Dishonored Co-Director: It's OK for Games to Be Mean to Players

Sometimes I think a golden age of DLC was kicked off by The Ballad of Gay Tony for Grand Theft Auto IV. Minerva’s Den for BioShock 2, Freedom Cry for Assassin’s Creed IV, Left Behind for The Last of Us, and maybe even Burial at Sea for BioShock Infinite were all expansions that matched, or even exceeded in some ways, the accomplishments of their source material.

I’m sure there are great ones that I haven’t played—like The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, the narrative DLC for Dishonored, which Harvey Smith, the game’s co-director and co-writer, says are, in combination, “arguably better” than the core game.


Dishonored: Definitive Edition, a remastering of the 2012 stealth-action game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, was released this week. So I called Smith and talked to him for my podcast, Shall We Play a Game? Smith’s gameography is borderline ridiculous: In addition to his work on Dishonored, he was the quality-assurance lead for System Shock and the lead designer of Deus Ex.

In The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches (both included on the Definitive Edition), you play as Daud, the main villain in Dishonored. Players seemed to understand his motives better than they understood those of Corvo, the protagonist of the original game, Smith said. He thinks that’s because they let Daud speak. “That was our first experimentation with actually giving the player-character monologue lines that explain why he’s feeling a certain way or what his motives are.”

They’re going to keep that in Dishonored 2, which is scheduled for release in 2016. “Whether you choose to play Emily Kaldwin or Corvo Attano—it’s 15 years after the events of the first game, 15 years after the rat plague has been cured, and Emily is empress, and Corvo is aging and still the protective father—we carried it over so that you have a voice,” Smith said. “You hear Emily. She has one line, or she has monologues before the mission, she has lines in the dialogue. Same with Corvo.”

You can listen to the podcast here. The interview begins at about the 24:00 mark, after my co-host, JJ Sutherland, and I finish arguing about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.


Smith’s novel, Big Jack Is Dead, was named one of the best indie books of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews. I asked him if he learned anything about making video games by writing it. Readers of early drafts thought the novel was too bleak, he said, which reminded him of playtesting in video games. Spoilers for Dishonored follow.

“There are moments when, like I said with Deus Ex, people really pushed me to put a big fight in Chateau DuClare, when you’re leading Nicolette DuClare around and she’s commenting on the rooms of the house,” he said. “And I fought and fought and fought not to do that. And a large percentage of players said, Oh that’s boring. But at least some players said, Wow, this was super pivotal for me; a game had never been like this before.


“And similarly with Dishonored, Raph”—that’s Raphael Colantonio, his co-creative director and the founder of Arkane Studios—“and I made the decision, near the end of the project, if you played very, very darkly—you not only killed to get to your goal, but you also went out of your way to kill the maids and everybody else, then at the very end of the game, Samuel Beechworth, the old man who’s been driving your boat around, he basically says, ‘I despise you for what you’ve become.’ And he pulls a flare gun out, and he fires it, and he says, ‘That’s why I’m warning them that you’re coming.’ He betrays you. And we got so much pressure to cut that from the game.

“Because people are not used to video game characters being mean to them, or telling them you’re not a hero, you’re a bad guy. Everybody just wants to be told in a video game that you’re great, no matter what you do. If you slaughter everybody—you killed the maids, you killed the old people, you killed the beggars—you’re great, here’s a medal, you’re a hero.


“We decided that sounds psychotic. It doesn’t match our values, it doesn’t match the way the world works, it doesn’t match the way any other fiction—imagine a novel where a guy wakes up in the morning, kills everybody in the house, goes down the street, kills everybody on the way to work, kills everybody in the office, and then at the very end of the novel, there is a scene where he is given a medal and made some sort of hero and anointed in some way. It doesn’t make any sense. What we wanted was to let you express yourself in the game, but to have the world react to that, at least in some way. Samuel Beechworth, betraying you and firing off that flare, was something we had to fight for.”


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Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.

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