Dishonored 2 Designers Break Down the Clockwork Mansion | On the Level

Dishonored 2 Designers Break Down the Clockwork Mansion | On the Level

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Between a masquerade ball, a brilliant bank heist, and a house trapped between two moments in time - the Dishonored series is famous for its intricate and imaginative level design. But if there's one stage that truly fits that description, it's the Clockwork Mansion from Dishonored 2 - a shape-shifting stately home where walls rotate on carousels, entire rooms disappear into the floor, and furniture gets rearranged by hidden mechanisms. It's the home of one Kirin Jindosh - an eccentric inventor who is building an army of robotic soldiers, and has also imprisoned your pal Sokolov in his basement. So you'll need to get in, take control of the mansion, stop Jindosh from making any more robots, and bust Sokolov out. So welcome to On the Level - a video series in which I play excellent video game stages, alongside the designers who made them.

For this episode, I played through the Clockwork Mansion while talking to level designer Dana Nightingale. She was responsible for planning out the mansion's layout and its gameplay beats, using flowcharts and prototypes. Also on the call was David Di Giacomo, the level's artist. His job was to actually build the mansion, come up with the mechanisms and movements, and turn Dana's ideas into reality. A quick note that in this video, David's answers will be in French, with English subtitles. So, before I open the door and enter the mansion, I asked Dana how she first came to work on this level.

DANA: I had wrapped up my work on the Knife of Dunwall and I was just shown a list - a rather long list - of all of the potential level ideas that the team was brainstorming to include in Dishonored 2. And one of them was the mansion of a clockwork inventor. Like, I skimmed the list, and I look at the list thinking 'this is going to be super hard to decide, how am I going to know which one to pick?'. And I see that one and I'm like 'yeah! That one! That's the one i'm doing!'."

MARK: Do you remember any of the other ideas on the list? DANA: I only remember the others that I prototyped. But I did do a prototype for a redux of the masquerade ball concept, which we eventually decided to not do. We didn't want to try to out-Boyle Lady Boyle immediately. Though we are now revisiting it for Deathloop: the party with all the wolf masks. And another one that was actually supposed to be part of the Clockwork Mansion was the wind corridor. You were supposed to have to travel through that in order to get to Jindosh's mansion.

So first you go through these crazy factories with all these mechanics built around the wind being strong enough to actually pick you up and blow you away. But that really didn't make it very far. The scope of the game was being nailed down and we realised we had too much. So we we had to, like, let go of a few of the ideas and that was one of them. MARK: So once you have that prompt what did you do next? DANA: So then I just started prototyping. So no concept at all of what the layout would be, what what the challenges would be.

The only thing we knew for sure was there was going to be the inventor, Sokolov was going to play a role, and there were these clockwork soldiers. Other than that it was just prototyping different moving rooms, different layouts. Oh, and a big emphasis from like day zero on letting the player be inside the mechanisms. It was always about this divide between the space for normal people and the space where the player could go in the guts of the building. Which was very in line with the the design philosophy from Dishonored where there was always this threshold between where normal people can go and where a supernatural assassin can go.

It was always kind of a sense of a behind the scenes even from the earliest Dishonored map. But now we could take it a step even further. MARK, NARRATION: There were more concepts and prototypes for the level, but we'll come back to them later. For now, I better start the stage itself.

*Creaky wooden door opens* So the mansion begins in a small, innocuous entryway. And there's not much for me to do than to pull on this strange lever… MARK: So what did you want to achieve with this first transformation? DANA: This was just to make the player, like, [—] themselves, basically. Am I allowed to say that? Should I do another take? The point of this part was to just, you know, wow the player. MARK: David, what do you remember about actually building this part of the map? MARK: It's interesting that the level begins in a neutral state. What was the thought behind that? DANA: The initial idea is the clockwork is immediately hostile. But that's such an overwhelming thing to do to the player immediately.

