Following a demo showing of Arkane’s remarkable retro-future, supernatural stealth/action immersive sim Dishonored (as described here), I roped co-creative directors Harvey Smith (one of the minds behind Deus Ex and System Shock) and Raphael Colantonio (co-creator of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah) into a chat.
A chat about what? About choice, about avoiding compromise, about making rats believable, about possessing fish, about how they’re “hell bent” on creating first-person games with depth, about building a developer supergroup to make this, about arguing with art directors about chairs, about why publishers are getting behind immersive sims again, about how to make sure mainstream audiences play them, about Deus Ex, and why this is the most liberating project Harvey’s worked on since that game…
RPS: It must be pretty hard work showing off a game like that at a show like Gamescom, trying to convey any of the nuance and possibility in 20 minutes when half the people there just want to see all the guns and violence…
Raphael Colantonio: [Laughs] and then we show something slow…
Harvey Smith: Well, at least Bethesda have darkened rooms where the sound of the show is somewhat muffled. It is interesting, because putting together a demo that’s consistent every time is actually a little difficult for us. Because the whole run is that something goes wrong and you improvise, right? And that doesn’t work as well if you have to do demos over and over all day. But it is cool, because we’ve been in places before where you’re just out on the floor, people are screaming y’know? If you’re going to make a game like this, it’s better inside, in the dark.
RPS: The sense of improvisation was what I most got it from it – that bit where [Raf] came out from the assassination kill and all the alarms had gone off, there were turrets and stilt-walkers around and you had to crazily dash out of there using all these different powers, apparently just making it up as you went along.
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah. Actually, we’ve decided we’re going to take a bit of a risk now, because we’ve done the demo 20 times and we’ve always done it the same way. So now we’ve said ‘how about we play it differently every time now?’ It’s kind of crazy, but it’s the point of the game as well – it’s a pain in the ass for us, because the game is supposed to be different every time, but we always show it the same way. So we’re going to break it now.
RPS: You’re concentrating on a fairly violent path in what you’ve shown so far. Is it definitely possible to kill absolutely no-one – to not even do the assassination at the end?
Raphael Colantonio: Oh, yeah.
Harvey Smith: So, an interesting thing about the game is that, in the missions, it’s made so you can be extremely high Chaos and it’s fun, or extremely low Chaos and if you like sneaking it’ll be fun. And then for the key targets in the game, your missions, you’re giving alternate outcomes that the thorough player can trigger. The truth is about this demo is that it’s not a true piece of the game, actually, it’s a separate thing made from pieces of the game. We made it as a proof of alpha, and it has little pieces all over the place and it’s custom content… We used pieces of it everywhere. But it’s very representative of the missions that we actually have, but we’ll reveal those later.
RPS: I’ve been told you guys are planning to go dark on the game for a little while after this?
Harvey Smith: We would like to.
Raphael Colantonio: Six months, maybe.
RPS: Does that imply there are an awful lot more ideas you’ve yet to show, or even make?
Harvey Smith: What’s funny is the game’s systems are mostly done, and the art direction is fixed. What we’re doing at this point is layering the level design, playing through, playing through, iterating. Iterating on the Chaos system and the actions to Chaos.
RPS: It’s sort of amazing that we’ve suddenly got several immersive sims on the horizon from big publishers – Deus Ex 3 is out in a few days – given a few years back we thought we’d heard their death knell. What’s changed, as you see it?
Raphael Colantonio: We do discuss that, there are tons of theories. My theory is really that those games have failed a lot in the past, for whatever reason it is, and surprisingly a game like BioShock comes out and makes money, is a hit, and is recognised as ‘hey, you know what? There are alternatives to the standard games.’ And then Fallout 3 comes out and makes even more money, and then we’re like ‘hey, that means that the industry and publishers are ready to go with bets.’ Which is awesome. Bethesda always knew it, so for us it was great to work with them.
RPS: Is there a conscious line you’re aware you probably shouldn’t cross, in terms of how complex and unusual the game can be, if you’re to reach a big, populist audience?
Raphael Colantonio: Well, be beautiful.
Harvey Smith: Yeah, you’ve seen our game, and it doesn’t look like we compromised in how terms of how odd the world is. It’s not sequel, it’s not in any location you’ve ever seen before, it goes full-on into a first-person combat system, first-person melee, and it goes full-on into the stealth system, darkness and light perception, the Chaos, there’s three different ways you can upgrade your character. There’s a lot of mobility options in this non-linear level design approach that we have, so it’s pretty much a dream game for us, honestly. To be working on it is gratifying.
