Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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How Dishonored Honors Thief: Arkane's Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio on Dishonored's Debt to the Immersive Stealth Classic

Dishonored Stealth gameplay

Stealthy (relatively) non-violent gameplay in Dishonored

I'm loving Dishonored, the new game from Arkane Studios in which you play an outcast hero who must restore balance to a steampunk-themed alternate world where stealth, cunning, and careful moral choices are more important than wreaking wanton violence on your opponents. It's a great game in itself, made even moreso (to me) because it has a direct lineage to another first-person game set in a steampunk city, in which an outcast hero must also use stealth and cunning to bring balance to the world: The Thief games of Looking Glass Studios, from a decade ago. I started writing about games with those titles, and Harvey Smith, as he told me during a 2004 interview in Second Life, was a lead tester for Looking Glass' System Shock. And as he and Raphael Colantonio, his co-creative director on Dishonored, tell me, the Thief games were an essential inspiration for their game:

"Thief is a huge influence over our team," the two acknowledged over e-mail. "All these years on, we love that fascinating sketch of a world, with all its murky history and esoteric factions. The way the game is only partially scripted and instead relies on simulation means that the moment to moment experience creates a unique narrative driven by the player's actions. Thief stands as one of the greatest games ever made."

In case you haven't played Thief, Dishonored shares a number of gameplay and design elements which effect the player's sense of immersion, and the choices you make in the game. And the creators shared some of those with me too:

Thief 3 stealth game

Stealthy (relatively) non-violent gameplay in Thief 3

Mantling and "peeking": Thief introduced two new features to first-person games -- the ability to pull yourself up over ledges (called "mantling") and the ability to diagonally peek around corners and hiding places without being seen by enemies. Dishonored has both, for very good design reasons:

"Mantling (or climbing as we called it in the game) always just feels good, as a physical body action, and it allows the player to reach additional areas." This adds extra challenges for the level designers, but they do it as part of their overall design philosophy of empowering player creativity and freedom: "We're in favor of high player mobility. Not only does it allow the designers to sprinkle the world with the things to find, it just gives the player more decisions, more agency, per square meter."

A similar thinking goes into the lean, which also helps enhance player immersion: "Features like 'lean,' for looking around the corner, are not only tactically useful in terms of letting the player act with intentionality, but they also feel really good on a pure motion level, like sliding around the corner in a racing game. There's an analogue sense to being in the body and moving very fluidly. Just like falling off a building in a game can make your stomach flip, movements like lean do some eye-mind trickery."

Moral choice: Another innovation in the Thief games -- they were the first first-person action games to reward players for not killing people, especially civilians. In contrast to Thief, where there's objective goals based on difficulty level (i.e., kill no civilians, kill no one, etc.), however, Dishonored leaves the player's options open -- it's up to you whether you want to kill, but the game informs you that "violence will lead to a darker end". Here again, this design choice is all about enhancing player choice:

"We did not want to model good or bad, but stability and instability," as Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio explain. "As a player, you're free to slaughter almost everyone in the game, or you can accomplish your goals with more restraint. We track the number of people you kill and derive the Chaos Score from that, which drives the city -- in the end -- toward a more or less stable outcome. The act of taking a life carries more weight in the context of an action/violence fantasy, if there's a choice. We don't tell you how to play in an overt way, but we do provide consequences for your actions."

This thoughtful approach to violence, immersion, and player choice is still very rare in game development, and it was probably one reason Looking Glass failed as a company. But that was years ago, and the game developers inspired by Looking Glass' legacy seem to be doing well -- at the moment, Dishonored is a massive hit. And somewhere in the shadows, Garrett is smiling.


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Great interview!

Just a slight correction though: System Shock had mantling in 1994 (the Ultima Underworlds might have too, I don't remember. But I don't think they did)

Hamlet Au

Thanks! Will note that. Underworld didn't have mantling, far as I can remember.

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