Q&A With Harvey Smith
I got some time while at QuakeCon 2012 to speak with Harvey Smith who is the Co-Creative Director of Dishonored and works at Arkane Studios. I was able to play a full level of the game during the first day of QuakeCon and I was very impressed by it, you can check out my impressions of it here. Although, let’s hear what Harvey had to say now:
Q: What made you come up with the unique Dishonored gameplay?
Harvey: The most important thing I would say about that is that Raphael Colantonio and I are Co-Creative Directors on the project and Arkane Studios is made up of people with a lot of experience who like this type of game and for me and Raph it is basically a religion. Raphael made Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah, and I made the first two Deus Ex games. We both are huge fans of games made by other people like BioShock, Thief, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Far Cry 2 so there is this blend of first person action where you sort of feel like you’re there, leaning around the corner and you know observing people. Their stealth systems we absolutely love, that power fantasy of being somewhere and nobody knows you’re there when you’re not supposed to be there. Bits of RPG features cause we like RPGs as well, but we like to present them from this first person atmosphere. So first and foremost we’rent not just general game developers like when some developers are working on a racing game and then they work on a space sim or something. We are specialist and we love this type of game and for better or worse this is what we want to do. So when we were going into our next project (Dishonored) we were like immediately in our minds 85% of it is true to our values there will be choice and consequences, some stealth, some RPG features, mobility, and vertical space in the levels .
Me: Well my next question was going to ask if you drew inspiration from Deus Ex, but obviously you have.
Harvey: Yeah it feels to us like we’re in the territory of games we didn’t work on and games we did work on and it is somewhere between Deus Ex and Thief and BioShock and Dark Messiah. It’s a family member, but doesn’t mean it is exactly the same, because it is quite a bit different. Just the addition of the analog stealth model changes everything and on top of that our powers are very different and our world is very novel.
Q: How did you go along with trying to make the combat system, did it start off differently or did you know right away you wanted a sword in one hand and weapon/powers in the other?
Harvey: Oh no, it took forever. Honestly we didn’t know the nature of this game until halfway through the development process. Like seriously, the world setting itself of the combination of mechanics we sort of organically found it just by prototyping and playing. The combat was certainly one of those things and we went through many different combat models and before we finally we settled on what we got which is a sword always in your right hand so that in a moments notice you can cut somebodies throat or assassinate someone while sneaking or block an incoming attack or whatever. The left hand is of course either a gadget or a ranged weapon or a supernatural power. Nothing came easy on this project, because it is a new IP and it is a weird hybrid of things with no exact existing model of the game to draw from. On top of that we decided to set it in a unique universe like the Empire of the Isles and the city of Dunwall is not on Earth and this weird kind of like the 1850s American Whaling City, but not really and so at every turn we had to discover everything about it.
Me: Yeah that really seems incredibly unique and special. I was actually at the panel with Raphael about 30 minutes ago where he said you guys kind of finished stuff and then just threw it together and saw how it worked together.
Q: How did you figure out how to go about the whole combat and feel in the game as trying to do assassinations and such?
Harvey: We knew on day 1 that this was going to be a game where you could either assassinate or sneak and so that implies a bunch of things right off that bat. It implies that you want some powers like the ability to lean around a corner and the camera lets you peak around and see/hear them while they don’t see your body unless they are on your side. Of course you can just block attacks if they bust you and you can attack them, but like if I sneak up on them it is a very satisfying power fantasy of being like I just killed a person who didn’t know I was there. So that led us to do some of the stealth features like leaning, keyhole peeping, and blocking. Then we started to think that what if while the guards are off balance if you could kill them with a single blow like a counter attack, so if you block with just the right timing then they’re off balance and then you can kill them with a single blow. It just all seemed to fit together like a suite of options. As soon as you say assassination plus swordplay plus stealth, it is that combination that leads itself to certain things.
Q: What do you suggest for someone wanting to go into combat design?
