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Not Really Artists: The Creative Team Behind Dishonored

Harvey Smith and Raf Colantonio talk to Gamasutra about the kind of game they want to make, and why; they also talk about why games such as theirs center around violence and conflict; designing for emergent gameplay.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

July 20, 2012

26 Min Read

Raf Colantonio and Harvey Smith came together out of a shared love of "very immersive first-person games with mixture of action elements, role-playing elements, stealth as a component wherever possible [and] emergent situations instead of everything hand-scripted," says Smith.

The two are co-creative directors on Dishonored, an upcoming PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC game from Bethesda, which puts you in the shoes of a supernaturally-powered assassin framed for wrongdoing. The game offers multiple solutions to its missions and takes place in a sprawling steampunk city.

In this extensive interview, the two talk to Gamasutra about the kind of game they want to make, and why; why games such as theirs center around violence and conflict; designing for emergent gameplay; and why they're "not really artists," but instead designers.

The first thing I want to talk about is world-building; you seem very determined to build a very distinctive world. First, why build something so specific and unique, and how did you go about that?

Raf Colantonio: Well, when you create a new IP, there's always a question of what kind of gameplay do we want, the values that are part of our goal, and our taste. Also, there's always what kind of game world, what kind of setting we're going for.

A lot of us have passion for trying to come up with things that we've not necessarily seen before. That's kind of how it started, and really even back then, when we really started, it was not as steampunk and crazy as it ended up to be. When we started, we thought of going traditional Europe, or New England, as an inspiration. That's how it started.

Even that was not very common, as opposed to so many games. They all have have the usual clichés that we didn't want to do. But that's just usual for us: Let's try to find a context that hasn't been seen too much. And from there you add our art director, Sebastien Mitton; you add Viktor [Antotov, visual design director] to the pile, and you're off with something very different.

Which came first: the direction of the game, or the direction of the world? How did that play back and forth?

RC: We look at the game first: the power fantasy, the nature of the game, the nature of actions you will do; that came first. We knew from the get-go that you would play a supernatural assassin. From there, we had a variety of possibilities.

Raphael Colantonio (left) and Harvey Smith.

You just used the phrase "power fantasy," and very often games are criticized for presenting power fantasies. How do you look at that, and how do you look at your job to provide that kind of thing?

Harvey Smith: The game is definitely built around the appeal of being very powerful in different ways. We cater to it, but we also cater to the opposite of it. You can play the game like guns blazing and kicking in the door, literally. That sort of thing. But, also, you can feel a different type of power: the power of sneaking, and observing people who don't even know you're there, hidden in the shadows. You're a killer, observing them as they go about their lives. Then there's even a further approach to our game where, even though it's a game about an assassin, you can literally finish the game without killing anyone.

So I guess on one level we do offer the kind of power fantasy that games are often criticized for, but we completely go above and beyond that in terms of putting choice in the hands of the player, in terms of how he wants to express himself: brutal violence or ghost-like stealth. The non-lethal track is running through the game, as well.

Do you think that the average player sitting down to a game like this is sitting down to it to live in a power fantasy -- to feel as though they're that character? Because I don't 100 percent buy that idea all of the time; at least, I don't think that it's every player who does that. But I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

HS: We have always believed that people approach games for a variety of reasons. If you talk to different people, some of them are way into the action; they don't even see the fantasy part of it as much.

A lot of criticisms of games are totally off the mark, because they focus on the fiction elements. They look at the characters; they look at the plot; they look at the setting. For a certain type of player, those things are almost irrelevant: an abstraction. I'm moving my vehicle through the obstacle field using verbs like "get to the exit" or "defeat the opposition," and that's a challenge in the same way that playing Go is a challenge. Or Chess. Nobody gives a shit about the story in Chess, right?

And then there's another type of player that cares very much about exploring the world; for them, this is a good fiction that they like -- a good setting that they find from a novel series, like their favorite series of fantasy books. They're there: they're on the ground, they're looking around, they're eavesdropping, they're reading notes left behind by people. Then there are all kinds of people in between. Players approach games for many different reasons.

