Beyond Dunwall's detailed architecture and snippets of lore spread through its cobbled streets, Dishonored racked up acclaim for its steep non-linearity and free-form areas for players to fashion their own means of completing objectives using as much subtlety as desired. During a panel at GDC yesterday (via Polygon ), Arkane co-Creative Directors Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith embraced this concept of player agency in games, saying, "It's all about guiding and attracting, as opposed to dictating the player's path."
"If you're making games that involve just doing the one thing that is the only thing that you can do to move forward, and then doing the next thing that is the only thing you can do to move forward, it really doesn't feel as creative or as rich or as interesting to us," Smith said. "So, giving the player the ability to look around and make choices in many different ways on many different axes at any given time is a big deal."
Dishonored's various components such as traps and enemies "listened" to the player's interactions with the world and reacted accordingly. Snatches of overheard conversation or tattered journal pages make up part of a "pull-based" narrative system to keep the player exploring and encountering new discoveries by themselves.
One example Arkane used was Corvo's ability to summon a swarm of rats—instead of popping a bunch of rodents out of thin air, the ability hinged on the existing presence of rats during a mission. The amount of rats plaguing the city, in turn, is determined by how many corpses Corvo leaves in his wake on a lethal playthrough.
"The benefit of this is that this is not the designer saying, 'Hey, turn the page and read my little story and follow my path. This is us abdicating that and giving it to the player, saying, 'Player, you tell us where you went, you tell your own version of the experience.'"
Though I loved Dishonored's limited approach to player direction, I think it's important to keep in mind that, as linearity generally continues to be a bad word, a full-on open-world design doesn't suit every game. Arkane's own efforts struck a balance between a hands-off style and dropping direct reminders of the multiple choices available to you, and that's probably the best compromise for ensuring players will find their own experiences in their in-game journeys.