Harvey: Well I would play all the fighting games and you can’t be all things, but play them all and know what the techniques are and then analyze why something works and what doesn’t. The benefit of being a developer is that you get to play around with prototypes, because you can play a version of the game with sword fighting and the sneaking and assassinating, but without the block and then you might play it and then you’re like, you know what really frustrates me is that if I see they’re about to attack I have no option and I’m trapped and have to get hit and what I really want is a button that allows me to block the incoming attack. Then you play with that for a while and then you’re like, that’s kinda cool, but if I block with just the right timing the guy staggers and if I attack at that moment I kill him. So basically play a lot of games, analyze, and realize that a game is a suite of actions that go together in a complementary way. Like a fighting system is a complementary set of actions so if you take one piece out sometimes it doesn’t work.
Q: What kind of problems did you encounter a lot with Dishonored?
Harvey: Making it fun to both fight and/or sneak is always a challenge. We always said on Deus Ex 1 that, why would the player bother to do anything else if a single bullet to the head solves his problem and why would I hack a computer or talk to a guy or pay him off or sneak around him or reprogram the robots or whatever else. Why would I do any of that stuff if all I had to do was put a bullet in his head and it’s over. So that’s a huge problem to make all those other things meaningful. There are players who will do things just to enjoy doing things. They have a self-imposed goal like I wanted to go through this game without killing a single person, and bravo that’s great, but for everybody else some players are economically optimizing like they’ll do the lowest cost thing or the quickest thing or the most easy thing, basically the person who consumes the least resources. For those people you have to consider things like making scarce ammo, because if not then they’ll blast their way through it. Also it means that some guys should have a helmet on to be immune to head shots or this room setup should be dangerous if I’m not cautious so if I sneak around a pillar and assassinate the biggest guard with a sword to the neck he dies instantly with the other three guards turn surprised and if I’m quick enough I’ll kill one automatically because he’s in that surprised state, and now I only have to fight two guys. So the game is tuned where if you try to fight 4 guys then the game might be too hard, but if I get the drop on 2 then I can fight the remaining 2 and it is fine.
Me: I definitely saw that as I was playing the game. My first playthrough I went and made some rash decisions by going guns blazing and that ended poorly for me personally. I even tried to go head on with a tallboy with my sword by jumping and stabbing him.
Harvey: Well you can very well do that too, if you catch a tallboy unaware and jump from above you can assassinate him.
Me: Yeah and on my second time through I did a stealthy approach and found some secret stuff that way and figured out some other cool tricks with the game and some secret passageways.
Q: What future do you see with Dishonored? Whether it be DLC, expansions or a sequel?
Harvey: We are utterly consumed right now by finishing the current game that comes out October 9th, which means we only have 2 more months. Not only do we not talk about that yet, we just don’t know yet. All hands on deck making sure Dishonored is as good as it can be.
Q: What kind of impact are you hoping Dishonored to have within the gaming community and/or with Arkane Studios?
Harvey: I just love hearing from people who play it different ways. I love hearing from people that say I went in guns blazing and I had a good time or I snuck and I had a good time or I didn’t kill anyone and I had a good time. There is a community of people who “ghost” games, meaning no one ever saw they were there and I love that. I love people saying, I’m an explorer and I found all the little things that you hid on rooftops and in apartments and etc… I love hearing that people tried playing the game with only the possession power and possessed as many fish and rats and dogs and people as I possibly could and here’s the experience I had. I just love the people that get deep into the fiction too; as they read all the notes, ease drop on all the characters, and they read all the graffiti on the walls and the advertisements so that by the end of the game they have a deep understanding of the Empire of the Isles and the history of all. So that’s the main thing that we look for, me and Raphael, as developers are the players’ reactions and their stories that they tell. There is of course the embedded narrative that we care about, but it is a classic story; the bodyguard of the Empress is falsely accused of her murder, but then there is the emergent narrative that we really care about which is the micro second second story such as I pulled myself up over a wall and a guard heard it and was like, what’s that? Then he came around the corner and that’d be the one guy I had to kill in that mission, because I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of him. Or I didn’t kill him, because I improvised and possessed a rat real quick and came around the corner and didn’t see anybody or I possessed him. It is that micro story that yours is very different than mine, because there is such a matrix of possibilities here between the physical pathways of the world and the AI being very analoged with whether they saw me or not and the powers I chose and my moral compass and whether I used combat or stealth. There is such a matrix of all of those things that when you pass through the world and the guard decides on his patrol route to warm his hands on the fireplace and that gave you a chance to walk behind him and at some point it becomes a micro narrative of little bits and pieces put together from gameplay that your story is completely different than mine. That is the stuff we love hearing.
