Feature Article

Dishonored 2 Devs on Building a More Ambitious Sequel

Harvey Smith, Dinga Bakaba, and Sébastien Mitton discuss taking Dishonored 2 to a new setting and introducing a new character.

Despite being one of the biggest releases of the year, Bethesda has been very coy with Dishonored 2 details. While information on most AAA games is drip fed over a protracted period, Arkane's sequel still carries an air of mystery.

However, ahead of Bethesda's E3 press conference in June, the publisher has started to lift the veil on the sequel. GameSpot was recently given the opportunity to see the game and has published a Dishonored 2 preview with our impressions.

We also spoke to Harvey Smith, creator and director of the series, as well as art director Sébastien Mitton and lead designer Dinga Bakaba about the decision to introduce a new protagonist, designing Dishonored 2's unique powers, and reinventing Corvo.

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Why have two playable characters? It could be interpreted like a compromise. Emily seems like a natural next step, but the presence of Corvo feels like an attempt to retain recognisability for the property.

Harvey Smith: It would be all too easy to just say, "Why not have both characters, it's better to have both characters,” but there was a thought process. I'd say when we finished Dishonored we were haunted by this question about what Emily would be like as an adult. Not just because she saw her mother killed in front of her by assassins and is going to become an Empress, but also because Corvo is this paranoid father. He tells her that someday their enemies are going to come for them with knives and she needs to be ready, so he trains her.

She's also privileged, she's born in a palace and lives her life there. Then everything gets taken away from her and she's on the run. She travels to a place that's exotic to her and sees how the other people live. The people that don't live in palaces. She sees how some people live in palaces in a way that's very cruel. So this little girl that was a moral reflector of you when you played as Corvo is immediately a compelling character. Dunwall. Empress. Assassin. All those things have meaning in making up who she is.

These games are two halves of a circle. This pivotal event that happen where Jessamine Kaldwin was killed shifted the entire Empire. Corvo had to respond to it and now 15 years later you see the final outcome of it through Emily. As we working through the game we also felt this deep nostalgia for Corvo, this guy who's is aging and is trying to protect his daughter one more time.

In his case, he's also going home. In Dunwall he was seen as the foreigner, the outsider. Dunwall was a very dogmatic society, it was very stratified society with aristocrats at the top of everything. Corvo comes from Serkonos, so while Emily is exploring a foreign place, he's going home.

How are those nuances reflected in both Emily and Corvo's design?

Sébastien Mitton: Emily's lineage as an Empress is in her posture and her gestures. The anatomy of the character is made in a way that you can read the past of the character and the position she held. The costume also does this. You see that she's the Empress of the Isles through how she looks at people and interacts with them. But you can also see that there's something wrong that happened in her past: the murder of her mother, and you can see her connection to Corvo. When you see them together you get a sense of the progression from the first game, when she was a child.

The way it's done [with Corvo] is subtle. You'll notice he doesn't wear his hood. He has a human presence without a mask. This is something we focused on. It's important and meaningful to have the player connect and empathise with Corvo.

We think it's more interesting that when Corvo found the guy who killed the woman he loved and set the events of Dishonored in motion, he spared him.

Harvey Smith

Does voicing the characters mean Emily and Corvo are more rigidly defined in the sequel? The first game allowed you to shape the characters through actions.

HS: Yeah I think it's a shift in our thinking and technique, but also in the industry. There were more people 20 years ago asking for an avatar to be a blank slate so they could project themselves onto it. Nobody wanted the RPG where something pivotal was happening and you have two conversation options that you absolutely disagree with, you would need six options to represent everyone in the room and how they might react to it based on their personal morality and understanding of the situation. Over time, people have come to want their characters to respond emotionally to what's going on. We heard from many more people after Dishonored that they were curious about how Corvo felt. Who he was as a person felt a little cold in a way. So we wanted that warmth, but didn't want to violate your understanding of him either. It's a tricky balance and we immediately started experimenting in the DLC with Daud. By the time we got to Emily and Corvo we were ready.

We don't just use the voice in how they interact with other people within a scene, but also as you're moving through the world and look at something. Sometimes it's giving you little bits of information, other times there's an object in the world that you can interact with. Those may have lines attached that branch based on whether you're playing Corvo or Emily, and are playing low, high, or very high chaos. Depending on who you are and how you're playing at that moment, that object can trigger a line in keeping with that. We try not to violate how you're playing.

