Post Script

In­ter­view: Har­vey Smith, co-cre­ative di­rec­tor, Arkane Stu­dios


Arkane Stu­dios co-cre­ative di­rec­tor Har­vey Smith has spent the past eight years of his life work­ing on the Dis­hon­ored series. He takes some time out to re­flect on the process of mak­ing a re­mark­able se­quel. (Warn­ing: con­tains spoil­ers.)

Open­ing the game in the grey docks of Dun­wall was a bold choice, given the new en­gine’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. One of the first ideas we had was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could start in Dun­wall, see­ing the stuff that you had seen be­fore, then set out for the new world and see this more lush en­vi­ron­ment, Kar­naca, where your fa­ther comes from?’ And then later come home to find it a bit wrecked. It was very dif­fi­cult to pull off. We lit­er­ally have dif­fer­ent ob­jects for Dun­wall and Kar­naca – the chairs and whale-oil tanks are dif­fer­ent in the two places. So we dou­bled the work for our­selves.

Re­turn­ing to Dun­wall Tower and find­ing it pre­dom­i­nantly un­changed is a pow­er­ful mo­ment. Yeah. We did change a few things, but we tried to stick to what could have been re­mod­elled in the in­ter­ven­ing years. We thought it would be great if play­ers just re­mem­bered their way around. We have play­ers go­ing to the ex­act point where you turn a lamp on the wall and open the se­cret door. And so we have play­ers that are mov­ing their way through Dun­wall Tower, which is all crum­bling and in­hab­ited by witches now, on a lark. It’s awe­some to get sto­ries like that from peo­ple.

There are lots of ref­er­ences to find. I think it was Dinga Bak­aba, our lead de­signer, who at some point was talk­ing to me and Sachka Du­val, our nar­ra­tive de­signer, and he said it would be nice if the hall­way lead­ing out of the palace also served as a bit of a time cap­sule. We loved that idea. There’s a carv­ing of a boat from Sa­muel Beech­worth in there, and the paint­ing of the Pendleton broth­ers, and that’s the kind of stuff that no­body ex­cept the peo­ple who played the first game will care about.

Were you con­cerned that peo­ple who hadn’t played the first game’s DLC would feel lost? It’s re­ally tricky be­cause on one hand we’re ex­cited about call­backs, and peo­ple think­ing to open that se­cret room and it be­ing there. Or hav­ing these weird mem­o­ries of, ‘This is where I had the Lord Re­gent ar­rested’. On the other hand you have to make the story ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple new to the game. We be­lieve that some of the ele­ments of sto­ry­telling are su­per­im­por­tant to games, like en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling where you can in­fer some­thing from the room. Char­ac­ter and set­ting are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant, too.

But plot we’re not so en­am­oured with, be­cause re­ally, once a player takes the con­trols, they might spend 30 min­utes on a rooftop look­ing at a pigeon or throw­ing wine bot­tles, try­ing to hit rocks down in the wa­ter be­low. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about it, but what we’d rather do is set up some­thing al­most uni­ver­sally recog­nisable, then turn the player loose in a de­tailed world where they’re in con­trol. It’s a fine bal­ance.

Given that stand­point, do you have any re­grets about show­ing so much of the game ahead of its re­lease? The team com­plains about that ev­ery now and then – I do too. On the other hand, we have an ex­cit­ing world and we have a lot to show peo­ple, but we have to get their at­ten­tion first. There are peo­ple here who worked on both projects, and they say, ‘Gosh, when I think back on Dis­hon­ored 1, we lit­er­ally showed ev­ery sin­gle level’. The press were de­mand­ing new con­tent to write about. For Dis­hon­ored 2, there were things that we didn’t show. But, yeah, the big-ticket items that were su­per-ex­cit­ing, that we re­ally had to kill our­selves to make work, most of those we had talked about, but in ev­ery case we left out some de­tails. I’d rather peo­ple just go in blind. But it’s an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non, isn’t it?

The game’s lev­els are re­mark­ably in­tri­cate. How did you go about con­struct­ing them? We have an ar­chi­tect sit­ting next to a level de­signer, and they be­come a team. The ar­chi­tect has game ex­pe­ri­ence, but also real-world ex­pe­ri­ence, and the level de­sign­ers have game ex­pe­ri­ence that’s fo­cused on flow and nar­ra­tive. They’re al­most Dun­geon Mas­ter­ing their way through a mis­sion. And so the two of them work very closely with the rest of us, and we de­scribe at a high level who’s there, what’s go­ing on, and then we talk about sup­port­ing all the dif­fer­ent pow­ers all the way through. It’s in­cred­i­bly de­tailed. It takes years.

How would you re­spond to the idea that high-chaos playthroughs re­sult in a ‘bad’ end­ing? Pretty com­monly we hear peo­ple say, “Why do they pun­ish me for play­ing the way I want?” We’re cater­ing to two dif­fer­ent fan­tasies. You can ghost your way through the game, take a guy’s lunch and dis­ap­pear. And the other fan­tasy is, ‘I left that city burn­ing at my back’. But do you re­ally want a game where it doesn’t mat­ter? We give you a game, un­like most games, where it’s a choice whether you kill or not. Play­ers that ghost re­ally want the game to tell them, ‘Wow, you’re good – you did it with­out any­body know­ing you were there’. But even on a philo­soph­i­cal level, if you kill a bunch of peo­ple – let’s say 1,500 by the end of the game – is it re­ally the right call to give you a medal and say, ‘Good job’?

“What we’d rather do is set up some­thing al­most uni­ver­sally recog­nisable, then turn the player loose”

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