How Arkane’s Dis­hon­ored be­gan life in feu­dal Ja­pan be­fore set­tling in the whale-oil-sat­u­rated Dunwall

How a Bethesda B-side about feu­dal Ja­pan be­came an al­ter­na­tive-uni­verse Lon­don loaded with po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and be­set by a deadly plague


At times, the black mir­ror of 17–19th cen­tury Lon­don that is Dunwall can feel like a living dis­ser­ta­tion made by a team with an in­tense love of his­tory. Not when you’re blade deep in an aris­to­crat’s gul­let or pos­sess­ing a mon­strous rat, of course, but in nods to the Age of En­light­en­ment and the his­tory of science that leap from the game’s text logs and hand-painted tex­tures. The ef­fects of the new whale-oil tech­nol­ogy upon which the treach­er­ous Lord Re­gent builds his regime of­fer some par­al­lels to the his­tor­i­cal dis­course on God, magic and science. Science had a dif­fer­ent name back in the time of the Great Fire, how­ever, and ac­cord­ingly each of Dis­hon­ored’s me­chan­i­cal mar­vels is a prod­uct of the Dunwall Academy Of Nat­u­ral Phi­los­o­phy, where learned men con­coct plague cures for the elite.

Ac­cord­ing to Arkane Stu­dios co-cre­ative direc­tor Har­vey Smith, though, a his­tory les­son was never the in­ten­tion. What ap­pears to be a con­sid­ered sub­text is re­ally just a byprod­uct of how Arkane con­ceives its worlds: with a thor­ough bib­li­og­ra­phy. “I think a mis­take some de­vel­op­ers make is that they just look at what’s in games and they try to re­pro­duce it,” says Smith. “We try to go back to the source. We go back to his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences and ask, ‘Why did this hap­pen? What fac­tion was push­ing for it, and what was the cul­tural at­ti­tude of the time?’ And then we build up from there.”

Know­ing what to build on was the first prob­lem, though Arkane knew it didn’t want to fol­low the crowd. From art direc­tor Sébastien Mit­ton’s first sketches of 17th-cen­tury Lon­don and the neb­u­lous sense that this was to be a fan­tasy game arose the steel and brick of Dunwall, a Vic­to­rian-es­que industrial city with steam­punk trim, joined by the player as its em­pire be­gins to rot from within, as much a prod­uct of pol­i­tics as the vir­u­lent Rat Plague.

Arkane har­vested the his­tory of Lon­don’s dark­est days and made some­thing still bleaker. ”There’s this nice pe­riod of the 1830s to the 1860s that was not some­thing done in a lot of games,” Smith says, “and so the more we read ref­er­ences like Lime­house Nights and [looked at] the art­work of the time, the more ex­cited we were – it was or­gan­i­cally find­ing the pas­sion.”

Smith’s words con­jure images of leisurely fact-find­ing, in­dulging var­i­ously in the his­tory of ar­chi­tec­ture, fash­ion, weaponry and medicine. In­deed, a full year was in­vested in es­tab­lish­ing a solid his­tor­i­cal and artis­tic base. In 2009, when Dis­hon­ored was first pitched, how­ever, time was a luxury. In recog­ni­tion of Arkane’s tal­ent with RPGs and the strength of its art team (at the time Mit­ton, an artist on BioShock 2 and Dark Mes­siah: Might And Magic, was paired with Vik­tor Antonov, the man who fa­mously con­cep­tu­alised Half-Life 2’ s City 17), Zenimax had ap­proached the stu­dio with an of­fer of back­ing. Then the two games that Arkane was work­ing on col­lapsed. Sud­denly, it was in des­per­ate need of a project.

