Dishonored Harvey Smith Interview
In case you haven’t read our five star Dishonored review yet, there’s every chance it could be the best game of year, if not the generation (we don’t mince our words at SFX). To find out more about what to expect from the first person do-what-you-want-‘em-up about a supernatural assassin in a steampunk city we got on the blower to Harvey Smith, industry legend and co-creative director of Dishonored.
The Dishonored UK release date is Friday 12 October.
Covo has a lethal blade with him at all times.
SFX: A fundamental component of the game is choice; how much freedom does the player have to tackle his missions in the world in Dishonored?
Harvey Smith: Well it’s an interesting question because a lot of games give you a wide, open world where you can wander anywhere but there’s not much you can actually do when you get there. You can drive, or wreck your car, or get the cops after you or whatever, and it’s open in that sense, but it’s a low density of interaction. What we’ve tried to do instead is a series of hand-crafted missions. We do it that way because even though it’s less open on one level, in that you can’t just drive across the city, on another level we just pack it with interaction. You can crawl through windows, get up on the roofs, get around behind buildings, eavesdrop on people, collect stuff, read their notes and journals… we tried to pack it with visual storytelling, you can look at rooms often and tell something about the people that live there.
So it is quite open in that you can play with combat or you can play with stealth, you can be very brutal and kill lots of people, or you can literally – this is a game about an assassin – complete it without killing anyone. You have these different powers and you can focus on flowing or stopping time, or you can focus on possessing animals and people. You have a Rune currency to spend and so you might end up with completely different powers to another person. And then on top of that your pathway through the world might be different from my pathway – you might go over the rooftops, I might swim in the river, you know? I might go down the front street and you might go around behind the buildings, or possess a rat and go through a little tunnel. So, when you add all those things up, they sort of form a matrix of decisions where at any point in the game you’re standing there, and you can do tons of stuff based on the powers you’ve chosen, the pathway you’ve followed, your moral compass, whether you’re using combat or stealth, etc
Do you think that high density of choice is an aspect of gaming that’s been lost a little this generation?
It’s certainly one of our goals. We say at the high level “you play a supernatural assassin in a steampunk city”. And we tell people the embedded narrative is “you’re Corvo Atano, the bodyguard of the Empress who’s falsely accused of her murder”. That’s the sort of, wrapper. And you see the art, which is gorgeous and looks like an American whaling city in the 1850s, or, a lot of it was inspired by Edinburgh and London. You see that and it’s a hook, it’s gorgeous and lush, it’s not trying to be photo realistic, it has a style. But what we really care about is the emergent narrative. Like as you play through you would tell a friend, “I leaned out and knocked a bottle over and the guard heard it and I had to possess a rat and go under the table to get away from him.” That’s the emergent narrative that can only happen with this system. And what I say in response to your question is that most game developers seem to focus on the wrapper and they don’t focus on the systems that allow the player to tell their own story, they don’t focus on the systems that allow the player to make choices and see the consequences of those choices.
I’d go even further and say that it’s odd, since they mostly focus on the wrapper, they also focus on the same settings over and over, and they tend to try and pursue photo realistic art styles. If you’re only gonna try to focus on the wrapper it would be nice to at least do something interesting with that, but it seems like every game made is about soldiers shooting, or space marines fighting bugs, or robbing a bank in LA, or elves and dragons.
When we first started making this game we weren’t using the word steampunk because we were really afraid that it was going to scare everybody off, including people at our companies. But the more we showcased the art, the more people started coming out of the woodwork and calling it steampunk. So finally we just embraced it and said “You know, this is a movement, this is a trend in books and movies, the early adopters are into this and they want something fresh.” It’s been very gratifying to hear people on bulletin boards arguing about what flavour of steampunk it is. People use the term “Gas Lamp” whenever magic is incorporated with steampunk.
Samuel escorts you to missions across the city by boat.
Did you draw on any particular inspirations from fictional worlds or the real world when creating Dunwall specifically?
When we started we said it was going to be London 1666 and we were gonna go for history, very realistic. It was the year of the great fire and the last year of the plague, and a lot of people have written extensively about that time. But the more we worked on it the more we started adding in supernatural elements and adding modernised elements and moving more towards, like I said, American whaling cities in the 1850s. So it ended up as this blend and one day, halfway through the project, we just drew a world map on a yellow sticky saying, “Hey, we need to draw a continent and come up with a calendar, come up with a religion, come up with a government, come up with the names of the cultures.” And that’s how the Empire of the Isles was born. As you play the game there’s a sense of a much larger world than you get to see in the city of Dunwall.
But more to the point, our art director Sebastien Mitton and our visual design director Viktor Antonov, who was the art director of Half Life 2, went to Edinburgh and London and they took tons of photos, and for our purposes they really focussed on working-class people. They focussed on construction workers and people they just saw out on the street, and they brought that back and added that influence to the models we created for people and the architecture. And then on top of that I would say there are a lot of movies over time that have influenced us – Dark City, the recent movie Anonymous which I think is bullshit because it claims Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s work, but whatever, that aside it’s a brilliant movie and I really like the visuals and the acting. And then there are metaphysical influences on it. Like we really are big fans of Michael Moorcock, and HP Lovecraft, so I would say we draw from a lot of stuff your readers are very fond of. His Dark Materials as well, I love that stuff. It broke my heart when everyone in the world was reading Harry Potter instead of that! And then there are game influences of course. I worked on the first two Deus Ex games and Raphael Colantonio – the other co-creative director – worked on Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, so we really love this type of game, that sort of Thief, Deus Ex, Bioshock idea. It’s kind of a sub-genre, it looks like a first-person shooter but you can play it at a much slower pace if you want and there’s much more story and there’s a lot more systems and choices to make, and the world is very, very detailed.
Would you say that a stealthy approach is a more elegant way for people to play your game? Will people get the most from it by playing it that way?
That’s an interesting question that always comes up with this type of project because, we tell you upfront, if you want you can run down the street, bash everyone, shoot out the front door, run up to the target and brutally murder him and leave a trail of bodies. And if you want, that’s what you can do. It’s hard, but that exists. You can teleport, you can stop time, so you can come in the front door you’re like Darth Maul. You’re the head of state’s worst nightmare. And on the other hand you can creep around so much that people didn’t know you were there. In our community that’s called ghosting. You can hide behind something, lean out, and when you lean you can see them but they can’t see you, your body’s hidden, and you can eavesdrop on them and as long as they’re not alerted they’ll talk and give you more world background and little clues about updating the mission. You can get to the target without killing anyone along the way. And we even provide non-lethal, story-based alternate resolutions for the target. So you can finish the game without killing anyone, and you probably absorb more story that way, it plays at a different pace, it’s slower, it’s much more atmospheric I think, that way. And if you’re really playing with these self-imposed goals of trying not to kill anyone or trying to ghost the game, the tension goes way up, it’s a sublime kind of tension, it feels very good. It really is a different kind of power fantasy. There’s the power fantasy of being the badass assassin, but then there’s also the power fantasy of “I’m so cool, they don’t even know I’m there. They’re having their dinner or talking and I’m in the rafters over their heads.” That’s a really different kind of power fantasy. And there’s also that sense of elegance that you alluded to: “I made my way through this game, and I avoided destabilising the world.” Because we have this Chaos system where the higher the body count, the higher the chaos score, the more pools of rats there are, the more people infected with the plague there are, lines of dialogue change, and the endgames are different. The Kingdom’s a wreck, or it’s not. There’s also that fantasy that as you’re playing, you are stabilising things or destabilising things and that’s up to you. Most games just don’t do that.
Our interview with Harvey Smith continues on page 2