A few months ago, this trailer for Dishonored sparked excitement in the gaming world, gradually growing into unbridled enthusiasm for what promised to be a truly epic dystopian adventure. With an aesthetic drawing from Victorian-leaning steampunk styles, its architecture and immersive elements have made Dishonored one of the most anticipated titles of 2012. Set in the fictional city of Dunwall, the player embodies Corvo Attono, a man wrongfully accused of killing the city’s empress, now seeking revenge upon those who conspired against him. Insanity!
We met with Sébastien Mitton (art director at Arkane Studios) and Viktor Antonov (video game art director known for designing Half Life 2’s City 17) to find out more about the genesis of Dishonored and how it came to be the mind-bending spectacle that it is.
The Creators Project: How long have you been working on Dishonored? How did this project come to life?
Viktor Antonov: We’ve been working on it for three years, since 2009. The project came to life in quite a dramatic way. I was an independent author at the time, and Arkane was an indie studio with great potential to sign a big contract with Bethesda. For legal reasons, their initial project was aborted. We were given three weeks to come up with a sufficiently interesting suggestion. But I was extremely enthusiastic because it’s such a rare opportunity to start from scratch and design something to fit a colossal budget.
At this stage, there was no preliminary draft, just a budget?
Sébastien Mitton: No, there were only intentions for gameplay. Bethesda knew that we had an expertise in first person shooters, and they knew we were looking to achieve dense and visceral games. At that time, Dishonored was supposed to take place in Japan during medieval times, but we told them it was hardly conceivable—as Europeans, we can easily fall into cheap stereotypes. After several discussions, we told them that we wanted the game to be based in London, which was our starting point.
Antonov: This choice came to us in quite an organic way, because we wanted to create a huge metropolis with style and personality. We created something that can’t be identified as the past or the future, but as a parallel dimension, even if it’s inspired by 19th century London. In this time, there is incredible technology as well as sublime machines and architectural styles. As a science fiction designer and a city architect, I wanted to create a whole new universe and to free myself from this inspiration in order to write pure fiction. That was the most important thing to me.
Antonov’s first sketches of the city of Dunwall.
How exactly do you proceed? Did you conceive of the universe before setting up the story?
Antonov: A video game doesn’t really have a linear story, as opposed to a movie. What’s important in a video game is the backstory, what happened before the game, so that the created universe has real depth. Our game has dialogues, a plot, and a simplistic story because it’s the gamer who will influence what transpires. Creation goes through design, drawings, and the conception of things that will be visible in the game.
How did you finally settle on the 19th century? If I recall correctly, you were previously thinking of the 17th century.
Mitton: When I did my research on London, I studied articles dealing with the first plague, around 1300. But this seemed way too far back, and I’m a bit allergic to everything related to medieval fantasy. Then I stumbled upon the Great Fire that devasted London in 1666—but the costumes of that time were absolutely ridiculous. We designed costumes echoing England’s maritime fleet. I was more interested in the beginning of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Renaissance, which is reflected in the game’s architecture.
During your preparatory research, you both went to London and Edinburgh. How did that go?
Mitton: We visited many libraries, museums, and bookshops where we discovered many talented illustrators. London is a city that was destroyed during World War II, and it’s still a bit chaotic because you can see glass buildings from the Reconstruction which attached themselves to already-existing old structures. A few weeks later, I discovered YouTube videos from the bicyclist Danny MacAskill in Edinburgh, which encouraged me to study this town more closely. We went there and it enabled us to work with lights in order to use it to create a tense atmosphere. In Scotland, you need the lights on even during the middle of the day, and it’s pretty incredible to see. It was a great vector for our universe.
Antonov: In my mind, real cities are like true characters because each has a story and a strong atmosphere, which is why every great fiction is based on reality. We wanted to study the rhythms existing on London streets, its architecture, as well as the general mood which is specific and interesting, something we wanted to preserve.
Mitton: At first, our city had no name, and “Dunwall” emerged as the best option because it’s surrounded by barriers designed to protect the neighborhoods from the plague.
Pictures of London towers taken by the artists during their preliminary researches..
Speaking of which, it looks like you’ve put quite an emphasis on the presence of rats in the game.
Antonov: The rat has a great role in European mythology and fairytales. It’s considered an enemy, a symbol of corruption in Western societies. It’s almost biblical when you have scourges falling over the city because it’s corrupted. The gamer himself embodies a kind of avenging angel.
To what extent do the player’s actions influence the course of the game? You’re giving them the choice to finish it without killing anyone—is this mechanic only designed to bring a moral dimension to it?
Mitton: At Arkane studios, people in charge of game design share pretty much the same philosophy—they don’t like to impose barriers on the player. One of our level designers thinks it would be completely unacceptable to show a field that the player couldn’t reach. If you proceed that way, you curb the players and it stops the immersion. In that case, we’d rather pass on that field. We have to take the importance of freedom into consideration. The player is not a spectator but an actor.