“We thought, ‘Well, we’re screwed. Now Bethesda’s not go­ing to want to work with us,’” Smith says. “And they sur­prised us by say­ing, ‘No, we wanted to work with you guys be­cause you’re you guys! You can pitch some­thing orig­i­nal, or we have this old ninja game con­cept that no one has ever de­vel­oped.’ It was clas­sic feu­dal Ja­pan: sor­cer­ous pow­ers and weapons and poi­son darts, and some­one had killed your mas­ter and you were a ninja seek­ing re­venge.

“We pitched a counter pro­posal. We came back with, ‘What if it was Lon­don and 1666, the last year of the plague, the year of the Great Fire?’ And, to our sur­prise, they said, ‘That sounds just as cool, and you sound more pas­sion­ate about it. Go, go, go!’”

At the time, the pro­posed de­sign would have made many pub­lish­ers quail, but Bethesda didn’t baulk at the prospect of ex­ten­sive stealth, re­main­ing wil­fully deaf to the trends set by As­sas­sin’s Creed. Nor did the pub­lisher flinch as Smith and fel­low co-cre­ative direc­tor Raphael Colantonio be­gan build­ing in op­tion upon op­tion: the lethal and non­lethal elim­i­na­tions and var­ied meth­ods of ap­proach­ing tar­gets that came to de­fine Dis­hon­ored, dic­tat­ing which of its three end­ings you might see. Zenimax wholly ac­quired Arkane in 2010, and Bethesda ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and game direc­tor Todd Howard en­cour­aged the team to ex­per­i­ment right up to dead­line. Arkane would work in passes, re­fin­ing its ideas it­er­a­tively.

“Step one was hav­ing an idea,” Smith says. “Step two was mak­ing a list, even if it’s a weak list. Step three was then im­prov­ing the list. One of the non­lethal elim­i­na­tions was some­thing like pay­ing some crim­i­nal lord to abduct a guy and hold him in a cell for one year and then re­lease him un­harmed. That was an idea on the list. In­stead, one of our guys was like, ‘What if, as part of the reli­gion, they had this thing called a Heretic’s Brand that if you ever marked any­body with it, [then] no one as­so­ci­ated with the reli­gion was even al­lowed to talk to them?’ We loved it im­me­di­ately. In­stantly, it be­came a piece of world lore.”

The tar­get in ques­tion is High Over­seer Camp­bell, and should you choose to scar him, much later you will find a branded, plaguestricken out­cast skulk­ing in the des­ti­tute Flooded Dis­trict. ‘World lore’ in Dis­hon­ored means more than au­dio logs scat­tered by for­get­ful cit­i­zens (though they ex­ist plen­ti­fully): each tex­ture, ev­ery fic­tional brand, the pow­ers at your com­mand and the car­i­ca­tures you’re dis­patched to kill all al­lude to a larger whole. The as­sas­si­na­tion of an em­press is a foot­note along­side the living his­tory of The Isles penned by Smith, Colantonio and ex­ter­nal writer Austin Gross­man, and brought into be­ing by Arkane’s artists. Dunwall, to which Dis­hon­ored and all of its DLC are con­fined, is one city on one is­land in one clus­ter, each with their own cus­toms, cui­sine and per­sons of note, none of which is re­quired to progress the story.

“I think it’s part of our DNA,” Smith tells us. “I started at Ori­gin. Our slo­gan was, ‘We cre­ate worlds.’ I hear our artists say all the time, ‘When I look at this desk or this wall or this street,


I want to see the his­tory of it.’ I guess there was a point where we said ‘This is Lon­don,’ and sud­denly one day we re­alised, ‘Wow, we’re in an al­ter­nate re­al­ity.’ I lit­er­ally mean that: we re­alised it.”

“At some point, the game had its own wind,” Mit­ton elab­o­rates. “There was no need to look for ref­er­ence [any more], be­cause the city was al­ready alive. So we just had to pick up on an idea within this city and cre­ate.”

