Pondering Dishonored With Co-Lead Raf Colantonio

At last week’s German mega-convention, GamesCom, I sat down for the second time to play Dishonored. This game of stealth, magic, and assassination will be one of the handful of truly important games in 2012, and whether or not it is entirely a success, its release and development will have been an important event in game design history. Read on for more thoughts on why that is, as well as words from the game’s co-lead, Arkane creative boss Raf Colantonio, who I spoke to after my most recent session at the controls of super-assassin Corvo Atano.

Spoilers will be kept to a minimum.

I made a mistake when I was talking about Dishonored after my first encounter with it. I suggested that it is something like “Thief with a knife”, but actually that’s not fair on either Thief or Dishonored. The great victory of the Thief games was in making first-person stealth work, and in making players terrified of their own vulnerability. Above all else those games were about turning the conventions of the first-person genre inside out. But the same is not true of Dishonored, because this is a game of empowerment. While Corvo is indeed highly vulnerable to the guards and stilt-walking tall boys, he is actually more like a superhero: a supernatural Batman. This is a sort of limited power fantasy and probably has more in common with Deus Ex and the Hitman games than it does with Looking Glass’ masterpiece.

That’s not to say it wasn’t influenced by the Looking Glass games: of course it was. Colantonio and colleague Harvey “Deus Ex” Smith, say as much. But the significance of Dishonored is that it is a sort of mature expression of those influences as well as many others. It’s obviously trying to be a commercial hit – Bethesda are throwing a huge marketing budget behind it, and it arrives at a time when the console population is at its fullest for this generation – but it also represents a culmination of efforts for a very particular sort of game development studio: those influenced by simulationist, “immersive” tendencies, those who wish to give us tools and see us master and re-play, rather than simply experience a story. There are only ever a few of these sorts of games being developed at any one time, and they usually seem like a bit of a gamble. Dishonored doesn’t seem like a gamble, and that alone is something significant.

The level I played at GamesCom was the same one that Nathan detailed by trying to break it over here. I won’t go into much more detail, for spoiler’s sake, but I will say that I marvelled at some of the richness of detail, and was overjoyed at the sort of Hitman-esque possibilities I discovered in its simulation-heavy approach.

And so back to my point. Having pondered the array of ways in which Corvo is more powerful than his adversaries – he can (unlocks and skill-tree permitting) bend time, possess people, teleport, and shoot them in the face with a pistol – I asked Colantonio whether he worried about delivering an unbalanced game when working with so many potentially emergent feature sets: “Of course we do worry so much about that,” the Frenchman shrugged, “but we worry more about whether the player feels empowered and whether the game is fun. The first draft of any of the mechanics we came up with was perhaps a bit over-powered, but we were saying “this idea is going to be really powerful, and so really cool” and then we see how it works, and if that is too easy we’ll find a way to make it a challenge. The most important thing is that we don’t want it to be boring.”

It isn’t boring.

Something that had set me thinking, both in the Kelden’s Bridge level, and the party-infiltration that I played in GamesCom, was the esoteric weirdness of the range of powers that Corvo could obtain. Stabbing people with a big knife, turning into a rat, telekinetic blasts – it’s a range that doesn’t seem to fit any particular thematic structure. Instead, it just makes the possible approaches to any given level hugely diverse. Taking out my target at the party could have have worked in a dozen ways that I could see, and more that I couldn’t. Was this range of abilities, I asked Colantonio, written up from the outset? Was it set in stone by the fiction? Or was it some other evolution of design? How did Arkane decide what Corvo would be able to do? “Some of it is entirely abstracted at first,” he nods, “like we just have an idea for a mechanic. But the art and design always feedback from one to the other. One department has an idea and then the other one makes something, pushes it back, and then the other says “cool, we could use that”, so it’s very much a collaboration.”

Perhaps more interestingly, the creative director revealed that the feature set that we see in the current game is a crop from brainstormed over-abundance, which was later culled to make sure the game only contained the stronger ideas, as he explained: “We probably designed about 30% more than we are going to ship. Generally we come up with twenty ideas for a power for our character, then we are going to choose the best of those, and then finally we will choose the best of the best. There is some going back later, but it’s very minimal.”

