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Dishonored 2 director Harvey Smith on creating compelling worlds

"I think it starts to gray over more into 'living, breathing' when it's not all about fight or flight. It’s about some other kind of interaction."

When it comes to game design, what constitutes a "living, breathing world?" Many would agree it's a term best used to describe expansive, fully open-world efforts like Grand Theft Auto or Far Cry. Games that throw the player into a sprawling, reactive, NPC-filled sandbox and ask them to forge their own path. 

For Dishonored 2 director, Harvey Smith, the phrase means something a little different. Speaking to A.V. Club, Smith explains that Arkane wanted to breathe life into the game's coastal metropolis of Karnaca by giving players the chance to engage with the world on a personal level. 

"I think it starts to gray over more into 'living, breathing' when it’s not all about fight or flight. It’s about some other kind of interaction," he explains. 

"We always talk about non-combat verbs. The more we can add a non-combat verb -- even if it's looking through a spyglass or eavesdropping on a conversation -- that gives the player something else to do to change the environment, to interact with the environment. 

It's a technique that means Arkane actually creates fewer characters in order to dial up immersion. As a result of that focused approach, every NPC that does appear in the game, even those the player might never encounter, will have their own rich back story and unique motivations. 

Sometimes those tales might be told through the environment itself -- a diary left in a desk drawer, or a portrait hung on the wall of a clockwork mansion -- while others will reveal themselves more directly as players eavesdrop on conversations or stumble upon recordings. 

The point is to convince players they're traversing a world filled with real, three-dimensional people, each with their own stories to tell. That specificity, says Smith, breeds intrigue. 

"What we do is much more like you and some friends, when you're 15, go into an abandoned house down the street and spend the afternoon exploring it, afraid you’ll get caught. Maybe something gets broken," he adds.

"You hear a creek upstairs and everybody gets freaked out. You find a drawer with old postcards in it, and you read one and it’s like, 'What are they talking about? Who were these people?' That's closer to what we do. As we go through the world, there’s a sense of environmental storytelling that we’re constantly working on."

To hear more from Smith, head on over to the A.V. Club for the full interview.

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