The history of Arkane Studios

In the wake of the news that Xbox is shuttering Arkane Austin, I'd like to provide an excerpt from my book, The History of the Stealth Game, which details the formation of the studio and beyond

Earlier this week, Xbox announced the closure of Arkane Austin, the developer best known for the first Dishonored and Prey. But Arkane Austin was more than the studio behind a couple of critical darlings; it was also a symbol.

Austin as a place has a history in the immersive sim space. It's the city where Deus Ex was made. The city where the immersive sim - a subgenre of game, but really more of a game design principle - was born. Where the lines between role-playing games and other genres blurred. Where the dice rolls were hidden behind the action and you were free to choose how to approach every encounter.

Arkane Austin was formed in that same city partly to inherit talent who had worked on those games and partly as symbolism. Coupled with the Arkane studio in Lyon, France, the studio was one of the final big-budget converts to a design ideology that people in suits believe isn't marketable, despite most of the popular launches of the past decade borrowing elements from it.

As a tribute to the studio, I'm making the chapter on Arkane from my book, The History of the Stealth Game, free to read below, along with the book's foreword from Arkane Austin studio head Harvey Smith.

Foreword by Harvey Smith

Raphael Colantonio (left) and Harvey Smith (right)
Raphael Colantonio (left) and Harvey Smith (right) / Bethesda

The concept of hit points is too strong in games, pervasive. It’s too easy to inflate on an advancement curve, leading to protagonists who survive direct rocket fire facing off against boring, bullet sponge enemies. 

Hit points are so useful, so easy to understand, and quick to apply, that the concept closes off pathways to other concepts; real-world experiences that could be noise-reduced and abstracted down for gameplay modeling. Asymmetrical awareness, for instance. Lighting, shadow, and sound. Enemy facing. The fade-off of peripheral vision.

But the concept of hit points also enables very-low-hit-point games, in which one or two shots are fatal, creating hyper-tense, high stakes situations, where thoughtful observation becomes all-important. 

Sneaking is a subset of that type of play.

I remember sitting in a sushi restaurant in roughly 1997, dining and laughing with friends from various video game studios, when a colleague from Looking Glass Technologies likened Thief: the Dark Project to a submarine simulation. Now it seems obvious: powerful, fragile enemies, hiding in the dark, seeking to stay invisible, while ferreting out the adversary, delivering a single killing blow. At the time, however, it was a mind-expanding realization; I was still learning how to see past the stylistic, narrative layers around game experiences, perceiving the systems beneath, recognizing the value of those systems. (It would eventually be harder to go the other way along a couple of vectors, to forget about systems, instead retraining myself to think about the feelings we wanted to evoke in players first, before seeking to define the rules for the experiences we could model.)

But back to tension and high stakes. Give the player’s avatar too many hit points, and being careful matters less. Hand-eye coordination and reflexes can suddenly win the combat, rather than lining up a calculated, intentional kill shot, while remaining out of sight and unheard, undetected.

So much deliberate work has to go into setting up a game’s ecosystem for good stealth. Not just the right level of avatar fragility, but a sim-life level of awareness, supporting multiple types of sight and sound. Awareness for stealth games is always several layers deeper than what more direct games need, along with player-verbs to exploit and thwart that awareness. And never underestimate the environments needed to facilitate such play and conflict. Hello, level designers.

There is a sublime thrill that comes from waiting in the dark, listening intently, hoping you’re still undetected, then turning the tables on a more powerful enemy, attacking them in a vulnerable moment, or dropping them into a trap. It’s the titillating tension of uncertainty; taking a risk to get into an advantageous position, stretching out the moment before the fight, feeling intoxicated on the puffed-up pride of superior asymmetrical knowledge.

There is a passion for making games like these, stealth games, and a passion for playing them. This book is for the people who share that passion.

The Arkane Arts

Tall mechanical striders patrol as the player creeps past in Dishonored

Arkane Studios was born with a dream, a leap, and a dollop of serendipity. Raphael Colantonio wanted to make a game. Actually, scratch that. Raphael Colantonio wanted to make the game—a project he’d been dreaming of for years. It was called Arx Fatalis

Inspired by Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis featured a world where the sun had died, the surface of the planet was barren, and humans had been driven underground. Players used magic, combat, and guile to make their way through its dark dungeons, and it featured a novel sorcery system where spells were triggered through gestures. Colantonio pitched this idea to his friends, and before he knew it, he was founding Arkane with four of them.

