Dishonored’s two lead designers talk about magic, “breaking” the game, and amoral power

Dishonored’s two lead designers talk about magic, “breaking” the game, and amoral power

Dishonored has the luxury of two creative directors: Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, System Shock) and Raf Colantonio (Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic). “We like the same things, and we have the same values,” Colantonio explained during a recent interview with both gentlemen.

“If you as a creative person could articulate your values and eight things float to the top, and you find someone else who shares seven of those eight? On top of everything, we just have good chemistry, to be honest,” Smith agreed.

The two have reason to be content. Dishonored had a wonderful showing at E3, racking up a number of awards and mountains of positive press. The game tells the story of Corvo Atano, a bodyguard who is found with the Empress dead in his arms. He has to use his skills in combat and stealth to clear his name, and he gains further supernatural abilities to help him along. The game is presented as a series of missions, and you’re free to use any combination of powers and abilities to get the job done. A “Chaos” rating goes up and down depending on how many people you kill, and your final score determines your ending. I hate to boil games down to past titles, but Dishonered plays like Thief by way of Deus Ex... which is a very exciting combination.

Designing a game with open missions is a large challenge, and Colantonio claimed that the levels aren’t as planned as they may seem. When designing a level, they begin with a cohesive area, filled with interesting things to do, and then they look at how players can interact with that area using the game’s mechanics.

“That’s the base thinking: An interesting set up, an area with multiple ways in, then you set up the AI and the NPCs so they go on patrols, and we have an ideal path and we orchestrate that a little more,” Colantonio said. “But the magic is when the system ultimately takes care of itself.”

He also stressed that the game’s mechanics were built one at a time, so when players were set loose they were testing to make sure the powers fit well into each level, and they were also testing to see how players would use the powers in combination.

One interesting exploit happened when people would take the first two levels of agility, and then they would take two levels of the “Blink” ability, which allows for teleportation. They could then take a running leap off the roof of a building, jump, and then teleport further than the team had designed for. The important detail is that the exploit was kept in—you can still take those combinations of abilities and become incredibly nimble—but a few things had to be moved so the game didn’t become ultra-easy.

“Allowing players to break the game a little bit, and I mean things like finding shortcuts and doing things that surprise us… as long as the area itself is protected, that’s what matters,” Colatonio said “Inside the sandbox, the mission itself, it doesn’t matter how you do it.”

They also found that if you run enough people through an area, people will begin to luck in to an optimum solution. The selection shown at E3 should take 30 to 40 minutes to play, if you go exploring and find the side-missions. One player finished the section in five minutes by accident: He went straight to the roof, ran and jumped over all the side missions and characters, he didn’t pay attention to the prisoners, he didn’t explore, and he went straight to the roof and found the target. He missed a large portion of the game, and seemed as surprised as the designers upon completing the level so quickly, but the possibility of such things is there.

The setting allows for magic, but it comes with a heavy burden

Before the most fantastic world was created, along with the game’s fictional city of Dunwall, the game was set in London in 1666. “Because it was the last year of the plague, and the year of the great fire of London, which of course ended the plague by burning the slums down,” Smith explained. “In this kind of game you’re always looking for a way to up the tension and frankly make the world a little more perilous, and justify why there aren’t giant crowds of people at the market. Then people had the idea for swarms of rats, and we were talking independently about possession, and we wondered if you should be able to possess rats and if they could clean up corpses so you don’t have to hide them. All these pieces just worked together.”

They also decided against exploring who Corvo is, or where he came from. He’s much into the world for the player. “It’s a very rich world, and there are lots of things to explore and know about the world. The player himself has no true backstory, he’s the bodyguard of the Empress, and that’s all we reveal.” Colantonio said. Adding a past isn’t interesting for players, and they can fill that in with their imaginations. What is interesting is taking on the role of the wronged bodyguard and using it to explore this very alien world.

You will, however, learn how Corvo gains his otherworldly powers. There is a character called the Outsider who offers people power, and then gives them the choice of how to use it. “He sort of has a cautionary tone. He says how you use this is up to you, but note that there will be effects,” Smith said. “It’s funny, when we first talked about the Outsider, people assumed he was the devil, egging you on to do greater and greater evil. Or he would judge you harshly if you did evil. But instead we have an amoral observer character.”

The idea is that there are people in history who have been touched by the Outsider, and then they make decisions one way or the other about how they use their powers. For instance, what if Aleister Crowley was an actual wizard? “The religion in the world is constantly seeking these people out as heretics to eradicate them,” Smith explained.

There may not be an overt morality system, but the game does track Chaos. It works simply: The more people you kill, the more Chaos you create, and the darker your ending becomes. Earlier in the game’s production the system was going to apply to many other things, but there were differences among the developers about what would increase or decrease Chaos in the world. “Like letting a plague-infected person live. Once the plague gets to a certain point people lose their mind, and we call them weepers; they bleed from the eyes. Some people thought killing the weepers would up your Chaos score, and others thought letting them live would up their Chaos score,” Smith explained. “I think we took them out of the equation essentially, because it’s debatable.”

Still, it’s an interesting question. When someone is offered power and warned that using it could have negative or positive effects on the world, why do they assume they are talking to the devil? “There are many myths about how if you want power there is something to trade,” Colantonio said. They even played with that idea early in the game’s development. “When we started to design [Dishonored], we thought it would be interesting to tempt the player with powers, and if they decide to use them the world grows darker. Because it’s an interesting dilemma.” Of course, what’s the point of giving someone amazing abilities and then clucking your tongue when you use them?”

The idea was thrown out. “We don’t want to punish players for having fun,” Colantonio said serenely.

Dishonored is coming to the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on October 9.