Fresh from my experiences with infiltrating the aristocratic household, and having played with some of the possibilities, I suggested to Colantonio that for him as a designer, there must be deep rewards inherent in watching players learn and master the systems he imagined: “Yes. For us the satisfaction is to see players do things that we have never seen before. We are still seeing that now. In fact I just saw something like that a few moments ago out there [in the GamesCom press booth where journalists are playing the game] and I was like “okay, wow.”” He continued: “This was one of the objectives of the project: to engage player creativity, to allow them to develop their own play style. When we see that happening for real, it feels really good.”

The consequence of this overall approach is that Dishonored is not as predictable as so many other games seem to be, and this seems to extend to the fiction and the level design. I felt that one of the more stinging criticisms of Dishonored cyberpunk cousin, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, was that the level design was too contrived, too predictable: there was always an alternate route through air ducts, behind those boxes. Was this something that Arkane worried about? “Yes, totally,” says Colantonio. “I mean we didn’t want to be too formulaic, we want to make sure that we broke the pattern. We’ve shown three different demos so far, and each one of these has a very different feel. They’re not the same kind of mission, sometimes it’s an abduction, sometimes you don’t know who the target is.” And you can see this in the environments that the team are creating: while each one is a small, self-contained videogame level, there are secrets, and there are asides. Things that might happen, or could be ignored. Colantonio stresses again: “We want to break up the patterns.”

One way that Arkane have tried to break the pattern is by taking on the architect of City 17, former Valve worldbuilder, Viktor Antonov. His influence, both spatially and tonally, is in strong evidence as I move around the world of Dishonored, and there’s a big whiff of Half-Life 2 as we take to the soldier-policed streets. I asked Colantonio whether Antonov had changed the way Arkane worked. “It did, in a way,” says the game designer, and the rest of his answer implies that Antonov has changed the way an entire industry works, too: “We started to change our production method on Dark Messiah, and then on The Crossing [an abandoned project for which Antonov designed an alternative Paris] we worked in a completely different way. The original way we did this was to send in the level designer, and then send in the artist, who would make their changes, painting the walls, adding the props and so on. Since Half-Life 2, though, there has been this trend towards totally amazing architecture that is mapped into the gameplay, and that feels really real.”

Half-Life 2, then – a game world architected rather than simply designed – was a turning point that hooked into Arkane as well as their peers: “We tried from then on to try and get an architect into level design from the ground up, so that we really get this realistic, immersive environments. That means a lot to the player’s experience.” Colantonio described how architect, artist, and level designer, all now work together to create environments that are believably impressive, beautiful to behold, and functional to play.

“We tend to ask the questions: What is the theme of this mission? How can it have its own identity? What vignettes take place? Then we let the level design and the architect work together.” And as I played Dishonored’s press-day levels, this approach was clear. It has been designed with enormous scope in mind: playgrounds for that weird range of powers that Corvo can potentially utilise. Shadowy paths to sneak in, yes, but also rooftops to teleport across, rat holes to run through, guard stations to walk a possessed grunt through: this is a game of variety. And I can hardly imagine the challenge that faced the Arkane team in making all that and still delivering on Antonov’s meticulous city-building vision. Colantonio continued to explain it to me: “They will get given the objective, and it’s really down to them how to organise that. And there are multiple paths, but it’s not like we have discrete paths through a level, but more like we want the environment to be cohesive on the architectural side. Then later we need to look at other conditions, such as “make sure the guy who has blink can have fun”, and “make sure the guy who has bend-time can have fun”, etcetera. So it’s very organic in the process, and a level can contain very specific structured things, which can come from anyone in the team. There’s also a later phase, which is linking levels together, so that if a character survived in this mission, you will see him again in that mission. That sort of thing.”

This richness will, I expect, be missed by some players. They will be the ones who are simply be gripped by that urge to simply get through the game as quickly as possible. But they shouldn’t let that urge take over, because there is so much to miss. One such skippable vignette dominated the party level at GamesCom: an optional, formal duel with a masked aristocrat in the garden. I asked Colantonio if that being in the press level was just showing off, or whether it was truly representative of the game he was making. “There’s quite a lot of those,” he shrugs. “We think that these scenes make up like an additional 30%-40% of content that is optional. The difference between players to are very direct and don’t care so much about the exploration, and the players who take the time to look at this stuff is pretty big.”

That alone seems to speak of the kind of philosophy that Arkane have formulated from their diverse influences. From System Shock to Half-Life, from Deus Ex to Batman. But also something older, too, more classically videogamey: secrets for their own sake. Hidden caches, sliding doors, characters that don’t have to be talked to in order to push the story along. It’s a beautiful thing.