‘My uncle was a business guy,’ Colantonio explains. ‘He coached me because I do not consider myself a business guy at all. I can gather things together, but I’m not really business-minded. And so, with his help and a little bit of courage, I guess that's how it started. We brought together a little bit of money so we could survive for a year. We had a year to make a demo and sign a deal.’ 

Colantonio didn’t have a proven track record at this point. He’d left a cushy job as a producer at EA to pursue this, but there wasn’t any big project he could point to when trying to reassure potential publishers. 

‘So you meet the publishers and you go, “Well, I don't have anything to show but we have this great idea in mind,”’ Colantonio laughs. ‘We got turned down by all the big guys. Microsoft and everybody. Microsoft was one of the first big ones we met and they were very nice. They really dug the game and we could tell they understood where we were going for. But obviously we were too small and risky for the scale of the market they were trying to hit. That's when I started to understand the difference between people that like what you do and people who are actually going to sign you. It's a very different thing.’

Once Arkane managed to put together a demo, the studio signed with a company called Fish Tank, a division of toy company Ravensburger. Fish Tank was struggling to sign games because it was just starting out, and Arkane was struggling to find a publisher because it was in the same predicament. 

‘These guys were cool,’ Colantonio says. ‘The guy in charge, his name was Frank Heukemes. He was a big fan of the kind of game I wanted to make. He saw an interview in a magazine called TTLG, ‘Through the Looking Glass’. They were big fans of Looking Glass games like Underworld and Thief. Actually, the guy who made that website joined us at Arkane ten years later, but he gave us an interview because he was fascinated by the fact we were trying to make this kind of game.’

The key art for Arx Fatalis, in which the hero stands at a doorway with the light on his back

Arkane and Fish Tank signed the deal one week before the studio’s initial funding ran out. Just before the deal with Fish Tank was signed, Todd Vaughn, senior vice president of product development at Bethesda, had expressed interest. He asked for two weeks, but with money running out, time was a luxury Arkane didn’t have. ‘A few days [after we signed], Todd Vaughn from Bethesda asks me, “Can we talk again about Arx?”’ Colantonio says. ‘I was like, “I'm sorry.”’

After Arx shipped, the studio put out a game called Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, another RPG focused on systemic immersive sim design. That game was published by Ubisoft, but it was another Arkane game that was almost scooped up by Vaughn at Bethesda. 

Colantonio did not want to sign with Ubisoft. 

Originally, Dark Messiah was supposed to be Arx Fatalis 2, but Ubisoft had been pushing for Arkane to attach it to its own property. Colantonio was playing chicken while sprinting towards bankruptcy, hoping to jump into a better deal at the last second.

‘[Vaughn] sees our demo and I see his eyes—big eyes, you know,’ Colantonio remembers. ‘He says, “Give me two weeks.” It's comical because Ubisoft was chasing me with a contract. I did not want to sign with Ubisoft, I'm gonna be very clear about that. Our game was meant to be Arx 2 and they were chasing us to make it Might & Magic. I was trying to find someone who would want Arx 2 at the last minute. Eventually, I signed with Ubisoft because we were gonna go under.’

Ubisoft got Colantonio to sign by saying the name would be the only thing to change, but more publisher interference crept in as the game moved through development. 

‘Once it was signed, it was like, “Actually, can you put more action, less RPG, more of this, less of this, no stealth,”’ Colantonio explains. ‘I was like, “What? Stealth is important.” So I still managed to force some of the things that I really wanted into it, but it was about 50 per cent our game at the end.’

The player fights a goblin in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

Almost immediately after Arkane signed the Ubisoft deal, Vaughn from Bethesda reached out—again, slightly too late. ‘He eventually got us with Dishonored,’ Colantonio laughs. 

Arkane had survived for six years as a lone studio in Lyon, France, by the time work wrapped on Dark Messiah, but Colantonio had the ambition to see his company’s reach extend to America. In Colantonio’s mind, there was only one place he wanted to go: Austin, Texas. It’s where Origin Systems was—the birthplace of the immersive sim. 

