It’s been four years since the launch of Dishonored – STACK’s 2012 game of the year. Now, the team at Arkane are back and ready to release a sequel. At this year’s QuakeCon in Dallas, Texas, we caught up with game director Harvey Smith to chat about how the sequel came about, how fond he is of his team, the influence women are having on the development of Arkane titles, and what we can expect to see from Emily in Dishonored 2.
The original Dishonored seemingly came out of nowhere. Developed by a comparatively small studio, the game’s aesthetic and gameplay mechanics were innovative. Nobody, not even its creators, expected it to take off the way that it did. The game’s directors, Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantio, still consider it a “cult hit”.
“Everyone who’s really in on it loves it, but the mainstream kind of ignored it,” offers Smith, leaving us not entirely sure he knows just how successful the Dishonored franchise has become.
“We always wanted more success, because it means better jobs for everybody,” he says. “Honestly, I’ve worked with so many developers who just hunkered down for years and never had anything go well, and they just hate life because they poured themselves into [their games], and for whatever reason it didn’t work.
“People change; you see them change when they end up creating something that everyone loves, regardless of what it is – a pop song, a film… I wanted that for my team. But it’s not like we had to go to a mountain to find it, the mountain came to us.”
As far as development of Dishonored 2 is concerned, they wanted to keep it intrinsically similar to the first, but Smith is aware of how much the industry has evolved since the original. “We just decided to keep making the same kind of game, but the game industry grew up; there are way more women who speak out to us, and say what they like, and there are way more ‘thinking’ stealth gamers, and people who like RPG features.”
The director recalls a time when RPGs as a genre almost stopped existing. ”I remember there was a period of time where executives said, ‘These games don’t sell well.’ We were stunned: ‘What are you talking about? Everybody I know wants to play an RPG.’ Then companies like BioWare took advantage of that. You look at these big, deep games like Fallout and Mass Effect – they prove that there’s totally an audience there. An increasingly sophisticated audience.”
Smith reflects on the amount of outreach and feedback they had from the Dishonored community after the release of the first game – especially women, who were sick of seeing continual gender stereotypes. “To be clear, we don’t only hear from women that they want a certain thing. I hear from women who say, ‘I’m deep into the lore; I love the Victorian stuff; I love the costumes; I love the characters’, but I also hear from women that say, ‘I like chopping dudes’ heads off, because I don’t get to do that at work. I have to listen to the guys mansplaining sh-t to me and I just want to cut guys’ heads off.’
“But in Dishonored, we did kind of fall into the trap a little bit where women had five jobs: maid, prostitute, queen, little girl, and a witch. That was pretty much it. As a result of that, for the Dishonored DLC and now for 2, we have lawyers and union leaders and guard captains. The women we heard from definitely drove that.”
Our conversation progresses to an interesting issue about female representation in popular media, and how there’s the potential for more females to be drawn to playing video games if they can see themselves reflected in them.
“I read something, and I can’t remember who it was by, but he was talking about growing up on comic books and loving Spider-Man, and how, as an African-American, Peter Parker was his hero. However, he knew he wasn’t quite like him. But then when he had his own child, Miles Morales is now Spider-Man, and he saw his son respond to Miles Morales because he saw a similarity in appearance and he could relate to that.”
This is how the inclusion of Corvo’s daughter, Emily, as a playable character came about. “In that same way, if Emily was a badass assassin that appealed more to the stealthier players, or even to women in general, we had the chance to broaden our audience. We just wanted to make the game richer and wider as a whole.”
This also meant taking the story further than simply throwing players back into the same world a year later, with a bigger, badder boss to fight.
“One day I thought to myself, ’What if it was 15 years later, and Emily was privileged, well educated, had the best clothes, ate the best food, learned from the best tutors, and then there’s this punctuating event of total f–ing darkness when she watches a parent die in front of her, which is what we saw from Corvo’s perspective in the first game. Soon enough, it’s like nothing’s changed; she’s back in the palace, but now she’s had all this battle training from her father, and she morphs into this otherworldly assassin. She changes completely.
“In the original Dishonored, Emily was this little girl that the dads of the gaming industry wanted to protect. We had so many people come up to us and say, ‘I was playing Corvo and absolutely butchering everyone, then I got back and I saw these really disturbing drawings Emily had done. She was saying awful things as a result of the graphic way I was playing. It made me change the way I played.’ It’s very powerful. We make fun of it, but it’s very powerful.”