Q: For yourself, what games are you wanting to play this upcoming Fall/Holiday season?
Harvey: Well, XCOM and BioShock Infinite are two of my upcoming games. I also want to play the Unfinished Swan. I really want to get into Day Z, but I haven’t had much time. There is a new patch for Far Cry 2, one of my favorite shooters that makes it highly realistic apparently and I really want to play with that.
Q: What is your history with gaming?
Harvey: Well the kid across the street got a pong machine and we were all fascinated by it. Then we went to the Atari 2600 and the Odyssey gameplay system and things like that. We all played coin-ops and Pac-Man and stuff like that. Then I skipped a bunch of what normally people did, like I played a little on Apple and mostly skipped the consoles like Nintendo and instead I went Atari 1040ST and Amiga and then PC. Eventually I went to PC plus XBOX 360 plus PS3 plus iPhone which is where I’m at now. So that was my path through the hardware really.
Q: Personally what is your favorite moment in playing through Dishonored?
Harvey: It is definitely a micro moment, an emergent narrative moment that would only happen to me in my playthrough once and never happen again. There was a moment where some guards were searching for me, because they had not really seen me, but I think they heard me or something when I knocked over a metal cone in the street. So the guards were like, hey go check it out! I then went up to a guard shack with blink and jumped over to an air vent that wrapped around the side of a building into an alley and when I was up there crawling along and at the top of the air vent, where you could only see if you were above it, somebody has written some graffiti between the two thug groups in the game and it read, “The Hatters fired the first shot, but the Bottle Street Boys fired the last.” and as I looked down at that while the guards were searching it felt like no one else in the world has ever found this little thing that some thug climbed up there and scrolled. It’s just a goofy example of how I play very slowly and cautiously and I listen a lot and I tend not to kill anybody, but I’ve done the other playthrough as well. So that is a gratifying moment for me, because it is like a confluence of things that only happened because of my actions. It wasn’t like going down a hallway and seeing a scripted event which I don’t have any interest in.
Voice Cast List & Music Composer Announced
In addition to the questions, Harvey mentioned to me about the cast list for the game and the person behind the eerie music of Dishonored. This game will be featuring the voices of many award winning actors and actresses such as: Susan Sarandon (“Thelma & Louise” and “Dead Man Walking”) – an Academy Award Winner and 5 time nominee will be playing Granny Rags who is “an intriguing old blind woman now deranged after years of street life”, Brad Dourif (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”) – Golden Globe Winner Academy Award Nominee will be playing Piero who is the “creator of the iconic mask worn by Corvo as well as a wealth of gadgets Corvo can use”, Carrie Fisher (original “Star Wars” trilogy) – Emmy Award winner will be playing the voice of the government which broadcasts their propaganda over the loudspeakers in the city of Dunwall, John Slattery (“Mad Men” and “The Adjustment Bureau”) – playing the role of Admiral Havelock who is “a Loyalist who helps Corvo on his quest”, Michael Madsen (“Thelma & Louise” and “Reservoir Dogs” and “Kill Bill”) – playing Daud who is a mysterious assassin, Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass” and “Hugo”) – playing Young Lady Emily who is “the Empress’ daughter who is kidnapped after her mother’s death”, Lena Headey (“300” and “A Game of Thrones”) – playing Calista who is Emily’s caretaker.
Now what can be argued as the most important factor in a video game is the music in the game. It determines the feel of the game and the pace of which it is moving. A poor music score won’t necessarily ruin a game, but a great music score can make any game leap in greatness. It can make the difference between a game of the year nominee and a game of the year winner in some cases. So Arkane Studios thought that it would be fitting to put on Daniel Licht who is the composer for the TV show “Dexter”. If you are familiar with the show then you can see why he is a great fit for the game, but if you aren’t familiar with “Dexter” then in a nut-shell it is a bout this guy, Dexter, who works for the police department and has this obsession to kill bad guys and does it very, very well and sometimes in a usual methodical sneaky way. So Daniel is already familiar with creating the mood for setting up the perfect kill. Bethesda and Arkane Studios went all out on this game and it shows, you won’t be disappointed at all and make sure you tell Harvey and the team about all your unique experiences!