Harvey Smith (Deux Ex, Dishonored) has faced more than his fair share of demons but stealthily used his past to inform his future, creating magnificent gaming experiences and granting a glass-half-full point of view.
“Power fantasies, specifically as much as people malign them…you immediately point to an adolescent power fantasy and talk about it as a cliche…as much as we dismiss it, it’s hugely important. Fighting demons..it’s sort of a literal manifestation of an abstract idea…if you’re a person who’s really into horror or where an underpowered protagonist overcomes overwhelmingly dark or powerful forces, there’s a cathartic process there”
Smith faced demons early. His mother died when he was only six.
“She OD’d in front of me. My dad killed himself. Those two things didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a lot of trauma that led up to those things, a lot of chaos. Everything would have been fine. I was just a blue-collar kid in a small Texas town. It probably even would have been fine with the drugs and stuff, and the physical abuse. But when you have a parent die that early, it’s shattering. Especially your mother. It’s a lot to come back from. I was that kid. It probably led to writing and escapism and all of that stuff.”
His escapism and creativity showed up early in the form of action figure modding.
“Basically, I took a Robin action figure and put him in gray and black tights,” Smith reminisces. “He had the little domino mask, and I added gray and black tights. I thought the boots from the Tin Man were cool and gray, so I put them on. My grandmother came in the room and looked at the action figures I was playing with, and she said, ‘Oh, no, you broke your toys!’ I said, ‘No, I made a new one.’”
Taking the long way around
Smith didn’t hop into a tech program after high school like many game developers, instead he joined the Air Force. He toured Germany while working in Satellite Communications, enjoying the structure and world experience. He did eventually go to school as a Lit Major and Psych Minor, but left before graduating, still calling the experience ‘fantastic’.
“At one point I went to Saudi for a while. Between Desert Storm and Operation Southern Watch. We were enforcing a no-fly parallel or something like that. A line that Saddam Hussein’s planes weren’t supposed to cross. The stuff was fascinating.”
A friend working at Origin recommended he get into the industry. But he couldn’t land a position no matter how hard he tried to play the networking game.
“I tried for six months to get a job there as a designer or a writer,” Smith continues. “I played in a Shadowrun campaign that met in the boardrooms after hours. I played multiplayer games in the QA test lab. I played on their softball team. I went skydiving with Richard Garriott. There was a team skydiving event that I wormed my way into. Jumped out of a plane with those guys in San Marcos. And I still couldn’t get a job. Then there was an ad in the paper that said, ‘Wanted: Testers. $7 an hour.’ I took it.”
Turns out the $7/hour testing job did more for his networking than jumping out of the plane.
“I did stuff that was amazing. I worked with Richard Garriott a little bit. I worked with Warren Spector. I got to see every aspect of game development. I worked as an AP. I worked as a designer. I worked as a tester. I worked with the translators for a while. I moved around a lot in there. People really responded well to me. I was given a lot of opportunity based on the work I was doing.”
“I still, to this day, love games where I’m in a dark, creepy, scary place, and I’m underpowered, and I’m facing monsters, and I master those monsters by defeating them with trickery, stealth or whatever…”
“I think there’s still a component of that, that is… The reason that’s soothing or titillating in some way is that it’s based on some pattern that a lot of people share. Anybody who’s gone through something like that when they’re very young, in a formative time.”
“One of the missions I worked on in Deus Ex is the mission where Nicolette DuClare goes back to her house, six months after her mother’s assassination,” he explains. “It’s the first time she’s been there, and she’s kinda sad about that. So you explore her empty house with her. And by the way, there’s no monsters that attack in the house. There’s no enemies. It’s just an empty house. I had to push for that on the team, because everybody was filling all the rooms with bad guys.”
“It just resonated, right? It’s not so much that there was a direct connection to any specific thing [that happened to me]. It’s just that when I think about an idea that’s appealing to me… You meet this young person and she’s tough on the outside, but she’s really hiding the fact that six months ago her mom was killed, and it’s really affected her. Going back to the house is a big deal. It’s where she lived with her mom, and you’re exploring this empty house as she roams from room to room making comments with you as she goes. She follows you and comments.”
Deus Ex: Invisible War
How do you follow up Deus Ex? A game heralded by many not only as GOTY, but in the top ten of best PC games ever made. The first level alone is worth the price of admission and should be studied for years to come. The sweeping layout rewards exploration and encourages experimentation. Your task is to diffuse a terrorist situation. Whether you use sniper rifles, tranquilizer darts, stun prods, pistols, heavy weapons, go through the front door, the sewer, via water, platforming, hacking, assault, stealth, diplomacy.
Smith was promoted to project lead for Invisible War and the sequel was a critical failure. Many lambasted the simplification of systems to include the console market, the tiny levels that felt like airport lounges, and many other facets that got away from what made the original so special.
Speaking on a panel alongside Deus Ex mastermind Warren Spector, Smith spoke of what went wrong with Invisible War’s execution. His personal relationship was ending, and obviously didn’t help matters.
