There is a central question at the heart of narrative game development – it has always been there and it probably always will be: how do you give a player the freedom to explore and express themselves, while also providing a cogent story for them to experience?
There are hundreds of possible solutions. While highly systemised role-playing adventures, such as Mass Effect, allow player individuality through complex character progression systems, open-world titles (Grand Theft Auto V, Far Cry, etc) accompany their backbone narrative missions with dozens of discoverable side-quests and emergent encounters. Whatever the approach, it’s always a tussle between guiding the player and just letting them go.
Harvey Smith has been exploring this tension through his whole career. Back in 1993, he was QA lead on System Shock, the innovative first-person action role player that brought player choice and emergence to the fore. Later, at Ion Storm in Texas, he worked with Warren Spector on the revolutionary sci-fi shooter Deus Ex, a dizzyingly complex conspiracy thriller that offered players multiple definable roles and systems.
Then, in 2008, he joined French-American studio Arkane as co-creative director, and spent three years helping to construct a brand new action adventure based around player choice and freedom. The result was Dishonored – a strange, engrossing assassination adventure set in a gloomy steampunk city overrun with rats, plague and corruption.
At this year’s E3, publisher Bethesda announced that a sequel is on the way, giving players the choice between two characters: original protagonist Corvo and Emily Kaldwin, the daughter of the empress assassinated at the beginning of the first game. Set 15 years later, and after a fragile peace, Kaldwin has been deposed from her rightful throne, plunging the Empire of Isles into chaos once again – now the two leads have to regain power, taking the action away from the industrial city of Dunwall and toward the more prosperous coastal town of Karnaca.
So what did the studio want to explore when starting out on a sequel? “Dishonored was a mish-mash,” says Smith. “We wanted to make a first-person immersive game in a fantasy world with some stealth features; it was a homage to games we’d made before or loved. But, halfway through, we were only just figuring out what it was. The map, the calendar, the religion the culture – it felt really good starting the new project just knowing that stuff. On top of that we were thinking, well, our swordfighting could have been a little deeper, our stealth could have been more reliable with better feedback, and our UI was slapped together at the last minute. Just at every level there was something to deepen or extend or think about longer.”
Smith was also interested in developing the character of Emily as a central, playable entity. In the first game she acts as a reflection of your actions – if you avoid violence, she’s seen painting happy pictures, if you murder everything and everyone, it’s all black crayon monsters.
“So it felt like, what happened to that little girl?” says Smith. “She was born into privilege, she was marred by this terrible tragedy, and then after that she was raised by Corvo. What would she be like as a 25-year-old adult – as an empress and then an outlaw? It was effortless to find that part.
“If you play as Emily it’s all new – she has her own set of powers, her own assassinations and animations, so she feels different, she feels like a finesse character. In the video, we show a power called Far Reach [a teleportation abaility] which can be upgraded in different ways, and it changes your flow through the world and your mobility. Just on a video game level, moving through the world feels different. But if you play Corvo, it’s all this classic stuff, it’s the rat swarms, it’s possession, it’s stopping time – he feels more heavy and brutal, he’s an older guy.”
The beauty of Dishonored – like System Shockand Deus Ex – is the way in which the game’s multiple systems combine to give each player a very individual experience. Various powers, such as possession and limited teleportation, are unlockable as you traverse the dank streets and ruined terraces of Dunwall, and these can be utilised alongside traditional weapons in very different ways. So how does Arkane provide that sense of freedom and still tell a story that everyone gets to experience?
“We argued about this on Deus Ex,” says Smith. “Some members of the team felt that each building should split, and that in one hallway all the locked doors and encounters and conflicts are all related to sneaking; then there’s a hallway here that’s all related to hacking, and another up here that’s all about fighting. The other half of the team, me included, said ‘no, what we should do is intermix those things so there’s a fluidity as you get to each situation: you can decide, am I going to deal with it this way or that way, or do I need to bypass it because I’m not skilled in that area?’”
Smith and co-creative director Raphael Colantonio brought this combination approach to Dishonored. Very little is out of bounds to the player – all the powers and runes are accessible. “It’s a hybrid,” he says. “Some teams use an unlock schedule which is much easier because you know, at level three, the guy’s never going to have possession or whatever. We don’t do that. We give you your points and say: spend them how you want. You decide how to put together equipment upgrades and bone charms and powers to make your own little combinations. It’s much more expensive and much harder, but it ensures it’s fluid – your choices and my choices will probably be different.”
The original Dishonored also allowed multiple routes through each mission location, designed to compliment different game styles. Smith says that’s definitely the case with the sequel too. But it’s not just about creating ludic worlds that engender player choice, it’s about making them seem like functioning living spaces too. “I hate to use the term realism, but we look at every place to see if it’s plausible. Does it have a history? How does the guard in this room get to work? We’ve built levels before and then looked at them and said, ‘Really? The guy starts here on the terrace, then has to get to the dock, and he needs to walk a mile and up ten flights of steps? That doesn’t make any sense’. We approach it very plausibly but it’s very interconnected – you see the tower you need to get to, but your path will be different to mine.”
For Smith, the key is all about making player choice the defining experience of play. If it’s a cosmetic or trivial element that is quickly forgotten or proves irrelevant, it’s not a choice. He talks about the games he’s looking forward to – XCOM 2, Fallouot 4, No Man’s Sky – and sees that element in all of them. “The common thread seems to be, most of the time, you make decisions and you can succeed or fail or have an interesting experience or not based on the decisions you make,” he says. “The more that’s true the more I like it. I like lonely self-paced experiences, I don’t want a game to be room-hallway-room-hallway-explosion – that’s not interesting to me.”
But, of course, the interesting thing with Dishonored, was that violence made possible with the multiple systems also came with a moral cost. The player was given tools of death and destruction, but the world darkened if they were used. Were Smith and his team aware of how controversial that would be? How divisive? He laughs. “A game about an assassin where you don’t have to kill anyone – that was our goal with Dishonored,” he says. “And that’s true again with the sequel”.
Dishonored 2 is due out on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in spring 2016