A trace of Thief. A dash of Deus Ex. A healthy helping of Hitman. The palette of Arkane Studios’ upcoming stealth-action game Dishonored is that of the PC classic – which, nowadays, is something exotic. Join DANIEL HINDES as he travels to the otherworldly, systemic sandbox of San Francisco to explore the range of the revenge fantasy.
We couldn’t help but hold our head in our hands as one of the American journalists in the room asked the Co-creative Directors of Arkane Studios, Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio, if their latest game, Dishonored, was inspired by Assassin’s Creed. Sure, Dishonored casts players in the role of an Assassin, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Dishonored’s roots run far deeper: down through some of the most important PC games ever made, through the challenge left by Looking Glass Studios, and finally anchoring themselves in the inception of the immersive sim: Ultima Underworld.
“It’s our favourite game of all time,” says Colantonio for both himself and Smith. “Since then, all the Looking Glass games, Thief, Deus Ex – which Harvey worked on – System Shock, and even Far Cry 2 – this is what we’re really into and we like. It’s fair to say that many of those games are our influence.”
“It’s exactly the kind of game we’re passionate about,” adds Smith. “First-person action, lots of mobility options, and also a stealth component. So you can approach every situation full-on, violent and brutal; or you can slip past and no-one even knows you were there.
“It’s a game about being an assassin, but you can literally play without killing anyone.”
Smith’s excited hand gestures throughout the presentation show he has not lost one iota of enthusiasm for the breadth of options these highly-systemic games offer. Grounding him is Colantonio’s effortlessly-chilled demeanour, wordlessly and confidently communicating one simple fact: Yeah, Arkane has been making these deep simulations its entire life – what of it?
FANCY A PINT?
Dishonored is not an open world game. It’s mission-based, and each mission is a contained but hand-crafted sandbox.
“Inside of that square, we really model everything,” says Colantonio. “And it’s really interesting how, by not trying to block the player to go into some areas, and not even thinking that they would go there, some still manage to go there and then they find their own way to shortcut the mission. And we look at it, and go, ‘Eh, that’s cool’. It doesn’t matter – it didn’t break the game.”
Each mission is preluded with a visit to a safe hub area set in an abandoned pub, where the player meets with fellow conspirators as they attempt to clear their own name after being framed for the assassination of the Empress. As every mission is an assassination, the NPCs in this area brief the player on their next target and the location they are about to enter. Loot found throughout missions can also be brought back to the craftsmen in this area in exchange for upgrades to gear or new gadgets.
“It’s also a place where, before you go to a mission, one of the characters, like a maid, might tell you, oh, as you are going over there, if you could spare the life of that character, that would be nice,” Colantonio elaborates. “So they give you alternate objectives as well.”
“You also talk to characters who have different attitudes during different visits back to the pub based on how you’re playing,” adds Smith. “There are different fantasies about being a person who has been wronged and who has to exact revenge, or clear your name, whatever is appealing to you. You can be the surgical guy that is powerful because he’s hidden and nobody even knew he was there. He got in and accomplished his goal, super-clean. Or you can be the guy that’s like… I’m here to blow you up.”
It’s not just the characters, but the world that reacts to your playstyle. Arkane calls this their “chaos” system, whereby your actions are subtly reflected by the environment.
“It’s never in-your-face,” says Smith. “I honestly think a lot of people who are really hardcore gamers are going to be tuned into that part. And I think the people who are just playing the game, it’s just going to happen organically. That was one of our goals. It’s not like a big meter comes up and goes, you did this versus that. It’s more organically woven through the world.”
THE THIEVES’ HIGHWAY
One definite consequence is that of your starting location – it will change depending upon your actions in the previous mission. The multiple playthroughs of the mission we saw had the player first begin on the streets, near a group of guards, and the second time high above them on the rooftops. With multiple ways to enter every location, the differing starting locations encourage exploration to find those routes. For this demo, we sneak down to the harbour, possess a fish and swim through a tiny sewer grate. All of this happens organically, during gameplay.
“We are more towards environmental storytelling, letting the player read books and journals,” says Colantonio, explaining how Dishonored avoids interrupting players with cutscenes that wrest control from players.
“Story is not the purpose of a videogame,” Smith adds. “So for us, we want something universal to draw the player in, and then the main star is the gameplay.
