Arkane Studios’ back catalog shows a team constantly growing, changing, and learning from their past – something that’s never been clearer than in their most recent game, Deathloop. The studio’s latest feels both unique and distinct – and yet clearly carries that Arkane DNA, which has been refined with each successive release. It’s a philosophy encapsulated by the game’s time loop, in which protagonist Colt Vahn relives the same day over and over again as he searches for a way to break free from it – an idea that was, among other things, designed to encourage something hardcore Arkane fans had done before – replay the game over and over again.
While Dishonored had kindly suggested repeating games with its kill/non-lethal runs, many players still called it a day at the end of their first game. Deathloop needed a more direct approach, its developers tell us.
“I was just talking on Twitter about my work as a banker in Death of the Outsider,” says Dana Nightingale, campaign director at Arkane Lyon. “I want to experience everything that has to offer well, you have to play it at least four times. worth replaying to see everything else.
“So how do we create a game where we do that, but helps the player want to go back and try the different outcomes? We want that to be part of the experience. Our fans love replaying our games, but it hasn’t really been built into the experience to do that – with Deathloop it is.
And so the team established the time loop – a Groundhog Day-esque feature rarely seen in games until very recently, but perfectly suited for utilizing Arkane’s richly crafted worlds without ever implying that there is a single “correct” approach.
“One of the most frustrating comments we hear when working on a new immersive sim is, ‘I don’t know how the game wants me to play,'” says Dinga Bakaba, studio director and co-creator. “The game doesn’t want you to play a certain way!” That’s whatever works for you. When I think back to games from Arkane, from Dishonored 2, Death of the Outsider and now Deathloop, we kind of try to gradually make the player realize that we don’t want them to play a certain way. We come up with something – hey, you’re an assassin, you probably want to be sneaky – but is that the right way to play? Nope.”
This renewed commitment to player freedom is partly the result of an unexpected side effect of Dishonored’s kill/no kill options. On paper, non-lethal attacks, which were removed for Deathloop, encouraged fans to play their way. However, in practice they often forced players to adopt one of two predefined ways of playing.
“In Dishonored, we had this consequence system that some people thought of as a morality system, which is at odds with that philosophy,” Bakaba explains. “There’s definitely a right way to play there, because there’s one that gets me a green tick and one that gets me a red cross. isn’t part of the whole Outsider game, of testing people and their morals. She’s here to get rid of him and end these things. So this was an opportunity to explore that, and say to the player, absent the consequence system from the last game, this character doesn’t care. Maybe you shouldn’t either, you should do what’s fun.
“And then Deathloop is one more step in that direction, telling the player that there’s no right way to play. Whichever way you choose to play all day, you can take one. another entirely the next day, and it’s in the middle of the same campaign. That’s always been one of the goals, is to play down the idea that there’s a right way to play. I think, by nature , that immersive sims and Arkane games are all about that dialogue with the player How can we tell you all these stories without implying that there is a right way to play and also without you feeling lost?
Deathloop is a further step in that direction, telling the player that there is no right way to play.
“An interesting thing is that in French, we say that we ‘finish’ a match, we arrive at the end. But in English you say you’re “beating” a game – there seems to be an antagonistic relationship in this culture! Bakaba laughs. “At Arkane, we value the fun side of coming to an end a lot. We like to have multiple endings in our games, it’s interesting, but it’s really about the journey. What’s interesting is is that people define their own challenges and decide which game is right for them.
The player can define what the game means to them, but Arkane’s distinct touch in experience design is instantly recognizable. And with a large amount of Dishonored DNA and a multiplayer mode adapted from the studio’s canceled title The Crossing, I’d offer lessons that Deathloop is, in many ways, like Arkane’s ultimate game – the distillation of everything they have learned from their previous titles.
“I know some of my colleagues and peers disagree,” Bakaba says, “but I’m convinced that, given the exact same tone, Arkane and, say, Insomniac, would make two very, very different games. It’s not about what it is, it’s about how it’s done. There’s this philosophy to say that even if it starts out differently, part of who you are will be reflected [in the game].”
All of this certainly helps establish that Arkane brand – but that familiarity can all too easily become seamless without sufficient care. While Deathloop may have inherited lessons from its predecessors, Arkane was keen to keep it distinct from their previous works.
“There were a few times when the level design team really had to figure out we weren’t doing Dishonored,” Nightingale explains. “And one of them was, we removed all of the non-lethal content, all of the non-lethal toys, methods, and routes that the player could take. At that point, I think the level designers really had to say, “Okay, we really don’t do Dishonored. It’s a different game. That kind of stuff has realigned the team towards that. It’s like a train, it takes a little while to slow down and change direction.
“I don’t feel any interest in redoing a completely linear campaign,” says Nightingale.
And what about the lessons of Deathloop? What new changes has Deathloop made to this distinct Arkane DNA?
“I don’t feel any interest in redoing a completely linear campaign,” says Nightingale. “It’s not something I want to do again. I fell in love with the way Deathloop is structured, where the players’ goals are their own. The idea of saying ‘Okay, mission one, mission two, mission three…’ takes me a step back. I feel like I wouldn’t necessarily have a job on a game structured like that. I’m sure I’d find a way to make it work, but it really changed my perspective of what we can do in a game. Like hey, it’s actually structured quite similarly to an old school RPG – we can do this type of structure in this type of game, and it works. And that’s really exciting for me.
“We decided to create a game that would have a lot of flavor,” adds Bakaba. “‘Polarize’ was the word we used repeatedly. We realized it’s not necessarily for everyone, but we wanted to make sure some people would like it – and in fact, we had a nice surprise and a lot of people loved it. And that was the theme of one of the analysts we worked with. They said it was a polarizing game, but it was unnecessary. There are a number of ways, more than you probably think, to get people to like your bullshit. That’s the weird thing about Deathloop. It’s a very unique game, it’s a strange beast. But at the same time, it has attracted a lot of mainstream attention. We struck an interesting balance between general appeal and creating something downright bizarre.
“I hope it encourages more people to take risks, even with big games. When you always give the players what they expect, at some point it dries up. I think it’s important to renewing itself sometimes, and coming up with something very different. We think it’s worth trying something and taking a risk, and if it picks up and picks up, and if it doesn’t, well , you go back to doing what you know how to do.
“And now, strangely,” says Nightingale, “Deathloop is something we know how to do.”
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