Interview: Rafael Colantonio, Co-Creative Director on Dishonored

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Note: Bethesda Softworks released two Dishonored gameplay video, and I highly recommend you watch them. They can be found here and here.

Harvey Smith smiles and points to a Bethesda employee playing Dishonored in the other room. “Though he’s played this section 17 times today, he still sometimes dies!”  While amusing, it speaks to the AIs unpredictability and the challenge we can expect from this game.

It’s with a mix of enthusiasm and chagrin I admit the game was difficult to play. I died a lot. Boy, did I! However I’m smiling right along with Harvey Smith because the Dishonored experience never left me frustrated. I was consistently having a blast trying to figure it all out. Gameplay has been well-honed to provide a fairly ridged challenge while remaining exciting and fun. I left the interview finding comfort in knowing you simply cannot purchase the game, fire it up and run in with gun’s blazing. It won’t let you do that. You’re going to have to learn to speak Dishonored’s language…or at least learn to sneak around it.

After playing the game I sat down with Rafael Colantonio to talk about many things including: Support for non-lethal gameplay, Analog AI, Viktor Antonov, multiple endings, the benefits of layered systems, limb targeting, Neo-Victorian Steampunk, possessing a fish and of course…sliding under tables.

"…if you’re running away from someone down a corridor and you manage to slide under a table, you’ll disappear in the eyes of the guard. We have a system in place where he might keep going past you, and you can go up behind him and kill him, or run away. It’s pretty fun!"

Mark: Hi Raf! How are you?
Rafael: I’m doing good thanks. How are things?

I’m doing really well now that I’ve finally had a chance to play Dishonored. I’m just going to come out and say this now: Dishonored just might be my favorite game of E3, and there’s still one day left! Though I’m really impressed with what I saw, I do have a lot of questions for you.
Oh wow, thank you! I’m so excited to hear that.

For the unaware, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m the Co-Creative Director with Harvey Smith [Deus Ex, KarmaStar] on Dishonored, and this is a game about being a supernatural assassin in a Steampunk city. That’s the short summary of it.

You’ve got to confirm something for me. Can you really play through the entire game—from beginning to end—without killing someone?
This is true! It started out mostly as a little private joke amongst the team. I mean, you’re playing an assassin right? So we thought hey let’s support non-lethal play. It’s a paradox and kind of funny if you think about it! We noticed some people were interested in this so we went with it. So yes, it is possible—but it’s hard, really hard. There are also some Achievements for it as well and requires some dedication too but it is possible.

When and how did Viktor Antonov [Art Director, Half-Life 2] get involved with the game?
Well we met Viktor back in the days when we were working with the Source engine for Dark Messiah. He helped us a little bit with the visuals since he worked for Valve and the engine was proprietary to them. We continued working with him, and just got to know him. Then he wanted to go back to France. Fortunately he wanted to do some of the same games we did too, so he worked with us on The Crossing (which unfortunately never did ship) but that’s how it all happened.

It seems to me designing the controls for a game like Dishonored would be incredibly difficult. On one hand you want to make the game accessible to those who are new to the genre and interested in the game.  On the other hand you have the core audience who’ve been playing these types of games for a very long time, and you certainly don’t want them to feel like they’re making unnecessary concessions. How on Earth are you guys approaching this?
Oh that’s a very very smart and insightful question, and it lies at the heart of our challenge really. The game has a lot of depth and it’s very hardcore by nature, but at the same time we don’t want it to be inaccessible. So we’re constantly putting a lot of effort into making sure the mechanics [are playable] for anyone, without losing the depth this type of game needs. You know, depth and accessibility are not enemies. It is possible to make games that have depth and are accessible. What you don’t want is complexity. So there’s a lot of effort on our part to make the right tutorial and expose the right options to the player at all times.

So yes, to answer the question, it’s a very difficult challenge and we don’t believe we’re betraying the hardcore while bringing it to the masses.

"It started as almost a private little joke amongst the team. You’re playing an assassin right? So hey, let’s support non-lethal play! It’s a paradox and kind of funny if you think about it."

Let’s talk about the sound engine in Dishonored. I heard someone mention there’s a dynamic system in place. Can you clarify for us?
Yes there is a dynamic system in place, but there is also a blend of tagged areas with their own ambient sounds too. The dynamic stuff is contextual, and the most obvious example I can give is when you enter combat and the music changes. However we have stuff in there for the AI too. For instance when they’re searching for you, the music will quickly pick up and get more intense.

Also when you’re at a distance and you’ve been detected, we give you a short sort of violin stinger or piano string to give you a little bit of warning. It works really well to build tension too.

Is that particular instrumental sound effect in place to let you know you’re at risk of being detected, or is it there to let you know you’ve already been detected?
Well technically you’ve been detected by the systems either way, but we give the player a few seconds to recover. There’s a threshold, a little bit of a delay there between the perception and the reaction.

Can you elaborate on the 3D Audio Propagation system for us?
Well the first time we heard it was with the first Thief game. As a player I was blown away by it! I had a 4-speaker setup and I was playing in the dark—I think this was back in 1997—and I thought to myself “Wow, every game should do this!” You know what? Even today most games don’t do this, and there’s a reason for it too. It’s requires a lot of work and a lot of tagging by the sound engineer but it adds so much to the feeling of emersion for the player. Just having the ability to locate the [enemies] around you; being able to hear their footsteps behind doors or in other rooms is really awesome. So that’s what we’ve done! The sound travels through the spaces. It’ll get muffled if you’re behind a door, and I think it also helps you become more aware of the environment in general.

