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Arkane's Harvey Smith on Dishonored and Empowering Players

The Deus Ex lead designer talks about interactive narrative and differences in game design approaches

Dishonored, in development at Arkane Studios (to be published by Bethesda, which acquired Arkane in 2010), was one of the few new IPs at this year's E3 to really turn some heads, along with the likes of The Last of Us and Beyond. There's a reason for that: the project has some serious talent behind it, including Arkane founder Raf Colantonio, Deus Ex lead designer Harvey Smith, and Viktor Antonov, who designed Half-Life 2's City 17.

The game is designed to deliberately give the player an incredible amount of freedom. It's about stealth and assassination and yet you don't have to kill anyone. How you approach a level in the game is entirely up to you and your style of play - or what moral choices you might make. While some game designers aspire to make heavily story-driven games, co-creative director Harvey Smith wants to empower the player to drive the story.

GamesIndustry International caught up with Smith recently to talk about his views on narrative and design and his opinion on the industry today. You have an interesting pedigree with Deus Ex, System Shock and having worked with Warren Spector. What are the kinds of things you are trying to achieve with Dishonored? Are you trying to apply anything from those past games for this project?
Harvey Smith

I was only a tester on System Shock, but you are right in the sense that I have always liked a particular type of game and always try to work on the same type of game. Raphael Colantonio is my co-creative director on this project. He and I came together four years ago and we both have this strong philosophy around these first-person action games. They are not first-person shooters; they are first-person games with depth. First-person action games are very immersive; they are from your perspective and they mix simulation, stealth and storytelling.

"We like games that are authored in such a way that they are systems. They aren't just a shooting gallery with scripted pop-ups for the player"

Harvey Smith

It is all about player freedom. We never want to make a game that is a linear canyon where you start here in this canyon, you can't go left or right. You see lots of pretty scenery, but you always arrive at the end. We never want to make that game. We want to make a game where you can go behind the building, go on the roof, swim in the river and come in through the sewer drain and come up with a fish. Because our philosophies overlap so much, like 85 percent, we both got into the industry because we both love a game called Underworld. We saw that game as the future a long time ago. So for us, we love these games like BioShock, Deus Ex, Dark Messiah, even Far Cry 2. There are all these first person games that are more than shooting. It's about how these games are implemented.

Specifically, we like games that are authored in such a way that they are systems. They aren't just a shooting gallery with scripted pop-ups for the player. So that made it all easy to come together. That's really our goal with Dishonored; to empower the player so the player can play creatively. It requires more on the part of the player; these games don't play themselves. You mentioned BioShock; you probably have a lot of common sensibilities with Ken Levine. He's all about choice and consequence and putting that into a game. He gives you freedom to attack a level and go after enemies a particular way. It felt very evident in the Dishonored demo.
Harvey Smith

I think that's a good observation that Raphael and I, and Arkane in general as a studio, has been groomed to pursue this kind of game. I think there is a lot of overlap with some games like the Ultima games from Origin, The Looking Glass games or the Irrational Games. Certainly the work Ken Levine has done has been inspiring. Have you had conversations with Ken about topics on game design at all?

"There is always going to be room for high-end games where you want the highest graphical fidelity or the biggest open world"

Harvey Smith
Harvey Smith

I don't know Ken very well. I've met him a few times, but I am a very big fan of his. There are people like that; I'm pretty good friends with Clint Hocking who worked on Far Cry 2 and the Splinter Cell games. I absolutely worship Doug Church who made Thief, System Shock and Underworld. Obviously I learned a lot from Warren in my years with him. There are other people in the industry like that. Of course, Raphael worked with Valve, so Valve is a big influence over us in a different way in terms of production, methodology and rewarding the player and things like that. Raphael learned a lot from Valve and he brings a lot to the discussion. I think we've all been influenced by a lot of different people. What do you think about the way the medium of gaming has advanced storytelling? There are people like Naughty Dog who take a kind of cinematic approach with Uncharted or David Cage with Heavy Rain and Beyond. And that's a different approach than the kinds of games that you or Ken Levine would make where you empower the player to be very active in that story versus going on that 'thrill ride.' How do you view the advancement of storytelling in games?
Harvey Smith

You've obviously picked up on the fact that there is a schism there. There are two different philosophies. Even when we were working on Deus Ex, I said that some games excel at being roller coaster rides with pop-ups at the right time, thrills at the right time and scripted breathers at the right time. Other games are more like when you were a little kid or teenager and you and your friends broke into the abandoned warehouse down the road; you were scared and didn't know if anyone was going to catch you. It was dark, it was dangerous. It was fun because you made your own fun. By exploring, you made your own fun by exploring. The pace was at your disposal. It was a player-driven pace. Those are very different experiences.

