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Arkane Studios: "Lots of people have done elves and dwarves. F*** that"

Dishonored creative director Harvey Smith offers advice on how to create a distinct and memorable fictional universe

It's the dream of almost every creator to forge a world that people instantly recognise.

While few gaming realms are as instantly recognisable as Star Wars' galaxy far, far away or J.K. Rowling's wizarding world, there are still franchises set in universes that can be identified by millions of people from a single screenshot, item or phrase.

One of the most prominent examples from the past five years is Bethesda's Dishonored. The series' blend of steampunk and the supernatural sets it apart from any other franchise, thanks in no small part to the vision and leadership of Harvey Smith, creative director at Dishonored developer Arkane Studios.

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Harvey Smith, Arkane Studios

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz earlier this year, Smith offered the following advice for creating a distinct world.

"Raymond Loewy, a designer in the '50s, once said what people want is something very familiar but different enough," he explains. "Something new but not too new, not too familiar. That's a tricky combination.

"When you're making something you want to be recognisable, if you find yourself doing exactly what has been done before you need to put a twist on it. We constantly talk about that - bone charms, on some level, are just a system of perks but they work differently. They don't just modify an existing power, they do something different. What's their place in the main world, since most people aren't magic-using assassins?

"We say that sailors will carve a piece of whale bone or something from an exotic animal into a cool shape during a full moon and keep it in their pocket as a way to ward off venereal disease, or women will use it to avoid getting pregnant. That's the function of those. You can imagine an old woman hanging one over the door to her kitchen so that the food never spoils. That's the larger fictional cloth behind them, but then the player has them to improve their powers.

"Lots of people have done elves and dwarves. Fuck that. Imagining 1850s whaling cities is a much more interesting backdrop, even if you're going to do a fantasy game about a supernatural assassin. So taking something familiar and twisting it is always a good idea."

"What people want is something very familiar but different enough. That's a tricky combination"

Since our interview with Smith, Bethesda has revealed it will be inviting players back to the world of Dishonored later this year with standalone expansion Death of the Outsider. To anyone who has played either game, the title is already evocative, referring to the enigmatic deity that bestows magical powers upon each game's protagonist, but the promise of exploring new areas will also appeal.

So far, fans have only seen two regions of Dishonored's world: Dunwall, the capital city of the first game, and Karnaca, the sun-kissed setting central to last year's sequel. But in-game maps show a much wider world beyond these two locales - is this just decorative, or does Smith have entire continents planned out for use in future instalments?

"A lot of it is in my head," he admits. "A lot is also in our documentation. There is stuff alluded to in the comic books, like the place in Dunwall called Wormwood Way where bone charms and heretics collect and illegal shops thrive - those have never appeared in the game.

"We believe in, as a creative technique, making the world larger than what the player can possibly experience. First of all, you can't see everything in one playthrough. Second of all, you have the sense of a larger world because we allude to it, but it's not all there. That just creates a sense of mystery and a sense of a bigger world.

"One of my co-workers, my lead designer, one of his parents is from Paris and one is from the Ivory Coast. He alludes to things that happened to him when we're going back and forth that don't really exist for me; they only exist as his stories. That makes the world feel bigger than I am; interesting, mysterious and exotic. We try to do that in our fiction as well."

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Giving a feasible context to items like bone charms evolves them beyond a mere mechanic and cements them as another element of Arkane's world-building

Smith continues with an anecdote he recalls from one of his favourite science fiction writers, Roger Zelazny. The writer once said that for one novel, he wrote an interstitial chapter in which the main character buys a gift for the child of a friend and then attends their birthday party, before heading out and continuing the story. The chapter was thrown away and the author never let anyone read it, explaining that the sole purpose of this exercise was to help him better understand the character.

"Even if he alluded back to that later, he wanted the world of the novel to feel larger than it actually was on the pages, and the readers could sense that," Smith adds. "I was influenced by that anecdote."

"We believe in making the world larger than what the player can possibly experience"

As with writing fiction, it's as important for game developers to create worlds as much for their own interest as for the players - but Smith stresses the player's opinion is still vital. For Dishonored 2, Arkane invited fans to come and test the game while it was still in development, and their reaction to seemingly minor set-dressing elements helped shape the title's overall tone.

"We put up those posters with Delilah, the villain, and it says 'long live the new Empress'," says Smith. "I can't tell you the number of women that went up to those posters and went 'I don't think so', or something to that effect. I never anticipated that - they had a powerful antagonistic response to [those posters] and that wasn't our intention. It was cool that they immediately took on the role of Emily who lost her throne to this woman and they're going to fight that woman. We wanted to play that up, so we put some of that into our future messaging and people really responded to it, it was great.

"We love interacting with the fans, and the psychology about how they're feeling about the characters, the story and the setting."

Developers face a unique challenge when it comes to building a distinct world, one that creators of other entertainment forms never encounter. While forming a rich lore and culture can be instrumental in getting players to engage with your fictional universe, their gameplay experience can be just as important - they have to enjoy playing in your world as well as learning about it.

"We love interacting with the fans, and the psychology about how they're feeling about the characters, the story and the setting"

Arkane's answer to this has been creating a world where players have as much freedom as the studio can allow. The ability to sneak through Dunwall or Karnaca undetected, storm through on a supernatural killing spree or a mix of the two is key to Dishonored's appeal, and that comes down as much to the world's design as it does the mechanics.

