Building a World with Dishonored 2's Harvey Smith

Games Features Dishonored 2
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Building a World with <i>Dishonored 2</i>'s Harvey Smith

I’m eternally interested in world building in games. Against my best judgment, I have spent dozens of hours doing things at the apex of lore nerd culture: I’ve read too many books from the Elder Scrolls games. I’ve watched an unthinkable number of Dark Souls lore videos. I’ve even tried to read the background materials to better understand the Baldur’s Gate games (there is a limit to what the human can do, however.) So I am no stranger to the weird ways that games build their worlds and the kinds of broad mechanisms that developers use to leverage those worlds to create deep and interesting games.

I recently Skyped with Dishonored 2’s Harvey Smith to talk about how the team at Arkane Studios crafts the world of the Dishonored games. When I asked him about the world building of the games, he told me about the first one’s transition from semi-Victorian London to a completely new world. “At some point I literally took out a yellow sticky note and drew a continental map, with the Pandyssian continent and an island chain that would become the Empire of the Isles.” This, I thought, sounds exactly like how I would start making a world for my Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Many games have roots in homespun universes, and while the Dishonored franchise has dozens of people contributing to it, it still has that feel of a fantastical world that’s crafted by a singular commitment to telling a certain kind of story in a certain kind of context. As Smith explained, “One of the things that’s true about our company is that we have mission designers and level designers and they work with architects. Some of them come from a shooter background or videogame background, some of them come from pen and paper RPG background, but one way or the other that value is shared here at the company. The artists make things that have layers of history in them. Working together with our narrative designer Sachka Duval, we try to showcase environmental storytelling so you can stand in a spot and look around and kind of ask yourself ‘Wow what happened here?’ and kind of piece it together. That kind of cohesion and plausibility to every little detail is shared by everybody on the team.”

What Smith described to me was in lock step with the basic ideals of many immersive sims, a type of game that tries to fully immerse a player within a simulated world with fine-grained details and a strong internal consistency between the fiction of a game and the world it takes place in. But it is also highly important for any tabletop role playing game where the plot, world and relationships between characters have to resonate in the collective heads of several players sitting around a table.

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It gave me quite a bit of joy when Smith, one of the strongest developers within the immersive sim school of thought, told me that he started playing Dungeons & Dragons on the night of his 11th birthday and followed it up by becoming a voracious consumer of pen and paper roleplaying systems. That said, he wasn’t as effusive about the translation of roleplaying games to the world of games. “It’s funny,” he said, “I’m not a huge fan of videogame RPGS. Like once in a while there’s one like Fallout that I love, especially like Fallout: New Vegas or something, but generally what I like more is when somebody takes the elements of an RPG and blends them together with the freedom of movement of a shooter and sets it some place that feels plausible even if it’s otherworldly. I typically like that first person, but it doesn’t have to be first person. For instance, I like the original Dead Rising a lot because … the mall felt so complete. And State of Decay was the same. So it’s not what you’d call an RPG, but man, RPG has started out in a little niche corner and basically taken over the world because there are elements of RPGs in everything.”

What Smith is talking about here is how all of these seemingly disparate game types have come together in the contemporary age to make games that are heavily influenced by a variety of genres while being beholden to basically nothing else. Dead Rising and State of Decay are truly hybrid games that staple together resource management, simulations, character-driven drama, and a host of other game types to bring something new into the world. Importantly, you can always do that in a tabletop roleplaying game; it can always be whatever you want it to be.

Of course, that brings up questions of the future, and I couldn’t help but ask Smith to speculate on what future technology would mean for these kinds of immersive games. What does a simulation with 10x more processing power look like? What is the future for tiny details when you don’t have to trade them against other resources?

“Over time it should be possible to go more and more deep on that,” he told me, “and it only advances in kicks and starts, but then other pieces of the industry absorb it. I mean, if you look at something like the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor, it’s such a brilliant, clever system to have enemies remember you and carry visible scars that you gave them and have voice lines where they remember you. I remember in Jagged Alliance … you could recruit a team and some of them didn’t like each other, which I thought was fantastic. There are just so many things like that that people just don’t experiment with that often. Like, why hasn’t everybody copied this thing or that thing? And part of it is that as production costs go up to make the art and animation, it really begins to compete with some of those features.”

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.