Made Of Honor

Arkane lev­els up the im­mer­sive sim by har­ness­ing the power of two

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

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.”

64

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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