With Dishonored 2's [official site] release hovering on the gaming horizon, I wanted to take a closer look at Arkane's sequel and its distinctive aesthetic with art director, Sébastien Mitton. Our conversation touched on fashion influences, how you approach the art of a sequel, the role of tech advangements and why it's important that Dishonored 2 went with Victorian city-building instead of a modern grid. As ever with these art-focused features, you can click on the images to see a larger version.
Pip: Hi Sébastien! When you come to create a second game in a franchise what do you look at? Do you dig older assets out again or maybe throw everything out and start again?
Sébastien Mitton: No, because Dishonored 1 was a success so we don't throw everything out!
Pip: Yeah, that was at the extreme end of the [scenario]!
SM:That's the extreme! So the first discussion I had with Harvey Smith, the creative director, was to look at what we want to carry over to the next opus - to the sequel. So, in general, he always brings the narrative side of it and in that case he said, 'I want to keep the decay. It's still an assassin game, there's power, it's super-immersive, etcetera.' Myself, I wanted to bring something fresh because my fear was to do a semi-sequel or 1.5 game.
I had the idea to move the frontier of the world because to me this was a good opportunity to change a lot of things while keeping the pillar of the game. That's why I selected Karnaca. It was on the map, just a name, and I told him, 'What if we have sun, it's mysterious, it's a city of madness…' He was super excited by that and then he started to build the lore of the new game and the story. That was the starting point. How do we work? It's like that.
To my team , especially in art, again we were facing the pressure of having a good game with Dishonored 1. I told them, one example was Terminator 2 as a really good sequel. It was a movie with a big budget - a blockbuster - with good actors. In terms of directing, the movie was super good. It's still an exercise in movie school where they study this movie because of the way it's done. So I told them 'This is a good movie, a good sequel. We can also do a good sequel, so don't fear that we'll just reuse assets or ideas we did in the past.' We try to bring some freshness to this IP. This is what motivates us to come to work every day. It's creating. That's our main motivation; creating stuff.
But it's also important to keep the appearance or visual filters so you don't surprise everyone by doing something different in the future or totally weird. It ought to be close enough to the previous game and bring some really cool, badass stuff to the IP. That's why we decided to do Emily plus Corvo; to bring more empathy, to correct some story – not issues - but to bring more lore and more depth to the story.
Pip: Did you have a list of core concepts or ideas to guide how you approached the aesthetic?
SM:It's a mix of the pillars I've listed: sun; Eldorado; madness; a frontier of the world. But it's also a philosophy I have in doing art for videogames. A lot of times in the past on different projects - movies, communication - I've heard a lot talking about technology only. Graphics cards, software - people were not considering the message you bring when you create something. What I've learned at school and I decided with Arkane was to work with this philosophy in mind. Every time you produce something there should be a goal, an urgency behind this. That's why what I have in mind every day and what I tell other people at Arkane every day; working with a philosophy is key to getting something cool visually.
In general, when I do presentations of the art of Arkane I explain that we select really cool references from master painters, from sculpture, and we study this. We try to understand how they were working. At the time they had no CTRL+Z so they had to be super-precise and they were depicting the life of their era. That's what we try to do inside our game. It's a different world and we want to bring something really strong to the player, as a gift to the player so they have a really great experience.
So it's quality of the inspiration/the source, it's quality of the recruitment. I don't work with [the] generalist guy who just knows software. It's important to know software but we got some trainees in the past who now are leading some part of the art of Dishonored. They [just knew] one or two software but they were really good in vehicle design, for example. One was really good at portrait and is now an anatomy teacher in my previous school. We have illustrators who are really killer in terms of quality of their painting, but also the composition and the message we put in each visual we produce.
We have specialists in character modeling – we also work with Lucie Minne who is a clay sculptor to bring the first look of the character before we do it for the game.
[..] So we have different approaches like this and the addition of all these ways to work on crafting stuff gives the style to the game.
Pip: You mentioned the addition of Emily as a playable character. How have you crafted her and Corvo to have their own aesthetic identity? They both have different skillsets so there's different animation involved, fashion, colour palettes..
SM:Just for the anecdote, Emily was not planned at the beginning of the game. We were considering Corvo only. We talked at the coffee machine with Harvey, he was turning the game in his mind and he was not satisfied. He brought the idea of having Emily, but we were not set 15 years later at the time. We were closer to the first opus. I was like, Wow, okay! So is she young?
He said 'No, maybe she's 20? 30?' I don't know. It triggered a lot of cool ideas and then we had a rumour in Arkane because people were hearing of the conversation and one hour later they were all excited we were having Emily so we were like, 'Okay! It's super hard to do a game with one character and now we'll do two characters.' So we discussed a lot - is it just a clone? Just a skin or will they have their own [skillset], their own weapon? We started with a clone because it's easier to prototype and then the direction was... no, it's not the Arkane philosophy. We should have both be different characters.
