Harvey Smith on the Independent Heart of 'Dishonored 2'

A world of hidden stories awaits careful players.

Bethesda Softworks

Have an in-depth conversation with Harvey Smith and he probably won’t strike you as someone heading up a triple-A production like Dishonored 2. Aside from a clear love of art and independent film, he strongly believes in not giving too much away to players — something that often seen as anathema to the realities of big budget game making.

To be fair, Bethesda seemingly allows for more risk outside sure bets like Fallout — supporting the creative freedom for unlikely candidates like Wolfenstein, DOOM or The Evil Within isn’t something you’d likely see at, say, EA or Activision. Smith’s personality matches the atypical in Dishonored as well, with its painterly, Jules Verne-tinged sci-fi and stealth particularly standing out against a world whose depths beg to be pored over.

Still, Dishonored is doubtless a gargantuan project. How does Harvey Smith, as creative director, fit into that? To find out, I asked him last month during PAX West.

Bethesda Softworks

Where did you get your start in games, in terms of what interests you?

It’s interesting, your evolution through games is largely guided by what you and your friends were playing or owned. So when the neighbor got Pong that was magical somehow, even though I look at it now and I’m like, what the fuck, why were we so obsessed with Pong?

There was Adventure on the Atari 2600. That blew my mind because it had some dynamic elements. Then there were PCs. my friend and I shoveled sand for the local mortician in exchange for a dollar an hour and an hour of computer time, because he had an Apple with Ultima on it or something.

What N64 games did you like?

It sounds ridiculous, but I really liked Pokémon Snap.

Me too!

And for years after that I was like, why doesn’t somebody redo it and just evolve that design? But the camera – you know, they had an algorithm for trying to judge the quality of your shot, is there another Pokémon in the background, how close are you, how centered is it – that’s super cool. And with photography’s rule of thirds, you could do really a more sophisticated version. I loved it.

[But] I guess I’m really interested in four games right now, and one of them is Pokémon Go. And I travel so much that I catch Pokmon everywhere I go. I was recently in the Czech Republic in a small town catching Pokémon. And it leads you to interesting art or graffiti or architecture. It’s genius. The other ones are Inside, No Man’s Sky, and the new Deus Ex, since I’ve worked on that series. Those are probably pretty indicative of what I like.

Bethesda Softworks

What did you think of Human Revolution?

I liked it. I think I only played through half of it. I thought some parts were just amazing – the UI and the art and revisiting the setting.

UI is an underrated design component.

Yeah, for Emily[, one of the game’s protagonists,] we came up this power for linking people together, so if you hit one with the sleep dart they’ll all go to sleep, or you set one on fire and they’ll all catch on fire. An important piece of that puzzle was the UI for connecting them. But how do you target and connect four people in a short period of time? The player has to see that they’re selecting one and targeting the rest, with the effect traveling down the line to the others.

How do you feel about visualization cluttering up the screen?

We often have a problem with colors – people think a different color is a visual solution, with a basic color for the UI and differentiating colors for enemies. With just the number of colors alone you can overwhelm people. But if everything is the same then nothing pops out.

We also let the player play Dishonored with the target markers off. So when the next mission says find this guy or this note and read it, you have to actually find them.

Bethesda Softworks

I played with the first Dishonored with the UI off.

Before it was really Dishonored, we started with this complete HUD-less idea and very quickly we figured out we needed feedback about awareness so you can play a stealth game, and about health – if you try to just use the screen flashing red it gets really obnoxious. And how many potions do I have – you know, it’s more immersive to have that input. You start reading the HUD without realizing you’re reading it.

How do you feel about playing adventure games with the mini-map off?

Well, it’s inference, right? We had a saying at Ion Storm called “playing the HUD,” because some games at the time would have an active minimap that shows you where all the red dots were. It’s lower-clutter information, so you can just like stop looking at the world and play the minimap.

[With Dishonored] we thought, let’s just get rid of that. Let’s make the world interesting enough and read well enough. We put a lot of work into lighting and color scheme and position and size of things so that the useable elements pop. And how do you make a scene do that? It’s institutional knowledge. It’s a craft our team works really hard at.

What's likely the final UI of Emily's enemy tethering ability, Domino.

Bethesda Softworks

How much has that influenced narrative discussion during development?

We do a lot of that. Sometimes it’s trivial. So, part of this guy’s mansion looks like a craftsman works there – it has a little upstairs area with an office, and we could just make another office but we have these pianos in the world, so what if we decided that that guy is a piano tuner? And we just broke apart one of the pianos, took all the pieces and suspended them from the ceiling in that office. There’s not a note anywhere, the guy doesnt actually exist in the world. He’s assumed to live there.