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah, but the thing we realise also is that this kind of game, no matter who they are, for people it’s the art that sells, that makes people first attracted to any game. So I think in the past a lot of these kinds of games have been more like ‘oh, what about the depth and then the presentation doesn’t matter so much?’ I think it does matter, for everybody. We all want pretty things.
[Raf has to leave for another demo at this point]
Harvey Smith: And so our team not only has game designers that get this kind of game, but also art director Sebastien Mitton and Viktor Antonov [designer of Half-Life 2’s City 17 – digital architecture ed] – getting those guys for our team was a huge win, because we knew ‘this is a solved problem now.’ Going forward, as much as this type of game is our religion, and stealth and RPG features presented from first-person are our religion, for those guys it’s all industrial design and palettes and things like that, and it’s fantastic. Most of the teams I’ve worked on have been design-focused, or I’ve been at the wrong place and it’s been production-focused, but Arkane is very design-focused and art-focused. It is an amazing confluence of events, because actually our programming team is very strong too – so performance, and running on all the platforms internally, is the focus of the company. So we feel like we have strength in all the areas right now, including publisher-side, which is not always true. So we have somebody who understands, they’ve had great success by trusting creative, who get first-person with depth, so it’s like ‘wow. Pinch me!’
RPS: Does that developer supergroup mentality, where everyone’s got big ideas and pedigree, mean it’s that much harder for one side or the other to compromise? For instance, you’ve got the art guys making this amazing-looking city, then the design guys having players potentially spend half their time only seeing pavements and tunnels within it.
Harvey Smith: It’s an ongoing struggle, in a good way. We’re used to that – Raf and I are co-directing the project, and that brings its own inter-personnel issues. We agree like 85% of the time anyway, but y’know… Then Viktor and Sebastien Mitton have to get on the same page, and then those guys as an art group, we have to get on the same page as them, and then our lead level designer who worked on BioShock 2 and Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah leads the level team – and he has to get on the same page with all of us. And it is a struggle, because let’s say the artists set up a room, and it’s a nice dining room with a very long table in an aristocratic home. They want to put 16 chairs around the table, right? And we want features like ‘well, I want to mantle up onto the table, or I could move close to it and crouch under it, bump the chairs they make noise and a guard might come in…’ but maybe that’s too many chairs for the performance of that level. Especially if you have multiple dining rooms like that.
So from the artists’ perspectives they want the chairs, and from the programming perspective maybe the chairs need to be not dynamic, and from our perspective it’s yes we want it to perform well, and yes we want it to look great, but we feel like it needs to be dynamic. So it’s an ongoing thing – every step of the way it’s negotiation, basically.
RPS: I’ve got a comedy image of someone storming out the room because they could only get 15 chairs in.
Harvey Smith: Haha, yeah, totally. Because we say things like ‘can’t we get away with four chairs around the table?’ and the art director face-palms and says ‘no! It will not look like a dining room!’
RPS: I guess he’s right, but on top of that you’ve got however the player might see it. They’ll probably not even think about the chairs or what the room evokes, because they’re too busy trying to do something you didn’t even plan for, like stealing food from the table.
Harvey Smith: Right, or can I crouch here under the table and not make any noise, because my intent here was to hide but moving the chairs makes a noise?
RPS: The rats are an unusual motif: you’re kind of subverting something that games usually treat as throwaway enemies. Was that something you planned on?
Harvey Smith: No, it’s very organic actually. We started making the game, and the plague is a very bad thing in the game – it killed half the population, it’s tied to the story – and at some point we said ‘what can we do to symbolise the plague?’ There’s piles of dead bodies and some of the buildings on the lower floor are painted white with a big red X on them, they’re sealed off, and then our art director said ‘what if we multiply the number of rats?’ And we said ‘okay, that’s cool, it’s creepy.’ And then Raf and I look at it and say ‘what gameplay can we get out of the rats?’
We started negotiating with the lead programmer and the producer: ‘we’d like to be able to possess them’ and all this. At first people are like ‘well, these can’t all be AIs, right?’ but we’re ‘yeah, they all need to be AIs. We know we’re going to have to compromise here and there, and we’re going to have to some stuff swarms and streams of rats, but I need to be able to kill any individual rat, I need to be able to separate any individual rat out from the herd, I need to be able to possess them.’ We never would do something like a fake stream of rats running across the streets, because I need to be able to run down there and possess one of them.
So the team, all of us, had to be reminded constantly about what our goal was – to over-connect the systems, the rules and the mechanics. That’s the first time in a long time – the first time since Deus Ex 1 – that I’ve been in an environment where developer was fully aligned around the gameplay goal, publisher was fully supportive of it and all the pieces are there. It feels very gratifying, actually. Because it’s so often a struggle to convince people.
