"Yeah, I'm Thinking I'm Back."
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Nearly a year since the release of Dishonored 2, the developers at Arkane Studios are ready to follow it up with Death of the Outsider, a stand-alone release which plans to close out the main story told across the first two games. Focusing on the exploits of fan-favorite Billie Lurk, former assassin and captain of the Dreadful Whale, we got the opportunity to play through one of the main missions during QuakeCon, while also speaking with creative director Harvey Smith about how Dishonored has evolved over the years, and how much the series has meant to Arkane Studios.
Set several months after Dishonored 2, Emily Kaldwin has departed Karnaca and returned to the throne as the Empress of the Isles, leaving behind much of the chaos that occurred in her father's homeland. When Billie Lurk, under the alias Meagan Foster in Dishonored 2, finds a lead on her old mentor Daud--the assassin that murdered Emily's mother and central character of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches expansions--she goes back to her old ways as an assassin, pushing her to accomplish a certain task that would seem to be impossible. Falling back on her old skills--even aiding her mentor in the fateful assassination that pushed Dunwall into chaos--Billie Lurk is given powerful artifacts and experimental gear to take down a number of marks to reach her true target, the Outsider, the Void deity who's made a large impact on the fates of those marked by him within The Isles. During our talk, the creative director spoke about the initial discussions about their focus on the expansion, and what kind of story they wanted to tell.
"As always, we went through about ten different permutations about who should be the protagonist," said Harvey Smith. "We had a lot of discussions about this for the DLC--which is now a stand-alone expansion--it could be someone's first foray into Dishonored story. But early on in Dishonored 2, like five years ago, I suggested for DLC that we should let player go into the Void and let players decide if they want to kill the Outsider or not. When we finished D2, we started thinking more about what we could do, and we always ended up going back to Billie Lurk. I just love Billie Lurk, and I wanted to see what we could do with her."
While Dishonored 2 had two playable characters for its main story, Death Of The Outsider sticks with just the one in Billie Lurk, placing Daud in a supporting role. While Daud came into contact with the Outsider, granting him void abilities, Billie did not, and must use several artifacts and equipment to make up for the years away from the assassin's trade. Because of this, many of her abilities and skills feel a bit different from the three other characters throughout the series. For one, Billie doesn't adhere to the Chaos system, freeing her up from the power structure that the characters had to be mindful of when accomplishing their goals. Moreover, her energy recharges on its own due to the artifacts channeling power straight from the Void, making blue potions unnecessary.
In many ways, Billie Lurk is the most cunning and deceptive assassin in the Dishonored series, which makes for an interesting take on traditional sandbox gameplay. During our session, we got to play through a fairly sizable level of the main story, which averages about 8-9 hours according to the devs. In this mission set in the one of the more well-off districts in Karnaca, Billie must confront an eccentric opera singer who has a strange interest in Void relics, while also avoiding authorities who have placed wanted posters of her throughout the city. The focus on Billie Lurk was not only a personal decision from Smith and the team, as she was a favorite among them, but also as a way to make up for a misstep they felt happened during the development of Dishonored 2.
"Honestly after the end of Dishonored 2, I actually wished we could have just stuck with Emily as the only playable character, and maybe saved Corvo for DLC. We could have strengthened the story for Emily that way. This plot arc in particular with Death Of The Outsider is about the resolution to this huge of political assassination that started with Jessamine Caldwin, and about dealing with the Outsider as someone who gives out this enormous power and observes almost scenically of how they use it. Thematically, the series has always been about power--with the aristocrats, the gangs, the cops, the military, and the magic--and that was one thing we needed it to be about. The other was that Billie Lurk needed to be the main character because she's interesting, she's so layered, with the artifacts in her eye and her arm, and her own personal history with the events that happened in the last two games made her an obvious choice."