‘Richard Garriott was there, and I was a big fan of his work, and Harvey Smith was there, and I was also a fan of his work,’ Colantonio explains. ‘So for me, there was an understanding that Austin was some sort of destination for me for growing Arkane and finding like-minded people.’

When he arrived, he quickly found that the streets weren’t paved with Harvey Smiths, but there was still a booming developer scene in Austin. Even today, it’s an important hub for the game industry. Colantonio didn’t move there with corporate sponsorship, he didn’t have a Visa—he just turned up with some possessions and a dream to grow the studio into something more. 

‘I was struggling with a social security number, they don't want to rent you anything because you're new to the country,’ he remembers. ‘I felt like a bum for six months—the time it took to be accepted by the American system. That was painful.’

Colantonio couldn’t even rent an office space, but Harvey Smith was nice enough to introduce him to a small studio called Pixel Mine, who let him use the back corner of theirs. He took the offer and set himself up in a room, on his own, with a big screen for video conferences between himself and the Lyon studio. And that’s how it was for a year: Colantonio had brought his family to Austin, but he was on his own in a room while working, speaking to his fifty employees in France. After a year, he started hiring locally. About three years later, Smith joined the team. 

‘[Raphael’s] thought was, that's where Ultima was made, that's where Deus Ex was made, something good will happen if I go there,’ Smith says. ‘It was just a melding of the power of the French studio, which was phenomenal, plus the best people I had worked with in Austin, leveling each other up, and then finally working autonomously.’

The player pins down an NPC in cancelled Arkane game The Crossing

It was a fraught beginning full of turmoil and heartache. The studio’s next project after Dark Messiah was a game called The Crossing, which was ultimately cancelled. Sticking to the studio’s design principles, The Crossing was ahead of its time, blending multiplayer and single-player games together in a title where one player moves through a story and other players attempt to stop them. Arkane was also pegged to work on a Half-Life spinoff for Valve, called Ravenholm. That, too, was cancelled. 

Bethesda asked Arkane to make a Blade Runner game, and the opportunity to make a new Thief game was also on the table at one point. 

Square Enix ended up with Thief after acquiring Eidos, and the Blade Runner game never moved beyond the pitching process. Arkane felt like its luck was running out. 

Fortunately for Colantonio, Smith, and everyone else at the studio, Bethesda was sitting on something else—a ninja game.

‘We were working on a pitch for Thief, because Eidos was shopping that around,’ Smith remembers. ‘And we were working on a pitch for a Blade Runner game. Raf was into one and I was more into the other—I love Thief, he loves Blade Runner. But one by one, those got cancelled. The Thief thing fell apart because Square bought Eidos. And the Blade Runner thing fell apart for weird reasons. But both of those were under Bethesda.’

Arkane assumed this was the end of the studio’s deal with Bethesda. ‘The people we're working with were like, “Oh, no, those things fell apart, but we want to work with you guys,”’ Smith explains. ‘“Since those things fell apart, what about this ninja pitch we've been working on for years?”’

The pitch was simple: You play as a ninja whose master has been killed, you’ve been disgraced, perhaps even dishonoured *wink*, and you have to get revenge on the warlords responsible. You reap your revenge through stealth, assassinations, and flashy ninja magic. Arkane thought the idea was cool, but the studio wasn’t very excited about the setting. 

‘There's nothing wrong with ninjas, and if you have passion for that universe you can make something badass,’ Colantonio says. ‘But we always go weird. We always go to territories that are a little less direct.’ 

From there, Arkane started thinking about how to make it weird. The developers at the studio looked back at influences such as Thief, settings that inspired them, and thought about how they could work the core concept into something stranger. 

A gang member carries a tub of whale oil toward a machine in Dishonored

‘We literally pitch: It's the year 1666, the year of the Black Plague and the Great Fire, and it's massive wealth inequality [in a] crumbling London,’ Smith says. ‘What if you were in that world and the devil was there, tempting you with powers and abilities? You could choose how you play. And so we had this whole concept of this rotting keep right outside of London, on the Thames, where you would get into your little boat and paddle into London to take the next mission.’

