Made Of Honor
Arkane levels up the immersive sim by harnessing the power of two
In the towering Dishonored 2, Arkane levels up the immersive sim by harnessing the power of two
Nobody was more surprised by Dishonored’s runaway success than its creators. Arkane was extremely proud of its achievement, of course, and everybody in the studio had worked hard to build something special enough to follow Dark Messiah Of Might
And Magic. But Dishonored was a new IP at a time when sequels held even greater sway over the market than they do today. Its console versions were arriving at the end of a hardware cycle, traditionally a risky time to launch anything new. And any goodwill directed towards creative director Harvey
Smith – fresh from an acrimonious split with Midway – for his work on the Deus Ex series was clouded by the fact that his most recent high-profile project at the time was the troubled BlackSite: Area 51.
But Dishonored’s combination of uncommonly high production values, evocative setting and gleeful, open-ended cruelty made it one of the most appealing takes on the nebulously labelled ‘immersive sim’ genre yet. Bethesda vice president of PR Pete Hines was certainly delighted, thanking fans for supporting the game and generating sales far in excess of the publisher’s forecasts before issuing the corporate warcry, “We clearly have a new franchise”.
Dishonored’s advantage, of course, was that it was unique. It felt hand-crafted and truly special, a self-contained marvel that championed the benefits of letting a talented team create its vision rather than one shaped by market research. With
Dishonored 2, Arkane no longer has the element of surprise on its side, and it must shoulder the additional burden of living up to fans’ sky-high expectations without watering down the game’s potent fiction by stretching something that was never intended to bear a sequel.
“We feel the pressure, certainly,” Smith tells us. “But the leads at Arkane are all very experienced. I’ve only been at the studio for eight of its 17 years, but I’ve been in games for 23. This isn’t the first time I’ve sequelled a popular game that I also worked on, and you learn a few things.”
Key to making a convincing sequel to a popular game, he says, is identifying the core of the game that chimed with players and making sure you bring that back, irrespective of embellishments. The flipside of that is to try to weed out everything that people didn’t like about the game. And in all cases, if it is possible, try to exceed successful areas that went before. It might sound obvious from an external viewpoint, but it’s easier said than done.
“I wasn’t as conscious of this earlier in my career,” Smith explains. “You can’t do it for everything because there are always production constraints, and we’re now having to deal with the fact that we signed up for a very ambitious game. But to that end, all the things that people liked about
Dishonored we’ve brought back, and we’ve extended most of them.”
It’s a philosophy that Arkane has embraced wholly. Though ill-informed criticism of the number of missions featured in Dishonored means Smith is reluctant to put an exact number on Dishonored 2’ s total (“Fans tend to target that – it depends on how you count them”), he’s happy to state that there will be one-and-a-half times as many this time around. There will also be more urban hubs attached to the beginning of missions – exemplified by Lady Boyle’s
“WE’ RE NOW HAVING TO DEAL WITH THE FACT THAT WE SIGNED UP FOR A VERY AMBITIOUS GAME”
Last Party in the first game. Corvo and his powers are back, too. But now players will also be able to choose to play as Emily Kaldwin with her own set of supernatural abilities. And both protagonists’ repertoires have more extensive upgrade paths than the first game’s single boost per skill.
“From day one we knew we were facing a huge amount of work,” art director Sébastien Mitton tells us. “It multiplied everything and it cascaded. We put a lot of energy into the game – especially Emily, because we’re in love with her from the first game.”
“Bringing back Corvo’s nostalgic powers was quite a workload already,” Smith adds. “They’ve all been upgraded with these little trees under them. So instead of rat swarm you can have two swarms, or swarms that follow you, and you can mix all of those. So it’s very comfortable for players from the first game, plus there’s something to explore there. But Emily represents something totally new. And mixing and matching her skills and then experimenting with Bone Charm crafting is really cool, and recontextualises Dishonored. At some point in the future, perhaps we’ll stop making games that are five games in one, just to save ourselves some sanity.”
