We sit down with Arkane’s Julien Roby for a long chat on how guard AI works, what stealth gamers can expect, and why Arkane thinks giving the player total freedom is the most important thing in the world. Read on for the low-down on why Dishonored is the game for players who want to think for themselves.
Some of the questions below reference the Lady Boyle costume party murder mystery level — click here to read our hands-on preview.
GON: Do you see Dishonored as more of a stealth title, or do you see it as a sandbox-ey, supernatural explore-em-up?
Julien: I see it as more of a sandbox game than a stealth game. You can have different options depending on what you want to do. So you can play fully stealth, or you can go fully action, or anywhere in between. It’s more up to the player to define the experience they want to have.
GON: So do you find in your tests that a lot of people opt for the full shooting, full action build? Just from playing today it seems like that’d be much harder than going all out for stealth.
Julien: Usually what we see in playtests is that people start their playthrough using stealth. They want to see what’s around them and understand the world so they sneak around as much as possible. But then they get detected, so they do a bit of combat, and revert back to stealth for the next area. So it’s a mix of both.
GON: One of the things that bugs me most about stealth games — and one that’s been in every stealth game ever — is that if two guards are patrolling together, for example, and you kill one of them and put them in a vent, the other guard will just.. forget that he ever had a friend. Do guards keep track of each other’s location in Dishonored?
Julien: In some areas we do do that. Like in the Golden Cat mission we have some guards who are patrolling together, so they will ask “Where did he go?” and have a look around and stuff like that. But most of the time if a guard disappears, other guards will not do anything about it other than make a few comments. “Oh, he’s late for his patrol”, or something like that.
GON: Do they change their behaviour if other guards aren’t around? There’s some moments in Arkham Asylum like that, for example.
Julien: We don’t handle that, no.
GON: But the AI is sharper on harder difficulty?
Julien: Yes. Basically the way difficulty works is that the harder you set the game to be, the more sharp they will be. So you’ll have less time to hide if they start to look for you, they will detect you really fast.
GON: What does it take to hide? Does anywhere that’s dark count as hiding? It felt like light wasn’t really taken into account when I played.
Julien: Our stealth is mostly based on obstruction. Hiding behind walls, stuff like that — lights only factor a little into the calculations. If you are at a distance, the shadow will help you, but up close guards will definitely notice you even in the dark.
GON: You’ve brought on Viktor Antonov from Valve to handle the art design. How much of the game follow this really strong aesthetic we’re seeing here in this level. Is there much visual variety?
Julien: Well, all the game takes place in Dunwall so it’s still very urban most of the time, but we try to keep it fresh. So we have one level which takes place in a brothel, one which takes place — this one — in a party of aristocrats, we have a level in a flooded part of the map, this sort of thing.
GON: Do you have any really open ones, like a park? Or a field? I don’t know why there’d be a field in the city, but somewhere where there’s less opportunity to hide and creep around.
Julien: We try to always support stealth for players who want it, so we need to make some places to hide.
GON: Is it difficult making a game where you have to cater for every angle of play? Deus Ex: Human Revolution received much criticism last year for its boss fights, which made using stealth impossible. Do you ever feel tempted to say “No, this HAS to be a gunfight — no way around it?”
Julien: Well, no. We try to make it so that every situation you can go through can be done in stealth or action. Specifically because, for one, if a player wants to play stealth we will never go against his choice, and two, the player spent time to buy abilities that support his stealth. So if he can’t choose them anymore that’s kind of pointless.
GON: Can you respec what abilities you’ve purchased?
Julien: No. No, they are permanent.
GON: If a player has put all their points in stealth and then decides halfway through the game that they want to shoot people in the face instead, how would they go about doing that?
Julien: You can kind of mix both, because you have different layers to upgrade your characters. When you buy powers, each of the powers is kind of ambivalent, in a sense – you can use Bend Time in combat to take advantage of characters, or can use Bend Time to sneak around and get placed unnoticed. So the powers can be used in both ways. Even if you buy a power for Stealth it actually has lots of applications in combat.
GON: When you are creating the AI, how many situations did you come to in development where it just did something completely random you weren’t expecting? I’ve read that a similar thing happened when you were testing some of the powers and you — as developers — thought that was excellent.
Julien: Well we did have some problems with the AI. Sometimes it didn’t go as expected with our scripting because the player had done something specific to a specific opponent in a specific area of the map, and the game got confused. The game has a faction system between the characters so if you can trick a guard into fighting another guard it may trigger something unexpected.
