"I've always been of the opinion that we need more alternative worlds, as they take us on a journey to a place that seems somewhat familiar yet strange," says Viktor Antonov. As the creator of City 17 his track record for creating strangely familiar dystopia is hard to beat. Teaming up with his colleague Sébastien Mitton, he describes the ideas that went into the visual style of Dishonored, a game I was completely unaware before coming to Lyon.
"Part of it is my affection for weird machinery and soft lighting," says Antonov when asked about the similarities between Dishonored and Half-Life 2. But this design is actually more coherent and precise, Antonov says as he expands on the advantages of creating something new from the ground up without having to take any considerations to previous works. As he speaks we are given peeks at sketches of the main location of the game, the city Dunwall, with short descriptions of each illustration. Every texture has been handcrafted, without exception.
This is one of very few games where everything has been designed down to the smallest detail. Nothing is based on photos. Dogs, rats, furniture - every object has been crafted from the ground up. There must have been a massive effort on the part of art direction.
It is very apparent that Antonov and Mitton wants us to appreciate just how much effort has gone into the game. Everything from characters to mundane objects and backdrops are absolutely gorgeous, and they all merge together in a believable world. This strange new alternative world, with its own distinctive features, is revealed in front of our eyes.
Dunwall has been designed with 1666 London as its foundation but bereft of well-known landmarks, so the player feels neither at home or grounded with iconic landscapes; a different world, but one with a strange feeling of familiarity. It's a sense that runs through the entire design.
At this point in time, in between the renaissance and the dawn of industrialism, the British capital was one of the most important cities in the world, but also heavily affected by the plague. Dishonored makes use of this dramatic period by colouring the city with the best aesthetics the surrounding centuries have to offer, and take the hardship of the plague and spice it up with supernatural elements and an original interpretation of the industrial revolution.
The new technology can be spotted everywhere in Dunwall. Strange vehicles and watchful surveillance systems create a surrealistic Victorian world that really doesn't look like anything we've seen before. The central idea is that instead of coal and steam power, the era of industrialism was brought on by giant whaling ships. The whales are caught for their oil, and the biological raw material for the revolution brings a brutal shimmer to the city. "Whalepunk" rather than "steampunk".
Later, we get to sit down with the founder of Arkane, Raphaël Colantonio, and the other half of the studio's creative side, Harvey Smith, whose design philosophy remains unchanged since his days with Deus Ex and Thief.
The main character of the game is described as an assassin who has been made an outcast after being accused of murdering his former employer, the Empress. As a person on the fringe of society it's a natural fit for us to do a whole lot of sneaking around. As luck would have it the world he resides in is dark and there are plenty of alleyways and shadows to lurk in.
However, no one needs to feel forced to sneak their way through Dishonored. Colantonio and Smith are careful to point out that player freedom is at the core of the experience. Our character has all the tools needed to attack a large gathering of enemies from the safety of shadows, but thanks to his supernatural abilities such as stopping time and using telekinesis, he is also perfectly adapted for more direct confrontations. You will also be able to manipulate the many technological gadgets that make up the cityscape. The idea is that there is no correct way to go about solving a situation.
"We consider ourselves successful when someone surprises us," Smith explains.
An example of one of the more creative approaches is a combination of using your ability to freeze time and your ability to take control over other characters. The player simply waits for a guard to fire his gun and freezes time. Then he takes control over an enemy and walks in to the trajectory of the bullet before the momentary time freeze is up. Colantonio also seems fascinated with tying explosives to innocent rats and then taking control of them and running to the closest group of enemies.
Dishonored has not been given an official release date, and when questioned Raphaël Colantonio was unwilling to give an answer, but it is rumoured to come out late spring next year.
We come away with the sense that Dishonored has been meticulously guided by a philosophy that runs through the entire design of the game. Everything is there for a reason, and there is a backstory to everything we see. The game will take us on a journey and give us an objective, but how we achieve this is up to us.