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


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


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


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


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

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