So what I wanted to do to, like, let the player focus on the drama of the moment and give them a chance to look at the clockwork soldier was to to start it off as non-hostile. And of course the trouble was is that 80 percent of the players would just hide already. They would assume that it's hostile. We actually decided to, like, let that work. So if you do hide and the clockwork soldier

doesn't see you, Jindosh will start to say like… JINDOSH: Hello? Anyone there? Could there be some misfiring of the mechanism? No one then. Strange… DANA: And then you can continue through the map in that perfect stealth run. You know, sometimes you have to see how players are actually reacting and rather than just fighting against it you, like, have to just go with it and say 'well, this is their natural reaction. What do we give them to validate this reaction?'.

MARK: David, how did you go about building the atrium? MARK: Now we get to meet Jindosh. What can you tell me about this scene? DANA: Well this scene where you're speaking to him was something we wanted to do more of after Dishonored 1, where the player would sometimes just see the antagonist of the level very briefly, or sometimes they would be dead before you even realised that you had met them. So we looked for many opportunities in Dishonored 2 to let the player meet the antagonists early, in a context where you couldn't necessarily engage with them. So we could do more with presenting their character. JINDOSH: I'd assume my involvement with the Duke brought you to my door. Or maybe you're after washed up Anton Sokolov, comfortably residing in the assessment chamber? MARK: Jindosh also taunts you over the loudspeaker throughout the level.

I'm sensing maybe like a SHODAN influence? DANA: Oh one thousand percent. That's just the way I talked about it the entire time - it was Jindosh's SHODAN lines. MARK: What can you tell me about designing the clockwork soldiers? DANA: The reason the whole level exists is because we want non-human enemies so players have more opportunity to use their tools without having to worry about engaging with the chaos system. So now you can let loose on these mechanical creatures. One of the things that was a result of seeing how they actually worked in the map was the decision to make there be two types, because they were just such a difficult enemy there was no difficulty gradient in the map. Immediately you were super overwhelmed by this insurmountable enemy who could see behind it, it could attack in all directions.

I gave a ton of feedback to the teams in charge of that to say I would really like something a bit easier so I can create a few encounters early on that are a bit less intimidating, get the player used to fighting them. So this one, for example, is the simpler version. MARK: I like how these two characters give you some clues about dealing with the clockwork soldiers through their dialogue… DANA: We have to consider that some players are going to go very slowly and be very observant and they're going to read every bit of information. And we want them to feel like that caution is rewarded.

GUARD: It'll wake up on its own if a fight breaks out. They're blind but they can still hear. DANA: But the other player who just wants to skip all that and dig right in and just engage immediately… they're going to learn by doing.

The clockwork soldiers' animations will give them different cues and the audio cues from the way it's behaving. So both players wind up with the same information but they both got it in a way that was more in line with how they want to play. MARK, NARRATION: After escaping from Jindosh's trap, we find ourselves in the next part of the mansion - the lavish and luxurious visitor's area. The main room is a giant space with a glass floor, entertainment on demand, and two huge waterfalls that drop into turbines and provide power for the mansion. So far we've been lead through the house by Jindosh's directions and the game's waypoints - but now the level opens up. There's a way forward but it's blocked by an electrifying arc pylon, and there are rooms to explore on both the left and right.

So I asked Dana if this was supposed to be the moment where the player was left to figure things out for themselves. DANA: Yes that's basically it. This is really the moment where the level now starts to open up and it's really driven by your own curiosity and your own observation.

What you notice completely dictates what your goals are now. If you just see the elevator then now it's a vignette about getting past the arc pylon. But maybe you notice that one of the gratings… there's a hole in that. So maybe that's the thing you notice and now your goal is 'I want to get through there'. Or maybe you've already realised that those windows are all openable and you can get behind the scenes. It's really just about what you've noticed at this point and the only place where you're fully blocked here is if you're just not taking in anything.

So the game really forces you to look around and notice all these different things. MARK: There's these characters here: the buyers. Why did you include them? DANA: That was part of the the world building. Jindosh is very showy and he's kind of a capitalist. You know, he wants to sell his work, he's in it for the money - which we eventually got to revisit in Death of the Outsider where we actually showed that someone had bought some of the clockwork soldiers and you see them in the bank. So he has this very opulent place, he wants people to come to him to be awed by his creations and then buy them.