Is that just a gut feeling that you have from talking to people, or talking to each other? I don't know how much of a budget this game has, but it certainly looks very robust and "triple-A." Is there a point where you have to figure out catering to these different constituencies, just to make it work as a commercial product proposition?

HS: I think we go with our intuition a lot, because we love games, but we also have a team made up of very many different types of people. They are into different aspects; some of them are way into stealth games. Some are into action games. Some are into role playing games. Some are playing games for achievements. Some are anti-achievements. Again, I think there's a variety of personalities involved, and desires, and intuitions.

I know some people have done -- not quite super-rigorous academic work on the subject -- but there are several papers on MMO players, for instance, and different types of players, and surveys of players, and what they come to the experience looking for. There are the socializers and the power-up people, and the showoff people who want to demonstrate what they've accrued over time. So I think it's partially intuition and partially observation.

I know that, Harvey, this is probably something that you have strong feelings about given your last mainstream commercial product. How empowered are you to follow your intuition, and how important is that when you're selecting projects, when you moved to Arkane, and that kind of thing?

HS: Well, this has been a collaboration from day one. It's a blend of things. And Raf and I are quite a bit empowered; but we're also deferential to each other and to the passions of who we are. Raf built Arkane as a company to make this type of game: very immersive first-person games with mixture of action elements, role-playing elements, stealth as a component wherever possible, emergent situations instead of everything hand-scripted. Dishonored is coming together so well. Frankly, we're so passionate about this type of game, that I feel like Bethesda approached us because we love this type of thing; it's kind of like the stars aligning.

You alluded earlier to the fact that you can complete the game without actually participating in violence, which is interesting, but still the worldview -- the fact that you're an assassin and the fact that your main metaphor for interacting with the world is through conflict... Do you see a point where games can get away from that? Is that interesting to you?

RC: I think, in our case, what matters is really the possibilities and choices that we give to the player. Play style has always been something that we really want for the player. Why we expect people to stealth kill... We also like the fact that you can avoid that.

Initially, we just did it because we had passion, and we believe that only a very, very small percentage of players would do that. Then it kind of became bigger than we thought as we started to talk about it and to add to the game: you actually can avoid killing people and can finish the game without killing people. Yes, it's true, and it's part of our values. But also the fact that you could not kill them gives more meaning to the times you do; it was a choice between killing or not. Yes, it is important.

As to the point of it's possible to have a game system where you do not kill people, of course Portal is a good example of that. But, for sure, for a game in the kind of genre we're in, I think removing the choice from killing would be a problem. A lot of people, they want to have that choice.

You say fact that you don't have to kill people makes their decision to kill people more meaningful. Do you think players feel that?

RC: I do. I do think that, certainly, they feel. They feel in an environment which is simulated. As opposed to "this is what we want you to do," it's more like, "Hey, what are you gonna do?" In this case, when they do something like killing, and they knew that they could have avoided to kill, they might regret it a little bit. They might feel emotions that they would never feel otherwise.

In the games which are very directed, it's just like, "The only option is to kill, and then we give you a reward for killing." It might be very satisfying, but there aren't definitely going to be some of the emotions that you want players to feel, such as, "Hmm, maybe I should really try not to kill", or "Maybe there will be consequences later", or "Am I a bad person?" All the things they will definitely feel more in a game where you have the choice not to, than a game that forces you to.

Do you think that player agency is prerequisite for people actually feeling the impact of the decisions they make? That's the vibe I'm getting from the stuff that you're saying.

RC: There are probably many ways to get at the emotions of players. In our case, player agency is what we like; it's our style. It's what Harvey and I have always intuitively liked. In the very, very early games that we played, the games that inspired the most were based on that. That's probably one of the reasons we do it. But I bet there are other ways.

Going back to the question of violence -- and, trust me, I'm not against the idea of having conflict in games -- I'm curious about why so many games are centered around it. There are reasons I can think about: for one thing, audience expectations, which you touched on, too. The built-in audience for games -- which we are. As well as creators, you just talked about the games that inspired you -- it's what you expect to be doing. It's what the audience is looking for, right?