The team kept working on this concept and evolving it, shifting time forward to the 1850s and eventually deciding it didn’t even take place on Earth, never mind London. The idea of incorporating Christianity into it was also binned, replaced by an otherworldly watcher who calls himself The Outsider, peering in from the afterlife. Arkane drew a map of this world on a yellow sticky note. Originally called Green Hill, they finally settled on a name for the city: Dunwall. Dunwall is a city where technology took a different route, and whales are harvested for fuel to power destructive machines. 

‘Eventually they looked at it, they were like, “This is weird and steampunky and cool,”’ Smith remembers. ‘People kept commenting on the whales because we did a bunch of research and we're like, ‘Okay, the whaling industry, let's look into what Seattle was like, and what European cities were like. Let's talk about how horrific that is, slaughtering whales left and right as a consumable resource. Like, this is not sustainable.’ Now [there’s] the modern take on whales being these beautiful, soulful creatures that we need to work just to keep alive or whatever. But back then it was just like, “Do you want your kids to freeze, or do you want to have oil for the heater and lamps?” A little research goes a long way.’

Originally, Dishonored was planned to have stealth mechanics similar to Thief. Arkane considered playing with light and shadow but abandoned the concept early on in favour of occlusion-based stealth. According to Smith, light and shadow stealth works better with stylised graphics or even black-and-white worlds, where you can tell at a glance whether an area is safe or not. Because of advancements with video game lighting, shadows are more complex to implement as a mechanic in a modern triple-A game. 

‘Say there's something like a high back chair that casts a weird shadow from the side that's like a long ribbon and it's passing across your body,’ Smith explains. ‘It works in Thief because the world itself is generally dark. There's a level of gloom—let's call it the midstate—where if a guard is not too far away, and in front of you, he'll look for a minute and go, “Wait a second.” And then there's darkness. Like, I'm far enough away from the pillar, the torch is behind a pillar, and the guy’s just like, “I'm blind in this dark.” It's simulating that. And then there's the opposite state, which is a guy has a torch, and he can just clearly see everything. As long as you have three states like that, and you're willing to tolerate the timer version of the middle one—he slowly sees you over time—then it works. It's very hard to use modern, beautiful lighting. The player’s just constantly like, “Am I in the dark or the light?” It's too many degrees of darkness and light, and you can't see your body in first-person.

‘Getting it right in 3D on a body is really difficult. At the time it almost felt like dogma, like we have to do this. But at some point, we just focused on view cones and sound, where the guard is looking, whether you've got cover, and it just allowed the whole thing to move faster.’ 

Two guards rush at the player, who has a sword and a crossbow, in Dishonored

That’s what makes Dishonored stand out from other stealth games: speed. Watching someone who’s mastered the game playing is like watching Tony Hawk pull skateboard tricks in zero-gravity. Using a slate of powers, players can teleport and run across rooftops, slow time, possess people and animals, and plenty more besides. You can let a guard fire a pistol at you, stop time, step into their body, and walk them into the path of their own bullet before ejecting out. Players fire arrows into the air, slow time, and rush down distant guards before pushing them into the arrow’s path. The possibilities are wider than my waist post-COVID lockdown. 

‘If I have any regrets about Dishonored, it's that we did too much,’ Smith says. ‘It's cool to have this whole slate of powers you can choose from. But, honestly, most people take three or four and double down on them and just invest in them and finish the game. We could have probably reduced that number and the game would have just been just as rich.’

Dishonored is a complex game even without all of these powers. Because the world is so interactive, there are a lot of things it needs to be able to hold in memory. How trashed did you leave the rooms you just whirlwinded through? How many bodies did you leave behind? Are they unconscious or dead? Are there rats nearby that might eat them? All of this matters when it’s possible to complete the entire game without killing a single NPC. 

And while these kinds of games are designed so that players can do things the developer never intended—in Dishonored 2, for example, one popular strategy is to air assassinate your own doppelganger from height to negate fall damage—Arkane had to ensure people couldn’t break the game during their experiments. Just keeping a player who has the power of teleportation locked into a level without resorting to invisible walls is a logistical nightmare. 

