Arkane's creative director Harvey Smith and art director Sebastien Mitton on evolving Dishonored and handing the rule book over to the players.
E3 2016 proved to be a momentous occasion for the team at Arkane, with the two studios under its banner revealing one new game in Prey 2 and taking a deep dive into Dishonored 2, their close-to-release sequel to the stealth action title that garnered quite a few awards back in 2012.
A couple of days after they took center stake at Bethesda's lavish E3 showcase, I had a chance to catch up with Creative Director Harvey Smith and Art Director Sebastien Mitton in the hectic madness of E3 to discuss what they made of taking the big stage of the show as well as all about the path to and development of Dishonored 2. We all seemed pretty damn tired at this point in the show, but unsurprisingly the duo seemed excited about their game's reception
"One of my hopes is that someday we can release a pen and paper RPG. It's partially because we have all of this art and all of this world lore and all of these details that it'd be just fantastic to put into something like that."
VG247: So, your presentation on Sunday was intense! How did you feel about how it went?
Harvey Smith: Well, when you have something like a Fallout everybody knows, y'know, that's what this is built around, the whole show. With Dishonored we really had to prove it. We had to come and say, no, you need to see this game. It's cool enough that everything could be built around Dishonored at the showcase. We were really happy with the response. It was exciting.
VG247: Was it daunting, when they came to you and said "you're the big spot for the conference?"
Harvey Smith: Good god! [laughs] Yeah. We had just a moment where we were like "whoa" but then it settled in and the "Whoa" turned into a "Yeah!"
VG247: How many potential directions were on the table when you came out of the first game? Was this always the main direction?
Harvey Smith: Well, the first game was a collaboration between Lyon and Austin. When we first started working on it, you may know this story, but Bethesda came to us and said "we wanna work with you on this property", and we were excited. Then the deal fell apart. Then they said "well, we wanna work with you on this property instead," and that deal fell apart. It was two of the coolest properties in the world that we almost got to work on.
When both of those deals fell apart, we wondered, well, are they going to want to work with us again? They said yeah, let's do something original. They had this feudal Japan ninja pitch. We said that's cool, but that's not really our thing. We pitched back to them this London in 1666 - the year of the Great Fire and the last year of the plague - and we started with that. Over time, we slowly moved it away from London to our own fantasy world.
This guy [Sébastien Mitton, Art Director] was constantly pushing to make it more modern, so then we ended up in 1837-ish... and it just ended up being, well, it was very organic, the process of finding this world. So no, we really didn't know what we wanted to do. We didn't have magic in the game until halfway through it. We didn't have the void in the game until near the end. Everything was really very piece-by-piece.
For the new game we knew our world, so that was that, it wasn't such a lengthy process deciding where to go.
VG247: So what did change and evolve over the course of development this time?
Harvey Smith: We started with just Emily, and then over time we realized that a certain part of the team was nostalgic for Corvo, as were a certain part of the players. We started asking could we do both? It was a real challenge, but we got there.
VG247: You talked about this some at the showcase, but can you dive a little into what the difference is, and why someone might pick Corvo when Emily has all these all-new abilities?
Harvey Smith: Well, of course they have different voices and different perspectives on the things around them. There's different comments at different times, and they also have different assassination animations. They ultimately do the same things in basic combat, but they physically feel different based on how you're interacting with people. Emily does more things like leg whips to knock people down before she kills them, for instance.
"The new engine does things like subsurface scattering. So if you're dealing with a character and they're standing at the top of the stairs and the sun is behind them, the thin parts of the body where there's blood, you see red."
They also have completely different powers. Corvo - all of his powers from the first game are back, but there are entirely new ways to upgrade them. Whereas before it was just the power and one upgrade, now it's a power and a tree of upgrades. Take possession - before you could possess animals, then you could upgrade it to possess people, then you could possess for longer. That was the upgrade tree in Dishonored.
In Dishonored 2, you start being able to possess some animals, but then you can upgrade to possess flying animals like bloodflies, then people. You can possess corpses. So if there's a body on the ground you can hide inside it, and if a guard comes and checks it you'll be looking out through the dead eyes. There's also an upgrade called chain possession, where if you're in a rat you can jump into a bloodfly, then a fish. That sort of thing. So, all of Corvo's powers are back, the nostalgic powers, but they all have new ways of upgrading.
Emily has entirely new powers, of course, which we showed a lot of at the conference.
VG247: I'm a big fan of the domino power to take out multiple guys at once. It's a cool idea.
Harvey Smith: A guy on our team suggested it. A technical artist who was looking at the powers and said "hey, I have an idea for a power" and we all ended up thinking it was cool.