This is an example of two buyers. You know, Jindosh like welcomed them in just like he had welcomed you in. They're escorted into this room. But then Emily arrives and Jindosh just completely forgets about them! MARK: One of my favourite things about the level is being able to slip through the walls during a transformation. DANA: Yeah, like… it was always imagined that way because all the prototypes were built around the idea that it's not only about the two configurations - it's about all the possibilities that happen during the transition. That's why they all happen so slowly.

MARK, NARRATION: Beneath the lavish visitor's area, deep within the mansion's underbelly, is a more utilitarian zone. Here you'll find a secret kitchen, a pair of guards to scrap with, and the place where Jindosh is keeping Sokolov. But first, I wanted to ask about this familiar looking head that's being used for target practice. Was it a reference to the earlier version of the clockwork soldiers, as seen in the game's first trailers? DANA: Yes. Actually, for a long time that's how they looked in the game. Feedback was that they weren't intimidating enough.

But you get feedback from all sorts of sources and when they start to line up you start to see a trend - which is the clockwork soldiers look goofy. So you change it. But thankfully we got a second chance with those heads again in Death of the Outsider. MARK: So tell me about the assessment chamber.

DANA: When we started I was doing all these prototypes and what was to be the assessment chamber was originally like half of the entire map. It was originally enormous. And the original concept was that Jindosh was not just testing their basic locomotion and response to sight and sound, but he was like trying to see if he had invented ethics. So he would put the clockwork soldiers in all these ethical situations where you have an arbitrary goal, and the easy way to achieve the goal involved somebody dying.

And of course the difficult solution would allow you to spare them. This was very on the nose for the game we were making. But you had to go through this whole very long obstacle course to finally reach Sokolov. And in the end we made the most conservative version of this that still achieves the original goal: which is that: where would Jindosh put Sokolov in his house? Because he doesn't have a jail cell. So where would he go? Well he puts him in the… we called it the rat maze, the new version.

Like a little obstacle course for the the clockwork soldier. MARK: How else did the level change during development? DANA: This iteration of the design, the idea was that the place was going to be just an impossible maze. There was no way that you could like navigate it without help so there was going to be like these panels that you could tell the house where are you trying to go. I'm glad we did not go in this direction. I think what we went with for, like, letting the player understand it… like this is a space that I can have mastery of. I'm using these transformations deliberately to achieve a goal and it is kind of the opposite of what that early attempt was, which was just maze-like.

Achieving mastery there is not possible, because the level's antagonistic towards you. In the final version the level is part of your toolset at one point. MARK: Okay, I've got Sokolov. Gonna have to carry him all the way back to the entrance. DANA: I really wanted there to be a way for you to get Sokolov out without exiting yourself, because I didn't think it was fun to have to go all the way back out of the map carrying him and keeping him alive. So I created all of these different routes and methods.

At one point I imagined there was a clockwork soldier delivery mechanism and it was basically like a pneumatic tube that Jindosh would load the clockwork soldiers in and would shoot them down this gigantic pipe into the city. And you could put Sokolov into one of those and just shoot him out. But we had so many budget constraints on this map and that was just way out of scope. So in the end the solution was just to make Sokolov really resistant to damage.

MARK: But it is nice that the level changes after you grab Sokolov. DANA: Yeah, like, there's two changes that happen - if you do Sokolov first. So the guards appear from the elevator, and there's other clockwork soldiers that are stowed away in the walls and those will have emerged. So we wanted the player's experience to be a bit different if you did go after Sokolov first because Jindosh is still alive and observing and reacting.

And that's a bit of the SHODAN-ness coming into play here. MARK: Do you have, like, an intended order for the level? You know, Sokolov first or Jindosh first? DANA: For 99.9… how many other nines you need, the layout is designed so that what you do first is purely based on what you want to do first or just like where your curiosity takes you. For speedrunners: definitely Jindosh first, Sokolov second.

That's that's the point zero zero zero one percent. That's just logical for speed running because you need to take Sokolov to the exit therefore you're going to do Sokolov last. So there were a lot of decisions built around 'how are speedrunner is going to interact with this map?'.

MARK, NARRATION: With Sokolov safe, it’s time to face down Jindosh himself. And so I made my way to his private chambers. Here, you'll find two of the most complex areas in the level: a rotating bedroom that can be twisted into dozens of different combinations, and a laboratory where different research stations can be dragged up from a storage area down below. But… there are so many routes you can take to get here, and that's because the stage is so incredibly dense and interconnected. I wanted to know how Arkane managed to make such a complex area feel even remotely understandable for players.