Mit­ton’s ini­tial chal­lenge was to es­tab­lish an art style that could com­mu­ni­cate the his­tory that Smith and Colantonio were cre­at­ing with­out fa­tigu­ing play­ers. Be­cause Dis­hon­ored needed to be more than a walk­ing tour of an al­ter­na­tive­his­tory Lon­don. A stealth-com­bat game set in semi-open en­vi­rons de­mands plan­ning, prob­lem solv­ing and no small amount of sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. Telling vi­able es­cape routes from set dress­ing had to be pos­si­ble on the move.

“I have a clas­si­cal back­ground,” Mit­ton says. “The aim was to try to make the leg­i­bil­ity bet­ter than other games, re­move all the noise of what they call the ‘hi-res, next-gen’ tex­ture and view it as an il­lus­tra­tion or paint­ing. Be­cause in a paint­ing, not ev­ery­thing is drawn the same size – you need a large num­ber of brushes when you paint, and I wanted the player, when he looks at an en­vi­ron­ment, to be able read it. That forced us to pro­duce tex­tures that were less hi-res than other games, but the gain was the leg­i­bil­ity and the cool im­pres­sion­ist as­pect of it.”

Smith and Mit­ton both lament what they see as con­ser­vatism among pub­lish­ers around the turn of the decade. Bethesda, by con­trast, asked Arkane two ques­tions: what are you pas­sion­ate about, and why is it go­ing to ex­cite play­ers? So it’s tempt­ing to see the pas­tel colours daubed over Dunwall as a re­buke to big-bud­get games in thrall to browns and greys. Dis­hon­ored paints de­cay in or­ange, gold and blue with­out com­pro­mis­ing the work­house aus­ter­ity that char­ac­terises its im­pos­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. Your hub for the vast ma­jor­ity of the game, The Hound Pits pub, is a time­worn struc­ture dressed in col­lapsed ma­sonry and cor­ru­gated iron, but blazes in the sun as it swings into view around a bend in the Wren­haven river.

“The pal­ette was a re­sult of how we work. It was not on pur­pose,” Mit­ton says. “We re­ally tried to bal­ance the val­ues and con­trast in the en­vi­ron­ment. Some other stu­dios use new as­sets from dif­fer­ent ven­dors and pack them into the level, and then, since it looks scrappy, they need a post­pro­cess that makes it look brown or blue. We don’t do that. When you are in the edi­tor, you can re­move the light­ing – it’s called un­lit mode. If it looks good in un­lit, then you switch on your light­ing and you can post­pro­cess, but you don’t need post­pro­cess­ing to cor­rect prob­lems in your vi­su­als.”

Arkane’s artists and writ­ers came to­gether most pas­sion­ately in the char­ac­ters. No Dunwall res­i­dent ex­ists solely as a means to progress the story; like Smith’s desk ex­am­ple, each char­ac­ter’s past and mo­ti­va­tions are im­plied through hag­gard faces and man­ner­isms. Keen to ac­cen­tu­ate Dunwall’s gloomy, weath­ered Bri­tish­ness, Arkane went as far as to dis­patch mem­bers of the art team to Ed­in­burgh to pho­to­graph lo­cals.

Even those des­tined to die by your hand pos­sess sug­ges­tions of pri­vate lives in­de­pen­dent of the nar­ra­tive, their trysts and treach­ery re­vealed only to the out­law steal­ing through the at­tics of high so­ci­ety. Smith as­serts that all char­ac­ter and lo­ca­tion work was done in par­al­lel, and the pay­off is most ap­par­ent at the Boyle Es­tate cos­tume party. Lady Boyle funds the usurper’s gov­ern­ment and must there­fore be taken out, the only prob­lem be­ing that ev­ery at­tendee is masked. You could min­gle, talk to the guests and de­duce her iden­tity, or you could in­fil­trate the up­per floors and read her love let­ters.

