Interview: Dishonored’s Harvey Smith Reboots The Stealth Genre
Outside of Sony’s own announcements, the indisputable big-buzz game of Gamescom 2012 was Dishonored, the new first person stealth adventure from Bethesda. With relatively low-key showings in Cologne from many of the other major third parties, it really got its chance to shine last week and duly dazzled all-comers.
For the uninitiated, the game puts you in the shoes of a wronged assassin called Corvo Atano who is framed for the murder of an Empress – his former lover. You’ll be creeping around a dark, atmospheric steampunk world, combining supernatural powers and a range of weaponry to avenge her death and unmask those who’ve conspired against you.
To be clear, when we say stealth we don’t mean the signposted sneaking of, say, recent Splinter Cell titles. The AI here is unforgivingly old school – more redolent of the likes of Thief. And that should come as no surprise – co-creator Harvey Smith worked on that series, as well as the original Deus Ex and BioShock precursor System Shock. We caught up with him back stage at Gamescom to learn more about his latest project.
PS Blog: What are Dishonored’s core gameplay building blocks?
Harvey Smith: It’s a matter of falling back on values. We generally like the first person perspective – to give you that ‘you are there’ thing. We like RPG upgrade systems. We like analogue AI, so enemies are not necessarily aware of you or unaware of you – they’re uncertain. They may have heard you, but they’re not sure, so they go and investigate. Surfing the edge of awareness, basically. We love highly mobile games; we don’t like games where you’re heavy and stuck on the ground and you have big weapons and you can’t get on top of buildings as they’re just props. We really want you to be able to flit up there like a flea.
PS Blog: The stealth mechanics seem really challenging compared to more recent examples of the genre…
Harvey Smith: We decided to go with ‘view cone’ based stealth. Enemies have a view cone. Their peripheral vision is weaker and they don’t see as well up high – it’s squashed so you can hide in the rafters. The deal is that if you’re in front of their view cone they see you, no matter what the lighting levels. Even if I turned out the lights right now, I’d still be able to see you, right? So we decided to go with something realistic.
The truth is that we tried all of the models you can think of. We tried the ‘pool of shadow’ model, but modern players would say the AI looks bad if I’m in a shadow and an enemy walks right by me. That looks dumb. They want a more reactive system. And that makes it a little more hardcore. To sneak, you really have to stay behind cover, lean out behind walls. It requires you to really know where an enemy is looking and avoid that range.
PS Blog: You claim that it’s possible to finish the game without killing a single person. How challenging is that going to be compared to going in guns drawn?
Harvey Smith: It’s pretty easy to avoid killing a standard guard. You just throw a bottle and when he goes to investigate you sneak by. But it gets much harder for the key targets. For example, there’s a mission where you get sent to kill two brothers who are corrupt members of parliaments. You can go straight ahead and kill them – they’re in a bathhouse – or you can do a side quest for a crime lord. If you do the right things for him he will have them captured, their tongues cut out, their heads shaved and then put to work in their own mines where nobody will know it’s them. It’s poetic justice. It’s dark, but not as dark as killing them. The two approaches are hard in different ways. The game gets very reactive if you just go in guns blazing – it fights back. But, on the other hand, stealth demands patience.
PS Blog: Many older gamers will be really excited to hear about a return to these sorts of values, but do you think younger gamers, who’ve never played Thief or the original Deus Ex, will get it?
Harvey Smith: I have a great deal of faith in those people. When we release a game like this kids sometimes come to us and say ‘this game blew my mind; I didn’t know games could do this; I only played very linear games before’. That’s what we like to hear. I actually have more faith in the 13-year-olds as they’re playing things like Day Z or Dwarf Fortress or Eve Online. They’re hungry for highly interactive, non-dogmatic experiences, I think.