Where Corvo’s powers are drawn from the plague-ridden streets – he is an ageing foreigner in Dishonored 2’ s new setting of Karnaca, the capital of the island Serkonos, whose residents look down their noses at him – Emily’s powers are derived from her position as ruler. Mesmerise allows her to induce a temporary distracted fugue state in others. With Far Reach, a spin on Corvo’s Blink power, she can grab distant scenery and pull herself through the world, whip items towards her, or even yank enemies into the air for spectacular assassinations. Doppleganger generates a clone distraction and Shadow Walk sees the empress turn into a creeping shadow capable of dismembering enemies as she briefly gives in to the darkness of her past.
But most interesting of all is Domino, with which she can bind enemies together in order that all suffer an injury inflicted on any one of them. It’s a bold addition that, especially when combined with her other powers, can be a devastating tool. But it also proved the most problematic to implement.
“Domino was pitched when we had the basic suite of Emily’s powers, but weren’t entirely happy with them – they didn’t feel complete,” Smith recalls. “We were wrestling back and forward between [having two sets of powers or] throwing all the powers into
one pool and letting either Emily or Corvo choose whatever they wanted. But we kept hearing from people over and over that their expectation was that Emily would have her own set of powers, and Corvo would have some that reflected who he was.
“A lead technical artist on the team named Johann pitched Domino in a basic form. [Lead designer] Dinga Bakaba and I started talking about it and the team began prototyping it. It was really, really hard to get the UI right so that it felt easy to target three or four enemies. And it was also hard to get the visualisation of the UI right, so that it communicates what’s happening. The way it ended up working was, you target multiple guys, and then you do something to one of them and you literally see an effect move down the line to the others. That was an epiphany for us – it really worked well.”
The base version of the power allows you to tether two people together, the effect propagating down a shimmering golden connection relatively slowly. Using runes, you can upgrade it to three, and then four targets, while another enhancement eliminates the lag from your connection, meaning the results of your actions are almost instantly telegraphed. Tethering four enemies together is all very well, but if a pistol-wielding commander spots you attacking one of their number, you might very well be dead before she is.
“People instantly started using it in ways that we didn’t anticipate, and that made us feel like we’d done our jobs,” Smith says. “Which, in an immersive sim like Dishonored, is in part to make players feel creative. They’re not just following a trail of scripted breadcrumbs, they’re literally discovering, exploring and recombining things creatively.”
One such example saw a player, backed into a corner, Domino a group of enemies to their own doppelganger before slitting the short-lived unfortunate’s throat. A passing servant might make an equally docile touch paper for Emily’s black magic. On first sight, Domino can appear overpowered – indeed, when the team first witnessed play testers getting creative with it, there were brief concerns that it might be. But there is, of course, a mana cost for using it, and a rune cost for upgrading it. And more than that, Smith and Mitton believe that the openminded, iterative design process that’s applied to every aspect of the game ensures that no component spirals out of equilibrium. Creating in this way takes faith, however, and no small amount of courage.
“Part of it is down to the way we work at Arkane,” Smith says. “When new programmers join the company, the other programmers really indoctrinate them with our game design philosophy. Because what they learned at other studios probably needs to be rethought here. When a programmer describes how a system works, and the game designer listens and says, ‘Yeah, but we need it to be able to do this thing’. Or when an artist says, ‘Here’s what I want to do’, and the level designer says, ‘Yeah, but what if I wanted to do this other thing?’
“I’ve been at places before where the other person goes, ‘Oh, man, what a pain in the ass. Really? Can we avoid doing that? Because it would be much easier if…’ But
“WHAT PROGRAMMERS LEARNED AT OTHER STUD IOS PROBABLY NEEDS TO BE RETHOUGHT HERE”
you can also be at a place where people are excited. Like, ‘Holy shit, our artists, programmers, designers and audio guys are taking it to the next level’. And so it becomes about trying to facilitate them, even though it’s not your discipline and it might set you back a little bit. There are production and technical constraints, of course, but when somebody tries to take their area up a notch, the player gets something better, and so we’re very supportive of all that.”
