OK, so Dishonored is excellent. That won’t stop me from nitpicking and critiquing some of the things I didn’t like about the new stealth-action game. And if I’m gonna complain about Dishonored, I might as well complain to Harvey Smith, the guy who co-designed it.
While talking to Smith on the phone last week, I decided to bring up some of the little things that bugged me about the game. He dodged nothing, and gave me some great responses. Here are a few of them.
Those Goddamned River Krusts
You might have noticed these goo-spewing monsters, which tend to spring up in sewer tunnels or flooded streets. (I called them plants at first, but Smith quickly corrected me: they are molluscs.)
You might have also noticed that they’re a pain in the arse. They hit hard, they’re tough to take down, and they can ruin your day very quickly. Most annoyingly, you can’t sneak around them and put them to sleep or stab them from behind like you can human opponents. What’s the deal?
“We had a huge internal debate about those, the River Krusts,” Smith said. “And honestly, I can see both sides of it. And we went back and forth, right? On one hand we were like, ‘Well, let’s leave them semi-vulnerable even when they’re closed, that way even if they soak some of the damage, you could probably come up with some ways to kill them.’
“Then we had another side to the argument where we were like, on the other hand, if these things were really an obstacle and you really had to engage them a specific way, there’s still multiple ways to deal with them. You can still stop time and walk up and stab them or avoid them or possess them. We have stories about people hiding from Weepers by possessing a River Krust and looking around from this mollusc’s perspective.
“But anyway, we went back and forth on that and I think there’s an arguable defence to either viewpoint. And at the time, I believe we felt we needed some more, because Corvo is so powerful, I think we felt like we needed some more hardcore enemies in the world that like, would cause you, would force you to get strategic. If you just try to bully through them instead of stopping or getting clever or using your powers in some way, they do present a challenge, right?
“So I think — I don’t know. Like I said, it’s arguable either way. But that’s just some insight into our back and forth process.”
(Warning: Minor spoilers for one of Dishonored‘s missions follow.)
During an early mission, you’re tasked with killing the two Pendleton twins as they hang out at a brothel. You don’t have to kill them, though. You can do a separate quest for a thug named Slackjaw. If you get him the combination to one rich aristocrat’s secret safe, Slackjaw will promise to take care of the twins for you.
So you do the deed, go back to Slackjaw, and he promises to take care of the Pendletons by kidnapping them and sending them off to work at their own slave mine. Then the conversation ends. You never actually get to see the twins get kidnapped. There’s no real resolution. What’s the deal, Harvey?
“That’s a fair point,” Smith said. “There were cases when we let you see those things as they play out, and then there are cases where — rarely — where it happens off screen. I would say given the choice we would like to show you these things. Players like the validation, they like seeing that.
“So the Pendletons represent the elite, you know, they’re not nice people. So players wanna do some of these poetic justice-like alternate resolutions. I think if given the choice, in a perfect world, with all things being equal we probably would have. But that might have been a case…
“It wasn’t so much deliberate as it was working within the constraints we had to work within. Because we came up with the idea for the non-lethal alternate story resolution stuff like maybe halfway through the project, and so a lot of things were already — a lot of work had been done on them and they were already sort of set in stone, and so we had to work within certain constraints.”
If you’re playing the game, go ahead and use the blink spell in front of an NPC. “Witchcraft!” they might shout. Maybe they’ll gasp and step away, taken aback. Simple stuff.
But they never really react to you using magical spells in their faces. Remember, this is a world where magic is totally extraordinary. It’s not exactly normal that you’re teleporting and summoning rats and slowing down time. Why aren’t people more shocked? Why don’t they run away or report you to the police or something?
“To give you my version of it, we decided that this is a world that resembles an 1850s whaling city, or London during the Victorian Age, even though it’s not on Earth,” Smith said. “And that the average person probably walks around with like a piece of scrimshaw or carved ivory or an odd-looking rock in their pocket that they believe grants them good luck or will keep them from getting pregnant or whatever.
“There’s sort of superstition at that level, the sailor level. And then of course the outsider marked certain people rarely in history — these like super sorcerers are wandering around…
“We reached a point where they’re probably gonna say things like ‘Did my eyes deceive me?’ or ‘Oh God, I’ve gotta stop drinking!’ And then once in a while we were also torn to just acknowledge it for what it is with the player, like ‘Ooh, witchcraft!’ or whatever. I was playing last night on my Xbox at home and I blinked in front of Griff, the scavenger/shopkeeper guy and he was like ‘That’s impossible!’
“It just comes down to this: you want to acknowledge the player’s actions, but you want to be careful about doing something that will just not be fun, that will be a turnoff even if it’s more ‘realistic’. That might be a moment to bend away from realism. And the other thing is in a game like ours where we try to simulate as much as possible — the rats in the world are really AIs and they will follow you up the stairs and whatever — you also have to avoid what we call ‘over-simulation’ where like you have to decide: How far do we model this?
“Do we like have this guy never talk to you again because he knows you’re a sorcerer? Do we have him go find the nearest overseer and report you as a heretic? You can’t simulate all things, you have to stop at a certain point. I would say the primary reason is because that was a moment where the sort of realism isn’t so much fun if we punish you every time for something like that.
“Although I could see a game where the point was to conceal the fact that you’re a vampire, conceal the fact that you’re supernatural, and that would become a different sort of stealth. That might be cool, you know, a social stealth. But in our case, with all the constraints we were under and all that we were modelling, I think we just decided that it’d be more fun for the player if we acknowledged what they did but we did not punish them for it.”