HS: I think it's much deeper than that. I think it's poker or chess. Almost part of the definition of games at a formal level involves artificial conflict. Games are one of the ways that people, throughout thousands of years, have engaged in some sort of mock conflict in a safe environment. Violence and conflict are a huge part of the world. When you entangle with them in real life, the consequences are usually severe.

So people, I think, have devised this thing called "game" as a way of exploring conflict and exploring their relationships with conflict in a completely safe, abstract way. That's a neat topic that we don't sit around thinking about all the time, of course. But if you watch lion cubs bite each other and roll around on the ground, they're not trying to kill each other; they're engaged in some sort of conflict-based play. That's the same thing I think we're doing.

We all find conflict fascinating. If you're playing poker with your friends, someone crushes the life out of everyone else. It's absolute. There's not even a soft way to lose poker; you are crushed out of existence. So I don't think it's endemic to video games, or exclusive to video games.

One thing I've thought about also is that so much of the R&D that we've done so far as an industry over the last 30 years has been about combat. Those problems -- if not solved -- at least have a lot of robust solutions  you can look at. Do you think that is part of it?

HS: I think it's more to the point that it's easier to model physical stuff. If you look at Lunar Lander, an old game, gravity is exerting a downward force on the ship; push one button at the right time, you exert an opposite thrust. You can control left and right, and, if you don't do it at exactly the right time and for the right duration, you run out of fuel and crash to the ground; ostensibly, the pilot is killed, I guess.

It's just easier to model physical things or actions than it is something very intangible. How do you model love in a game, without it just being a timer-based game or something? I think the industry is still figuring these things out over time.

Something I want to talk about is the sort of unpleasantness of the world of Dishonored. You could argue that we do live in an unpleasant world in the real world to a greater or lesser extent, but it definitely seemed -- at least from what was on display -- a pretty harsh, exploitative, oppressive kind of world. I want to talk about your motivations behind that.

RC: Obviously what we wanted was something that was pretty, but not in a vacation pretty. Something dramatic and sad, but at the same time pretty. It was important that the image was good, compelling.

And of course it is oppressive; it is that style because it's a good context for the story that we have and makes for gameplay. It also justifies why you have enemies. In that sense, it's a classic. We have so many creative things happening in this game -- including, of course, the style and the story, and the play style itself -- that having an oppressive world is a good guideline to provide for gameplay and enemies. We were not going to pass on that.

Are you trying to reflect things that are about human nature, or is it more of a caricature to set things in motion and motivate the player?

RC: Well, it is always hard to know exactly. Some of it is intuitive; some of it is an organic process of creativity. Of course we draw inspiration from every kind of thing, including reality, including our fears -- and including logic, such as what you describe, "Hey, let's build something motivating for the player." Probably a mix of all of that.

How do you feel about the fact that a lot of games are made based on other games? Is it important to have those as building blocks, or is it a limitation?

RC: Yeah, I think it's often true for 90 percent of games. There's always something surprising that comes out. Every art always needs references, and it's usually an iteration of something else, or a fusion between two things that you like and then you bring in something in the middle. I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

When you think about the '80s and '90s, every game was a new genre, almost. The term "first person shooter" didn't exist; "adventure game" didn't exist. It was just like, "Well, here's this game!" Now, for sure, we are in an era where the games can be boiled down to genres.

HS: You look at the beginning of when the novel was born, or you look at the beginning of radio, for instance, or film. I think all of those things were truel. Initially people are doing rapid work and figuring out what's the forms of the media are, but I think largely the same thing is true. How many writers aren't influenced by other novelists? You're not finding a bunch of those.

I look at the overall state of things; I can go out right now and I can find 80 percent of the games that are made, I won't personally like -- just because of my taste, or because I've been there and done that, whatever. But I can still look at, I don't know, 15 to 20 percent of the games that are made, and on every platform in every genre I can find something generally that I really like.

There's strategy games that I like. I guess that the most recent games that I've played are probably Journey and Fez; maybe before that Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim. There are just lots of games that I would ignore right now because they're not appealing to me, but it feels like I can always turn.

