Dishonored: The game publishers thought you weren't smart enough for
21st Oct 2011 | 18:30
We say all the time that players are smarter than most publishers give them credit for," says Dishonored's Lead Designer, Harvey Smith.
"Players do not shy away from depth. They play games like Skyrim, like Fallout, in mass numbers. Yeah, they can handle Dishonored."
A former tester at Looking Glass studios, Smith left Looking Glass to join Warren Spector's team at Ion Storm as Lead Designer on Deus Ex. Ten years on, and Smith is co-Creative Director at French developer Arkane, the 'co' part he shares with Arkane's CEO and fellow co-Creative Director Raphael Colantonio.
"A lot of people create game companies and they say 'do whatever it takes to stay alive'," says Smith. "Do a driving game, do a licensed game. Whatever.
But we really just want to do immersive first-person games that create a world and a new story, with some role-playing features, some stealth, and the ability to solve problems creatively or with improvisation. Those are our values; they aren't the same values every studio has, (but) they've unified us and guided us and led us to make Dishonored."
Part Hitman and part Deus Ex, Dishonored is about assassination and stealth in the city of Dunwall, the capital of Dishonored's fantasy world. It's a world where technology came too soon thanks to combustible whale oil which powers industry, and thanks to the very real magic which plays a role in every part of society.
The narrative begins with the death of The Empress and the false imprisonment of her bodyguard Corvo, who immediately escapes and sets about unravelling the conspiracy behind The Empress' assassination.
It's a conspiracy which touches every element of Dunwall's corrupt government, and so Corvo hunts those responsible whether they're hiding in Dunwall's slums or its most opulent palaces.
Every inch of Dunwall is decorated with lush, hand-painted textures and populated by enemies and architecture by Half-Life 2's Viktor Antonov, working in collaboration with Art Director Sebastien Mitton.
It's an unmistakably European look, and is unmistakably Antonov - his segmented mechanics, absurdly tall machines and structures, and bulky armoured vehicles appear everywhere in the city of Dunwall in designs seemingly lifted straight from Half-Life 2.
It's Valve's Combine technology if it had been built in the late 1800s then dragged back to the London of 1666, when the plague was claiming thousands of lives and the city was headed for disaster in the Great Fire of London.
"Everything we design, we think choice," says Raphael Colantonio. "When we design an environment, we don't think 'okay it's an apartment, it's part of a building. If it's an apartment then it's got a kitchen, it's got some bathrooms, some space to live... So we design all of it, and then we fill those areas with characters and give it a story. You build this world that has real spaces and multiple paths so it feels like a real world.
"And then you do the same with the systems - the rats, the guards' AI... Then the magic happens when one system interacts with another system and then you go 'wow! We never thought about that!' We support the things that are cool - the emergent situations we didn't plan. Designing them in a simulated way creates content."
Dishonored's levels are powered by half a dozen competing systems all simulated at once - civilians going about their daily business indoors, guards patrolling the streets, prowling thugs, hordes of deadly rats swarming through the sewers, bullets as they leave the barrel of a gun - with Corvo as the catalyst who can bring them all together. Teleporting, possessing rats, stopping and restarting time, climbing, crawling, and swordfighting - Corvo introduces chaos to the system.
Drop a body in the right place and it'll lure the ravenous rats who can consume an entire man in seconds, but by luring them from their hidey holes you'll unleash them on the street where they might try to consume the city's guards. Halt time at the moment an enemy shoots his pistol and you can grab your enemy, move him in front of his own bullet and watch as he shoots himself dead.
"If those guys off-screen don't exist any more," says Colantonio, "then having the rats eat them is not possible. By simulating everything, you have all those weird cascading chain reactions that make the game so much fun.
The moment that makes Dishonored for me is when we see something we didn't know existed in our own game; when you see two systems interacting together and creating something surprising. It creates an emergent solution to a problem you had and that's when it feels like the game is alive."