Arkane’s confidence in the game’s cascading systems was put to the test during a Bakaba-helmed press demo. A playthrough of the Dust District with Emily went smoothly, but a scheduling problem meant there were 30 minutes to kill. Dutifully, Bakaba repeated the section, and on reaching a scene in which a heretic is about to be executed by an Overseer firing squad, decided to go off script.
“Normally what he does,” Smith explains, “is come out of this dentist’s office onto a balcony and, just before the guy fires, uses Far Reach to yank him up on the balcony and assassinate him in mid-air. It’s pretty dramatic, then all hell breaks loose down below and you jump down and whip ass and that’s it. But on a whim he was like, ‘Wait, what happens if I Domino together the heretic and the guy about to execute him?’
It worked, mostly. “The piece that we never tell anybody is that when the Overseer fired the pistol, the bullet killed the heretic, and the effect propagated back to the Overseer. However, whoever had initially set it up had used the head as the point that the propagated damage would come back to, and so it actually ricocheted off of the metal mask that the Overseer was wearing. The power isn’t set up to be this scripted thing that in certain scenes looks good in videos; it’s set up so that it literally propagates a damage type to the attacker. So the result was technically right, but the player’s intention was to have the Overseer kill himself and it didn’t work because we were a little too consistent and hadn’t thought that through. It’s a great story, but in the end we moved the damage point to the attacker’s centre to make it a little more player-friendly behind the scenes.”
Corvo and Emily’s expanded powers and enhancement system are counterpointed by some corporeal gains. The mantling move, used to gain access to the greater vertical space of Dishonored 2’ s levels, is now more acrobatic, and a newly introduced Dark
Messiah- style Focus Strike, charged by holding the attack button, can break through certain defences. Hold it for too long and get spotted by a guard, however, and you’ll face an attack that will throw you off balance and squander your preparation.
Corvo and Emily’s improved physicality will serve them well in the newly introduced no-powers playthrough. While there was an achievement available for beating the first game using nothing but Blink, it wasn’t possible to reject supernatural influences altogether. Now, on first meeting the Outsider – the mysterious entity who bestows powers on Corvo in the first game – you can spurn his intervention and crack on in Flesh And Steel mode.
“The no-powers playthrough was much harder to implement than, say, having two protagonists,” Smith reveals. “Even just taking that first scene in the Void, the way you get out of it is to Blink from rock to rock, and then you get to the exit and
“WE HAD TO CRAWL THROUGH THE GAME BR ICK BY BR ICK AND MAKE SURE THERE WAS A WAY TO DO EVERYTH ING W ITHOUT POWERS”
advance in the real world. How do we do that? Do we move the rocks around in the Void? Do we secretly have a path where you can just toddle off the rock to some place? And so the level designers were faced with the very difficult task of crawling through the game brick by brick and making sure there was a way to do everything without powers. Sometimes it just worked, but other times it was like, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do here?’ And it literally required rethinking an entire street.”
Flesh and steel will also meet when you go toe to toe with Kirin Jindosh’s grandiose Clockwork Soldiers. The four armed guards have dropped the reveal trailer’s ceramic look in favour of something a little more utilitarian, mixing metal, wood and ceramics in a nightmarish bird-like form. They can be dismembered, limb by limb, but picking them apart in that way is no small challenge. Better, then, to drop onto them from above and cut off their head, blinding the defensive machine and forcing it to rely on sound. Or, if you can get in close with a Rewire Tool and without being noticed, a small panel on their legs enables you to hack them so that their allegiance switches.
“You’d be surprised at how many departments had to work on that fucking thing,” Smith laughs. “Initially they were about two metres high. They were imposing. But in a firstperson game there are all these problems with the trick of perspective, where sometimes somebody who’s over two metres tall looks short to the playercharacter camera. I kept pressuring and pressuring to make them taller, and then finally we realised that there were only three doorways in the entire game that blocked them. And so we just changed those three doorways, and then Seb came back and said, ‘Guess what? They’re three metres tall now’. And I went to Dinga’s desk and we played with it, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s so cool now!’”
