Inside the challenges of making a sequel to one of the decade's most acclaimed games
The original Dishonored was a beautifully balanced blend of story, stealth-action play and pure mechanics that found its way to the top of almost every Game of the Year list in 2012. Not an easy act to follow, as Arkane's co-creative director, Harvey Smith admits during a break between press demos at this year's QuakeCon.
"It's really difficult," Smith says when describing his aim to build on what made Dishonored special. The new game is ambitious, promising to be a more complex, more thoughtful take on the original's dark, steampunkish world of betrayal and divine intervention. "We want to give you a giant space that you can approach improvisationally," he says. "Everything else comes secondary to that. We also want to have a meaningful narrative, based on the themes guiding the characters. It's a mad scramble to please two masters."
"It all started for us with thinking about Emily," he says, referring to character Emily Kaldwin, who was just a child when the events of the first game unfolded. "We just imagined: what would Emily be like down the road, as an empress. What would she be like as a character to inhabit?" To that end, the Empress, 15 years later, is the de facto star of Dishonored 2 – the game begins with her being deposed, and she has to fight to reclaim her title and conquer those conspiring against her. Both she and Corvo – Emily's father and the original game's vengeful protagonist – are now playable, and, unlike in the previous game, both are now fully voiced.
"We wanted [a voiced protagonist] in the first game," Smith says. "Near the end, we decided it might be stronger that way. But by then it was too late. So this time we said, let's just start with a voice and see how it contextualizes things. And it was enormously positive for us." Emily and Corvo will react to the world around them, offering insight based on the circumstances and the player's current "Chaos level," Dishonored's internal scoring system for measuring your impact on the world, shaped by the degree of lethality (or mercy) you mete out as you progress. Adding voices, Smith says, gave the game greater ability to offer depth to the characters – one of the very few criticisms leveled at the first game – while also offering the player cues for how to respond to the world around them.
"People were replaying the whole game with the Heart out, deciding who to kill based on what the Heart said. Which shocked us."
"Once in awhile, you'll get an emotional beat from Emily remembering something from her childhood that you as the player also remember. Other times, it's a signpost. Maybe you as a player haven't quite figured out yet that that building in front of you is your objective. But Emily goes, ah, yes, the home of so and so. And you're like, oh, yeah, I knew that!" Smith says.
That Chaos system is another place where Smith's team has worked to increase depth and nuance. In the first game, its function as a kind of ersatz morality meter too often trapped the player in binaries – innocent pacifist or cutthroat murderer, without much space in between.
"There was this critique that to get low Chaos, you just had to kill less than 20 percent of the people in the game," Smith says. "So this time we weighted everyone differently. People can be sympathetic, guilty, or murderous." Different types of guards, for instance, with different personality traits, elicit different changes in your level of Chaos.
He describes one particular item in the first game, the Heart, and how it changed the way the team viewed the Chaos system. The Heart is a clockwork oracle, a device given to Corvo by the mysterious Outsider character. If you point it at a person or a place, it whispers secrets to you, hints about the lore, character details, filling in the margins – a sort of creepy supernatural version of Batman's Detective Mode in the Arkham games.
"People were replaying the whole game with the Heart out, deciding who to kill based on what the Heart said. Which shocked us," Smith says. "So we made that mechanically relevant. You approach a guard, and it can say he works double shifts to feed the family down the street." Killing him, then, will contribute more to your Chaos than another character who the Heart tells you is a murderer.
"This time we have several different beats of endings [based on the system]. Each one has multiple states, based on branching decisions you made, with versions for high, low, and sometimes even very high Chaos," Smith says.