A dark game of Clue: the making of Dishonored’s murder mystery level
[Disclosure: Penny Arcade paid for airfare to the show, but Bethesda provided a hotel room for two nights.] Imagine yourself walking through a horrific costume ball, filled with surreal costumes and disturbing decorations. The guests are well-fed, complacent aristocrats in a city filled with a desperate populace. Your job is to find and kill a woman, but she and her two sisters are wearing masks and dresses of red, white, and black, respectively. No one can know of your mission, and you must find out which woman is which, and then find out which of those is your target, and then remove her from the equation. “There's a powerful aristocratic woman funding the military for the tyrant, the Lord Regent, and which Boyle sister that is, is randomized,” Harvey Smith, the co-creative director of Dishonored, said. “The color of dress they can wear, the notes by the bed are changed, overheard conversations are changed, like when you get Miss White a drink, for instance, and those are the elements.” I played through the level twice to see this in action, and the variables gave the party a sense of mystery through each attempt. It felt like a steampunk version of the board game Clue, where the pieces are reset at the beginning of each run through the level. This is a murder mystery, but the challenge is finding who will be the victim, as you're already playing the killer.
The level design gives the player many choices in how to fulfill their task. How do you get in? How do you find out which sister is wearing which color, and then which you must kill? There is more than one way to fulfill every objective, and even side-missions such as a duel that you can tackle if you'd like. The other guests remark on your mask, they discuss the state of city, and an odd-looking man in a wolf mask gives you a disturbing second option for fulfilling your mission, one that would involve less death. On the other hand, it involves giving a woman to someone with ambiguous morals. While there are no orgies going on in the background, the level reminded me of the party in Eyes Wide Shut. “The mission was largely done by Anthony Huso, the novelist who wrote The Last Page, the steampunk novel. He won the Golden Hammer Thief mod mission award. He spent a ton of time on this. Of course, our artists are a big part of this mission, it's beautiful I think,” Smith said. There are ways to finish the level that aren’t quite as elegant as solving the mystery and gracefully ending the life of your target. I was discovered killing a guard during one attempt, and I fled to a bedroom when the alarm was sounded. It was, oddly enough, the bedroom of the Boyle sisters themselves. They ran in as a group, hoping to hide, and found me there. I decided to murder all of them, just to be sure, and teleported down to the street and to safety. No one said the other sisters had to live. The game tracks the level of “Chaos” you create when you kill people in this way, and the higher your Chaos rating, the more entropy is introduced into the world. The plague will spread and you will find more rats; the world will descend further into darkness. If you limit your killings to your targets, or even find ways to fulfill your missions by non-lethal means, you’ll find the opposite happening. Characters you spare may also decide to offer you assistance later in the game by sending you letters and items. The world may not seem better for having the Boyle sisters alive in it, but every death you cause in the game has a consequence.
This was one of the early concepts brainstormed for the game
“We sat down in a room with everybody at the beginning and we said, ‘Guys, let's list all the classical assassination stealth situations that we want to use, that fit into this context. Let's list all the settings that we think would be interesting,’” Smith said. Some of the rejected ideas included a graveyard at midnight, and a sinking, burning ship. “Then Raphael Colantonio and I talked, as co-creative directors, and we winnowed the list down. We looked at what we had left by combining all those things: this interesting setting with this interesting situation,” Smith explained. “On the list I believe we had ‘you must kill a beautiful but corrupt woman,’ entitled ‘aristocrat does terrible things to people,’ and on the list was 'costume ball,' and those two ended up together.” Someone else on the team had suggested a mission with randomized targets, and that concept worked very well in the context of a costume ball. Once the levels were hashed out and agreed upon, they asked the level designers which missions they would like to help create, and Huso jumped at the chance to create this one. Smith walked me through the creation of the mission, explaining the level of collaboration that goes into each setting. Smith and Colantonio created an early sketch of the dialog and provided character motivation and high level ideas for the level before bringing in Austin Grossman, author of the novel Soon I Will be Invincible to write the first pass of the dialog, which Smith later revised. Huso also worked on the dialog while designing the level. “Then the art started coming online. Our art director, Sebastien Mitton and our visual design director, Viktor Antonov are both incredible talents,” Smith said. He listed the elements of the party’s atmosphere, including the masks, the floating balloons, the somewhat surprising pops of confetti that fill the air as you explore… they all work together to create an effective atmosphere of both frivolity and hidden menace. The mansion and the grounds around it are well-realized, and fit into the game's aesthetic. This strong sense of setting isn’t wasted, nor is the emphasis on the dialog and characters you encounter. You begin to hate the people you meet as you move from the darkness and despair of the city streets into this enclave of hedonism. Listen to the bored conversations of the people inside the party; They have everything, while everyone else has nothing, and they lack the good graces to enjoy it. I was tempted to paint the walls with their blood. “All of this stuff is a combination of many people working on this, and putting in their best ideas, and then allowing the process to attack those ideas and iterate on them,” Smith said. “It's kind of a crazy process, actually. When it starts to gel in your alpha, or in your beta… we knew we were onto something here, because we all can't stop playing the game.” The costume ball is often cited as a favorite level by those who have played much of the game.
One target, one kill
After the bloodshed, I tried to play the level through again in a more deliberate way, minimizing the people I killed. The non-lethal option for this mission proved disturbing, so I made up my mind to find my target and solve the problem with violence. I possessed the body of a rat and scurried upstairs, where I skulked around reading documents, listened to the conversations of the guards, and looked for clues. After a few tense moments where I was sure I'd be caught, I found what I was looking for, and I knew which sister was wearing which color dress and mask. More importantly, I knew which one was guilty. I used the information I had learned to draw her away from the party. “You won't believe the other man I'm involved with,” she told me in a conspiratorial tone as we climbed the stairs together. Far away from the other guests at the party, where no one would see, I drew my knife.