Players happy to dabble in darker arts can take advantage of the new bone charm crafting system. The team went through many iterations of the idea, but the one it settled on should allow for highly specialised character builds. Now, fairly weak bone charms are scattered across the world for you to find and collect, and have one or two basic traits that will mildly improve various skills and abilities – swimming a little faster, for example, or enjoying a slightly longer parrying window. If you acquire the Bone Charm Crafting enhancement, however, you’re able to sacrifice found charms in order to extract the raw whale bone and traits from them. Upgrade your crafting skill enough, and these can then be recombined into charms that boast up to four traits. A further upgrade will allow you to stack multiple examples of the same trait, making an extremely potent talisman.
You are, however, at liberty to have a crack at making a powerful charm even before you’re capable. You might get lucky, but you also run the risk of creating a corrupted bone charm. These contaminated charms feature one positive trait and one negative. They can still be useful, but you’ll have to endure whatever disadvantage they bring about at the same time.
“This is one of those areas where an aesthetic or thematic goal runs up against raw mechanics,” Smith explains. “We thought, ‘What if I was a sorcerer, and I had a reasonable level of shit I can do, but then I also have the darker, crazier, wilder thing that I shouldn’t be messing with yet, but I can try and sometimes it runs amok because I’m in over my head?’
“But we’ve also added things called black bone charms, which you can’t actually make. They’re historical artifacts that you find periodically – there’s a list and it’s semirandomised. Black bone charms were made by very powerful sorcerers in the past and they’re very precious in the game. You can fill up your charm slots with regular ones, corrupted ones, black ones, crafted ones, or any combination thereof.”
Meddling with the dark arts isn’t the only area in which things can spiral out of
“SOMET IMES IT WORKED , BUT OTHER T IMES IT WAS L IKE , ‘OH MY GOD , WHAT ARE WE GO ING TO DO HERE? ’”
your control. Arkane has worked hard on dynamic swarming behaviour for rats and bloodflies. The latter, in particular, can get a bit rowdy. Approach a nest or infested body and they’ll rise up in agitation to warn you away, settling down again once you back off. But they aren’t anchored to predefined locations, and are quick to exploit any opportunity afforded to them.
“I was playing a mission called The Edge Of The World, and there’s a big, sprawling area to explore before you actually get to the mission,” Smith recalls. “I neared a canal and a guard came up and surprised me. I choked him out, and then I saw an officer with a pistol. I was playing on Hard, so I was like, ‘Fuck, this is a problem’. I tried to hide the unconscious guy in a dumpster, but as I opened the lid I realised that the level designers had put a bloodfly nest in it. So all these fucking bloodflies came out and starting attacking me, and the officer heard the commotion and came running up shouting and firing her gun. That drew another couple of guards my way and so I had to drop the body to deal with them. I blocked the officer’s attack and took her out, but the other guards were coming and by this point the bloodflies had started stinging the unconscious guy and laying eggs in him. So more flies were hatching out of him, and then they started on the dead officer, and I was just like, ‘OK, fuck this situation!’ I just had to run away.”
It’s an anecdote that perfectly encapsulates Dishonored 2’ s capacity to surprise players with its interlocking systems and its potential to create unique stories. The first game allowed for a great deal of player expression, but its sequel looks set to serve up one of the most pliant collection of sandboxes yet created. And this time around, it’s hard to imagine anyone will be surprised by any success the game enjoys.
“There’s the kind of narrative that people pre-can, which can be very good – and I admit I like that in games too – and then there’s the type of narrative that emerges from gameplay systems,” Smith says. “Other players will have similar stories to mine in that spot, but in other places – especially as players have ways of spawning bloodflies – I think they’ll have their own stories too. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of stuff in this game, but it all comes down to putting you in a situation and letting you react. It’s letting you formulate a plan based on the information you have, and letting you move through a world that’s as dynamic as we could make it.”
There will be more optional exploration outside of missions, allowing players to delve deeper into Karnaca’s culture
Karnaca has its own police force, the Grand Serkonan Guard, whose attire echoes the uniforms of continental European forces
Whether you choose to accept his gifts or not, you’ll still be visiting The Outsider in the Void, reimagined in even stranger form for the sequel