"First and foremost, we want to make an environment that transports you and lets you explore it and lets you do what feels intuitive," says Smith. "That might be throwing a bottle at a guy's head, dropping off the roof of a building into an alley, or breaking a window and going in then unlocking the front door to let yourself back out, or fighting people, or sneaking past them and hiding under the desk until they pass. It's not an everything simulator, but it puts you in an environment in an intense situation and lets your do what feels natural."

Famously, player behaviour helped shape one of the series' signature powers. Arkane has previously revealed that in early tests for the first Dishonored, they found users trying to teleport up to the rooftops at the very edge of one level with Blink. Rather than preventing players from circumventing their level design with this exploit, the team instead widened the rooftops to cater for it.

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Only two cities have been explored so far in the Dishonored series, but there are enough allusions to other areas to create the sense of a much larger world

It's an attitude that carries over from Looking Glass Studios, the defunct studio from which many of the Arkane team hail and developer of the original Thief games. Thief was also praised for the freedom it afforded, and while it had no supernatural powers for players to experiment with, certain items meant level designers had to enable gamers' freedom and inventiveness in much the same way.

"First and foremost, we want to make an environment that transports you and lets you explore it and lets you do what feels intuitive"

"When we made Blink, we didn't want to limit players to only certain spots where you could Blink," Smith recalls. "We wanted an algorithm that very dynamically figured out the angles of the world on the fly and let you Blink to them.

"The original Thief had a really good balance there, because the rope arrows only attached to wood, which meant as a level designer you had some control over whether people can use rope arrows to ascend. But if you do that too much, if you say the rope arrows only attach to the orange wood and there's only orange wood here and there on the ceiling where I want it to be, your players suddenly feel like, rather than making their own decisions and playing improvisationally, instead they feel like they're following a trail of breadcrumbs left by the game designer. There are very often decisions we make at Arkane where we keep all that in mind. We want to give you the agency."

Following the rooftop revelation with Blink, the studio has regularly called on fans to assist with the construction of its fantasy world, observing each player and what they attempt to do. This naturally has its limits - no developer can account for every player-induced possibility - but Smith assures that it does not hold back the Dishonored team's creativity.

"In each case, we either double down and support [what players are doing] if it's fun, like building an animation for whatever it is, a sound effect, edge case protection, debugging," he says. "We need some time to put into that if we want to support it. But sometimes it could be months.

"A good example [of us supporting an idea] is the springrazor, a grenade that throws out shrapnel and cuts people to shreds. You can plant them on the wall or the floor, and guards that walk past will be dismembered. But someone wanted to put it on a bottle, and then throw the bottle so that as it lands near the guard, it goes off. We were like 'that's cool, that's fun'.

"On the other hand, once in a while people figure out something they want to do and we have to bulletproof against it or work against it because it would cause too many problems, take months to fix and it's not the core idea. It's dealt with on a case-by-case basis."

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Latest comments (3)

Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio3 months ago
I think everyone likes the ideas of the large worlds to explore. I just hope game companies fill these worlds with realistic paths. One shouldn't really know if the path they follow is "good" or "bad" as life is grey. By the end of the game you shouldnt know if you were a good guy or bad guy, because it all begins on perspective.

Example. If you are told to execute some ship captains, does that make you a bad guy if you do it? if these captains later turn out to be ruthless whale killers depleting the species in the area, doesnt that now change things? People who like whales etc see these men as evil, so if you didnt kill them, whats that make you. I want more games that arent black and white, since real life certainly isnt.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ3 months ago
Good article. I like the Zelazny concept.

The more I think about "what kinds of games do I REALLY want to make in my lifetime", the more I think that literary / writerly tools and tricks are vital to great games.

Even a game that's very simulation driven, like Thief, needs a good world built up around it, and a solid theory of how drama and context can be created within the game, using all the tools available.

Of course, things like ambient audio, lighting, AI, etc, are quite game specific, and relate more to cinema that books... but many games lack the richness provided by age-old elements like theme, narrative structure, and the power of well-crafted words.

I like to think about how the Half Life games has tons of work done on scripts, descriptions, world building (in the form of writing) that never literally appears in-game for the player to read, but inform the way that all the game developers working on it see the world they're creating, and use the inspiration of those words to build out the details of the environment, the scene structure, how characters behave, the AI, the monsters, where the player goes, what the factions are, the mise en scene, everything.

I think that a strong basis in age-old traditions - literature, theatre and architecture - is still where the strongest world building elements come from.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 months ago
Most games are rather one dimensional when resolving a conflict. It is usually a canned animation triggered by a single button press, or fully interactive combat systems in which you kill people based on hearsay. The best games are those who can either distract from that very well (e.g. Uncharted), or try their best to resolve conflicts in more ways than one (e.g. Fallout, Witcher).

If a book or movie throws a new and surprising way at the audience to resolve a conflict, it just has to work in the context of the medium. If a game tries the same, it has to work from a gameplay perspective as well. Movies essentially used to have the same problem when adapting source materials which were special effects heavy. AAA Frog Fractions is still a few years out and until then, it should come as no surprise, if games leverage features unique to games, such as non-linear exploration of a world; something a show on Netflix cannot provide.
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