Attack of the Fanboy
E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo)

Dishonored developer Harvey Smith talks “Chaos” system and immersive world of Dunwall

by William Schwartz


E3 is an incredibly hectic time, and not just for those of us running around for three days straight trying to bring you the most comprehensive coverage possible, but for the show’s exhibitors as well who spend those three days running though the same demos and trailers while trying to make each instance unique for those watching for the first time. But when we see something we truly love, we’re inclined to stop and take a further look. Such was the case when we went behind-the-scenes at Bethesda’s E3 booth to see Dishonored up close and personal.

I caught up with Arkane Studios and Dishonored‘s Co-creative director, Harvey Smith, following he and Raf Colantonio’s two-play walkthrough that demonstrated how player choice will be inherently intertwined with the game. Smith has been around the gaming industry for quite a while (going as far back as 1993) and served as the Lead Designer on the revolutionary action-RPG, Deus Ex. What does a guy who has helped deliver some of gaming’s most respected titles think about Arkane’s new project in Dishonored?

“It’s my favorite thing I’ve done in years,” said Smith. For good reason, too. Dishonored was among the most impressive titles we saw first-hand at E3 2012, and it made its mark without any kind of predecessor or marquee franchise backing it. When Dishonored releases in October, gamers will be treated to a rarity – a brand new IP that sheds the traditional genre roles that so often limit and confine original games. It’ll be blending stealth and action elements into a single, sleek package that incorporates not only player decision, but morality as well.

What we know is that Corvo, the game’s protagonist, is a stealthy assassin that has an abundance of supernatural abilities. Once a primary bodyguard for the Empress, he seeks vengeance against the oppressive Lord Regent who framed him for her assassination. I asked Smith to detail Corvo a bit more and what he is setting out to accomplish at the outset of the game. While he couldn’t reveal a heap of details for fear of giving away plot spoilers, he hinted that it won’t be so much about Corvo as it will be about the player controlling him.

“We started with a blank slate mentality about Corvo because we didn’t want to project too much onto the player and violate that very important player expectation,” said Smith. “From a certain point in the game and after certain events take place, he begins to act outside of his comfort zone.”

He continued, “We wanted a classic story to ease the player into the world, which in today’s industry is pretty different. I mean, it’s not a sequel. You can play it entirely in the way you want. It’s a game about an assassin yet you don’t have to kill anyone, and it’s not a part of any traditional genre like you’ve seen before.”

The game’s dystopic setting in the 1850s-style whaling city of Dunwall looks like it will have a medieval flair as it seemingly draws from old British architecture, yet it also has futuristic, industrial elements evident throughout. Bethesda has always been a publisher known for taking great pride in the level of detail that is put into their in-game environments. I asked Smith if gamers can expect Dunwall to be just as in-depth and extensive as previous Bethesda settings.

“Well, Dishonored is mission-based and each one is almost like a handcrafted location, so the space itself is very non-linear,” he said.  “A lot of different things can happen depending on your play-style. Dishonored’s enemies are aware or not based on their perceptions. In a lot of games, it’s almost like if you’re within their radius, they know you’re there. With Dishonored, they’re looking and listening, and in one instance they may hear you, in the next they may not.”

Smith assured me that Dunwall is meticulously detailed in the way it communicates its lore and history to the player. Pieces of interactive storytelling can be found throughout the world. Notes, NPC conversations that mention certain businesses, locations, and even Dunwall’s political realm will all be available for the player to explore.

“As you play through, you start to absorb these details,” said Smith. “You read notes, eavesdrop, take different paths to hear different conversations, and then there will come a time in the game when your absorption of what the world is and what’s going on will greatly help you. The average person passing through the game once is not going to get that.”

According to Smith, when the player comes to this understanding, Dishonored becomes something that the players themselves are driving and pushing forward. “That’s the thing about Dishonored, the game doesn’t play itself,” he said.

Recently, more and more games have adopted the “morality concept” and have attempted to create ethical situations where players make choices that will affect them later on, but very few have been able to successfully employ this idea. Arkane and Bethesda are working to ensure that players will feel morally responsible for their actions and emotionally invested in the choices they make by implementing a system called “Chaos” that will track each player’s moral decisions, in turn directly affecting how certain situations play out later in the game.

“We’re tacking the number of innocents you kill through the course of the game as well as the outcome of certain side quests, and we’re assigning a score as the missions go on,” said Smith. “What happens over time is that NPC conversations will change based on how violent you’ve been. There’s also going to be sequences on a smaller scale that will change based on that concept.”

Enemies in Dishonored are said to exist within the game world itself, rather than simply being spawned at a specific place or time and scripted to perform a certain action. By this philosophy, a player might stumble upon a group of enemies engaging in criminal activity. On a second playthrough, the player might take a different path, see the enemies and take them out beforehand, thus preventing the crime from ever taking place. To reiterate this concept, Smith presented an example of a situation that two players may encounter differently depending on how they’ve played the game up to that point.

“If you’re playing the game very stealthy, not killing a lot of people, and your Chaos is low, you’ll come across a family,” he said. “The father has just come back from taking his son to a boat and he’s set to leave Dunwall (which is both poverty and plague stricken). Tomorrow they’re going to come back to find another boat and get out safely. If your Chaos is high, that scene will play out very differently.”

In that scenario, Smith stated that the boat would this time be right around the corner from coming Reapers (plague victims). The family now seems completely detached and disconnected. They’re losing their memory and don’t remember who they were supposed to meet at the docks or even why they were there to begin with.

“There are darker outcomes here and there and there are also things that you do where there are direct branch consequences,” Smith said. “There are extra pools of rats in the world when your Chaos is high. A basement that otherwise may have just been a place to loot and pass through might be filled with rats, forcing you to find a way to get past the swarm.”

Before letting Dishonored‘s Co-creative Director head back into the Bethesda theater for another media walkthrough of the game’s demo, I asked him whether or not players can expect their moral choices to play a role in how their particular story concludes.

“The Chaos system does drive the endgames,” he said. “There are about two to three major branches on the endgame, and little variations on all of those as well based on whether or not this character lived or didn’t. So it’s a subtle thing in the sense that it reflects what you’re doing across the game, but it also plays a major role in how the game ends.”

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