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”