After posting my glowing Dishonored preview last week, I received some comments saying my post was overflowing with hyperbole – they must not be familiar with the track record of Arkane Studios’ Harvey Smith and Raphael “Raf” Colantonio.
Arkane been keeping immersive, original first-person games alive with titles such as Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and the level design of Bioshock 2.
During QuakeCon, I got to sit down with the two Austinites and discuss The Crossing’s current status, the fate of dungeon crawlers and what games inspired Dishonored’s development.
After things falling through with The Crossing, it must have been a big relief to have ZeniMax help you with this new project. Do you feel like it’s a new era for Arkane?
Raf: As an indie developer, you go through a series of good things and bad things. From 2007 to 2009, we had a lot of really hard things to deal with, so when ZeniMax showed up and proposed for us to work on Dishonored — which was about a year before they acquired us — it was fantastic. Every hardship we went through, even though we were slapped over again by bad luck or whatever, paid off.
All of a sudden those near successes had an influence, and they made sense to the entire team. Whenever you get a game that is canceled or shelved or you don’t have enough money to go on or whatever, the people that stay in your company show their passion and you know why they are there.
Is The Crossing canceled for good?
Raf: At this point, it’s on hold.
Have some elements of The Crossing carried on into Dishonored?
Harvey: Well, our collaboration with Viktor [Viktor Antonov, art director on Half-Life 2] has continued.
Raf: Even if you look at it from a team perspective, we learned so much from The Crossing – it was the first game Viktor worked with us on. He trained our artists so well. You look at Dishonored’s design, and everyone has been so fast and efficient to do things.
Viktor told me he traveled across Europe to do research for this game. Not too many companies do that sort of thing (maybe Valve and Irrational Games). Why was this an important investment for you guys?
Harvey: Those guys just wanted to go to Edinburgh and London to take lots of photos for architecture and the faces — to get the faces right of very British people, the way they carry themselves and look. Of course, you can’t generalize too much. They went to construction crews and took some photos of some hardened guys – that’s why our guards in the game look so pissed off.
You guys are culling a lot of elements from Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock. What elements of those games do you think can live on in modern games, while keeping the game marketable?
Harvey: I am drawn to that type of game. Raf and I are the biggest Ultima Underworld fans, period. We’ll fight anyone else in a pile of Jell-O to claim that. We are both drawn to System Shock. [Raf] was working in Europe and I was working at Origin, and we were both testing System Shock.
We are already drawn to these guys making these games. As soon as he got a chance he created Arx Fatalis, and as soon as I got a chance I worked with Warren Spector on Deus Ex.
If you look at the Xbox 360 and PS3 audience, you can’t easily throw Deus Ex at them…
Harvey: Well, if you look at the evolution of those games — we love Thief, we love Bioshock and we love Far Cry 2. If you look at Bioshock it’s a good game, period. Whether you play it on the PC or on console. That’s our goal.
Raf: The values don’t change, only the implementation of how deep you go with them in the execution. The values in games like Thief, Deus Ex, and Ultimate Underworld. If you compare their values to those in Dishonored, you’ll find at a high difficulty level they are the same.
Of course, you cannot give a player Ultimate Underworld now. It will freak them out, now-in-days, due to the controls and all of that. It’s all about how you present it.
Harvey: I think Raf is trying to talk about accessibility. The depth is there in Bioshock, but it’s presented with accessibility. Every now and then, I go back and try to replay a game like System Shock and I forget it didn’t have mouselook. And, it blows my mind! I played hundreds of fucking hours on that game – I tested it for ten months: On the floppy then on the CD. I put in hundred hour weeks during that period.
Anyway, some people would play with a Gravis controller and a joystick [at the same time]. You just can’t do that today. So, now you have a controller and some saving conventions. We allow save anywhere, actually. I would say on the depth-side we try to be hardcore, and on the accessibility side we try to appeal to everyone.
That’s cool that you have save anywhere. I wish every game had that option. I’m sick of these obligatory checkpoints every five minutes in recent games.
Raf: A checkpoint every five minutes wouldn’t even work in the type of game we are making, because you might want to go back. Maybe you didn’t want to do that.
Harvey: I totally agree with him. The other thing is that in this type of game you want to experiment. You want to load up a save and try something out. There are five guys over there: I’m going to use the rats to do “blah,” then I’m going to bounce a grenade and then I’m going to posses this guy and do “blah.” Oh, wait. That didn’t work. Let me back up. And, you did it four or five times and you have a blast experimenting. It’s like alchemy.
It seems like Arx Fatalis might be the last dungeon crawler made by a studio. Does that make you sad or proud?
Raf: I don’t know. I think there may be more.
Harvey: Every now and then we talk about making some sort of self-contained environment where you need to scrounge up food or even make your own food.
Raf: We will do a game like that one day that is super deep and hardcore, but once again it’s all about presentation and the context. Will we ever do another medieval fantasy setting like Arx? Maybe and maybe not, but the format is something both of us really like.
Do you two like the direction that modern first-person shooters have gone?
Harvey: There is a lot that we love. I’m a big fan of Left 4 Dead, Mirror’s Edge and we both loved Bioshock.
Raf: At the end of the day, we are fans of variety. The worst thing for me is if every game mimicked this one game that made so much money — so now we are all going to do this one type of game. There is more space for games than that. That’s what matters to us.
Is this the first game you are making with consoles in mind?
Raf: Individually, probably not, but as a company – well, no, we worked on Bioshock 2 before this so that was our first contact with making a game for consoles.
Harvey: We actually picked up a couple level designers from Bioshock 2 and Deus Ex [designers], along with some members of the modding community of Thief.
Would you say to a Thief fan that Dishonored is its spiritual successor?
Harvey: No, we wouldn’t say it in those words but we would definitely say that Thief is one of our big influences right now.
Raf: I would say if you liked Thief, there is a big chance that you’ll like what we are making right now. You’ll find a lot of things in common, but then there are a lot of other layers involved. There are some Deus Ex things, the combat is more like Dark Messiah – it’s a mix of everything that we like.
Harvey: We always use the term “immersive simulation.” It’s that school of thought that it’s a first-person game, but it’s not a shooter. It’s a first-person game with depth and world cohesion.