What Raf always says that I love, it’s language I’ve stolen from him, is the invisible values. So let’s say you have a game, there’s a building, and it’s a huge building, and there’s a guard patrolling in a big circle around it. What most games would do is stop the guy as soon as you’re outside his radius. What that means is if you teleport away or sprint away, he stops there. So let’s you say spend an hour [somewhere else], then you teleport, sprint, whatever and come back here, he’s still in that same spot, moving forward. He has not come across the body that’s over there or whatever. But even if it’s an abstraction, to us it’s important to keep that guy running – because if I come back and he’s in a different spot it feels a little more cohesive, a little more lived-in, a little more real.
Those are invisible values because they’re hard to communicate to people like publishers. Or even sometimes core technology people – they’re like ‘well, it’s an optimisation we can perform to cache that guy out and respawn him in later’. Then we’re ‘we understand that, but we want to allocate some of your time to make an abstraction of him. He doesn’t have to be fully-modelled if the player can’t see him, but where he’s at and what he’s doing in the world needs to be kept track of.’ And it’s not like we can do that perfectly, but at least we get closer to making a living, breathing environment, y’know? So things don’t just cache out or go to sleep around the corner.
RPS: 8 of 10 people will probably never notice, but for the two that do the caching guard might be what plunges them into the uncanny valley.
Harvey Smith: Right, and this is one of those things. I agree with that point, but I would invert it – this is one of those things where you have to remind yourself that you have to have this as a value and keep pushing it, because you can’t fight somebody who doesn’t believe in it and prove it to them, you just have to keep proselytising for it. But more of a concern than the 2/10 people who see the stalled version and it’s the uncanny valley or it breaks the immersion is the 2/10 people who have something magical happen as a result of the guy staying alive. What the really means is for every player who goes through the game, every hour will have some bit of that. 2/10 of them might have it in this difference, but in the next room it might be a different 2/10.
What this means is, over the course of a playthrough, what I always like to say is – and it’s long-winded but it’s very important – if you look at the mobility options we have, the mantling and the leaning and the sliding and the sprinting and the silence, the moving across different floor types… Which we don’t go deep on, but metal is louder, things like that… You have that, and the non-linear approach to level design: the levels do come in linear sequence, however inside a level there’s many tracks, many different approaches, there’s a rooftop path, there’s possess a fish and swim in the river, there’s go in the front door or the back door… That kind of thing. And then you have different powers, but you can’t have them all because they’re part of an economy. So early on you can save up your runes and buy the second level of a powerful power, or you can spread them out. You can upgrade your equipment differently, you can find different bone charms.
On top of that, there’s the high Chaos approach or the low Chaos approach – high action, high combat, sneak so no-one ever saw you, or some blend of those two. And you take all of those variables, all those things that might be different in your playthrough from mine, you mix them together, and the permutations explode. Often they’re subtle – often it’s not ‘well, I went to this map and you went to that map.’ We don’t do that so much. But within a given map, your experience subtly feels – and in some big ways feels too – crafted by you, authored by you. Maybe I never even went there, I went across the roofs and found a thief who had fallen and broken his leg, and I looted his body and then found his friends over here. Or I didn’t find that because I possessed a fish and swam in the river, and was never even seen by a guard.
RPS: So one item or one encounter that someone else doesn’t have can lead to a completely different internal narrative or even purpose for that player…
Harvey Smith: Yeah, or I took these two powers and they work in combination that was not planned, but I tried it and it just worked. All the time we saw testers do things we never planned. Like, the time stop power. A guy runs into a room, there are six guys – and six guys in our game is serious problem – so he stops time, then he puts an arrow in the air, an arrow in the air, an arrow in the air [air-draws a semi-circle in front of him]… Anything touching you moves at real-time, so if you bump a lamp it falls, but as soon as it’s half a second away from you it stops. So if you hit a guard, he animates but then stops. So the crossbow bolts leave you for half a second and stop, and then when time resumes all the guards die at once, they all get hit by crossbow bolts at once. And it was magical the first time we saw somebody do that. It’s just this general purpose approach to making game systems.
I can tell you crazy ones, like a guy stops time and as somebody shoots the bullet hangs in the air, then he possesses the guy, walks him around in front of the bullet, and then ejects and then when time resumes the bullet kills him. He suicided in this weird way. There’s all these crazy combinations that we had no plans for, but we trust that if we make things general purpose, the player can get creative. It’s super-cool. That’s our main thing about the game. On one level, you’re a supernatural assassin in a retro-future world, but on another level there’s a lot of variability in this game and it’s ultimately going to be your playthrough.
