Artwork gallery Dishonored 2 Fine Art Print Collection
Dishonored 2 is an action-adventure video game developed by Arkane Studios and published in November 2016 by Bethesda Softworks. Building on the surprise hit Dishonored in 2012, the game centres on a power struggle in the 'Empire of the Isles', a fictional, nineteenth-century world that could well have existed in a Charles Dickens novel. A society with strong class trimmings faces upheaval at the end of an era of growth. A declining whale population proves disastrous for an economy dependent on whale oil, leaving the poor without jobs and the rich horrified at the prospects of revolution.
After a political coup, players need to find their way through the turmoil, by playing either as the dethroned Empress of the Isles, Emily Kaldwin, or as her Royal Protector, Corvo Attano, in a quest to reclaim Emily's throne. Their journey guides them through a wondrous Victorian world built on ideas about the nation-states of nineteenth-century Europe, obsessed as they were with capitalism, scientific industrialism and empire building. Added to this historical, socio-economical mix are elements of a dark, ancient magic that add to the game's tension and mystery.
Victorian-era steampunk design is nothing new in video games. But what puts the Dishonored games apart from titles with similar visual styles, is the phenomenal art direction. In interviews, Art Director Sébastien Mitton explained Arkane's golden rule in designing the game's universe. In his words, 'art is not graphics', suggesting game art is about meaning and message first, and about technological specifications only later. To non-gamers this will seem pretty obvious, but in the tech-savvy world of video games, game art is often discussed in terms of visual output, and valued on quantitative measures like 'frames-per-second' or 'pixels-per-inch', barring a proper valuation of game art and design.
Arkane Studios stands out as a studio that excels in its art output. Based in Lyon, France (with a second studio in the US), it profits from a culture that values art for art's sake, and from a system of French art schools that teach pupils more than mere (digital) drawing skills. This type of training leads to art that is infused with ideas, and to game art assets that communicate something larger or deeper. A Victorian house in Dishonored is about more than a Victorian style of architecture and upholstery, because of its connotations with European class societies, and nineteenth-century industrial cities. A steampunk vehicle (or rather: 'whale oil-punk', in Dishonored's case) is about more than ways of transport and shiny copper parts, as it talks of technological prowess and scientific ambition. Hence Mitton's emphasis on the thoughts behind any design: Arkane tries to do something right in what he calls 'pre-production ideas', to the effect that “even when you display [your ideas] with less polygons, with less color [in a game], it will look cool.”
This predisposition led Arkane's design team to some pretty amazing exercises. Arkane wanted human characters to feel realistic, yet express their history and personality. To do so, they hired a sculptor, who made clay busts of the main characters, and adjusted those untill the art team was satisfied. Only then these clay models were scanned, digitized and polished in 3D modelling software. This method of using analogue techniques for the research phase of game art development is far from standard in the games industry, but serves an important purpose: the focus of the art team is on the art, especially in the important early stages of development, and not on the software they eventually need to make a video game.
The end result is downright spectacular. From concept art sketches to in-game renders, the art of Dishonored 2 is some of the finest in the games industry. The technical mastery and wealth of ideas give character to each individual piece. The beautiful, muted color tones, the 'classic' brush stroke techniques, the strong themes and immaculate composition are amongst the best the arts of today have to offer, digital or not.
Players of the Dishonored games are well aware of this. The Empire of the Isles feels alive and authentic, the game's story and gameplay are established in an interesting and functional setting, with loads of fantastic details to feast your eyes on. It's a well-designed, dark steampunk world, a place of nightmares and bloody power struggles, but also a place full of character and aesthetics, beauty and elegance. A place, in short, that could only have been brought about by a studio's insistence on the meaning and message of their in-game art.