Tell us about the “Analog AI” system in Dishonored.
What we mean by analog AI is this: Instead of there being an abrupt switch from one AI behavior to another, we have transitional phases sitting in between the switches. If an AI is not completely sure they can see you then we have this partial failure system in place. What I mean by that is we have this internal gauge—you know, we don’t expose this to the player—that goes “Oh I see a little bit of you! Oh I can see you a little more now!”, then “Oh I can hear you too! Now I’m even more sure you’re over there!” and this gauge continues to rise. This is what we mean by analog as opposed to binary.

In terms of the analog AI system, I’m curious if its behavior affects the cool down of the AI’s search routines. Meaning, will the AI return to their original patrol state and completely forget about you?
Well there is a cool down period. So if the AI has detected you but isn’t completely sure, then they’ll go searching for you. During this investigation the cool down begins, and if they don’t find you then yes they will go out of this investigative mode. However they would remain in a higher alert mode that’s more aware than their original mode.

Now if they’ve seen you for real, have engaged in combat and then lost you, they’ll search for you essentially forever. They will return to patrol and remain in a high alert mode. This means they will no longer be relaxed and will no longer comment on things they see or hear. See when they’re in a relaxed mode they might see a flower and say something about it, but that doesn’t happen in a high alert mode. Also, every time they communicate with another guard they’ll chat about their alert level. Like “Hey, stay on your guard! There’s an assassin somewhere around here!”
So yeah, that’s the way it all works.

From what I gather there are 4 stages of alert for the AI?
Yes essentially it’s: Fully relaxed, suspicious, then they know you’re somewhere in the area, and then high alert (where they’ll never cool down).

I suspect there are some people out there, much like me, who want to be certain we understand the AIs behavior. Let’s say I trigger a guard to the highest alert level and then duck into a sewage pipe. Do I have 30 seconds for him to start patrolling again?
I think it’s about 30 seconds. <Thinks> It’s funny you bring up that number, but yes it’s about 30 seconds.

Oh! Then we have this really fun way you can trick them too. So if you’re running away from someone down a corridor and you manage to slide under a table, you’ll disappear in the eyes of the guard. We have a system in place where he might keep going past you, and you can go up behind him and kill him or run away. It’s pretty fun!

When I played the game I was presented with 3 options when I sneaked  up on someone: Neck snap, choke out, or pickpocket. I’m curious if these particular options are always presented to the player, and do they change later on throughout the game?
Basically if the NPC has something that can be taken then [the] pickpocket option will be present. Otherwise the other two options are always available (choke out and assassinate).

Is the Dark Vision power the only kind of visual modifier available in the game?
There are two levels of that power. The first level visually highlights the AIs and their vision cones and then the next level allows you to see valuable objects in the environment.

Oh so there’s a leveling system in place for every Power?
Each power has two levels. The first is the basic level and then the advanced level lies beyond that. The way to go from one level to the next is to spend Runes.

In Dishonored you gain the power to Possess living things including animals and even the target. It sounds like this could make the protagonist too powerful and possibly curtail the player from creating interesting strategies inherent to being placed within difficult situations. I mean, essentially each level is a gigantic action puzzle right? Are you guys finding it difficult to design around all these powers you’re giving the player?
You know we don’t prevent the player from doing anything really. We just give the player some tools that have their own limitations. If you possess someone—well first off it cost Essence to use the power, so you’re limited there—but you’re limited in time too. If you’re doing something and it feels like an exploit, <shrugs and smiles> better for you!

It seems like there are many different ways you can approach missions in Dishonored. I’m curious how wide or tall the levels can get?
<Thinks> we didn’t have any guidelines for the width, height or size of the levels, however the duration for each mission is kind of consistent. We give the player all these powers and possibilities so they layer on top of each other—it becomes exponentially cool! We’re always finding new strategies too, which is the beauty of having layered systems. I know is going to sound obvious, but the first time we saw someone blink (teleport) and assassinate a character from behind we were like “oh wow!”. We never really thought about that! I mean, you can run, double-jump, rotate around, blink forward and then assassinate some guy—you feel very skillful.

Why go Neo-Victorian Steampunk for Dishonored? Was this a decision you guys made early in development?
Not totally. It’s been a very organic process for us actually. The design started logically. We said “Ok, you play an assassin and you’re going to have some powers—that’s all we knew!” Then we had to think about what historical period we wanted to use, and so we thought “hey it could take place in the future, or it could be the past”.  The year 1666 was an interesting time in London because it could provide for intimate assassination attempts—you know there were mostly knifes, theater and that kind of stuff—but for gameplay reasons we wanted to add gadgetry. So we figured we’d add some kind of alternate timeline revolution—something that didn’t happen for real—so we began to create our own world. Then of course we had the magic layer, and that took the world into something else completely. So a few years into development we were not London 1666 anymore, we were something else. Initially we called it Retro-Future, but then we saw people calling it Steampunk and we were like “well, you know what? Maybe people are right, maybe it is Steampunk.” But it’s not your typical copper and rivet Steampunk, it’s more…our version of Steampunk.

How many different endings are there in Dishonored?
The game has 3.

I imagine they include a good, bad and grey-area sort of endings?
Well without giving too much away, I would say there are various flavors of the endings with some sub-variations.

When I was playing I accidentally shot someone in the leg, and I saw him buckle down as he grabbed his leg, screaming. I’d like to get some clarity on this. Can you specifically target Limbs?
Yes, you can target those limbs. Most of the time if you hit the head there is a damage bonus that is invisible to the player. Hitting the body and the arms is the least effective in terms of damage, and the feet and legs give you an advantage since they’ll fall to the ground. So yes, it will give you an advantage. We support those kinds of things.

Can’t wait for this release Rafael, thanks for taking the time to chat with me!
Thanks you!

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