We feel that the latter is where the player is the most empowered; the player has the most agency. Raphael and I both agree that that is what we want to do. At the same time, there are ways I think to blend a bit of both. We've learned on this project that there are ways to veer people towards a haunted house, but it doesn't help to give sign-posts here and there that help attract you or guide you to up the drama.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you think that games that put the story and cutscenes up front as the main focus are almost doing a disservice to games as a medium? There's that knock on game designers that they are aspiring to be Hollywood. People say that game designers need to stop being Hollywood and just focus on making games. Do you see that?
Harvey Smith

I've heard that before, and while Raphael, myself and Arkane have a particular style and taste and we move in a particular direction, I've always been the guy that says games are healthier when everyone takes a different approach... So like somebody who chooses a simple location like a house and models behavior within the house, like the Sims; someone who takes a roller-coaster, because there's nothing wrong with roller-coasters, because we all like roller-coasters; somebody else who goes all out for atmosphere like the indie game Amnesia, recently. I think the fact that games have all that plurality of aesthetic approaches, games are healthier because of that, versus getting behind one religious dogma and saying 'let's all make abstract games with no story, all interactivity and let's all strive to make Go.' I think games are all stronger because of the plurality, even if some of those fail because they are inherently limited in terms of what we can do with storytelling.

GamesIndustry.bizWhere do you think triple-A games are going to fit in the future where the cost of development is so astronomically high and getting higher? Next-gen is right around the corner and those costs are going to go up. Every time that happens, publishers become more risk averse and are not being as supportive. It is harder to make a new IP, and thankfully you have the opportunity to make a new IP with Dishonored. There aren't too many designers that get to do that. It seems like the market is becoming dangerous for development of $50 million games. How do you see the future of development evolving?
Harvey Smith

I don't try to predict the future anymore but I would say that there has been this huge widening of platforms and gamer profiles, as mobile and free-to-play has emerged, and there is going to be even more ways to play. There are 7 billion people on the planet and only a fraction are playing games. There will be more experimentation with billing models, on how to sell games, even give them away. I think in that eco-system there is always going to be room for high-end games where you want the highest graphical fidelity or the biggest open world. There will always be a market for party games; there is an ever-widening market for mobile games.

So I think it's just incumbent on the people working on games to figure out how to afford those, whether it is a very mature toolset that you can use over and over for a particular type of game or if you distribute your team over multiple locations, which is what we've done. I think the market will support a certain number of each of those types of games. If there are 80 million players for a particular type of casual/social game, that's great. If there are 10 million players for a deep, hardcore PC or console game, and in both cases companies can make money if they set themselves up right. I don't see a problem with having a very fragmented market like that. I'm happy about that, in fact. Were you following the news from E3?
Harvey Smith

Twitter for me is like your finger is on the pulse. At the show, I hit 17,000 tweets; that's not more than other people, but that's a significant number of tweets. I use Twitter and love social media, I love it. Before I was in games, I was in the military. We had a teletype network. I was a satellite communications guy. So all this stuff like keeping in touch with friends around the world, even pre-internet, I happened to be in a place where I was into that. It's natural for me. I track my news that way; I get a sense of what people are talking about. It has been very gratifying to see people talking about Dishonored in the same breath as the other two games that everyone is talking about. There are three games mentioned over and over, one of which was Dishonored, which is super gratifying.

So I didn't go to the conferences, but I did track in the background by listening to what people were saying. I think the public is responding to games that promise something new, a novel setting, more player interactivity, and more ways to interface with the game. I think people light up when you talk about that stuff, naturally. The same old setting with the same old demo with the same scripted interactivity... I think people are getting more sophisticated and they need to hear that thing that excites them, whatever that is.

GamesIndustry.bizDishonored is not being announced for Wii U, but as a designer of hardcore games what do you think of Nintendo's new console?
Harvey Smith

It's always felt a little outside my expertise to say. When the Wii came out, it was interesting and I'm glad they did that. A lot of people had fun with the tennis and darts or whatever, but my thinking has always been the more I can forget the interface, the more I can get in the game. That interface reminds me that I'm struggling. Maybe they'll have a better fix this time around, but I don't have an informed opinion really because it feels like something outside of what I want to do.

We have strong advocates inside the team for PS3, Xbox 360 and the PC. We want to do those right and we know where our audience is. That's not to say in the future that we won't explore or experiment with some of these new devices. When a new device comes out, that's a very fertile ground for exploring new ideas. Nintendo deserves accolades for that. I just don't know how far the new console goes. I didn't perceive what people's excitement of the device was. I don't know why, but it didn't show up on my filter somehow.

My personal opinion is people respond to games and specifically about something within the game. This is nerdy, but if they hear the way the AI listens or sees, that its perception is not scripted, gamers respond to that. If you can do something that hasn't been done before, like possess a rat or fish or control traffic lights in a city, they respond to that. That's what trends. I personally don't have the focus on hardware or UI devices as much.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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