I can pull out my iPhone and play Waking Mars or the iPhone version of Mirror's Edge or the iPhone version of Ticket to Ride, the strategy game. At every turn, there's bad stuff and good stuff, just like with movies; I ignore 80 percent of movies that come out, as well. I take a larger view of it, I guess.

In the sense that you feel like there's enough creativity and choice that you don't feel like there's anything to complain about, in other words?

HS: No, that's not my words. I think it's always worth disrupting things creatively, and complaining, and pushing harder, which is what Raf and I do half the time. We are not content with games where you march down a linear bridge and shoot a monster and don't have any choice but that and to exit. We like multiple solutions, multiple stylistic approaches, and multiple moral compasses in a game. We definitely are agitators in that sense; we want more out of games -- more atmosphere, more agency.

What I'm trying to say is that there's a natural ecology of things; it's impossible that everything is that -- you cannot have a 100 percent everything is better than everything.

RC: And also the advancement in creativity cannot be achieved at every game like it used to be, at the beginning of the medium. We are at the stage where, right now, it's baby steps, and everybody is aware. Everybody can't come up with something totally different in every way. Even the most creative game that you can think of right now probably can be composed of two games that are directly influential to it.

HS: The exception, of course, is when a new technology comes out, like the Kinect... that new technology puts new ideas forth for awhile.

It's interesting that you say when a new technology comes out; is that what drives most left turns?

HS: It's one area for that. The other is looking at things that have been around for a long time and putting a twist on it. Braid is one of my favorite games, and it looks on the surface like a 2D side-scrolling platformer; but it was a game where a lot of thought was put into the theme, and all of the aesthetic elements serving the theme. Of course, there was a piece of technology at the heart of it: the rewind mechanic that was deeply explored for the benefit of the player.

I would definitely say that that's an example of a game that's based on other games but it uses the fact that it evokes other games to twist the knife, if you know what I mean. I would say that that game isn't a platformer; it just looks like one.

HS: Right. It uses a lot of tropes from previous games, for sure, but it's entirely original at the same time. My point earlier was if there's three pies and you have to pick the best one; they all can't be the best one. It's the nature of all things: film, books, paintings, everything. You might have your different taste or whatever, but, as soon as you start choosing excellence, that by definition means that there are some things that are better than others. If this was easy and all you had to do was to set out and do it to end up with something better than everything else... It's just not the way the natural survival of the fittest ecology works. A bunch of people try strategies, and some are more successful than others.

Speaking as someone who is creating, you're obviously trying to find your strategy for quality; is that something that comes through process or something that comes simply through inspiration?

RC: Both. I bet every creative person will have a different answer to that, by the way. He might have a different than mine, of course. In my case, I think it's the mix of experience and methodology, purely based on things like, whatever -- the market, or our values, a variety of filters.

And some of it is just like an intuition. What is the moment that I have in my head right now, that I would like players to experience? This moment, this part of the process -- "inspiration", as you call it -- of course is very cheap. We can develop it as much as we want; we could just let go and have the creative side forever. Then we have to reconcile that with all sorts of technology and practical approaches. We're not really artists. We are designers.

HS: I agree completely with Raf, but I also think that our role has changed over the course of the project. There were moments early on when we were literally just talking to a group of people in a room with a whiteboard, and we were trying to explain the tension that happens when someone may have spotted you in the game but they may not have -- and you know you're very powerful under the right circumstances, but you're vulnerable under other circumstances. We're trying to describe that, and then on a different axis we're trying to describe the atmosphere.

Of course, later, at some point, this is not an auteur field where we just do it no matter whether anyone likes it or not; this is a design field, so you're making something someone's going to live in, basically. You're architecting a little playroom for them. Later, you bring people in, you let them play it, and you ask them what their emotional experience was, and then you decide whether it deviates from your original vision or not -- to change it so that you can maximize that experience that they had. So at different phases of the project, I think, some of it is inspiration, as you called it, and in later phases some of it is process.

Something you talked about in the presentation was that you built systems of gameplay that interacted in certain ways to allow for emergent gameplay but then, as you saw different strategies emerge, you sort of tweaked the design to take advantage of some of the scenarios you saw emerging.