And yet, in spite of all this talk, the game’s success is not a certainty. It looks strong, yes. It doesn’t even feel like Bethesda are gambling on Arkane. But perhaps the game might falter as it leaves Arkane’s doors. Perhaps the strange toolbox of powers might fail us, or the game might cough up unexpected horrors like Deus Ex’s boss fights. Perhaps – a fate worse than being badly designed! – it might not sell. Regardless of those measures of success, though, I suspect that something else quite important is happening: Arkane are truly finding themselves. A giant, shared, psychic achievement is being unlocked in the making of the kind of game we asked for, and the kind of game that studio wanted to make.

I asked Colantonio whether this game had been the final objective in the latest arc of game development quest. Unfazed by silly metaphors, he nodded. “It has been a personal quest since we started Arkane, actually. Our biggest dream was to make games like that. If you look at the history of our studio you can see that have always been working on games that somehow share the same values: Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah, we worked on Bioshock 2 also, and we have always looked to the Looking Glass games.” He shrugs again, clearly over-familiar with explaining to an eager journalist exactly what he is doing here.

“Dishonored is the apex of that.”

Dishonored arrives october 9th in North America and October 12th in Europe.


  1. Yosharian says:


    Seriously, this thing can’t arrive soon enough. This is looking like the game DE:HR wishes it was.

    • Ian says:

      No, MY money.

      • lordcooper says:

        I was gonna repeat the meme, but then I took a rat to the knee.

        • tetracycloide says:

          I was gonna repeat the meme, but then my heart was fed to the hounds.

    • tormeh says:

      DE:HR was GREAT science fiction. Much better than that found in most books. Don’t hate on DE:HR. Dishonored can never hope to be equally relevant. That said, Dishonored sounds like a great game.

      • GepardenK says:

        IMO dx:hr was trying too hard in terms of story, but that might be just me. I also thought gameplay was too restrictive based on what they were trying to do. Still a good original game though. IMO Dishonored looks much better, a truly free mission based game and a story based on events and level design rather than forced cutscenes.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        How is HR better science fiction than ‘most books’? (Especially considering it basically repeated a heap of Deus Ex 1’s structure but did it worse.) I mean what is your standard of ‘GREAT science fiction’, exactly?

        And why are you judging a game’s relevance by its story anyway?

        • Yosharian says:

          Yeah this particular comment was so bad I decided not to respond to it, and THAT doesn’t often happen let me tell you

      • The Random One says:

        The worst book by any sci-fi author your average geek could name off the top of her head is orders of magnitude better than DEHR. Cyberpunk’s primary theme is how big high tech corporations actually screw the world for anyone who can’t afford their proprietary technology; you can’t expect a video game publisher (a big high tech corporation) to do this theme justice. Especially DEHR who was tantalizingly close to actually having something to say about how awful it would be when someone else could control the way part of your body works (because it’s a machine using proprietary technology) and stopped when they realized the closest thing to that we have in the present is DRM.

    • tetracycloide says:

      I’m pretty sure DE:HR is happy with what it is which makes sense because it was bloody brilliant at times. Is it cool to take shots at HR now?

      • KenTWOu says:

        Is it cool to take shots at HR now?

        Some people still think that DXHR isn’t an immersive sim.

      • scatterbrainless says:

        Maybe it’s just the ridiculous hype and expectation of play a game with “Deus Ex” tagged onto it, but yeah, I was really disappointed. It felt really flat and unimaginative and I never felt I had discovered a unique or interesting way of completing objectives, which is really the mark of an immersive sim for me

  2. misterT0AST says:

    link to en.wikipedia.org
    That name somehow seems appropriate.

  3. Sinky says:

    Pictured: Lord Rossignol descending the steps of castle RPS.

  4. Jason Moyer says:

    Has RPS posted the minimum system requirements yet? I was really looking forward to this (as I do all Arkane projects) until I realized I wouldn’t be able to play it for awhile.

    • bladedsmoke says:

      Same here, actually. I was actually very surprised that a game that’ll also be releasing on Xbox 360 could have such high PC requirements. I hope it’s not bad optimisation that’s the problem.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      PCG has posted them:
      link to pcgamer.com

      Minimum Spec:

      OS: Windows Vista / Windows 7
      Processor: 3.0 GHz dual core or better
      Memory: 4 GB system RAM
      Hard Disk Space: 9 GB
      Video Card: DirectX 9 compatible with 512 MB video RAM or better (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 / ATI Radeon HD 5850)
      Sound: Windows compatible sound card

      Recommended Spec:

      OS: Windows Vista / Windows 7
      Processor: 2.4 GHz quad core or better
      Memory: 4 GB system RAM
      Hard Disk Space: 9 GB
      Video Card: DirectX 9 compatible with 768 MB video RAM or better (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 / ATI Radeon HD 5850)
      Sound: Windows compatible sound card

      • povu says:

        And I don’t trust that graphics card requirement. The difference between minimum and recommended graphics card is the exact same card but with 256 MB extra VRAM for recommended? Surely the graphics can be scaled down better than that. It’s supposed to run on consoles.

        I can run every game in existence on my HD4850 512MB at fairly high settings in 1080p so I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to play Dishonored on medium settings at least.

        The way I read it, any 512MB graphics card should do. The HD5850 doesn’t even have a 512 MB version.

        • Shooop says:

          A Bethesda blog poster said those are the requirements for running the game on high.

          • povu says:

            The minimum graphics card is for high settings? How does that make any sense?

          • Jason Moyer says:

            The guy from Bethesda said the recommended specs are for “high”. You’ll need more than that to run at max.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        They don’t seem very high? I meet the recommended specs and most of my PC is about four years old.

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          Yeah, I don’t think these requirements seem to top-of-the-line or anything. That video card is a few generations old already.

        • Jason Moyer says:

          If this were Arma 3 or a similar PC exclusive title they’d be what I’d expect, even on the low side. For something that’s being designed to run on 8 year old hardware? Kind of ridiculous.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            Penny for an ex-leper?

          • Jason Moyer says:

            How about $500 for a new mobo, cpu, ram, psu, case, windows 7 license and then another $200 if the GPU requirements are actually legit? And another $60 for the port of a game that runs on 512mb of shared RAM (that in all likelihood is an amazing game).

    • Wedge says:

      It’s UE3 based, so you can presumably judge the kind of performance you’re going to get based on other such games, adjust for minor graphical updates over time.

  5. noodlecake says:

    This sounds amazing! I read the review of Darksiders II on IGN and it annoyed me because they spent a long time bashing the pointlessly large open scenes and the graphics not being current and didn’t mention how beautifully designed everything was or notice how the scale of everything was really important to fit the art style. I could see the same Audrey Drake giving this a mediocre review too for some irrelevant reasons. Obviously you can’t always agree with a review.

    Luckily this almost never happens on RPS. ;)

    • zontax says:

      Reading IGN is almost as bad as reading Kotaku.

      • Milky1985 says:

        I don’t know of a RPS for console games unfortantly , so ign/joystiq have to do for now :/

        • Totally heterosexual says:


          • Milky1985 says:

            Lots of that is video content, not written. Just on front page it always seems about 50/50.

            RPS is all written (except for a couple of things, and what the hell happened to the podcasts ?), so its not really a RPS for consoles :P

          • The Random One says:

            If there was an RPS for consoles I would marry it.

  6. Nemon says:

    Dishonored arrives October 9th in North America and October 12th in Europe.

    That’s a fast boat! Impressive!

  7. Emeraude says:

    I swear one day I’m going to hire a team of mercenaries and get myself a copy of The Crossing.

    Also: I really should stop reading about this game, this is just pure masochism at this point.

  8. Kreeth says:

    I’m just going to have to hibernate through September aren’t I? Not sure I can take much more waiting for this.

  9. Williz says:

    Could we get some different screenshots for these articles at some point!? Other than that I’m still really looking forward to this.

  10. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    I never liked the idea, but now I’m wishing Arkane would release a pre-order bonus along the lines of Hitman: Sniper Challenge.

  11. Christian says:

    So wasn’t this the game that recently received a great (and IMO very true) rant on this very site about the fucked up pre-order mess they are doing?
    No mention about this in there? And you didn’t even ask him about this while you could?

    Come on RPS…stop being so fan-boyisch and be critics again. You can do better.

    Apart from that: nice read, this game does sound interesting. Would probably be an instant buy for me if it weren’t for the feeling I’m missing something because of buying from the wrong shop..

    Yeah, I mean this one here: link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Asking a developer about what his publisher is doing with pre-order bullshit would be profoundly pointless. You are naive if you think I am going to waste my time on such things when I get a chance to speak to the creator of a major game.

      When we speak to a Bethesda boss *then* we ask about what they are doing with such nonsense.

