The Dishonored that never was
Members of Arkane Studios describe some of the biggest changes Dishonored underwent during development.
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With its combination of stealthy superpowers and a distinctly original world, Dishonored crawled through the shadows to emerge as one of last year's most successful new IPs. But the elements that ultimately defined the game weren't always set in stone. In a pair of talks at this year's Game Developers Conference, art director Sebastien Mitton and co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio described some of the biggest changes made to Dishonored during its development cycle.
Perhaps the most fundamental change that Dishonored underwent was in the game's setting. According to Mitton, Arkane originally planned to have the game take place in feudal Japan. However, the developer scrapped this idea upon realizing it wouldn't be able to do the setting justice.
"We felt that Japan wasn't good for us, because we don't know this culture as Europeans," said Mitton. Arkane has an office in Lyon, France, where Mitton works, as well as a second office in Austin, Texas.
"So we wanted to move the setting to London," Mitton continued. "We decided to use London because this is a city that Europeans and Americans know well."
With the move to London, Arkane initially wanted to set the game in the year 1666 at the time of the Great Plague. But as time went on, that setting took on more of a hybrid look.
"I wanted to base my research on this time period, 1666," said Mitton. "But then we slowly shifted to the 20th century. It's not that we moved to the 20th century. We created a gap between the two periods and mixed them up to create a kind of science fiction."
This hybrid of eras came about largely due to a need to incorporate modern technologies. As the design team fleshed out Dishonored's various gameplay mechanics, it began to incorporate things like watchtowers equipped with powerful floodlights and electrified doorways known as walls of light.
In the end, Arkane found itself adding so much to the setting that it could no longer refer to it as London at all. Instead, the game's setting would be known as Dunwall, a fictional city rooted in the look of classical London but with its own science fiction flair.
Another element of Dishonored that changed over time was the way the player's use of special abilities influenced the world around them. The final version of Dishonored featured multiple endings and a system for shaping the general look of the city based on how lethal or nonlethal the player's tendencies were. But according to Smith, the relationship between a player's actions and the gameworld wasn't always so obvious.
"We started out super subtle," said Smith. "The earliest versions of magic in the game were like, you gesture from a dark corner and down the street a candle goes out and it has some consequence. And by the end it was like, lightning bolt!"
But not everything started out subtle and became less so over time. Other player abilities were too powerful and had to be cut out entirely. Smith described how Dishonored at one point featured a system that allowed players to pick up general objects in the gameworld and throw them around, not unlike the way players can pick up pretty much everything in an Elder Scrolls game. But combined with other abilities, this feature had a way of breaking the carefully crafted level design.
"There were moments where you could pick up an object, stop time, and throw the object in the world," said Smith. "And people were doing things like throwing several objects in the world and then hopping on them to get higher."
In the end, though, this was one of the few abilities that was removed entirely. Arkane understood that the combination of player powers and objects in the world was bound to create some very interesting situations, and that was going to be a large part of the appeal. Instead, the developers simply tried to balance out these abilities as best they could while maintaining the open nature of the game design.
"This is not a trail of breadcrumbs game with a bunch of Jerry Bruckheimer moments in between," said Smith. "This is a system where wacky sh*t is going to happen."