"This one time," says Harvey, "a tester ran into a room where there were six people. He stopped time with his magic, shot six crossbow bolts and backed up. As soon as time resumed the bolts hit and they all died at once. We have a dozen of those weird combinational affects. Those magical moments are just great."
Above all, Dishonored has absolute faith in your ability to handle the brutal reality of its dozen or more wide-open levels. Dunwall is
a shadowy city under curfew where dangerously smart guards can dispatch Corvo as quickly as he can dispatch them, and to add insult to injury, of course, the hero is dramatically outnumbered.
"One of our goals up front was you have to feel powerful and you have to move fast," says Smith. "If that means tuning the AI so it's insanely powerful then that's okay. They are really fast; they can get away from you or get to you fast. We aren't going to tune the game around how tough the guards are; we're going to lock down around how powerful the player is and how fast the player is.
"Multiple times we've been tempted to retune the numbers, to make the player a little slower, make them a little weaker, but we've always tried to stick to that rule - you are fast, you are powerful, you are like a lion. If you rush a lone man you're gonna get them. If there are only two or three guys you can take them down, but if there are five or six, then, boy, you'd better use your powers or get out of there."
By design, Dishonored can be played as an all-action shooter or a measured stealth game, and it would be utterly unique on the shelves at Gamestation if not for the inconvenient arrival of Deus Ex: Human Revolution last month. It's taken a long time for the rich simulated worlds of Human Revolution and Dishonored to deliver on the promise made by the likes of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex way back in 2000.
"Old gamers like us wanted to play deep games back in the nineties," says Colantonio, "so that's what we worked on, but there's been a drought for a long time. Was it because of the console transition? Because the market expanded? I don't know, but games became more interested in graphics and not necessarily chasing depth.
"Before Fallout 3 or Bioshock there weren't many games of that style that were actually big hits," he goes on. "Now that those games shipped and made a lot of money, it's encouraging. At the end of the day gaming is a business, so the people who want to invest and make money say 'oh, actually you can make money with these kind of games' and it opens things up for developers."
Smith's most recent project - at least before his strange mini-lifesim for the iPhone, Karmastar - was Blacksite: Area 51. The game reviewed very badly and Smith addressed the critical response at the Montreal Games Summit 2007, not by attacking critics, but by declaring that the whole project was "fucked up".
"We got hammered so hard, and we deserved it," he told Wired magazine back in 2007. "With a year to go, the game was disastrously off rails and we went straight from Alpha to Final."
The post-mortem and Wired interview saw Smith leave Midway in a "mutual agreement", but working with Bethesda has been a very different story.
"Even since Deus Ex it's the first time that we've had the support of the organisation, the publisher. I guarantee if you talk to the average game publisher they would say, 'what the hell is the value of the console tracking an NPC on the other side of the map? That's ridiculous!' But it's not ridiculous.
If you put the AI to sleep when the player turns his back it just feels fake, it feels like the world is set up, contrived for me; it doesn't feel like a living, breathing space and all those emergent possibilities are killed.
"We've worked for publishers, without naming names, who were like 'we don't like first-person games. We don't think they sell'," says Smith. "And when an executive who controls your destiny says that to your face, what do you do? Half-Life? Halo? Call of Duty? Those are the biggest games in the world! What do you mean they don't sell? But how can you argue with them? If someone says to me RPG features are too nerdy they don't sell, what do you do?
"Then look at what Todd Howard does with the Elder Scrolls games or what they've done with the Fallout games. They're serious, interesting, complex, sprawling, fast games. Being simple is how we make lots of money, right? Well, maybe not. It's a sort of false belief that some publishers had ten years ago and it was hard to kill off.
"A lot of those publishers have died now, and we can make Dishonored. It's truly a game, it's truly dynamic; it's not just a scripted movie you're running from checkpoint to checkpoint on. It's the game we've always wanted to make."