For a while, it seemed as if Harvey Smith’s destiny was to work on the best video games that most gamers never played. He was the lead tester of 1994’s System Shock and the lead designer of 2000’s Deus Ex, each of which has a claim to being the Velvet Underground of video games: They didn’t sell millions of copies, but it seemed like everyone who played them became a game designer.
But with the release of Dishonored in 2012, Smith became the game developer who brought the “immersive sim” into the mainstream. A loosely related collection of games that blend action, stealth, and role-playing with a strong emphasis on player agency, the immersive sim – including storied cult titles like 1998’s Thief, 1999’s System Shock 2 and Smith’s own Deus Ex – emerged from the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios and its offspring. Smith was a creative director for Dishonored, a surprise hit that asked players to embody the assassin Corvo Attano in a steampunk world that was powered by whale oil and weighed down by treachery.
Smith filled the same role for the November 11th release of Dishonored 2, which picks up 15 years later and lets players return as Corvo or play as the Empress, Emily Kaldwin. Glixel talked to Smith – who works for Arkane in Lyon, France – about how his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Texas influenced him as a game designer, why he makes immersive sims, and why he thinks Dishonored 2 is the best game he’s ever made.
In her book, Embed With Games, Cara Ellison – a former journalist who did some writing for Dishonored 2 – says your video games are “peppered with a particular cynicism of government control (Deus Ex), a deep and personal expression of the rich-poor divide (Dishonored), and an expression of anxiety over violence as a solution to anything.” Is she right?
Probably. It’s a bit of a paradox, because I’m not an anti-government guy. I believe in the social safety net. I believe in the most powerful pitching in to help the most vulnerable. And yet I find myself so often looking at the gears of economics, and the gears of power, and just finding the world is a shitshow.
You were born on the Gulf coast of Texas to a 15-year-old mother who died of a drug problem when you were six. Your father was abusive and killed himself. What did games mean to you during your childhood?
The night of my 11th birthday, I played my first pen-and-paper RPG at a Scout camp. My neighbor got a Pong machine. Another friend of mine got an Atari 2600. We used to play Adventure over and over.
I feel bad even saying this, because I feel like one of a million kids who had the exact same story. But for me, the escapism provided by fantasy, the transport provided by fiction – whether it’s Charlotte’s Web or Lord of the Flies, you’re in another place. You can forget your own problems. Your context goes away.
I guess it’s a weird analogy, but in the way that the split second of orgasm obliterates you, and you’re not even conscious of who you are for a brief period of time, fiction kind of does that same thing on a slower timeline. You can’t care about the fact that your dad pinned you against the wall in the garage, and yelled, because of some shit. You’re just gone. You’re in a different place. That’s as close to magic as we get.
There are many different ways we all ameliorate pain or fear – fear maybe even more. There’s something specific about games, though, that gets to the heart of your question. It’s not just escape. It’s mastery. In a game, if you’re a very vulnerable figure – you can die with one touch, or you have 10 hit points – you can work at it hard enough to actually master the forces that are around you.