RPS: I guess it must be strangely sad that you do have to ensure some actions definitely do play out in a certain and known way, just so you know things aren’t breaking.
Harvey Smith: Yeah, there’s a lot of playtests. Because sometimes they do break, and sometimes they break in ways that we go fix, and sometimes they break in ways that we go in and make it bulletproof. Like ‘no, we want that weird thing to happen, but we’ll go in and bulletproof it.’ Once you educate the team that this is our vision, this is our philosophy, they all start doing it too.
So one of the team did this thing where they stopped time, quickly took this spring-razor mine, which throws blades and springs and wires and cuts people into places, and stuck it on the back of a rat. Then they possessed the rat, walked it into this group of guards, then ejected and walked away. When time resumes, the rat is sitting there with the thing on its back and the guards are all around it, frozen where they were, and it’s just [makes ninja throwing star noises]. It kills like five guards.
That did not work perfectly the first time we did it – attaching the spring-razor to the rat did something weird to it, possessing the rat meant you might have seen the spring-razor floating out in front because the attach point was somewhere weird… So it gets a bit like ‘do you guys want us to preclude this exploit, or do you want us to support this exploit?’ We’re ‘that was cool. Very few players are going to do it, but support it. Make sure that when you’re inside the rat’s perspective, the spring-razor is in a place that is camera-ready…’ All the technical bullshit that is behind the scenes, right, but we just find that when we’re playtesting we have to either bulletproof it or fix it.
It is exhilarating, because so few times in most games can something surprising happen. Usually it’s ‘well, I’m on this bridge. The city around me is beautiful, but I can’t leave the bridge, and then there’s a guy at the end of the bridge with a machine gun, behind a car, and I’ve got to slog from cover to cover and blow him up.’
RPS: Yeah, your choice is to kill him here, or here, and with a machinegun or a grenade.
Harvey Smith: Yeah, there’s not much variation other than that. But in our game, if you can’t jump off the bridge and swim in the water, if you can’t do a wide variety of creative improvisational solutions to this, this doesn’t feel like our type of game. We’re just hell-bent on those games and letting the player solves those problems. There’s some of it that requires a little hand-holding and a little massaging, like we decided where to put the rat-holes, for instance, but there’s some of it that just’s you in the simulation.
Like, there’s guys that jump, and at the apex of the supernatural jump because they’ve taken that power and upgraded the power, they Blink and have taken that power and upgraded it, so they make this arc and teleport to a roof. They can travel really far. At first we were like ‘oh my God, the sneaky player who hoards his mana and uses this power could probably go rooftop, rooftop, rooftop and be right near the end of the mission. What do we do about that?’ Then we were ‘well, most people probably aren’t going to figure out how to do that on the first playthrough, and it’s super-cool, it’s super-empowering.’ It’s one that doesn’t require any scripting or any placement on our part. We sometimes do that stuff, just to make stuff more lifelike, but that’s one that’s just totally general purpose.
RPS: You also need to cater quite a bit for the people who just don’t respond well to freedom, presumably?
Harvey Smith: That’s a thing we did with the Deus Ex games too. We always presumed that there had to be a front door and a big fight, y’know? Sometimes you just want to be that guy that starts running towards the door throwing grenades, right? That’s a totally valid playthrough style, and sometimes it’s a blast. We don’t punish you for that at all, but in Dishonored, if we get our way, the current plan in tuning is that it reacts very swiftly to that. So there is a benefit to sneaking, although it is possible if you’re a skilled player.
RPS: When you’ve made this world filled with all these variables and permutations, is there any level on which seeing someone ignoring half the detail and depth because they just want to headshot everyone or finish as quickly as possible gets you down?
Harvey Smith: No, I think we love all those players, and I think we like the possibility that that even exists. In the whole crafting worlds thing, so that players have their own experience, it’s so gratifying. I went into a comicbook store the other day, my favourite comicbook store in Austin, and there’s a Deus Ex: Human Revolution comic on the shelves. I didn’t even known about this, it just blew my mind, it was so freaky. So if you put together the world, no matter which world it is, and you facilitate the player having this incredible experience, it feels like he made the decisions to play it that way, it’s meaningful the way a great album is meaningful. So, no. The only thing that would ever offend me is if I saw someone playing with the sound off or something: that makes me mad. ‘What are you doing? You should be playing in the dark with headphones on!’
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Dishonored will probably be released next year. I can’t wait.