It's a big question, but how does that work? Do you just let people run into the world, see what they can actually do, and then build design scenarios based on that? Or do you have an idea of the scenarios and the powers and how they're going to interact? It sounds like you were taken by surprise by some of those things. How much do you want to start deliberately designing toward the things that emerge that you see happening as you test the game?

RC: The way we do it is we work by layers, first of all. It's a very, very vague question because, at the end of the day, it's the heart of the nature of our game. It comes from some approaches at every level. It's true for the mechanics; it's true for the level design itself, and therefore the mission design; it's true for the architecture.

So, if we talk about the level design/architecture/mission design, we come up with a little story, and an objective, whatever the objective is -- reach this place or kill that guy. "Eliminate that guy" would be more accurate, because there are multiple ways to do it.

Then, we design the environment around it. We have a rough idea of the main path that we have in mind, and this main path might be based some of the powers that we have -- some of the mechanics. We know that there might be a double jump; we know that there's a blink [teleport]; we know that the player might have the tools to possess a rat and therefore go this way or that way.

That is the first draft, and then we let it organically evolve a little bit. We let the architects do their stuff, and they add some alternate paths. Of course, because nothing is scripted so much, we put the AI in there, and all the systems are simulated, so they interact with each other; they cross each other.

We let it live for awhile, and then we see naturally some stuff emerging. Even ourselves, before it goes to the players, in fact, the devs in-house will start finding some way to do things -- which are shortcuts, which are more fun. Then, if it's a problem, we fix it. If it's, in fact, something that we think has potential, then we encourage it and expand on it. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Then come the real testers, and they might find their own other stuff. Then we add some more mechanics later in the process, and not only this new mechanic offers new possibilities, but new bugs. At this point, you keep doing this; this is why it takes so long to make the game. Even though each level designer doesn't have that many areas to work on, they work on them for a long time -- for a long time -- and maintain them in every aspect.

So it's a highly iterative process, and you have to keep yourselves open to it; that seems to be the core of the actual way you approach the design of the game.

HS: Like Raf said, it's a vast question, and we could talk all day about it. Some percentage of those things, if you mess around with rules systems -- I don't know if you've ever tried to design a card game or anything like that, but as soon as you start tweaking rules, it's just like economics are law. This rule interacts with that rule to produce a second-order consequence that can be very damaging, or it can be very cool.

Sometimes they just go into the game with no problem, like "Hey, we had this and we have that other thing, and they interact in a way that we never thought of, and we like it!" Like double jump and, at the apex of the jump, using the blink, is a great example. We had to consider suddenly, "Well, the player does have longer distances that he can go," but we really didn't have to do anything to support that; it just worked.

Other things, somebody tried it, and it didn't quite work because the technology or the scripting just didn't let it, or whatever. We said, "People are going to think about that, and it does seem logical. We should actually make that work."

Today, we had an example where a guy stopped time at and some incendiary arrows were coming towards him, and he had the idea of plucking the arrows out of the air and using them as ammo, because he has no incendiary bolts for the crossbow. We wanted this to work; like a year and a half ago, we talked about this, snatch a bullet out of the air. It does work in most cases, but there was one ammo type where it did not; the reason are just because of the ways that those were technically implemented.

Of course we want to be consistent, and we want to say yes to the player. If the player is playing that way, creatively -- just ignore the fiction for a second. Ignore the setting and the characters and all of that. Just imagine you're in an abstract environment. I don't know if you've ever played a tower defense game called Neo Defense, but it's deliberately abstract, almost like the Tron universe.

If you just think about the world in that way, this guy has this tool to stop the simulation for a moment and some of the projectiles that are going to harm him are hanging in the air, and maybe he can go over and grab those. On the map, it creates a different strategic point: there's the point to take cover; there's the point to reach up and attack your enemy; and now there's the point over there to move over and grab this additional ammo resource out of the air. The player's using this creativity and creating his own gameplay; that is, by far, what Raf and I care about, I think, more than anything -- that sense of agency and expression.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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