What Inspires Arkane Studios When Creating Worlds And The Future Of The Dishonored Series

Dishonored 2 is finally out in the wild after four years of development, and if you were at PAX Aus 2016 you’d know about it. As advertisements and marketing material for the highly anticipated sequel adorned pillars and walls throughout the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention centres, dominating the weekend. It’s obvious Bethesda are pushing for Dishonored to be up there with their other major franchises, such as Doom, and the Fallout and Elder Scroll Series, in terms of popularity and quality.

Now that may sound like high praise and presumptuous for a series still young and growing, to be already aiming to hit the same heights and success as such prestigious franchises as Fallout and Elder Scrolls. But it shows Bethesda have faith in Arkane studios. In a development team, which saw great success in the release of the original Dishonored back in 2012. A title in which they showed, they are masters of creating realistic, thought out worlds, which challenge the player to explore and learn, rather than just move from point A to B.

During our time at PAX Aus this year, in a room hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the showroom floor, we caught up with Sébastien Mitton, the Art Director for the original Dishonored, and now the sequel. We chatted about how Arkane creates intricate worlds, what tough choices they had to make when cutting content in Dishonored 2, and a question which has been on my mind for a while, what their influences have been when creating the Dishonored series?dishonored-2-2

“We try not to copy. We analyse different media and art, paintings, photography, we travel around the world to look at architecture, in Barcelona particularly (for Dishonored 2). We look at movies, documentaries. I’m a big fan of ‘The Shining’, and crazy characters in movies, turning mad, and thinking about how to convey that emotion inside a game. And I try to build the art, the city, and the characters around the feelings I have in my real life, or in movies.”

Sébastien and Arkane take elements from various media and art, and all facets of life, including real world environments. For example, when designing Karnaca, the main location for Dishonored 2, they wanted to build a city in decay and one in a warmer climate, while keeping the Victorian era feel. “It was about how people survived in a city in decay, in a standard which was not good for them, so that was the inspiration (Havana). So, I went to Barcelona, for the architecture, because I was not able to make the trip to Cuba, and Barcelona is like Havana, but in a better state. But we also looked at British colonies, Australia, India, Africa, to understand how the British adapted to warmer areas, and when you understand that, you then can do your own city. We have not copied; we have looked how people adapted.”dishonored-2-3When researching Sebastien’s game development history in the lead up to the interview, trying to find other areas of inspiration, there was one title which stood out in his portfolio. Bioshock 2. He worked on it for Arkane as additional help, during a time when Arkane was still finding its feet in regards to their direction. Seeing this, it was easy to assume he had taken influence from the famous series, which had influenced so many others in the games industry. However, it was quite the contrary, as Sébastien brought, what he calls the Arkane DNA to 2K Marin, broadening how the 2K developers approached level design. “They (the 2K developers) would go straight to the point, the objective, while we are more big on background. (In one of the first areas) The player had to go to a train station, and I said, why don’t we go through a mining solo, then you enter where the architects create the trains, then you visit the garage, and then you reach the train station. And they were like ‘Whoa!’. Each time we create something, we try to show the backstage, to show you everything, and this is part of the Arkane belief, we give depth to everything. We give freedom to the player. We don’t want everything coming to you, you have to discover it. We had the same vision with 2K.”

This Arkane DNA, based around building interesting and unique worlds, which take elements from real life to give their games realistic and believable settings and layouts, was an idea which Sébastien brought up often. “We have this DNA at Arkane, where we try to create alternate worlds, because we think reality, which is what you experience everyday, is less fun. So we have alternate (worlds), then we try to bring realism to it to make it feel true. That’s super cool because you work with lots of talented people, who are specialising in design, lighting, architecture, to create something which is brand new. What I like, is the way slowly, after four years, we see our baby come to life”.

One example of how Arkane and Sébastien took inspiration from real life in Dishonored, was how when he was visiting the Arkane Austin office during the development of the original Dishonored, he noticed a man on stilts, cleaning windows. It gave inspiration for the tallboy enemies, which lead to the idea of whale fuel to power them, and then whaling ships, and then the whole whale oil industry. This happened often in the development for the sequel too says Sébastien. “Someone asked, why is Corvo’s mask different from Dishonored 1? Because it was too big. We rushed the design for the CG trailer, and I was like OK, now it’s done, we have to follow this design (In the original Dishonored). And Dishonored 2 was an opportunity to make it more compact, fit more naturally. The metal work is an inspiration from my wife’s ring, made with a small part from metal, wrap together. It was super cool, so I took a picture of it and we shred the mask, trying to keep what was cool, while adding elements from the ring”.dishonored-2-4

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Regardless of how good some ideas are though; some content often has to be cut during game development. In the original Dishonored, a mental institution level, filled with enemies called lunatics, which sound familiar in their design to the boys of silence in Bioshock Infinite, was one such area which Sébastien was sad to see go. “We went not that far into the design of this (The mental institution), but we really liked the idea of it, but it was making sense to cut this level. Because, maybe it was too specific. Sometimes its level design or schedule, through the project you have to make choices. We thought maybe to do it in the DLC or later, but it never happened. It was cool to think about it though.”

After learning about this though, I was interested to hear whether any areas had been cut in the sequel. “The Silver Mines, are really important in Karnaca. That’s why some people went there, for the silver rush, maybe they think they will make money. (But) The more they dig into the silver mines and quarries, the more the hole becomes bigger, and the wind blows through, the more dust is blown through to the dust district, leading to climate change in the city. Originally you were supposed to meet the son of the duke there, it’s not a spoiler because it doesn’t happen (laughs). We shuffled things, and it was really interesting, but it was too hard to go up to the mines, then come back down again, so it was making sense in regards to story, but not game flow.” However, being true to their design and world building, although the level itself was cut, the mines are still part of the world outside of lore. “So, you won’t see this mission, but you can see it in the distance. We show the whole city, and maybe by night you’ll see workers up there near the mines, with lights and smoking. So, it’s still there. It makes the city feel stronger, making it a real character.”dishonored-2-1

Despite the huge focus on world building and creating believable levels for players, at the heart of it, Sébastien wants players to have fun and enjoy themselves, while hopefully bringing some culture along for the ride too. “I just want people to enjoy our world. It’s important to create art and tell a story, but my main goal is to make people happy, and make people have fun in great games. What I want to bring is fun and maybe make people more interested in art and culture. I can’t grab someone, and make them go to the museum, so I bring the museum to them, and stories and stuff to learn and that’s cool.”

And despite Dishonored only being days away from release at the time of the interview, I couldn’t help but ask what the future holds for Corvo and Emily after their journey to Karnaca, and whether himself and his team have any ideas for the series. “I have some ideas, for this world. But I won’t share them because they would be spoilers (laughs). Imagine something in the past, what can we do, how to be fresh again. Because our target with Dishonored 2, was something new and badass and cool, to put a lot of fidelity into the game, and create a good sequel. So, that’s what we would do if we did Dishonored 3, focus on that and try to make change, and keep the core DNA of the series.”

Regardless of where Sébastien and Arkane Studios take the Dishonored series next after Karnaca, you can be sure the Arkane DNA of building intricate, lore filled, believable worlds will follow, and their passion for creating fun, culture filled experiences to continue. And who knows, maybe one day in the near future, Arkane Studios and the Dishonored series will be as well renowned as Bethesda Studios and Fallout or Elder Scrolls.