[one_third]Become a masked, supernatural assassin in this exclusive exploration of the stealth approach in Arkane Studios’ immersive sim, Dishonored.[/one_third]
[vimeo width=”640″ height=”360″ video_id=”41414175″]
The first thing I said to Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio, Co-creative Directors at Arkane, after seeing a double run-through of a level in Dishonored, was, “The stealth looks really good.”
Coming from the Editor of Sneaky Bastards, I hoped the compliment would carry some weight.
“My god,” Smith replies, “you have no idea how important that is to us.”
I was absolutely sincere. With its unbreaking first-person perspective, light and shadow system, intriguing AI innovations, suite of supernatural powers and overpowering ambience, what I saw of Dishonored evoked the very title that was the genesis of the stealth genre and Sneaky Bastards itself: Thief.
But this was Thief on speed.
“That was the original intention,” says Colantonio.
“We actually met with Doug Church early on,” adds Smith. “He’s a friend of ours. We brought him by the studio and we talked a lot with him about stealth systems before we really got rolling. One of the things Doug said, which was exactly what we were thinking already, was, ‘If I had a way to make Thief fast… I might do that. Like, you’re less-seen if you sprint.’ That kind of thing.”
If I had a way to make Thief fast… I might do that.
In making stealth fast, Dishonored already looks like it succeeds. And it does so without making stealth dumb.
Such speed is gained through two powers. The first, Blink, is a short-range teleport. With a deliberate verticality to the level design, this means blinking down from the rafters, knocking out a guard, hoisting his body over your shoulders, and blinking back to the rafters (with the body!) is something that takes mere seconds. A mana reserve limits supernatural activity, and rapidly Blinking in succession drains it fast, but other powers always leave enough mana for a single Blink, so it’s also one of the player’s primary escape tools. This is seen in action at the end of the CG trailer, above.
The second power is a vision mode – pictured here – that displays enemy vision cones in 3D space, whilst also visualising enemies close to you through walls. This consumes a tiny amount of mana, and can be selected very early on in the game. It demonstrates a facet of what Splinter Cell 6’s Game Director, Patrick Redding, meant when he told us the way forward for the genre was to move away from stealth played “in the UI”. A common criticism of Metal Gear Solid is that it can be played entirely in the Soliton radar; here, that information and the game world are one and the same.
But is a powerful “stealth mode” ability like this vision mode too much? Not if you take into account the way in which Dishonored’s light and shadow system works.
“You’re never really hidden in absolute,” explains Colantonio. “You’re hidden related to character.”
Dishonored’s shadows are never dark enough that the player completely disappears into them. Garrett could have a guard walk inches past his nose if it was pitch black; the same cannot happen here. Compounding the danger is the lack of an on-screen element that communicates how hidden you currently are. That’s right; there’s no light gem.
“It’s been a lot of back and forth – a billion iterations – because we’re big Thief players,” Colantonio continues. “Initially, we were just like, okay, how about a gem? And a set of players got it, because they were into Thief, but some other players were not, and they didn’t understand.
[one_third][message_box title=”Read All About It”]Like Thief, Dishonored’s sandbox missions contain a wealth of reading material that fills out the world, characters, and points to optional objectives. Each mission begins with a briefing delivered from a safe hub area, and loot found during missions can be brought back to craftsmen in exchange for consumables and upgrades. [/message_box][/one_third]”We’re big, big fans of Thief. But in Thief, at some point you had to accept that hey, you know what, I’m invisible in the shadow even if it’s a little weird for the characters not to see me. And we tried doing playtests and felt that a lot of people were actually not sharing that. They were like, that’s kind of weird, they’re coming close to you and the NPC doesn’t see me – how come I’m invisible? Is the NPC stupid?”
If that NPC happened to be Benny, then… yes.
“So then we went back to the whiteboard and asked, how can we fix that? And we thought of this interesting way where like, the further away you are, the more light matters. And so it kind of addresses that paradox that exists in Thief.”
“Our programmers have been super patient in dealing with us,” adds Smith. “Our style is very iterative – let’s get in, look at it, play with it, nah let’s scrap that and do a different thing – so where we’ve ended up is with guards that have a cone they see very clearly in, and they have a peripheral cone. It’s squashed at the front, so they don’t really pay attention to rafters and things like that. As Raf said, at a distance, shadow is important. If you’re in shadow at a distance, you’re hidden. Up close, it’s more realistic – if you’re hiding right in front of me, I can see you. But if you’re on a pillar, they can’t see you.
“Basically, I think you could go one of two ways. You can either go abstract, where there are like, dark squares on the floor and stand in the dark square and no one can see you! Or you can go more realistic, which is like, the guy is walking around, he’s on a patrol route and he stops to warm his hands in front of the fire, and you dart behind him during that moment. And if you’re walking far enough away from them, they won’t hear you. Or you cross overhead on the rafters.”