‘You can do things like exceed the character count in an area,’ Smith explains. ‘This area was maxed out at seven characters—five guards and two civilians—and you walked an eighth character in there. And then you put him asleep, and you go back and you want a ninth character there. You have to watch for things like that. You also have to hit all the edge cases—these guys hate the Bottle Street gang, or they hate anyone associated with magic. If you possess a witch, lead her into the Overseers, and eject out of her, they have to hate her, they have to comment, they have to respond intelligently, and she has to respond intelligently. That's so much extra work.

‘I had these arguments with people in the ’90s, and 2000s, where they were like, “Everything we do in our type of game, we put on the screen, and every player sees all of it. Therefore we can make our games cheaper than you can. What you're doing is you're making three or five games overlaid, and therefore the player can only see one of those at a time.” And it's true, but they're switching tracks constantly, so the sense of possibility is overwhelming.’ 

A plague victim approaches the player in Dishonored

To get across the complexity of creating a game like this, I’ll give you a seemingly mundane example: elevators. In the past, video game elevators were simply loading screens—you walk in, the door closes behind you, and a new level loads on the other side of the door, representing the next floor. In Dishonored, elevators are simulated. They have outer doors and inner doors, there’s a space underneath the elevators when they go up, allowing players to drop through the shaft, and you can even get into a hatch on top. Once up there—and I didn’t know this after dozens of hours with the game—you can slice the cable and cause the elevator to drop. In a game where players can manipulate physical objects and potentially mess with the physics by stacking things in and on top of an elevator, there’s a lot to take into account. 

There’s an entire level in Dishonored 2 that’s built around this style of mechanical witchcraft, called The Clockwork Mansion. It’s a mission where the entire level is in flux, full of levers and contraptions that shift the space around on gilded cogs. You can even slip behind walls and skulk around the mansion’s inner workings, silently tiptoeing through the spaces between the extravagance. Despite its outlandishness, it still feels like a real place. 

‘That was Dana Nightingale, a level designer who did brilliant work on Dishonored and Dishonored 2,’ Smith explains. ‘She's with a team, of course, all under Christophe Carrier, our brilliant level design director, and Joachim David, our lead level designer. They're a brilliant group of people. [Carrier] had always wanted to do the house with the moving walls and floors and stuff. It had been an earlier video game and we wanted to do the complex, cool version of it. So he and that team worked out the movements of that, and the architects also just put a lot of work into it, under Sebastien Mitton, the art director, and David Di Giacomo, level artist. The architects were crazy talented, and looking at the industrial design of how things could actually work if you could power these lifts, and things like the whole section of this house, a whole corner can swing around, so that this room is now facing the veranda and has the sunset view, then you rotate it again and that works as a bedroom... It's nuts. That's one of the best things we did in Dishonored 2, for sure.’

Nightingale worked on The Clockwork Mansion for three years during the development of Dishonored 2. It was a huge, complex undertaking, and probably only possible in part because of Nightingale’s background. She has a Master’s in Architecture, and she put that knowledge to use when putting this virtual, explorable Rubik’s cube together. It’s easy to see why you don’t often encounter similar ambition in other triple-A games—the resources and time required are enough to make it seem like a waste. But for players who appreciate this kind of intricate design, it’s a level that will stay with them forever. 

‘Once they get hooked on a game like we make, I think it's very hard to go back to linear experiences where you walk down the bridge and the only way to win is by standing behind this car and headshotting the guy on the turret,’ Smith says. ‘And when he dies, you can advance to the next car and take the turret. You have to figure out the puzzle, and that's fine—that's a good way to make games. Nothing wrong with it. It's just not what we like to do. That's why open-world games came along and started doing some of the same things immersive sims do.’

If you’ve played Breath of the Wild, you’ll know exactly what kind of thing Smith is referring to here. In Nintendo Switch’s Zelda game, you’re free to approach situations in dozens of ways. See a bokoblin camp and you might decide to sneak up during the night and bop them while they’re sleeping. You might cause their campfire to spread out of control by throwing a twig into it. You might roll a boulder down a hill, attack them from range with a bow, or run in swinging your sword. Hell, you might just ignore them altogether. Games like Dishonored laid the foundations for this freeform style of play. 

