonio and the team down there.
AVC: With your work on Deus Ex, you helped popularize and found this kind of game—first-person experiences with a lot of simulation, where players are given tons of options for how to approach situations and the world reacts accordingly. They took a backseat for a few years, but they’re starting to pop up a little more often now. Deus Ex is back and Dishonored helped in a big way. But now we’re seeing System Shock come back, and you mentioned Far Cry 2, which is a game where you saw some of these ideas bleed into a more action-packed vehicle. Why do you think this style is becoming a little more en vogue?
HS: Do you believe that when a medium debuts it has a certain level of sophistication and the audience gets more sophisticated over time? Like if you took somebody from 1948, and you sat them down in front of a TV show like Top Of The Lake or Six Feet Under or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, what would their reaction be to it? The timing and the cuts and the unreliable narrators—
AVC: Even just the amount of storylines.
HS: Yeah, the number of storylines. Even a comedy like Modern Family, seeing a scene from one character’s perspective, and then you show the scene from another character’s slightly off perspective, those are all modern conventions that we love. But I remember growing up on television—I’m about to turn 50—and when I was a kid, Gilligan’s Island was on and it had a laugh track and everything was very simple. And I feel like, and this could be misconstrued, but I feel like what’s going on is that there were games back in the day like the Ultima games or Dungeon Master or the Looking Glass games—Thief and things like that—that were probably a little too rich or densely interactive for many players, and the audience has caught up over time. That’s my opinion. There’s a hunger among players for more interactivity, for more of what you said earlier, that “living, breathing world”—not just “living, breathing” and I watch it, but I do something and it responds. That’s the key element, right? The agency. That’s what I feel like has happened.
AVC: You’re very outspoken about preferring to play those densely interactive games and make them, as well. What do you think it is about that design philosophy that speaks to you so much as a creator and as a player?
HS: You know, I guess it gets into personal psychology. For some people, I guess, making games is like a commercial endeavor or something. Or it’s just that they dig video games and they want to work on one in some capacity. That’s awesome. But for me, being in a very frightening space where you’re underpowered, under the wrong circumstances, and you might be able to turn the tables and become more powerful, if you use the right leverage, and it’s very atmospheric and it’s very spooky and it’s inherently hostile or threatening but you’re free to explore that space, whether you’re talking about a game like System Shock or Prey, with a science-fiction wrapper, or you’re talking about the blood-diamond trade in Far Cry 2 or the wasteland in Fallout, or this regressive Victorian society in Dishonored—there’s something very powerful about that. It’s stimulating. It’s like a comfort zone. And I guess by playing with it, over time, you’re achieving mastery of it somehow, or you’re just expressing what’s inside of you.
But I play a lot of other games, too. I’m playing No Man’s Sky. I’m playing Inside, that new game by the guys that made Limbo. I’m playing Pokémon Go. I was playing KOMRAD, a text adventure with a Soviet-era AI that still believes the Cold War is going on. It’s an iPhone game. I’m looking forward to Robin Hunicke’s game Luna. There’s all these games that I love. Adam Saltsman is working on Overland, and I’m super fascinated with that. There’s just a ton of different types of games that I’m interested in, but in terms of making them and when it comes to me feeling like, “This is not just a video game, but this is like—” How do you put it into words? Like there’s music and you might like some music, “Oh the music playing is fine!” And then there might be that album that changed your life, and it will always be a part of your soul. This type of game is that for me. It’s the difference between a video game and something that reaches into your heart.