“This was a very difficult project for me…Personally, I was going through a separation that would eventually end in divorce…We fucked up the technology management of it…we had bad team chemistry. We wrote the wrong renderer, we wrote the wrong kind of AI…And then we shipped too early…The story was even bad…It wasn’t a bad story-story, it was more like we moved it into the future, which…we didn’t realize at the time but undermined a lot of what made Deus Ex great…A lot of what made Dues Ex great was the familiarity, the grounded-ness. You’re going through an alley…jumping up on a dumpster to get on a fire escape to break into someone’s apartment. We’ve all seen alleys and chainlink fences and dumpsters. So it’s very powerful and very grounded…We moved it further into the future and it started to feel like The Jetsons…some sort of space-type thing.”
“I think in the end we made an 85% rated RPG that was not a worthy sequel to the original game in terms of how interesting the original game was.”
“It was also my first console game…It is a different beast…You have to think about the interface and memory differently.”
“Really talk to the players that the game is aimed at.”
Smith admitted the mistake was listening to his game designer friends that suggested extreme changes that alienated the main audience.
“It’s not selling out to cater to an audience…What are you doing? If you want to make an indie game, sit in your closet…release it to four guys on the internet, that’s great, that’s totally noble, some of my friends have done that, I highly recommend that if that’s what drives you.”
“If on the other hand, you’re taking 20 million dollars of somebody’s money…aiming at an Xbox Live crowd…going to some crazy extreme is probably not a good idea…unless it’s an extreme that will take your audience to some new interesting place…if you are going to do that, you’re going to spend 80% of the project, communicating with the user about this new thing that’s interesting.”
“What we did with Dues Ex..we listened to our super hardcore friends who said…this is how we would fix Deus Ex…We had some good friends who told us Deus Ex was a giant disaster and here’s what they would change…We weren’t listening to the players of the original game who liked what we had done.”
“We had skills and augmentations that were overlapping and redundant so we eliminated those, we boiled them all down into one system…Was easier on the console interface and easier to learn…But didn’t allow for certain combinations that even if they weren’t mechanically interesting…they built a fantasy in the player’s head…I could let you take the swimming skill and the aqualung augmentation or I could give you a Biomod for the sequel that is called ‘swimmer’ or whatever and has both built into it…Mechanically the same…wasn’t the same to the user, the user wanted the fantasy of thinking ‘I am the aquatic guy’…”
After a stint with Midway didn’t work out, Smith eventually ended up as co-creative director with Arkane and was able to produce Dishonored, its sequel, and DLC Death to the Outsider. All three have been praised for outstanding level design and compelling gameplay tools.
When asked about creating ‘living, breathing, game worlds’ in reference to Dishonored, Harvey Smith had this to say of the semantics.
“We use that term off and on, and it’s interesting because if you ask 10 people, they would define it differently, I guess. Is The Sims a “living, breathing world”? I would think that it is, because you can reconfigure the environments so strongly. Your characters react to the environment, the other characters come and go, and they have social relationships. It’s a funny term, you know? I always feel Far Cry 2 is a good example because fires spread. Animals come across your path. You accidentally hit a zebra with your truck, and you feel bad about it. Characters are watching out for you, and if they see you, they drive after you. It does feel like it has a kind of ecological simulation.”
“…we always talk about non-combat verbs. The more we can add a non-combat verb—even if it’s looking through a spyglass, or eavesdropping on a conversation, or reconfiguring the walls of a mechanistic house—that gives the player something else to do to change the environment, to interact with the environment.”
“…one of the things we do differently, I think, is we focus on less characters but each one is a little deeper. Very often in Dishonored, you can go into a room where a character lives, and you can learn something about them just by looking at the decor and reading their notes and listening to their recordings. Looking at who they are as people. They’re not generic in any sense, and I think that’s one of the things that—I don’t know if that contributes to the “living, breathing” thing—but it definitely contributes to the mise en scène you have when moving through our environments.”
On hiring outside the box
“We don’t just hire video game artists. We hire industrial designers and architects, and we hire people with classical backgrounds. So very often, they’re not just coming in and saying, “Yeah, I’ve seen Aliens and the most recent Iron Man movie. Here are some effects and here are some animations.” They’re coming in and their favorite painters are Goya or Sargent. They have a rich history, and they’re very modern also. They’re very into people painting today. A trip through our art department is pretty wild.”
“Sébastien Mitton is our art director. He was the art director on Dishonored 1, and he’s pretty over the top in his demands for the visuals and the design. We talk about something like, “Hey, we’re going to put a lion statue in the corner here.” And it’s unlike any lion statue you’ve ever seen. First of all, it’s the size of a giant lion, but it has ears more like a lynx, because we always think, “Let’s twist all the animals in our world so they’re unique.” ”
Like everything and everyone, Smith and his games have seen their glorious highs and crushing lows. From him I’m further inspired to take strength from dark times, helping me see the light as bright as possible.