And the owner of the mansion has character. He’s a former mine worker who’s become an incredibly wealthy mine baron – he still has a tattoo on his neck that says “deep down,” like a coffin filled with silver coins deep in a hole. It’s symbolic of his past. Point is, he hob-knobs with aristocrats now, but he doesn’t ever feel like they accept him.

He wasnt born to money. He doesn’t know which side of the plate the spoon goes on. And he doesnt know how to play the piano, but he thinks, I’m a rich guy, I have this nice house, my friends are all aristocrats, I should own a piano. So there’s a piano in his house just for show. And there’s a little bit of fiction around all that, and so then there’s the piano tuner, and it just kind of fits together.

But some players will never notice that. They will blast their way through the house, kill the guy, move on, never figure out that they don’t have to kill him and can save him – much less study the rooms of his house and infer his class-consciousness and the fact that he has a piano tuner living there.

Bethesda Softworks

I feel like most players don’t want that backstory. They just want to blast through.

Yeah, that’s kind of why we’re into a pull-based approach. We don’t push that on you. If you want to just run through the game and follow the markers and loosely follow the story and try the challenge of penetrating these secure locations to kill a high-value target, you totally can play like that. And you might finish the game in twelve hours.

On the other hand, if you want to approach it like a stealth game and either you use stealth and you sneak up on people and kill them, or you play the really hardcore way, which is never tripping the AI into alert mode. I feel like we constantly have these overlapping circles that we find interesting.

What other games did you study for reference when thinking about the stealth?

One of the things we believe is not having a mono-culture. So we draw from the tradition of Metal Gear Solid, Far Cry, Thief, indie games that involve stealth.

I tend to like stealth games that are tuned to the point where I’m just happy to survive. I don’t want to to get obsessive about it – it starts to feel like a chore at that point. So, a good example for me is Far Cry 2.

Bethesda Softworks

Yeah, Far Cry 2 is such an underrated game.

It’s so underrated! And the thing that’s different about is the [design] itself – guns jam, you get malaria, you start out with nothing.

My favorite moment was during this mission where the target was protected by two SUVs full of dudes. I guess I blew one up and that started a grass fire. The guy got out and ran to the front of the convoy, tried to escape in another vehicle, and I stepped in front of it with the sawed-off shotgun and just shot the driver through the windshield.

The target had white hair and wore a suit – he looked like a trashy euro villain from a Michael Mann film or something. And the grass is burning around us. So I’m trying to avoid getting burned alive by the grass and this guy pulls out a gun and he’s shooting me from across the field and I’m trying to take him out with almost no ammo left, and it was just like – I lost. I died.

So it’s an environment where I can do things creatively that maybe you didn’t explicitly plan as a designer and outcomes can happen with variables [you can’t control]. It’s these magical moments –that’s really what we’re trying to do with Dishonored. We’re constantly trying to put you in a situation that’s part narrative, part simulation, you have lots of tools and you have lots of ways to go.

Bethesda Softworks

Given your tastes, it’s a surprising you’d want to work on a big production like Dishonored rather than making an independent game where you can design everything.

Interesting. Yeah, a lot of the games I play now are indie games, for sure. When I recount the games that I loved at the end of the year, there’s usually one or two triple-A games against five indies. And I guess I could do that but so much of Dishonored is so varied, with so many characters and locations.

How so?

So you can go after this grand inventor, the inventor of the clockwork soldier. We modeled his house so that you can flip levers and the walls, floors and ceilings of the house can be reconfigured to open up new passages, trap enemies behind walls, to get in the space behind walls, to completely flip the rooms around. The house is like a Rubik’s cube. And that’s only in one mission. There’s another mission where you lose your powers briefly and you can manipulate time with the Outsider’s Timepiece. You can jump back and forth three years.

Bethesda Softworks

In the present, the house is ruined. Pipes are burst, rooms are flooded, it’s dark – in the past, there’s music playing, guards walking around, food is laid out. It’s a functional house three years in the past on the night of an important event.

And you can be in the present, standing there with this ruined house and flip out the Timepiece and look at through the lenses and see the nice, posh warmly-lit house in the past, and watch the guard walk around, wait until you’re behind him and transition time periods. You can use it both for the puzzles that we’ve built into the environment and you can use it for the dynamic elements with the AI. You’re using time to play stealth.

So we just do these huge things – and I feel like we have the spirit of one of those indies.

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