      • Christian says:

        Ok, fair enough and point taken.
        After all it *was* much better to let him talk enthusiastically about his game and see how excited he is about it. And it really is interesting to get an insight into the thoughts of the developers rather than just to hear the usual pr-blubber.

        Didn’t want to sound too grumpy, but this whole pre-order-bonus thing really is confusing and a bit frustrating because it kind of takes the joy out of buying a new game..

        • GepardenK says:

          Buy it on steam. That’s the clean version with no markeding jumbo. That preorder stuff is just sad features pushed by publishers that was not meant to be in the original game anyway, and the game is not balanced for it.

          • Outright Villainy says:

            For the preorder nonsense DLC, I assume the code would be a separate key right? Because for new games, Amazon usually works out 10-20 quid cheaper where I live, but I don’t want any of the extra crap that goes with it.

          • GepardenK says:

            Not sure actually. The few peorder nonsese I have was bought via steam, and it seems like I have it activated no matter what. Its a hassle to throw away all that stupid equipment in Fallout New Vegas at the start of a new game

          • tetracycloide says:

            How do you know what the game was balanced around?

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            It’s impossible to know what the game was balanced for, but it is a fairly safe bet that is wasn’t balanced for a preorder bonus for one of several single retailers. It’s also a fairly safe bet that the guys who spent a bunch of time making the game weren’t thrilled about making slightly different versions of their game just so Best Buy and Gamestop could have a slap fight over preorders.

            Anyway, I say hold your nose and buy the least offensive version. The game will surely be worth it.

  12. Justin Keverne says:

    “The Frenchman shrugged” is the name of my prog rock band…

  13. obie191970 says:

    I ordered this back when they first showed it because of the art style and the team behind it. I don’t think I made a mistake.

  14. desolateshroud says:

    What a truly excellent preview/interview. Well done.

    Regarding the points about level design and architecture, I am encouraged by what Mr. Colantonio said about providing the player with a believable, cohesive environment. I always return to the first half of ‘Life of the Party’ in Thief 2 as the sterling example of this. Ultimately, you are traversing an large open area, but the level is designed to provide unique experience, depending on how you play, for each player. For instance, if you didn’t bring rope arrows with you there were whole parts of the world cut off to you.

    And, it never feels ‘game-y’. From the conversations between bored guards, to the options for side thievery, you really feel like you are sneaking through a slumbering city. I get the impression with Dishonored that they are trying to capture this, which is very exciting. I think too often the world is created to fit with the confines of the game.

    • Josh W says:

      I think sometimes Devs have too much of a smothering sentimentality about their own creations; there’s two much “let me show you all the things I made for you”, that inhibits the space these things need to really breathe.

      If players can’t miss something, it’s harder to feel they discovered it, and that feeling of naturalness and discovery amplifies the power of all your moments.

  15. dongsweep says:

    Am I the only one who always thinks the man dying in that last picture is wearing a tutu? I swear, since seeing that photo months ago every time I glance at it I see a tutu before I realize it is from the gun.

    • Premium User Badge

      john_silence says:

      No your first impression is right, he’s definitely dying some kind of slow-motion tutu death.

    • eclipse mattaru says:

      NOW I CAN’T UNSEE IT. Also, it would seem to be some kind of self-lit tutu –that’s about the tackiest thing I’ve seen in my life.

  16. Bobby Oxygen says:

    I think you may be overselling Antonov a bit. The guy’s great and all, but “industry-changing”? I don’t really see how.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      By causing big studios to bring in architects specifically, not just level designers, to work on their levels. Not that he did it on his own, but it’s most certainly a trend that he’s an early instance of.

  17. KenTWOu says:

    Perhaps – a fate worse than being badly designed! – it might not sell.

    I really hope DXHR fans will solve this problem.

    • Shooop says:

      The reaction from everyone’s who seen the game is almost entirely very positive. I doubt it’ll be a record-setter like Skyrim or Call of Battlefield: Modern Honor, but it should do well.

  18. Josh W says:

    I’d love someone to do a big fat post on game architecture and it’s relationship to setting design, missions etc. There’s a whole host of level designers out there who are real architects (qualifications or no) and produce these really elegant collections of spaces, really interesting contrasts and all sorts of stuff that has me waving my hands about. I’d love to hear more about the proceses that make this stuff!

    • Unaco says:

      RPS have done a couple posts about architecture before. There’s only 2 under the architecture tag though…

      link to rockpapershotgun.com

      And both from a while ago. Might want to check out the BLDBLOG mentioned in those articles.