DANA: A rule of thumb there is never have more than three ways in and out of a room. But that's excluding special ways. But the other thing we did with the layout, as far as like keeping it approachable, is the building is divided very cleanly into four sections (five sections if you count the assessment chamber area), and each of those areas have very strong thresholds disconnecting them. So you know when you're moving from one zone to the next, so now you can kind of, like, flush your RAM. We actually we call that the door effect: every time the player goes through a door you can let them forget about what was behind them and let them process what's in front of them. MARK: So this is Jindosh's bedroom, how was this built? DANA: It was built around this idea of 'it's three rooms, there's a rotating part in the centre, each room has two configurations'.

So you wind up with this very complex space of multi-usage rooms. For example, there was going to be the bedroom and then he can roll out of bed, pull the lever, wait three seconds, turn around, and his bathtub would be right there. That was like the seed that grew into this.

That was my starting point. What are the whims of this person and what would he find comfortable or comforting? This room is also where we we started to have fun with hidden rooms. For the most part the mechanisms were either what's happening in the space and what's behind the scenes. But in this case we started to have little hidden closets. So there's two hidden chambers here that are really tricky to get - you have to be really paying attention to how everything is moving. MARK: This mechanism in the lab is just crazy.

Why was it so important to make everything work so realistically when a lot of players may never even notice it? DANA: Even if a player isn't consciously aware of everything that's happening it all soaks in. I feel like it all like feeds little by little the overall feeling. And also we, just, were really excited and really passionate about it. So, like, the whole team, the whole studio is working on Dishonored 2 - but inside that there's two like almost indie teams. One of them is working on Crack in the Slab and then there was team Clockwork Mansion. We constantly were just taking that little extra step to make sure that everything was just right.

MARK: I feel like the non-lethal solution for dealing with Jindosh is pretty dark! DANA: That came from creative direction. The request was the solution to Jindosh is to use this electroshock treatment to make him no longer able to invent things. I wanted a third way.

I really wanted you to be able to just leave with Sokolov and leave Jindosh alone. I felt like that was a choice that made sense for the players motivation and even Emily's motivation. Like, you're not deciding to not engage with the content - the content is in front of you and you're making the choice to not do the thing. That's as much of a choice as doing the thing. But the reason why we couldn't do the third option of leaving him alone was every time you have a decision like that, there's budgets everywhere. So in this case it was a voice acting budget: all of the different outcomes have to be supported later on in the game and as soon as we then had to branch into three the the cost of recording for each of those different outcomes… like between The Outsider commenting on what you've done or recordings at the Duke's palace of Jindosh's fate… it was decided that, no we have to stick to two. You either kill him or you use the electroshock.

MARK: Would you have minded that players would completely skip a lot of content? DANA: This is the game where you can skip an entire level if you do a puzzle so I would say we're very firmly in the camp of let the player find their own way through the map. And if that means missing half the content then that's how they chose to engage with the content. MARK, NARRATION: And so there we have it. The Clockwork Mansion was a simple idea, that truly came to life through careful planning, clever prototypes, and endless iterations.

There were many roadblocks along the way - like limited budgets and technical constraints. Rotating walls, for example, were not going to play nicely with AI pathfinding. But clever workarounds, precision cutting, and the hard work of a huge team of collaborators meant the level never felt compromised - or anything less than one of the most memorable stages from the last few years. My thanks to Dana and David for their time and transparency.

A lightly edited version of our entire 2 hour Zoom call is available to everyone who supports GMTK over on Patreon. And speaking of supporting the show - if you like what you just saw and want to show your appreciation, please check out this quick YouTube ad break. Stick around afterwards for an indie game recommendation. My indie game recommendation this time is I Am Dead - an adorable afterlife adventure about phasing through objects to find treasured items and memories. It's a lightweight, noodley puzzle game with a winning art style, a heartfelt storyline, and a unique mechanic that eagerly encourages poking and prodding at everything you see. I Am Dead is out now on Switch and Steam.

2021-07-18 14:17

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