Antonov: The game is not completely open and it can easily vary according to the tastes of the players. I think everyone should go at his own pace rather than following a set rhythm. Indeed, a moral dimension is shown in the game. When you act violently, the world in which you’re evolving changes and becomes a little more hostile, thus causing a different destiny. If the game is played without violence, enemies behave differently. The following moral can be drawn: there are consequences to our actions. But it’s really flexible. You can change your way of playing in the middle of the game. These two approaches balance each other out. If we did something completely free, the narrator would have disappeared and it wouldn’t be interesting. We still have to tell a story.
In the English version, your voice casting involves renowned actors such as Carrie Fisher, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Michael Madsen. Why did you choose not to give a voice to Corvo, the protagonist of the game?
Mitton: The question was raised several times during the development of the game. We even wondered if we should saddle him with an asthmatic Darth Vader voice because of his mask. But the voice is a narration parameter which can slow down the action.
Antonov: If you pay attention to the characters of the game, you notice that they are generally quite stylized and simplified, because we wanted the player to identify with Corvo. Our endeavor was to give free reign to the players’ imaginations, and that requires a limited amount of information for them to project themselves.
You said that your characters were extremely stylized, but there’s a will on your part to stay realistic—you even requested help from an anatomy expert.
Antonov: In my opinion, photorealism in art is not interesting. Each designer, painter, filmmaker, or photographer can start a work based on one person and achieve completely different results. Life is full of useless and uninteresting aspects—art can distill all this to keep only the sublime. We wanted slightly exaggerated characters, unusual costumes like the ones you can see in book illustrations of pirate adventures. When painters tried to stick to reality, some of them managed to do still-life pieces which were boring and completely useless. Photorealism is a false quest, and once you achieve it, it doesn’t tell you anything. I even try to make my games as abstract and stylized as I can to mobilize media like special effects and lights to convey things I can’t do in everyday life.
What are your thoughts on video games trying to earn a legitimate place in the field of fine arts?
Antonov: It’s totally happening. Each new form of art meets resistance when it emerges. The best way to observe that is to look at which media people use to consume stories, the means they’re seeking to escape from reality. Before it was books, comics, television, cinema, and now there are video games. When people want to expel all their thoughts, they use games as a way out. I believe it’s the demand of the public that determines what art is. You can tell beautiful stories with a video game as well as you can with many other mediums.
Your inspirational models for Dishonored are very traditional, with the works of authors like H.P Lovecraft and numerous painters, as opposed to some developers who draw their inspiration from movies or other video games.
Mitton: I went to art school [Emile Cohl in Lyon, France], like most of the people working in video games and media. My school was pretty academic—we could spend eight hours drawing with charcoal, studying perspectives, modeling, and sculpting because it’s the only way you can learn to draw and sharpen your eye. When I started working on video games in 1999, I found out that every rule learned by developers in school no longer applied, as if the software took over everything. There is a loss of quality because of it, because all the rules are disrupted. The art is found to be “on demand.” Everything is well thought out before the artists can even touch the project. I don’t get inspired by other video games. I can play them and find them entertaining and cool, but I don’t find any inspiration in them. Some people have said that our game is similar to Bioshock 2, but the explanation isn’t rocket science: I’ve worked on it. We might get inspired by technical details, but not from visual direction. I only ask myself how they managed to get there, and that’s pretty much it.
Antonov: There’s a lot of recycling in video games because developers are often inspired by movies from the 1980s, when the gaming industry started growing. Investors are often afraid of doing something completely new, and they’d rather copy what has been successful. But by dint of copying, we end up with flat and uninteresting works. In order to avoid this, we go straight to the source. Engineers can’t depict a living city better than a painter or a writer, and that’s why we’re moving towards them. I love old traditional tales like Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Many teenagers playing video games no longer have true connections to European stories. Now they discover them through Walt Disney or Tolkien. When I want to use modern tools, I tell traditional stories to add a bit of mystery and magic, while being inspired by famous American illustrators from the 1940s. Everyone knows Norman Rockwell and his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, but I mostly study the works of his teachers, Dean Cornwell and J. C. Leyendecker, who were real painters doing less realistic illustrations. They did covers for adventure novels in the 1940s, the golden age of illustration when book covers were hand-drawn, before our shift to photomontage.
When I hear about Rockwell, I instantly think of this very popular suggestive self-portrait, which is completely in line with your will to free yourself from total mimicry.
Atonov: Exactly. I think I share similar desires with painters, which is close to the works I did before. I did car design, but to practice it, I had to learn painting, drawing, and traditional sculpture. I was raised in a family of artists and this is my way of expressing myself.
How do you feel now that the game is out ?
Mitton: We’re super excited. We’ve gotten very positive feedback. About a year ago, I told Viktor how good I felt about this game. I knew we had something. We can’t wait for people to play it. That’s what I’m most eager to see.
Antonov: We don’t have enough perspective to analyze the game. We’re just hoping it will appeal to the player and that a part of our message, our ideas, and our desires will pass on through it.
Ideally, what would you like players to take away from it?
Antonov: Subjectively, I would like the players to end the game with memories of Dunwall as if they had visited a real city that they found very exciting and intense. I want it to leave them with memories of lights, noises, fear, and beauty they could never have in real life, anywhere in the world.
Dishonored is now out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.