How French History Influenced ‘Dishonored 2’

The designers of Dishonored 2 tell us how the created one of the most interesting worlds in video games.

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Sep 5 2016, 11:00am

Image: Arkane Lyon.

Dishonored was published by Bethesda in 2012, but its world is old. Really old. One of the things I loved most about Dishonored was exploring its city, the industrial metropolis of Dunwall. An alt-history capital in the midst of an industrial revolution, Dunwall was a collision of science, fantasy, and steampunk creativity. Oil-whale lamps lit the paths for players, as they skulked across the city, finding and assassinating corrupt politicians and industrialists. Having a dense landscape of apartments and mansion windows gave players a reason to explore—and plenty of clever ways to sneak up on targets.

When Dishonored 2 arrives in November, players will get our first chance to go back to Dunwall and explore a new place and time. The new in-game city is named Karnaca, but in many ways, all of Dishonored takes place France.

Arkane Lyon, the studio that developed Dishonored, sits in the southeast of France, closer to the borders with Italy and Switzerland than to Paris. That part of the world has been inhabited by humans—the same hills, the same rivers, the same valleys—for seven thousands years. The history surrounds the city, and that's what Arkane Lyon is going for when they created the fictional world for Dishonored.

Image: Arkane Lyon.

Just to start planning, game designer Harvey Smith and lead narrative designer Sachka Duval wrote a timeline for the world that went back 4,000 years. "Of course, the game can't hold 4,000 years all in it, but it gives you a sense that you're looking at an iceberg," Smith said. That's the sense Smith, who is American, gets from living in France. History is everywhere in a way that Americans sometimes fail to understand.

"American cities are so different, and American culture is so different," Smith said. "You don't see it at first. On the surface, a city is a city, and there are common touches. That's why it's deceptive. When you build an American city, you build in wood because that's what you have. Then things grew so fast over 200 years—we went from the wagon to the space shuttle. It makes more sense to tear a building down than build something new. Hell, tear them all down and widen the street. That's the way we built everything."

But the French build in stone. "I live in an apartment in downtown Lyon that has been around for 300 years," Smith says. "That means that the width of the street is the width of the street. Period. One guy will pull his truck up, stop to make a delivery, and everyone honks at him. It drives me nuts because it's so inefficient, but what would you do? Tear down a 500 year old building?"

Thinking about the width of fictional streets and the practicalities of everyday life makes Arkane's world feel authentic and functional. Arkane extends this idea down to the personal level. For individual characters in the game, the team asks: How does this guard go on break? Where does this person go to the bathroom? An old building may have inconvenient bathrooms, but the toilet has to be somewhere. In addition to 3D modelers and painters, the Arkane team is filled out by industrial designers and architects.

Image: Arkane Lyon.

Living on a series of islands crowded with stone buildings, there's no open land to build brand new structures. Instead, the characters in Dishonored repurpose old places. They do what they can with the space they have, and they leave a mark on the building as the centuries go by.

Smith is drawing from experience. He lived in a 300-year-old building in Lyon that was a single solid structure subdivided by apartments. The only way from one end of the building to the other was usually to go outside, walk down the block, and enter from the other side.

"It used to kill the silk workers to have to carry stuff down, so they cut crazy paths inside the buildings," Smith said. "You can enter this passage, go into a weird courtyard, and then there will be stairs that swing up and out the other side of the building."

These passages are called traboule, and Lyon is famous for them. They became legendary in the second World War, when the French resistance used them to move around. Though some still serve as entrances to apartment buildings, many traboules are now open to the public and full of tourists.

Other video games don't have worlds this detailed, but the French designers couldn't create any other way. "It's part of our culture—I'm from Lyon—it's not on purpose. It's because you live there and see these specificities everyday," Arkane Lyon's art director, Sebastien Mitton, said. Smith describes Mitton as "not a guy who goes and watches the movie Aliens and then sits down to make a game." Instead, Mitton studies classical painters.

Image: Arkane Lyon.

"You cannot build a city if you don't think about the past of that city," Mitton says. "For Karnaca, we started two centuries before the action takes place. Waves of settlers shaped the city... That's why you see different types of architecture… If you come to Lyon you'll see different districts, each with their own past."

It took about a year to build the beginnings of this history, but the process never stops. After the basic outline was created, the team no longer gets ideas from outside the world—now they get ideas from inside the game. When considering how a space should look, they look around at the fiction. If there are a lot of forests nearby, then the new space will be decorated and built with wood. A silver mine in town means more silver jewelry and silver trimmed-furniture.

A lot of this detail gets lost. Smith estimates that a player going through Dishonored 2 will see a quarter of the world they built, and that's OK with him—though "it drives the financially-oriented people in our organization nuts."

Mitton would also rather over-engineer Dishonored's fiction for the few players who appreciate it."

The philosophy of Arkane is 'say yes to the player,'" Mitton said. "Some players will run right in and do what needs to be done, but some players want to explore, to play more of the RPG side of the game, the story, the lore. We imagine a player that is not even playing, just walking or sightseeing. At some point, you can visit an apartment, you see things. If that apartment is empty, that's bad. Some players will see it, and that means it's a win."