GON: I noticed that in the basement of the mansion, a cutscene took hold and prevented me from throwing Lady Boyle’s corpse through the air and turning it into a bomb. Does this happen often?
Julien: No. We try to do it as little as possible. Even though we have some bottlenecks where we are forced to do it to progress the story. So in this case we were forced to do it, but we try to avoid it as much as possible.
GON: Are there any real-time cutscenes that the player can effect?
Julien: What we try to avoid is making the player do something in a cutscene that you wouldn’t want your character to do — for example, ‘Why are you standing here? The enemy is coming and you’re just standing there, you could already have shot him?’ So we try to avoid that. And we try to make our cutscenes valid in terms of context. So if an enemy is talking to you and you’re stuck in a cage, we can do that because it’s valid. You’ve got no choice. But most of the time we avoid cutscenes. Most of the cutscenes we have are briefings with an ally, basically.
GON: On the subject of PC support, Arkane’s already mentioned the whole raft of support for FOV, stuff like that. One of the things that Bethesda did for Skyrim was a HD texture pack. Is there any intent for that sort of post-launch support for Dishonored?
Julien: Well on PC the textures are already in high res. We made them high res for PC and then we just scaled them down to make it run on the console. Textures on PC are 2048, I think, and scaled down to 1024 for consoles. It’s a bigger download for PC users as a result.
GON: When it comes to publishers like Bethesda, are they very open to new IP? When you approached them with the idea for Dishonored, what did they say?
Julien: Actually the way it happened was that Bethesda approached us, because they wanted to do the kind of game we used to make, this Looking Glass type of game. So they asked us, because that’s what we like to do.
And they wanted a new IP, as well. So we just kind of worked together to come up with it.
GON: Did you have the idea for Dishonored already when they came to you, and you were hoping that someone would ask for it to be made? Or was it developed from scratch?
Julien: Well we wanted to make this kind of game already so we already had some discussions and mechanics thought about. But the specifics of Dishonored really happened when we were approached by Bethesda.
GON: So they said “We want you to make a game like this” — did you have to finalise the mechanics first or the story first? How do they affect each other?
Julien: It kind of was in parallel. So we thought “Do we want to set it in the real world?” “Do we need a specific world for the game? What mechanics and powers and gadgets do we want?” We took a lot of time to try to flesh out everything.
GON: I noticed when exploring around before crossing the bridge to the Boyle party that you’d hidden some diaries, and covered the walls in graffiti and such. Are there any linked background pieces between levels? If players explore, is there a secondary narrative awaiting them?
Julien: The way we’ve been doing it is that if a player wants to just go straight for the goals they can do that, but we also put a lot of elements on the side for players who want to explore to discover — books, conversations, notes, all that. And a lot of this information really brings together the world while you play. there’s also elements that tie together, for instance in the mission before the one you played, you can actually find an invitation to the party — when you find it, you don’t know what it is or how it relates, but you can put it in your inventory and it’ll have an effect when you get to the mansion here.
GON: So if you miss that in the previous level, what difference does it make in this level?
Julien: In this case it makes a big difference, because this invitation is what allows you to get in. so you can just walk up to the guard and he’ll let you in. If you don’t have the invitation you can find one lying around on this level blown away by the wind, but there are other ways in without it.
GON: When I was talking to the guests, they all just started shouting at me to go upstairs immediately and check the diaries. So I resolved that I wasn’t going to do it, just to spite the game.
GON: Is that something that you find people doing? I expected the clues to be a bit more vague. Did you find this doing playtesting? Did you put it in because people didn’t know what to do?
Julien: Yeah. We try not to lead the player by the nose, but at some point we found that if we don’t give a little information, people just get lost and don’t know what to do. It’s just overwhelming. So we tried to add this element that gave just a hint, to help a little. But we try to do it as little as possible.
GON: It’s cool because there’s a lot of ways up the stairs, but it still felt a bit railroad-ey. What did people do before you put these clues in?
Julien: People would just walk around. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even go upstairs because a guard told them they couldn’t. They’d say “Okay, I can’t go upstairs.” They wouldn’t do anything.
GON: How do you feel about EA saying this is a bad time for original IP? To me it seems like everyone is looking at Dishonored and saying “Woah, original IP! Finally!’
Julien: I don’t know. I mean, there’s probably data to back it up. But I feel that whatever the cycle is, people just want to have new things to play. They’ve bought and played the same things over and over now. Whether it’s the end of the cycle or the beginning, people are expecting to play something new at some point. As long as the game is good, whether it’s a new IP or not, it’s a good game.
GON: Thanks very much!
Julien: Thank you.