During our pre-interview chat you discussed a personal experience you had while travelling…

HS: Yes. I was in a bus in Mexico, near Playa del Carmen. We had to deviate from the highway due to a problem, passing along a very rough road through the jungle, which connected ultimately to another highway. Basically, we left the cush tourist area and passed through an area where very poor locals live.

Every now and then we passed a collection of small homes, in very bad condition. Next to one of them was a pile of trash, as tall as the house. On that pile, I saw a dog and a toddler wearing nothing but a diaper picking through the trash, halfway up the pile.

It was stunningly sad. And I had the guilty feelings of the privileged tourist; the mixed doubts about whether my vacation money was helping anyone, by providing jobs, or just supporting a badly two-tiered system, resulting in endless poverty. It was a hard image to process.

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Do you think that has informed the creation Emily, either intentionally or unintentionally? She seems like she's undergoing a similar kind of shift in perspective.

HS: I think so. I have a pretty amazing life now, but I wasn't born in a palace. Let's put it that way. That's one of my favourite things about Arkane, it has the soul of a little company. We were founded 17 years ago and one of my favourite things is that it feels like the personalities of the people on the team and their history end up in the games. It's not just big corporate endeavour where were testing this video game and put all the pieces in that will maximise the sales. Different people on the team have had different experiences and they come out. I can look at different parts of the game and see a certain person in that. It's important to me that this is a labour of love.

What are Corvo and Emily's motivations in this game?

HS: We think in terms of literary themes and in Dishonored we had an internal team saying, "Revenge changes everything.” We talked about revenge, redemption, and justice--those universal high level concepts. But we also talked about a theme of abuse of power, when you have power, how do you use it? And you can mean that in the sense of having a knife—how do you use it? But it can also be, how do the aristocrats in the world live? Do they live in massive palaces while other people live in terrible conditions? Those themes underlay Dishonored.

In Dishonored 2 we have multiple sets of themes because we have Corvo and Emily. I would say the question of how you use power is back for sure because The Outsider is back and key in the game. That's one of his obsessions. The fiction behind The Outsider is that he was a figure 4000 years ago that was greatly wronged and merged with the Void, this unspeakable horror happened to him. So he grants people power not so they can hurt others, but cynically expecting them to. When they don't, he feels pleasantly surprised. He's more of a cautionary figure than a trickster god or something.

The aristocrat layer versus how others live is another one, but for Emily it's like she's born in a palace, so what responsibility does she have to people that aren't born in palaces? If she's going to say she's a ruler, does she owe it to the people outside of the walls of the palace to do her job well so their lives aren't made worse? What's it like to lose your home? What's it like to flee it and be on the run, trying to win back you home? What's it like being sheltered and then cast out into the world?

For Corvo it's the question of how long he can protect his daughter. He's aging, so when should she stand on her own? And it's also going home to Serkonos. In the first game we talk about how Corvo and the Empress aren't married but it's implied they have this daughter. There's hints on different levels that Emily is his daughter. After being looked at as a foreigner and distrusted, he's going back to where he's from and seeing it changed. You wonder, does it fill him with anger to see the place that he considered rich and lush driven into the ground? We definitely thought about all those things.

Click image to view in full screen
Click image to view in full screen

Corvo was a reflection of player morality in first game, which shaped Emily's outcome. How does that work for Emily and are you carrying over decisions?

HS: We didn't have the option of picking up all the end game decisions from the first game. Emily could die in the first game, so we had to assume some things. We canonized the outcomes we thought were most interesting. It was more interesting that the High Overseer was branded with the Heretic's Mark. You kill lots of people in video games, so this is a more interesting piece of fiction. We think it's more interesting that when Corvo found the guy who killed the woman he loved and set the events of Dishonored in motion, he spared him. He spared Daud.

In terms of moral reflectivity, I would say we do have some characters around you that react more cynically or optimistically based on how you're playing. In between missions you come back to your boat, The Dreadful Whale, and Meagan Foster is the captain of that ship, Anton Sokolov is also on board. Those characters do a lot and their mood changes based on how you're handling things. Also we just use the player's voice a lot. All the lines through the game branch to give that sense of who they are based on how you're playing.

In terms of playing, it must be very difficult to design powers that are open but also connect with each other in interesting ways.

Dinga Bakaba: It's not like we're playing alchemist with this, but we do try to make systems that are open. Let's say you have to design an explosive barrel, most games would tell the game if the AK-47 bullet touches it, create an explosion. We tell the game there is an explosive barrel, then make it listen to everything that has piercing damage in the world around it, or fire or anything else that could trigger it. That way you don't have to plan for every single combination of actions. A crossbow bolt could create the explosion, but so can a sword.

It's the mix of planning for the simulation, but at the same time having some control. You don't want it to break [the game] and crash consoles due to memory problems. It's a balance of experimentation and good planning beforehand.

For example, Emily can create a doppelganger and when it's not upgraded it will flee, so you can use it to distract enemies. But if you put a Spring Razor mine on its back you're changing a distraction tool into a weapon. That's the kind of thing we embrace.

One of the things that I find interesting about stealth games is how developers strike a balance between making enemy AI challenging, but also predictable enough for players to manipulate and feel powerful.

DB: That's tricky and how you approach that depends on your context. If you're supposed to be a powerless protagonist dealing with monsters and aliens, you probably want their behaviour to be inscrutable. If you're supposed to be an expert covert agent like Solid Snake or Big Boss, you probably want him to have the upper-hand. The fact that you as a player are able to predict their behaviour is kind of a mechanical metaphor for his knowledge and experience of the battlefield.

So, if that's your thinking, do the enemies in Dishonored 2 behave differently depending on whether you're Corvo or Emily, given that one is a seasoned assassin and the other isn't?

DB: There's some fictional stuff I won't go into but I'll say it's more about your reaction to them than their reaction to you. Enemies are fighting Corvo, the Royal Bodyguard, and the Empress, but they're both wanted felons, so they don't dramatically shift behaviour. Emily is less experienced, but we didn't want her to be the lesser Corvo, she's trained by her father, so she's extremely badass, but just lacks field experience. The way we approached it is Emily's moves have more flourish, she's young and she's enjoying it. Maybe she won't admit that, but she is.

With organic AI, there's two things. First we try to make the perception analogue and not binary. Not whether they can see you or can't, more like they ask, "Am I seeing something? Wait a second, I've seen enough that I want to go there and look.” Then, "That looks like a person, so I'm getting my sword out.” The player needs to be able to get a feel of that, even when there's no UI. Also in terms of feedback, they need to say things that express their state.

The other way is to be very careful about anything cyclical. If they immediately know where you are it feels unfair. There was one thing in Dishonored that we didn't make a big deal of and should have. If you have a Wall of Light and hack it so it kills enemies that go through, if there are three enemies and one of them runs through and fries, the other one will stop. We had a detail where if a new group of enemies come, they won't know because the enemies that have the knowledge haven't had the time to tell them, so one of them may also die. We loved that.

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Then you'd have this situation where they'd throw rocks from the other side at you, which actually would decrease the battery on the wall quicker and let them through. What it missed was one of the first guards saying, "Hey, wait!” If he had said that, the player would have stumbled into a new strategy.

That, in the last generation, was difficult because of the memory constraints. You needed to have many languages on disc and there wasn't that much space to have lines like that. It was very painful, but this time with our new engine was specifically designed for this type of game, so we have much more freedom to add lots of lines and animations. We can make those guys alive. It's not just having a new AI feature, it's adding a level of polish.

Two final quickfire questions. First, do you pick Emily or Corvo and play the whole game with them or can you switch between them during the campaign?

HS: You can't switch. We wanted to start with Emily, which is exciting to us for a number of reasons. It's the new character so you get to have a moment in the life of the Empress, announced as you come into the room everyone looks at you because you're an important figure. This is your throne room. But you also get to see Corvo look at you and talk to you, for the first time. Then you play a while and an inciting event happens, where you have to make a choice between them. They have different powers and assassination moves, and the game supports multiple playthroughs because they have violent, non-violent. I think a lot of people are going to play as both.

Second, is it the same story for both characters?

HS: Yes it's largely the same series of missions and stories, the difference is their mechanics vary in terms of supernatural moves and assassination skills. There's so many pathways that you can't take them all, so each time you play you're going to find a different one. But then the personality and the voice gives you a different flavour.

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Tamoor Hussain

Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot. He has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.

Dishonored 2

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