In terms of design it's making him older but still badass. He is the father of Emily so there there's this real empathy between the two characters. He's also the Royal Protector. He's badass, he has the Power, but she doesn't know he has the Mark.
Then Emily. She's a bit sad to be the Empress of the Isles because she's young and it's not a position for a young woman. She'd prefer to go out and do her stuff. At the beginning of the game there's a murderer in Dunwall and Emily likes to go out by night and investigate herself without any powers. You don't play that. We planned at some point to do that but then we decided to get straight to the point. So you don't see that but you feel that.
Also what's cool is the two characters are now voiced. Corvo wasn't voiced in Dishonored 1 and we got the feedback that it would be better by fans so we decided to do the voice for the DLC with Daud and now Corvo has a voice.
What I like is [he and Emily] have their own vision of life. He's the old guy, the old assassin, she's the young empress who will eventually go out and investigate the world. Corvo is from Karnaca so you revisit his city while Emily is just discovering that.
What's cool is their lines are really different. Their voices are different, obviously but the lines are - I like to switch sometimes. I play Corvo and sometimes I play Emily and I see the different approach to the world and the civilian reaction to them. Corvo has this weird mask so they fear a bit his visual, whereas she just has a scarf so they sometimes recognise her as the Empress of the Isles.
In terms of design we put in a lot of energy because we loved this small girl in the first game, as developers I mean, and as gamers. I put a lot of energy into making her look cool and feel that she's an Empress, from the aristocracy. But also she has a nice coat - Burberry style, really fitted - so it's fashion, but it allows her to do a cool movement. We totally avoid the sexual approach and all that shit we see sometimes in games. It's not our philosophy to do that. Even more in this game we've put a lot of respect to women.
We got feedback that [this was not] totally true of Dishonored 1, where some people, including feminists, said: 'You have girls in the Golden Cat - what does that mean?' etcetera. We were showing girls who really suffer so we were more on their side but people considered that ...eventually they're just prostitutes and what do you mean by this and we're like, 'Okay they haven't got the point'. So now we decided to have more empowered women, we have mixed race, we have different genders - mixed genders - there's a wide variety of character. We have elite women, so they drive some teams. even if you have to kill them because they're opponents.
I think it's Emily that triggered all these...not modifications, but adjustments in Dishonored 2. It's really cool to have made these changes, by the way, because when you do the first game, as you develop you discover stuff you realise that you did that and it's not perceived as you meant it to be, but then you have to ship the game. You think you did it well but when you have the opportunity to do another game and you realise you can correct stuff - polish – [and it's] a bit more true to the message you want to deliver to people.
Plus, this is a game so there is a message behind it about power - I mean, Emily having power as an Empress but also the power from the Outsider. You can say no to the Outsider, 'No power', or if you take the power, what do you do with it - do you save the world? Do you kill everyone because you abuse the power…?
Pip: Given players can, to some extent choose how to interpret that character, or how much of that power they then take, can we talk through one of Emily's abilities as a single thing and how it exemplifies her qualities?
SM: You can see it really in the moves, she's more lightweight than Corvo but also a bit in the powers. At some point people were saying something wrong, which is 'Alright, Corvo is the badass, he's killing, and Emily is the stealthy version of Corvo' which is not true. She can kill in a gory [way]. I don't know which power I can pick out [for your question]. She has the Shadow Walk, but also she can kill while she Shadow Walks. You can also just choke people to sleep.
Pip: Maybe it's more about allowing the player to craft her through how they use her abilities and how they interpret her. You have a core Emily and they can play with that?
SM:It's hard to answer because it's true that you can build a really badass Emily. We have no tree so we can update in different ways, where it was just upgrade one, upgrade two in Dishonored 1. So it's more fine-tuning now, but it's true you can do something really stealthy. If you choose Shadow Walk and Domino and you don't use your weapon. You have a large possibility [space].
[...] Maybe your question would be how much of "Emily" can we build and I don't have the answer.
Pip: You mentioned Emily's Burberry-inspired coat and I know you've looked to high fashion for some of the game's influences. Can you tell me about that - particularly Delilah's look. She reminded me of Chanel and Mugler and a bunch of other designers...
SM:That's cool you liked it. I don't have designers for Delilah. I think we had some reference from Jean-Paul Gaultier because he's super-eighties in his approach.
For Delilah I was happy with the design from the DLC but we can always make it better so we focused a lot on her pants and the way the flowers look. It's a mix of dead flower vines on her that create this costume and, because in the first one it was just vines turning around the arms. I was like, 'We can make it really part of the costumes and not like the magical vines rotate around her, so we focused a lot on this and on the colour, which is more burgundy. It's a red that turns orange/maroon. It's not easy to use this colour in general in design. She's still beautiful in terms of her look - her face. She doesn't have too much makeup, it's cheesy to do the big make up [as if to say] - argh! she's the villain! In fact, it's just enough.
