Games like Dishonored 2 aren't going anywhere, says Harvey Smith

Death of the Outsider, the upcoming standalone expansion for Dishonored 2, put me back on the sunny streets of Karnaca with a knife in my hand and a mission. Daud, the bad guy behind the assassination way back at the beginning of Dishonored, is getting old, so he hands off his to-do list to his protege, Billie Lurk. Her mission: kill the god-like being, the Outsider.

I got to play about an hour of Death of the Outsider’s early missions at Quakecon this year, and frankly I’m in awe of Arkane’s ability to keep reinventing their worlds. Despite somewhat lackluster sales, the quality of the Dishonored series is not flagging. 

Getting to return to the stone parapets of Karnaca is fun on its own, but it’s Billie’s special powers that make the adventure feel like an entirely new challenge. For example, I spent a lot of time experimenting with Semblance. Semblance lets Billie knock out a character and steal their face, wearing their appearance like a disguise straight out of Hitman, another assassin fantasy. After bluffing my way into a gang’s social club, I managed to mug a gang member, steal her face, and use my magical disguise to stroll past guards protecting a private wing.

The expansion is beautiful and inventive, but I’m afraid that might not be enough.

I can also teleport short distances using Displace—like Corvo’s Blink—but instead of pointing and teleporting, Displace jumps me to markers I can set moments or minutes before I need them. I got a lot of joy out of setting my teleportation marker in front of a heavily guarded door, then walking out into the open and giving the guards a little wave. When they rushed to arrest me, I teleported to my marker in front of the now unguarded door.

Both of these powers are great examples of how Arkane builds systems, then invites players to exploit or break those systems. These kinds of games (dubbed immersive sims by one of the creators of Deus Ex, the granddaddy of the genre) are some of the most intricate worlds in gaming right now, but as a group they’re also having a hard time. After the runaway success of Dishonored in 2012, Dishonored 2 limped through slow sales—a real shame, since we loved it enough to call it Game of the Year 2016. With Death of the Outsider, I feel a familiar worry. The expansion is beautiful and inventive, but I’m afraid that might not be enough.

The immersive sim genre has waned before, and weak sales for games like Prey, Dishonored 2, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has us worried that they might be about to disappear again. Dishonored game director Harvey Smith tells me that he’s noticed the dip in sales, but thinks that there will always be enough of an audience to keep immersive sims in development.  

"And there's always the talent and the resources to make [immersive sims]," says Smith. "The question is, does one particular budget support the audience? What that means is, even if immersive sims speed up or slow down in terms of production, there's always the indie version of immersive sims like—this year you have Tacoma and next year you'll have something else. I think the demand will drive things."

Plus, there's a lot more to be done with the genre. Though he says he's "not the biggest fan" of the author, Smith muses about David Foster Wallace's idea that fiction's purpose is "to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it," and wonders what the purpose of games like Dishonored is. "Why do I like breaking and entering in games?" he asks. "Why do I like having the power of death? Why do I like being in a shitty situation?"

"The number of subjects that would be cool to tackle with games like this are endless," continues Smith. "First-person, very coherent world where you're looking for resources and combining things and inferring from environmental storytelling and you're free to do any one of several things. You can just imagine all the different settings and problems that could be approached that way. There are a hundred I'd love to see that don't have anything to do with space stations or cities during plagues or assassins or whatever."

I've had people say to me, if you're not making a free-to-play game, you won't have a job in five years—and that was ten years ago.

Harvey Smith

As much potential as there is for the genre, Smith acknowledges that it’s frustrating when a game wins awards but the sales don't match that critical enthusiasm. He thinks it's partially down to the world we live in. In a great world, one with "endless food and power" where "your clothes are 3D printed," he imagines people would be more attracted to violent, simulated struggles, games that help us "feel human." As it is, though, what's popular in our turbulent world is not necessarily what's challenging from his perspective.

“What's that fucking show that everyone loves? Big Bang Theory, yeah,” Smith says. “I have this terrible reaction to seeing a clip of that show—I'm just angry. It doesn't work, it isn't funny, why is it so universally loved? It's upsetting because it might mean that what people really need at the end of the day is to eat in front of the TV, chill out … and just have something told to them that is soothing.”

If that’s true, we might be in for a long drought of immersive sims. But Smith believes that trying to predict the future of these things is a fool’s game, anyway. “One of the funny things about games is, if you stay around long enough, you hear everything,” he says. “I've had people say to me, if you're not making a free-to-play game, you won't have a job in five years—and that was ten years ago ... People who predict the future, man, I don't know. The roads of history are paved with the bones of prophets.”

Death of the Outsider releases September 15. We'll see if it paves over any prophets as it rolls out.