“Two players will talk and they’ll have a very different narrative of what happened. To us, even though we feel the other component is necessary to pull the player into this kind of world, for us, the dynamic narrative that emerges from what you did and how that differs from what I did is the star. That’s what Raf and I really love.”
Encouraging this dynamic gameplay narrative is an element of randomisation. “Everything is a little different every time,” says Colantonio. “We randomise the position of your targets. The patrols might not be exactly the same.”
Targets can be located by eavesdropping on conversations or reading notes and journals found throughout the mission. Once located, there are always multiple ways to complete the assassination. After sneaking our way to our target, we spy him through a glass window relaxing in a steam room.
“You can go in the front door if you have the key,” Colantonio explains. “You can explode the door if you have the equipment for it. You could use a fish to get inside the steam room.”
Taking a cue from Hitman: Blood Money, players can indirectly use the environment to eliminate their targets. Here, we fiddle with one of the valves, rerouting the pipes to the steam room and causing the target to suffocate in boiling hot air.
But what about non-lethal players? After all, as Smith said, this is an assassination game where you can literally play without killing anyone.
“For all the key targets, we have provided story-based alternate ways to dispose of them,” Smith elaborates. “In this case, you could have somebody put this guy to work in one of his own mines, erase his identity and have him taken away to become a slave. Most of these ways take a lot more work, a lot more eavesdropping, and require a lot more attention to detail.”
Locating our second target, we use a short-range teleport power called Blink to scale up onto the rafters and find him in a private room with a courtesan. Rather than assault him directly, we corporeally possess him and walk him out onto the balcony (whilst the courtesan asks if he’s suddenly feeling a little ill) where we can “eject” from his body and quietly stab him out of her line of sight.
THE WINDY CITY
Our second playthrough is all about busting down the front door, brandishing steel and a flint-lock pistol. Every guard is a threat, and their high HP encourages the exploitation of opportunity attacks through well-timed blocks and parries. Projectile weapons like crossbows come with all manner of ammo types – explosive, incendiary, sleep darts. Using the Stop Time power, multiple crossbow bolts can be precisely launched, hanging in mid-air until time resumes and they find their marks simultaneously.
“If you time the Stop Time just right, you can catch the bullet in the air, and then we’ve had people possess the guy that shot it and walk them in front of the bullet, so when time resumes the guy gets hit by his own bullet,” says Smith. “Little fun things like that are possible.”
Fighting our way up to our target, we use a Force Push-like power called Windblast to throw him out of the third-storey window. It’s important to note that there’s no cutscene or cinematic angle of this; one moment, he’s there, and the next – whoosh! – he’s gone, and all that remains are the shattered wooden slats of the window he launched through. Fighting our way down to the second target, we simply approach him from the front and stab him through the neck.
The alarm sounds and more guards swarm us, so we summon a pack of rats, possess one of them and scuttle out the front door. Mission complete.
If there’s one thing to take away from Dishonored, it’s how much Arkane is leaving up to the player. This looks like a true immersive sim; one with the flash and fidelity of 2012, but the design sensibilities of 1999. The game looks to be bringing the concept of “play” back to triple-A gaming, by making the player’s path through its sandbox missions and their interactions with its highly-systemic, over-connected nature the primary narrative.
The stealth looks like thrilling stuff, with analogue AI, deeper patrol paths and powers like Blink that give sneaking an unprecedented pace. The swordplay looks intense whilst remaining tactical, and the danger posed by every enemy forces players to ask: how can I overcome this encounter? The supernatural powers aren’t simple things like summoning a fireball; they’re explicitly designed to exploit the analogue AI and systemic nature of the environment, while flowing effortlessly into either a combat or a stealth approach.
We’ve only seen one mission played through multiple times. We haven’t seen how the long-term, high-level elements like the chaos system and playstyle reactions will transpire. But within those playthroughs, everything in the moment-to-moment gameplay worked. Everything came together. Our minds were brimming with alternative approaches that we cannot wait to attempt ourselves. Not only does Dishonored look set to be Arkane’s best title yet, but if Looking Glass were around today, it is undoubtedly the kind of game they would be making.
Originally published in PCPP#204, June 2012.