VG247: As such a large studio you do have set roles and titles, but structurally do you try to be quite flat like that? Almost indie-like, so ideas come from anywhere?
Harvey Smith: What wins at the end of the day is the idea. There are times once in a while where he [Sébastien] will dictate something or I will dictate something because we have a vision for it, and even if everyone else is saying "I don't think that's gonna work," we say we think it will, but generally we're very flat. If somebody comes up with an idea, we listen.
Sébastien Mitton: Yeah, we come up with a direction and if an idea doesn't fit, we at least try to consider it at some point. That's the way we work.
VG247: Has the console generational change been particularly kind to you? Has it allowed you to do and show more in real terms?
Sébastien Mitton: I'm not the guy who focuses on graphics, but I have to say that jumping from one generation to another while having our own engine, I quickly realized "Oh, now we can do that, now we can do this." All of these options were facing us, and thanks to that everything is more deep, dense, it's larger. But still functioning with the level design. We have more flexibility to do what we want on the characters, too. It was cool to move up to this generation.
Harvey Smith: I'm not a graphics guy either, but I'm more about the style, the art direction. But I have to say the new engine does things like subsurface scattering. So if you're dealing with a character and they're standing at the top of the stairs and the sun is behind them, the thin parts of the body where there's blood, you see red. If a person is standing in front of a very bright light, you can just see through their ears, that kind of thing. These are things that you don't notice it but you do notice it, you know? It just makes the world have this depth. It's super cool.
We have design innovations this time too. People were shocked, but there's a new thing we haven't talked about much - we just announced it yesterday - when you go to the void and the outsider offers you his mark, which is how you accrue supernatural powers, you can literally say no. You can say I've had enough of your gifts. At that point you play the entire game without Blink, without Far Reach, without any powers. We had to make sure that all the levels and all the pathways were possible without powers, which is crazy, but it really changes the game. It becomes harder and much more visceral because you don't have the security blanket of the stop time or whatever, y'know? We call it flesh and steel.
VG247: What do you feel switching the setting bought to the game?
Sébastien Mitton: For me, Karnaca was all about making the player travel and go on a journey. We're very attached to Dunwall, of course, but the idea was to refresh to not do the same thing. Creating a new city was a big change, but I really think it pays off. As an artist or a visual designer, it's so cool to have the opportunity to approach and create a whole new city with all the people, the relations, the backstory, the history. It was a great opportunity.
"We had to make sure that all the levels and all the pathways were possible without powers, which is crazy, but it really changes the game. It becomes harder and much more visceral because you don't have the security blanket of the powers."
Harvey Smith: In the first game we sketched out the empire. We talked about Dunwall deeply. It's like London or Edinburgh. We talked about a lot of the different locations, and we had some folk songs, food described, culture described, but that's all we had, just a sketch. These guys wanted to dive deep on that location; it's the far southern edge of the empire, so it really feels like you're at the edge of the world.
Especially for Emily, Dunwall tower is her home. She grew up there. She's driven out of it after a coup, and she has to run down to the South where her father was born. Down there it's a different culture; it's more like Italy or Spain or Greece, and it's a really refreshing take. I wouldn't want to do it except for starting in Dunwall. You're very grounded in Dunwall, so by starting there you really feel the contrast when you head to Karnaca.
Sébastien Mitton: Visually, vegetation, the city's circled by giant trees, and people there are making use of what they find around. So the wood, that shows up a lot, as is silver since we have silver mines. There's story around this. You can connect all this to the timeline. There's a real timeline of this world, and you can have ideas about the history of the city from its design in that way. It feels very true and real.
VG247: You mentioned having 'sketched' parts of the world during the first game that you used in the second. Coming out of the second, are there still things you want to use in Dishonored's universe?
Harvey Smith: Well, one of my hopes is that someday we can release a pen and paper RPG. It's partially because we have all of this art and all of this world lore and all of these details that it'd be just fantastic to put into something like that. It'd turn over to the players the ability to inspect and go deeper and so on.
VG247: Where are you at with the game, and what remains? What do the next few months look like for you?
Harvey Smith: We really see these things one step at a time. We've spent a lot of time getting ready for the show and now we have to do the show, but when we get back we really have to focus on from E3, from beta-ish to RTM - ready to master. That's a very, very intense period of time before November 11.
It's a lot of tech and production work, it's a lot of artists doing fine-tuning, it's a lot of tuning to the game's systems, it's a lot of little tweaks to the language used in text. It's things like final pieces of UI coming in, frame rate going up, stability going up. It's a phase on every project that makes the difference between good and great. So we're into that final fine-tuning now. I really hope that come November people love it as much as we do.
Dishonored 2 is due for release on PC, Xbox One and PS4 November 11.