The first Dishonored was a vindication for Colantonio’s faith. He went to Austin and good things happened. It just took time, will, and a team of exceptionally talented people. Dishonored was a sales success that seemed to prove the stealth genre was alive and well, even giving the team at Eidos-Montréal something to point to when faith in their Thief game waivered. 

The player approaches Dunwall by boat in Dishonored

‘I think it was a convergence of everything,’ Colantonio says. ‘There's a moment in your story where the stars align. We had made enough games that we knew what worked. We had a lot of good people. Between Arx and Dishonored we had a lot of turnover, and eventually we managed to bring together that amazing team. We had just worked with Valve on Ravenholm, but also The Crossing, to some degree. Victor Antonov was part of that too. And so we were having this affair with Victor, who eventually joined to help us with art direction and trained Sebastian Mitton, who’s now the art director of Arkane Lyon. Back then they were working very closely. He unlocked a lot of our art [potential]. 

‘We also got the right publisher, frankly, with Bethesda. We were always working with publishers that were too small, so they did not have the firepower, or that did not understand this kind of game, so they were too controlling. Bethesda was the perfect publisher for us. They were like-minded, they had the money, they did not want to push it on the shelves if it was not ready, and they really understood what we were trying to do.’

After Dishonored, Smith went to work at the Lyon studio to help make Dishonored 2, while Colantonio stayed in Austin to work on Prey, a sci-fi RPG that harkened back to System Shock. While still very much an immersive sim with stealth elements, it’s a completely different game to Dishonored. Using alien powers, you’re tasked with escaping a place while being hunted by alien entities. It’s proof of how wide the genre can be. Rather than a series of levels, Arkane wanted to create an interconnected place with a new environment: Talos I, a huge art deco space station hanging in the black. 

Prey is similar to Arx Fatalis,’ Colantonio says. ‘Ultima Underworld was a self-contained world with one big mission where you can walk anywhere and things are closed until you find the key, etcetera. It's this space that you explore and come back to, and then eventually you really feel a sense of belonging in that world. That's something I wanted to go back to. Those games are hard to make because tons of bugs are possible, but they give that sense of space that nothing else can give you. Contiguous space with mechanics that were somewhat similar to Dishonored, but without the emphasis on stealth or assassination specifically. There's a lot of System Shock in Prey.’

Prey’s world feels lived-in, every room tells a story, and you feel a sense of belonging as you explore the halls of Talos I. One of the most poignant moments in the game is the first time you step out of an airlock and float out in the vacuum of space. You can see Talos I in all its glory, this shimmering obelisk suspended in the void. You can see all the walkways and sections, and how it all fits together, helping you contextualise the place in your mind. 

An ink like alien approaches the player in Prey as an explosion rings out behind it

‘That was one of the nightmares of making that game,’ Colantonio says. ‘There’s an invisible value linked to the emotion of being in a real area. Because it's not like players are gonna analyse what you just said. But they're gonna feel it. It's so cohesive. It was a nightmare. We had to think of it from an architectural standpoint—there would be sewers, there would be water recycling, there would be the place where they do this, the place where they sleep, the basement. And meanwhile, the level designers are doing the levels, they don't really know where they are going to fit in this thing. And then you have to retrofit everything like LEGO. Hell, I hope it's worth it for the players now, but it was a lot of work.’

It was worth it. Prey is a brilliant game, though it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a sequel because it didn’t exactly set the charts on fire. One barrier was its name, Prey. You see, there’s already a game called Prey, and it’s an action-based first-person shooter that’s completely unrelated to Arkane’s work. To make matters worse, there was previously a sequel in the works—Prey 2—that was building a fair amount of buzz before being cancelled. It promised to put players in the shoes of a parkour-loving bounty hunter who chases alien targets across the galaxy. Obviously, its cancellation had nothing to do with Arkane, but the name was cursed. Fans of the original Prey didn’t understand a game where you can transform into a coffee cup due to alien powers, and some of Arkane’s own audience likely wondered why the immersive sim studio was reviving a dormant FPS series, even though Arkane’s Prey was entirely its own thing. 

‘I think there was a mismatch,’ Colantonio admits. ‘We try to look at it like, Okay, well, it's a shooter, it's in space, there are aliens, so it kind of makes sense. It’s a punchy name, it sounds good, it's cool. But you know, would I have chosen another name if I had the choice? Yeah.’