In similar fashion to its predecessors, Lurk is given several objectives with light instructions, and how she goes about pulling off these goals is up to her. Using the Void artifacts, Lurk is granted several brand new abilities that offer strange and inventive ways for traversal, sneaking, and general subterfuge. With Displace, the assassin can mark a spot nearby to instantly teleport to it. While this sounds like Corvo's Blink, Displace works on a delay--which can be used strategically by waiting for the right time to teleport or using it during unique environmental puzzles. Billie can also use Semblance, which allows her to take the form of a character that she sneaks up on, allowing her to walk into hostile areas unnoticed at the cost of void energy while in movement. Lastly, her most valuable ability is Foresight, giving her the power to project herself in a ghostly form to scout ahead and mark targets and key items.
While Lurk's personal moveset isn't as robust as Corvo or Emily's, the versatility therein will more than make up for that. During one of my favorite sections, the assassin had to lift a key off one of the side-targets in the area, a man named Ivan Jabobi--who is linked to several gruesome murders. Finding him in a courtyard practicing a speech in front of several guards, there were several ways this could go down--I chose the more interesting and elegant path. Using a combination of Displace and Semblance, I was able to sneak up and take control of a guard, and simply walk over to the target and grab the key right off of him. Given that there are many differences with how Lurk uses her powers, and how it all manages to tie into the core narrative, the developers at Arkane saw this stand-alone game as a way to try different things and break away from core systems that may have kept players from trying out what they wanted to do.
"Everything in this project feels like an experiment," said Smith. "It was really Dinga Bakaba [Lead Designer of Dishonored 2, Arkane Studios] who long ago said that we should really look at doing it standalone. As with everything we kicked it around internally, and figured everyone who loves Dishonored will play it, but also anyone who haven't tried it will be able to experience it too. It was an interesting decision, and really I didn't see anything wrong with it. In this game, we felt like we were switching gears in a way, which opened us up to try something different."
Later on, Lurk will infiltrate the main target's home, which has several guards, traps, and a bizarre locking mechanism for the safe which opens with a specific singing voice. Though Billie Lurk's story is a rather dark tale, which is saying a lot considering the amount of swerves that happened in this series, there's still a bizarre sense of humor present during moments you'd least expect. When trying to figure out how to open the safe, Bille will try her best at singing the lock open, but gives up soon after delivering a tone-deaf sound. Moreover, this is present in the new black-market contracts Lurk can undertake--which are optional targets throughout the level with specific instructions on how to deal them. In one of the most amusing moments of the level, Lurk takes on the 'Death of the Mime' contract, which tasks her with eliminating a mime in action, while also making it look like an accident for the public.
With Death of the Outsider, it's giving one of the more favorite side-characters from Dishonored 2 her time to shine, while also closing up some loose ends found throughout the last two games. Taking cues from Dishonored 2's post-release support, clearing the game once will allow you enter New Game Plus mode, giving the opportunity for Billie to bring everything she's learned into a fresh save, while also dipping into Corvo and Emily's talent pools--learning such skills as Blink and Domino for herself. Arkane Studios wanted to open things up for players in the next installment, which they feel will bring the main story told over the last two games to a close. Looking ahead, Smith feels very content with the Dishonored franchise, and feels they accomplished much of what they wanted with the series.
"I'm so happy with the series, it's been a super interesting chapter of my career," said the creative director. "Raphael Colantonio, who was the co-founder of Arkane Studios and the creative director on Prey, is now moving on to other things, and that's been a huge change. I've been with Arkane nine years now, at least eight of that has been working on the Dishonored games, and I have to say that it's been gratifying, in terms of the response from players, and we just hit such a high note in terms of distinctive world and characters and gameplay. It really feels like we're wrapping up that big arc. Whatever it is going forward--I can't say if it'll be more Dishonored or not, nor can I say if it'll be more different or the same--but I can definitely say that this game feels like the end of that arc, with the Jessamine Caldwin story. It's been super-gratifying and rare to make a game that has an arc like this. Normally you have an opportunity to work on a game like this and that's it, it doesn't work out or whatever--or you get to make a game that has a sequel but you're not in control of it. But here, it definitely felt like we did what we wanted with Dishonored. We very much did what we wanted."