Char­ac­ters’ traits and in­con­gru­ously Amer­i­canac­cented speech, mean­while, are ex­ag­ger­ated in a style closer to theatre than film. Lord Treavor Pendle­ton, the par­lia­men­tary power be­hind the con­spir­acy you’re caught up in, is in­scrutably po­lite, but deeper en­quiry re­veals a bit­ter man, at once en­vi­ous of and tor­mented by his broth­ers.

“It’s art and nar­ra­tive work­ing very closely to­gether,” Smith tells us. “Pendle­ton we love as a char­ac­ter be­cause he’s just such a priv­i­leged, elite, whiny guy. But then when you get to know the char­ac­ter, you know he was bul­lied by his older broth­ers and his fa­ther, who didn’t see him as a man’s man. He had this kind of snotty tone to his voice that our ex­ter­nal writer, Austin Gross­man, was just per­fect at cap­tur­ing – his nat­u­ral voice lends it­self not to hu­mour but wit. And then when the artists drew the guy…”

It was far from easy for the art team to cap­ture all that, of course. “You feel the pres­sure!” Mit­ton says. “Har­vey goes so deep with the notes and the con­nec­tions be­tween char­ac­ters and the [story] back­bone. The pres­sure was so high that when we got the paint­ing of the two Pendle­tons, it was a big win. We fit­ted, in one still im­age, the whiny man, his fa­ther… it’s re­ally cool.”

Along­side a BAFTA for Best Game, the stu­dio’s ac­co­lade haul in­cludes an Edge Game Of The Year Award and a DICE award for Game­play En­gi­neer­ing. They and nu­mer­ous other awards are there be­cause the stu­dio re­alised it wasn’t enough to birth a world if, as playtest­ing sug­gested, it was a chore to tra­verse. The so­lu­tion – a lo­cal tele­por­ta­tion power called Blink – up­ended per­cep­tions of three-di­men­sional stealth.

It was a stroke in­spired by a key fig­ure from the genre’s for­ma­tive years. “We spent some time hang­ing out with our friend Doug Church,” Smith says, “who worked on Un­der­world and Thief and Sys­tem Shock, and asked, ‘What would you do dif­fer­ently?’ And he said, ‘We re­ally tried to re­ward the player for go­ing slow on Thief, and I think I would in­vert that.’”

Ini­tially, Blink in­volved crouch­ing and jump­ing like a cat on the hunt. Later, it evolved to work on a flat plane, shunt­ing the player in zigzags. Its fi­nal in­car­na­tion is purer: hold a but­ton, point and re­lease and you’ll snap to wher­ever the ret­i­cle in­di­cates, be that thin air, a ledge or be­hind an en­croach­ing guard. Stealth be­comes bal­letic, tak­ing on the en­ergy you’d ex­pect of an FPS.

“Near the end of the project, Raf said, ‘What if we gave all play­ers Blink for free?’” Smith ex­plains. “It im­me­di­ately trans­formed the game. We went from playtests where no­body was us­ing pow­ers – eight out of ten of the guys were try­ing to play it like a shooter, and they didn’t re­ally get it. As soon as we added Blink, it was trans­for­ma­tive; it was such a good call by Raf.”

Iter­at­ing up to its dead­line, Arkane cut the key to a city with enough his­tory to fill a the­sis. Even af­ter you’ve tack­led each elim­i­na­tion ev­ery which way, there is a sense that Dunwall would share more se­crets still if you could just Blink one win­dowsill higher. Dis­hon­ored was dis­cov­ered more than it was de­signed, and as a re­sult, few games with such ready po­ten­tial for a se­quel have ever felt as fully formed or as un­con­trived.

For­mat 360, PC, PS3 Pub­lisher Bethesda Soft­works De­vel­oper Arkane Stu­dios Ori­gin France, US

Re­lease 2012

Dis­hon­ored’s full ar­se­nal of gad­gets and dark mag­ics is so en­er­get­i­cally bru­tal that it’s tempt­ing to just ac­cept the high chaos ‘bad’ end­ing rather than avoid butcher­ing foes

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