Emily? That was cool. It's always cool to design for a girl because we have lots more references. That's the problem, with men; we don't have that many outfits to buy in shops. It's all done for girls. Emily, when I say Burberry, it's the main reference because it's handcrafted, it's tailored, it's an old house in England. As our game is Victorian-inspired it was making sense and I really hate in movies or whatever when the clothes are really loose, full of accessories to make it badass or look cool where to me it's wrong.
So I'm really attached to the people, and the costumes should be a background so the [characters] pop. They are the actor, they are the main thing to look at and to interact with and that's why I pay attention to people. Then we build a costume around them. We don't build a costume everyone can wear, it's tied to the individual. It's for them, it's their object. It costs a lot, I imagine, to buy these costumes so it should be handcrafted for them.
[I've seen] a lot of projects that put stitching everywhere to make it cool, but that's wrong. In general you try to hide the stitching, when you do fashion, as much as possible. I'm the son of a dressmaker and tailor so when I was young I saw my grandmother, my granduncle sewing, crafting stuff attached to people who are visiting in the apartment to build some really nice pieces. Sometimes they were asked to copy Dior or Chanel. They were able to do that, then they spent time to adapt - so it was really handcrafted. That drives my vision about fashion or characters in general.
Pip: Was there anything that wasn't possible to do with the previous game that you can do this time around because technology has changed?
SM:In general I say art is not graphics, etcetera. That's a sentence I repeat a lot because I'm attached to the contents, to the meaning and the message. Whatever you produce for console or mobile phones, if you do something right in terms of pre-production ideas, even if you display it with less polygons, with less colour, it will look cool. But it's true that technology is a nice addition to that.
It's like for movies when they now have drones they can do some shots they were not able to do before. I don't say no to technology, I just say you should try to find a good balance. Technology is not a good argument to drive what you think. When you have a good technology - which is what we have now with the Void engine, it's our own engine, our own baby we crafted ourselves - we can do everything. You have an idea, you go to the coder and he tries to achieve that.
For Dishonored 2 what's now stunning is the distance of view. We have the city displayed in each mission. It depends where you are – on the rooftop you can see the other side of the bay. I'm really attached to this because this is the only way when you don't do an open world to feel like you're in an open world. From mission to mission it feels really connected. You feel like you're doing a journey in the world of the city. That's really cool. If you do a city that's all flat [it's a bit] dead.
That's why we do the city in this way, all Victorian stuff, because it doesn't look like in the US where it's all on a grid and a repeated pattern. It's more organic. It allows us to display more polygons, better texture, more details, more interactivity, all our props are now more moving, less static.
That's a bunch of stuff we have access to now, but I don't regret what we had for Dishonored 1. To be honest I think it was super cool. People loved it. Some people were saying, 'Maybe this texture could be more detailed', but we were reaching the maximum of the engine. I don't know whether the next consoles - the PS5 or whatever - will be able to do crazy stuff.
After that it's just a matter of production. We don't want to be a studio with 1,000 people. We are 120. It's already hard to manage this kind of project the way we do it - it's organic, we don't write bibles we follow, we have a sandbox approach, we talk art, code narration together over four years, we make selections and we think it's a really good way to produce games.
Pip: My final question is, a big part of how Dishonored looks and your own approach to aesthetics is because of how you draw from influences, especially high fashion, fine art, sculpture... - and so few studios seem to have embraced that as an approach. You see it in Deus Ex or some of the Ubisoft Studios, but what are your thoughts on why it isn't a more popular idea in game?
SM: I got some mail from other art directors who were stunned by the result. When I did some art presentations this summer they realised 'He's doing it this way'. I think this is really tied to me and the fact that Arkane said, 'Okay, you did it for previous games, you did it well for Dishonored 1, you did it again and raised the bar for Dishonored 2'. It's tied to me because it's part of my experience and introspection I did myself, where I realised it's too much [focused on] software, technology etcetera. That's maybe why you don't see it apart from at Arkane.
So I think, now I'm writing - not the future of videogames - but now people realise it's important to do it this way and they can add their stone to this idea or maybe develop other ways that are also nice to do games for their purpose, because I do triple-A super-immersive games, and some are doing racing games and...we all do different games.
[...] In fact, I have this indie approach. It's fresh, and I try to do it for triple-A. That's why I make people surprised - they're like 'Wow, it's so cool!' Maybe they try to copy that. That's what I did with Prey [being developed in Arkane Studio Austin]. I helped them during production a bit because they were building a new team. I tried to explain to American people there with a different culture how we think at Arkan,e and would it match an American culture to do that? Slowly, time after time, they get everything and now they have a good game, it's deep - well I cannot spoil about Prey, you'll see in the upcoming months what will come from it, but that's very cool. It's possible to think like that.
Pip: Thank you for your time.
Dishonored 2 is out on November 11, by the way.