Dishonored Co-Director: It’s OK For Games To Be Mean To Players

Dishonored Co-Director: It’s OK For Games To Be Mean To Players

Sometimes I think a golden age of DLC was kicked off by The Ballad of Gay Tony for Grand Theft Auto IV: Minerva’s Den for BioShock 2, Freedom Cry for Assassin’s Creed IV, Left Behind for The Last of Us, and maybe even Burial at Sea for BioShock Infinite were all expansions that matched, or even exceeded in some ways, the accomplishments of their source material.

I’m sure there are great ones that I haven’t played — like The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, the narrative DLC for Dishonored, which Harvey Smith, the game’s co-director and co-writer, says are, in combination, “arguably better” than the core game.

Dishonored: Definitive Edition, a remastering of the 2010 stealth-action game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, was released this week. So I called Smith and talked to him for my podcast, Shall We Play a Game? Smith’s gameography is borderline ridiculous: In addition to his work on Dishonored, he was the quality-assurance lead for System Shock and the lead designer of Deus Ex.

In The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches (both included on the Definitive Edition), you play as Daud, the main villain in Dishonored. Players seemed to understand his motives better than they understood those of Corvo, the protagonist of the original game, Smith said. He thinks that’s because they let Daud speak. “That was our first experimentation with actually giving the player-character monologue lines that explain why he’s feeling a certain way or what his motives are.”

They’re going to keep that in Dishonored 2, which is scheduled for release in 2016. “Whether you choose to play Emily Kaldwin or Corvo Attano — it’s 15 years after the events of the first game, 15 years after the rat plague has been cured, and Emily is empress, and Corvo is ageing and still the protective father — we carried it over so that you have a voice,” Smith said. “You hear Emily. She has one line, or she has monologues before the mission, she has lines in the dialogue. Same with Corvo.”

You can listen to the podcast here. The interview begins at about the 24:00 mark, after my co-host, JJ Sutherland, and I finish arguing about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Smith’s novel, Big Jack Is Dead, was named one of the best indie books of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews. I asked him if he learned anything about making video games by writing it. Readers of early drafts thought the novel was too bleak, he said, which reminded him of playtesting in video games. Spoilers for Dishonored follow.

“There are moments when, like I said with Deus Ex, people really pushed me to put a big fight in Chateau DuClare, when you’re leading Nicolette DuClare around and she’s commenting on the rooms of the house,” he said. “And I fought and fought and fought not to do that. And a large percentage of players said, Oh that’s boring. But at least some players said, Wow, this was super pivotal for me; a game had never been like this before.

“And similarly with Dishonored, Raph” — that’s Raphael Colantonio, his co-creative director and the founder of Arkane Studios — “and I made the decision, near the end of the project, if you played very, very darkly — you not only killed to get to your goal, but you also went out of your way to kill the maids and everybody else, then at the very end of the game, Samuel Beechworth, the old man who’s been driving your boat around, he basically says, ‘I despise you for what you’ve become.’ And he pulls a flare gun out, and he fires it, and he says, ‘That’s why I’m warning them that you’re coming.’ He betrays you. And we got so much pressure to cut that from the game.

“Because people are not used to video game characters being mean to them, or telling them you’re not a hero, you’re a bad guy. Everybody just wants to be told in a video game that you’re great, no matter what you do. If you slaughter everybody — you killed the maids, you killed the old people, you killed the beggars — you’re great, here’s a medal, you’re a hero.

“We decided that sounds psychotic. It doesn’t match our values, it doesn’t match the way the world works, it doesn’t match the way any other fiction — imagine a novel where a guy wakes up in the morning, kills everybody in the house, goes down the street, kills everybody on the way to work, kills everybody in the office, and then at the very end of the novel, there is a scene where he is given a medal and made some sort of hero and anointed in some way. It doesn’t make any sense. What we wanted was to let you express yourself in the game, but to have the world react to that, at least in some way. Samuel Beechworth, betraying you and firing off that flare, was something we had to fight for.”

Subscribe on iTunes, Android, or the podcast app of your choice. You can also follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.


  • That’s why everybody loved Spec Ops and why we can’t go back to the Call of Duty storylines. I quit out when Ghost came out but I heard that in that game you take control of a railgun in space and fire on military controlled cities, but nobody points out you’re wiping out the populace of civilians.

    I wish players were punished more for their actions. Then we probably wouldn’t have gamers shouting ‘Renegade for life!’ while playing Mass Effect.

  • I am pretty sure that life is strange is going to be guilty of being mean to its players in the last episode

    • It was guilty of being mean to players in its first episode. Demanding they play through that nonsense was the height of cruelty.

      And I’m not one of those people who doesn’t like those kinds of games. It’s just that its writing was the equivalent of one of those books you might have read in primary school with a sticker on it saying “young adult”.

        • Yeah I did hear that. But unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be coming back. It’s so important with episodic content to nail the first episode. The potential for player drop off after that is so convenient that you really can’t take a chance with a subpar episode 1.

          • I really recommend slogging through the dialogue of the first episode if that is all that is holding you back. At the moment I have life is strange as my game of the year. The last episode cliffhanger especially doesn’t pull punches.

          • It wasn’t just the dialogue it was just the whole tone. It just felt like, if i were a teenage girl, i’d feel like the game was written by someone who might call themselves a “cool mum/dad”. Teenage girls playing songs on their stereo that were popular songs for teenagers maybe when the developers were teenagers (at least a decade ago), but not now. Things like that.

            It just all really struck me as a creator who didn’t fully understand their source material. Not that I claim to have any understanding of teenage girls, but I just think it’s so easy to tell when something isn’t hitting the mark. It’s a tough setting to pull off, because of the ephemeral nature of both the teenage years and the cultural trends that inform them.

  • Burial at Sea was such such a let down. Beautiful setting but weak narritive that complety subverted both Rapture and Columbia storylines. Still bitter about it.

  • Players seemed to understand his motives better than they understood those of Corvo, the protagonist of the original game, Smith said. He thinks that’s because they let Daud speak.

    Characters need to be able to communicate in some way. If the character doesn’t speak, and the player is in control of their actions, they are nothing more than a pair of disembodied hands. I know it might seem like some revelation to the games industry and the players, but it’s really basic storytelling.

    The player’s desire to be the character they are playing as is toxic and juvenile.

  • I think Freedom Cry is a bad example of good DLC. I think the reason it was good was because ACIV was really good and Freedom Cry was ACIV with a better protagonist. Loved ACIV but after playing it Freedom Cry felt watered down & underpowered, and the system of “free more slaves to buy weapons even if you have the money to buy those weapons” was ????????? why.

    Dishonored’s DLC is unbelievable though. Great storytelling, new powers to explore. You don’t feel underpowered from the start which is a big problem with DLC in any game with a skill tree I think (you play through the main game building up your character then you drop into the DLC and all your progress is undone and you’re crap again) because Daud has different, stronger abilities than Corvo. Loved the sort of Victorian-Noir feel it had to it. Artistically and mechanically excellent.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!