The same year Prey was released, Colantonio left Arkane. These days he’s working at his new studio, WolfEye, which is creating Weird West, an indie immersive sim that blends cowboy fiction with Lycans, shapeshifters, and a dollop of magic. Outside of the top-down perspective, it’s not unlike the kind of games he’s always made. You can sneak, fire spreads across flammable materials, and there are a bunch of systemic interactions that can make your playthrough feel personal to you. 

‘I think there's an audience for anything good,’ Colantonio says. ‘There's even an audience for [Microsoft] Flight Simulator. Who knew, right? I don't think it's a matter of things being in fashion or out of fashion. I think people like good things. Dishonored was an outlier when we did it, and I'm grateful for Bethesda’s [belief] in us. Because a few publishers before that said these games never sell—not stealth games specifically, but immersive sims. Traditionally, they don't make sales, but the official numbers are pretty freakin’ good. So anyone with rules, they're going to usually be wrong. I think the only rule is that there are no rules.’ 

The player dual wields pistols and fights masked enemies in Deathloop

Arkane itself hasn’t moved away from immersive sims either. It might be the last big studio making them, but Arkane Lyon just put out a game called Deathloop, in which you play as an assassin who’s stuck in a time loop. It shares a lot of DNA with Dishonored and has a sprinkling of The Crossing since one of your assassination targets can be controlled by an enemy player. It drips with signature Arkane style, its pulpy art direction headed up by the brilliant Sebastien Mitton. It might lean more into the action side of Dishonored, but stealth is still an option. Creeping up behind another player and snapping their neck will always feel more satisfying than outsmarting AI. 

In Deathloop, you’re tasked with killing eight targets in a single day. You have four chunks of time—morning, noon, afternoon, and evening—and you have to line them up for the perfect run. You can visit the four locations at any of the allocated time slots, and each of them changes depending on when you visit, with key characters moving around the board. It’s mind-bogglingly complex, which isn’t a huge surprise when you consider it comes from the minds of Dishonored 2 co-director Dinga Bakaba and the level designer behind Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion, Dana Nightingale. 

‘The correlation there was definitely not lost on me,’ Nightingale tells me. ‘I was making a clockwork house and now I’m making clockwork islands, making sure all the moving parts could move together and everything still worked and made sense and the player wasn't overwhelmed or lost. But also just trying to maintain the spectacle of it was... Yeah, there were a lot of moments where it reminded me a lot of working on The Clockwork Mansion, for better or for worse. It was very difficult.’

Meanwhile, Arkane Austin is working on a vampire-killing co-op open-world game called Redfall, but there’s only a CGI trailer available at the time of writing. It might change up the Arkane formula a bit more, but I’d eat my book if it didn’t feature stealth as an option, as well as systemic interactions. However Arkane does it, it won’t be a game about shooting a man on a turret over and over until you reach the end credits. Oh, and it’ll probably be weird.

Kirk McKeand


Kirk McKeand is the Content Director for GLHF.  A games media writer and editor from Lincoln, UK, he won a Games Media Award in 2014 in the Rising Star category. He has also been nominated for two Features Writer awards. He was also recognized in MCV's 30 Under 30 list in 2014. His favorite games are The Witcher 3, The Last of Us Part 2, Dishonored 2, Deus Ex, Bloodborne, Suikoden 2, and Final Fantasy 7.  You can buy Kirk McKeand's book, The History of the Stealth Game, in most bookstores in the US and UK.  With a foreword written by Arkane's Harvey Smith, The History of the Stealth Game dives deep into the shadows of game development, uncovering the surprising stories behind some of the industry's most formative video games.  He has written for IGN, Playboy, Vice, Eurogamer, Edge, Official PlayStation Magazine, Games Master, Official Xbox Magazine, USA Today's ForTheWin, Digital Spy, The Telegraph, International Business Times, and more.  Kirk was previously the Editor-in-Chief at TheGamer and Deputy Editor at VG247. These days he works as the Content Director for GLHF, a content agency specializing in video games coverage, serving media partners across the globe.  You can check out Kirk McKeand's MuckRack profile for more.  Email: