Influential designer on how the events of his childhood shaped him as a designer, what he learned from Warren Spector and why he loves 'Far Cry 2'
Influential designer on how the events of his childhood shaped him as a designer, what he learned from Warren Spector and why he loves 'Far Cry 2'
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 11 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 6. 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.
The canon of the game, if I had to choose one, is probably low-chaos Emily. I think it's her story.
You wrote a novel, Big Jack Is Dead, that is about a Silicon Valley executive – he seems to work at Yahoo – who goes back to the Gulf Coast after his dad commits suicide. He fantasizes about performing acts of violence on strangers and his family. I was wondering if you got something similar out of games.
Are the acts of violence cathartic for me? Facing something scary, staying with it, and then mastering it, is more the point for me than the violence.
The most powerful moment in State of Decay for me came after I ignored an early fetch quest. The woman you're working for asks you to go get a watch that she gave her father when she was a kid. It's at the very starting point, the little ranger station that you start at. The way the game's systems work, if you ignore an infestation, it becomes really bad, with really intense zombies. I ignored that quest. It just stayed in my journal forever. I was about to finish the game, and I thought, "You know, I should go get that watch, because I want to see what happens."
I took this woman who had just joined my party recently. She became my commando to go get this. It doesn't sound like much, but it was all the way across the map. So I had to go across highways that were sometimes blocked, in a vehicle that was slowly falling apart. And I got all the way back to the ranger station at the beginning of the game, where the worst infestation was, because I had ignored it for, I don't know, 12 hours. And when you get back, there's a ravine separating that ranger station from the rest of the game. I had to get out of the truck, go down into the ravine – there's a horde down there – cross the ravine, climb up, she's badly wounded at this point, and then I had to go to the parking lot of the ranger station, break in where these horrible zombies were, find a vehicle, try to get away, no weapons at this point. She's staggering. The vehicle I'm in is smoking. At one point I was cheesing, running over the zombies back and forth with a car that was about to explode, just to get rid of some of them.
I finally got her back. And when I took my headphones off, I was breathing heavy. My wife was like, "What is going on?" My mousepad was covered in sweat.
That was my best gaming experience I've had this year. That's a thing that people who analyze games through the lens of traditional fiction will never quite get. They look at it and go, "Ah, the story is about zombies and a guy and a woman – nothing to see here." Man, you are looking at video games through a completely inadequate lens. You don't get, at all, the art behind video games if that's the way you evaluate them.
I'm about two-thirds of the way through my second Dishonored 2 playthrough, a "high chaos" run as Corvo after completing a "low chaos" one as Emily. The first playthrough was so tense that I'm feeling physical relief now that I'm killing all the guards who gave me so much stress.
People ask me constantly, "Should I do low chaos or high chaos first?" The canon of the game, if I had to choose one, is probably low-chaos Emily. I think it's her story. On the other hand, I like some of the voice lines, and the way the characters change more in high chaos. And then there's this thing that I've been struggling with for years, which is it's very tense to play low chaos, especially if you're trying to "ghost" the game and be nonlethal.
You could familiarize yourself with the interface and the systems and the spaces as Corvo, just wrecking shit, and then play through as Emily for your canon, perfectionist game. That's one way to do it. On the other hand, that means your first exposure to the game was just blasting everything.
So honestly, I don't know. There are objects all over the world that have six lines attached to them. The player doesn't know this, but there's like a pickaxe on the ground, and there's three lines for Emily and three for Corvo. If it's low-chaos Emily, she says, "I swear I'm going to make things right for the miners when I get my throne back." In very high chaos, she says something like, "I wish I could drive this through Delilah's skull."
Then there are more emotional ones. Emily comes across a portrait of her mother, later in the game, that's been defaced by Breanna Ashworth's witches. She has some line that in low chaos is like, "These animals, what are they doing?" But in high chaos, she's like, "Some of this is your fault."
So you have all this stuff – different lines, different powers, different ways to travel through the game – but most people are going to see only one iteration of everything. Do you care?
If you look at games, and some people do, as a cost-ratio kind of thing, some developers are like, "I want to put every dollar on the screen." We have the opposite approach. You can make your path through the game, and you have a sense that there was a lot more going on. And therefore the sequence of things that happened to you are yours. They're your experiences. They're very intimate. You didn't have the same experience I did. That's really special to us.
Do you worry that the Chaos system discourages players from experimenting with different ways to play the game in a single playthrough?
We're giving you two different fantasies that are both powerful. One is, "I'm so good they didn't even know I was there." And the other is, "I left that fucking city burning at my back." Neither of those are "the bad ending." They're just different. One is the ultimate cat burglar fantasy. And the other is High Plains Drifter.
On top of that, we do take a bit of a position that, yes, society is more stable after you've run through this whole thing if you didn't slaughter a bunch of people.
A lot of people have said that it seems like a binary morality system on a gray game.
I think that was a good criticism of Dishonored 1. If you killed less than 20 percent of the people in the world, you got an ending where things turned out better. But the new game, I don't think it's true anymore. We dynamically assign morality to all the people in the world as you start a level. So all the guards are either empathetic, guilty or murderous. And they have different point values that contribute to chaos. You can actually use the heart to let it whisper a couple of secrets about their lives and the way they live: OK, he works an extra shift to feed the orphans down the road. This guy's a guard, but he's not black-hearted.
The next one is, he has two families on opposite sides of town and neither one knows about the other. OK, that's pretty shitty, but that's not something to murder someone over. Maybe, I don't know, maybe you think it is.
And the last one is like, He gets the tax credit for taking care of orphans and he buries them all in the basement. OK, that guy has to go. And that's the way our players tend to respond to those things.
Then, on top of that, the endings come in four segments, and each segment has a number of states. In some cases, five or six states. Did you end up with a democratic council? Did you end up with one that was a theocratic ending, where the Overseers are in charge? Did you end up with one where the duke's bodyguard is in charge but he's a puppet of Emily?
For each one of those, there's a high-chaos and a low-chaos version. The theocratic one can be, you know, Vice Overseer Byrne is leading his flock to the best of his ability. The high-chaos version of that is a hard, witch-burning theocracy – the Inquisition.
If you're like me, and what you really like is being alone in a hostile environment with a set of systemic tools and lots of freedom of movement, there's nothing quite like Far Cry 2
Have you seen players do anything that you didn't expect or foresee yet?
Constantly. Emily can drop from very high, cast Doppelganger as she's falling, and then drop assassinate her own clone. Which is quite gruesome, and feels really weird. I had not thought of that before. Tom Francis figured that out. I was watching him play. He made Gunpoint, and he always cites Deus Ex as one of his influences.
One of Dishonored 2's standout missions is "A Crack in the Slab." How did you feel when you learned that Titanfall 2 also had a time-shift level?
I was standing with Vince Zampella, and we were both about to go on the Geoff Keighley show during E3. He was there with several of their guys, and one of them said, "Hey, you know we did a similar mission."
A funny thing happens with developers. You look at your own stuff so much that you lose – the first time you see something, you know how it grabs you by the heart? You lose that. You kind of start thinking over a year or two, "Maybe it's OK." And then you play it for somebody else, or you let them play it, and you get it back for a moment.
A byproduct of that is that you go to E3 and you just come away crushed: "Jeez, I saw so-and-so's game and it was amazing. Our game is OK, but their game is amazing." Everyone on our team said the exact same thing. They said, "We're so disappointed with our game after seeing your game." Over experience, you learn that you need to ignore that little voice.
You've said that Far Cry 2 is your favorite game that you didn't design. Why?
If you're like me, and what you really like is being alone in a hostile environment with a set of systemic tools and lots of freedom of movement, there's nothing quite like Far Cry 2. It's punishing. I always tell people, "You won't like it for four or five hours." Because, in terms of the game's tuning, that's how long it takes to unlock enough diamonds to buy equipment. I think it's utterly brilliant.
Blacksite: Area 51, a 2007 game that you made, was supposed to be a subversive shooter about the Bush administration and the Iraq war. Reviewers didn't like it. You quit the studio, Midway, after it was released, and talked publicly about your frustrations. What did you learn from that experience?
It had a lot of promise. It was, in some sense, just a first-person shooter. But you had this left-trigger mechanism where you could tell your squadmates to go do stuff contextually, like "Blow that car up," "Open that door," "Take cover behind this wall."
And then also they had morale. If you started doing badly, they would start panicking. If you started doing well, they were more competent. It helped you or hurt you. If they were panicking, you had to really push hard to flip them back to, "Hey guys, we're winning; calm down."
But for whatever reason, the company decided to ship it before the team was really ready with it. At alpha, they brought in some closers, some producers whose job was just to ship it. It all went south from there. It was really miserable. I was crunching for a year.
I said some things I shouldn't have. I really deeply regret being so burned out at that point. It taught me a lot. You have to be totally committed to the game and to quality. If you ship with some bugs or whatever, that's OK. But you have to believe in the core of the game. If you see that somebody is going to push it out early, you have to do something about it, whether it's leave or convince them otherwise.
I think with another six or eight months, it would have been a cool game. Even though some of it is Area 51 oriented and a little cheesy, having a political allegory – some guys are getting shot at by alien soldiers that are hybrid human-alien, and the Marines are saying, "Where the fuck did they get these weapons?" The other guy says, "I think they bought them from us." There was a lot going on in the world at the time that made me unhappy. Regardless of your political views, it was an interesting venue for that. I wish it had gone differently.
You joined the military out of high school. Has your experience as a veteran informed your games?
Probably not. I stayed around my hometown for two years after high school, and then I joined the Air Force. I was there for six years, in satellite communications. I went to Saudi Arabia, I went to Germany.
Playing 1992's Ultima Underworld changed your life, you have said, even if the Air Force didn't. What did you mean by that?
It felt expressive. Arcade games are are more about learning systems and moving your hands really fast. They're fantastic. As a kid, I loved Defender and Robotron.
But Underworld was all about being able to explore at your own pace in a moody, dark place. Go very slow, and try to figure out what was going on just by looking at the walls. On top of that, some parts of it were improvisational. You could mix things in ways that maybe weren't expressly intended. I remember solving a puzzle in a way that felt creative. It was the first time I felt creative in a game. That was a love affair.
And what did you learn from working with Warren Spector on Deus Ex?
Too much to put into one conversation. I worked with Warren off and on for nine years, at Origin and then at Ion Storm. He had worked on pen-and-paper RPGs, and before that, he had gone to film school. He grew up in New York. His view was very different than mine, from small-town Texas. The fluency with media, the awareness of media, rubbed off on me.
You know how, if you go to a good school, you slowly accrete information, and then at the end you're educated, I guess? But if you meet that one person, that's like the exciting college professor, and she just blows your mind – maybe it's a camp counselor, or your best friend's older brother or sister. Sometimes information comes really fast, with epiphanies, and it just lights you up. Warren, and working with Looking Glass and Doug Church, was such a pure, fast source of getting to information that I wanted, that excited me.
It's one of the reasons that I think video game people would really benefit from not just straight-on, playing video games. Obviously, you have to play video games to learn best practices and how things feel. But our art director, Sébastien Mitton, is talking about the classics all the time. I've worked at tech companies where people were just like, "Well, I love Blade Runner and Aliens" and a couple other nerd-friendly films. Hey, I love those, too. We all love those. But Sébastien Mitton is that plus a rich body of classic painting. The people he hires are steeped in real-world architectural history and things like that. It really makes a difference.
What happened with the PC version of the game? I haven't played it, but it has a reputation for not performing as well as the console versions.
Last night, we released Version 1.2. It had over 100 fixes in it. There were certain combinations of things that we just didn't expect, despite extensively testing the game – very high-end CPUs with low-end GPUs, and older drivers, things like that. I'm a PC gamer. There is nothing like running on a super high-end PC. But it's also the most varied platform to support. It's way, way more complicated than consoles.
This is not the kind of question I normally ask, but are we going to get to play as Meagan Foster in some narrative DLC?
We have nothing announced like that yet, sir.
I want to be a stealthy, one-armed, black lesbian assassin.
That would be a good title for the thing, too, if we ever did that. Meagan's a popular character, and Rosario Dawson – I don't want to say who is the strongest voice actor in the game, but Rosario Dawson, she probably has more lines than anyone in the game, and it's very heartfelt. This is a spoiler, but the boat that she is also the captain of, the Dreadful Wale, anagrams into "Farewell, Daud."
And by the way, in terms of representation, a number of people have told me, "I'm so happy you have a character who is lesbian or bi" – more accurately, bi, I think, but mostly lesbian. And just a character who is a person of color. It's very meaningful that people can look into games and see characters in leadership positions who are handled well, who are interesting people first and foremost.
This interview has been edited and condensed.