Dishonored’s mobility options, like the Blink power, along with climbing, sliding and leaning around corners, afford ample opportunity to exploit this new kind of AI awareness. The overriding theme here seems to be a logical allowance of stealthy manoeuvring when acting with expected caution – remaining far away, sticking to the rafters, and avoiding NPCs as much as possible. Up close – in more game-like stealth positions defined by the absolute shadows of a Thief or Splinter Cell title – stealth is racked with ambiguity.
Against typical stealth AI, this would be frustrating. But Dishonored goes to great lengths to create new layers of analogue AI to play cat and mouse with. The most significant change is in the way enemies detect you. It’s not an instant realisation – “Whooah! Caught you now, Taffer!” – but a gradual confirmation that a disturbance is not just the light playing tricks on their eyes, and is actually an intruder.
This is communicated through ‘awareness lines’ that appear over every enemy’s head that thinks they’ve caught sight of you. These gradually fill up the longer you remain in their line of sight – simulating their focusing on the disturbance, while providing sufficient fallback for the ambiguity of close-quarters stealth. In essence, the enemies become your light gem. There’s a fantastic tension that comes from getting cocky and moving through the crowd, but not knowing whether you’re truly hidden until a guard begins looking vaguely in your direction. It’s risk/reward like nothing else. And with every daring movement, you always need to keep an immediate escape route in mind, as the time it takes for the guards’ awareness lines to fill, and for them to cry out and raise the alarm, is just enough for an emergency Blink up to the safety of the rafters.
These awareness lines – along with much of the HUD’s additional elements, like objective markers and even the frob highlight – can be toggled off. Smith believes that the AI’s reactions communicate their states well enough that the most careful stealth players can still pursue their path without additional information.
“It’s the level of hardcore-ness,” adds Colantonio. “For some people, they’ll feel like, ‘You know, I don’t need those indicators.’ Because this is just one support of a system that already exists. It’s more to make it even clearer for the people that maybe don’t want to spend so much time, or like very clear information. But some people like ambiguity more than others.”
[one_third][message_box title=”Ghostly Visage”]Ghosting levels is a big part of Dishonored’s expert-level stealth gameplay. Though each mission is an assassination, it’s possible to make your targets ‘disappear’ without killing them. The example Smith and Colantonio gave was having one target captured and sent as a slave to one of his own mines for the rest of his life. These are difficult to accomplish, and require a thorough exploration of the level and eavesdropping on conversations. Take the time, however, and it’s possible to complete Dishonored without taking a single life.[/message_box][/one_third]Equally important to Dishonored’s stealth gameplay is sound. The game featured a full sound propagation system – noises get muffled by doors, for example – the likes of which we last saw in Thief. The ambience is familiar too; it’s the sound of a constant, discomforting breeze that we once described as “neither completely artificial nor entirely natural”. Most of all, sound is as much your enemy as light.
“If guards only think they heard you, they come and investigate,” says Smith. “If they think they saw you, they come and investigate and comment – ‘What was that?’. But if they don’t actually confirm that you were there – they don’t, for instance, find you or find a body – then they put away their weapons and say ‘Ah, it was nothing,’ and go back to their patrols. And they don’t just religiously follow their patrols. They’re sometimes pulled off by a painting in the environment, or a fireplace, or a rat that they want to stomp – these little dynamic things – and then they go back to the patrol. So that factors into the situation as well. However, if they ever actually engage you – they for sure know you’re there, and fight you, or find a body you’ve left behind – they never fully cool down. They will conclude that maybe you left – ‘Ah, he got away! Let’s keep an eye out!’ – but they will stay at a minimal level of alert after that. They’re not going to conclude it was nothing.”
Not only is there a slight randomisation to guard positions each time a level is played, but their patrol routes are not set in absolute. A guard may follow a set path, but randomly get distracted by looking at a painting, or choosing to spend a few moments warming his hands by the fireplace. These moments provide players with the opportunity to slip through unnoticed, and must be watched out for and exploited whenever possible.
“The guards notice when a patrol route has been vacated,” Smith adds. “Sometimes they change routes to make up for it.”
The result is a stealth game where levels can never be truly ‘learned’, and goes a fair way to addressing the issue of patrol routes amounting to elaborate timing puzzles. And with that constant uncertainty should come an ever-present tension.
I cannot tell you enough how riveting seeing Dishonored’s stealth gameplay in action was. There are some intelligent advances here that look set to bring the entire stealth genre forward. That I was getting such a prominent Thief vibe from what is only one possible style of play shows how much consideration and love Arkane is putting into Dishonored’s stealth approach.
I told Smith and Colantonio that the stealth looks really good. But I think I undersold the impression I was left with. Dishonored looks set to be the most absorbing stealth game in years.