Exploring Arkane Studios’ Designs

Last week, we had a chance to watch an insightful Noclip video dedicated entirely to the opening level of Arkane Studios’ Prey. And if thanks to it you now wouldn't mind knowing more about Arkane's design principles, you can continue learning about them thanks to a new series of articles on Bethesda’s website.

First, we have a detailed look at how Arkane designs their levels, then, we have this feature where the developers discuss their favorite characters, and finally, this article goes bigger and talks about Arkane’s worldbuilding. Here’s the latter:

Years have gone by since Dishonored launched, and I still find myself daydreaming about Dunwall.

I crave the world and I yearn to uncover even more of its secrets – so much so that I’ve replayed it many times. The world feels so alive that it inspires me to tell my own stories, and that’s a very special thing for a game to do. I skulk through the fetid alleyways of Dunwall and I listen to guards’ conversations. I reload quicksaves when I’m spotted because I absolutely cannot kill anyone; that’s just not who Corvo is for me.

Crafting a game that does both – overflow with details while allowing the space for players to create their own stories – is a tricky balancing act for developers. Creating worlds that are alive, but not overwhelming. Unique and memorable, but familiar enough to feel grounded and real. This kind of worldbuilding is a strength of Arkane, and they lean on their love of the little details to help them – and you – tell their stories.


Arkane worlds aren’t simple backdrops or tools to propel the main character’s story along. They have history. They have a spirit of their own, and the teams in both Austin and Lyon are dedicated to doing everything they can to breathe life into each world.

“We are very much into creating a deep setting where there are layers of history,” says Harvey Smith, Studio/Creative Director at Arkane Austin. “We understand the architecture of the place, and the waves of settlers that came in, and how the foods have changed since then. Arkane is the kind of studio where we just really care about creating worlds.”

But as Dinga Bakaba, Game Director at Arkane Lyon, tell us, each game requires a different approach to worldbuilding. If you apply the same ideas and principles to every world, you end up creating the same worlds over and over. For Bakaba, “I like to start by thinking of the player, even in broad strokes. What’s the player’s fantasy here? What does he or she do? This gives us a good sense of the character we want to create, and from there we start defining things around that character. Since every player and character are different, their goals and the questions surrounding them lead us down different creative paths when we’re constructing our worlds.” Mind you, an Arkane world still has to exist far beyond the boundaries of the protagonist’s imagination. “The world is an expression of who the character is, but not necessarily with the impression that the world is about them.”

And should the team hit a block in building these expressive worlds, they simply take a step back and consider what they’ve already put to paper. “We’ll start thinking about big, broad questions like, ‘Is there a government here,’” Bakaba tells us. “Then we’ll write down all these questions to use as a jumping off point later, refining and deepening our answers when we have a clearer idea of the world. The goal is to get to the point where the in-world logic we build can answer most of our questions for us.”

How does the development team express the answers they come up with to the players? Rather than cramming every single detail into game’s main story, Arkane instead lets the history of world shine through, using environmental storytelling instead of direct narrative handholding.

Take the first Dishonored, for example: “My favorite little piece of environmental storytelling was the use of Emily’s drawings in Dishonored to reflect the kind of world the player was creating through their actions and choices,” says Steve Powers, Senior Level Designer at Arkane Austin. “It was so satisfying to see the reactions on player's faces when this innocent child started drawing heads on pikes.”

In our feature focused on level design, Arkane Lyon Campaign Designer Dan Todd told us so much of the level design and worldbuilding is centered around creating a world that feels grounded and real, so the “weird” stands out. That’s why the team at Arkane layers in all that lore and those little environmental touches that make you feel like the world is a living thing that responds to you – a world that you can lose yourself in.

When a game world feels grounded, it makes those outlandish elements pop even more. Without the deep immersion offered by Dishonored’s world, The Outsider might go from a god-like otherworldly trickster to just a nosy goth with a weird sense of humor. Those altars you see littered around the world. The whispers of the bone charms tucked away in dark, forgotten corners. All little signs in an otherwise “real” world that point to something strange at play. And it’s these “little” things and this attention to detail that makes the levels and worlds of Arkane games so memorable.


“When it comes to seeding narrative into our worlds, every project finds its own balance,” explains Sebastien Mitton, Art Director at Arkane Lyon. “Our philosophy is to include enough small details for the players who explore a lot and really live the experience to find on their own and feel a sense of accomplishment, while also making the game accessible and providing enough details for the more causal gamers so they get the full story and come to an understanding about the world we’ve put them in.”

“This is going to make me sound really evil,” Powers begins ominously. “But one of my favorite things that I’ve done at Arkane has been designing the Whale Slaughterhouse in the Dishonored: Knife of Dunwall DLC. It was a great opportunity for us to use a level and a location to show the player some of the supporting fiction that made the world of Dishonored tick. For example, moments like Bundry’s slurred ramble that he delivers to the suffering beasts – all the details that communicate the horrors of whaling. It’s grim, but important for giving players a unique view into our worlds.”

Like a proverbial iceberg, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface of Arkane’s worlds for players, like me, who want to seek it out. On each of my return visits to Dunwall, I’ve uncovered more history, more depth to the political ideologies, more insights into the religious extremism of some factions, more shades of gray – and even more of those unforgettable, intimate details of a seemingly random NPC’s life. These are just a few examples of what makes an Arkane world feel so real and lived in.

“I love the Overseers fiction in Dishonored for that exact reason,” says Bakaba. “When you dig into their belief systems and holy texts you find a very coherent religion. Some things are extreme and some things actually seem to make sense, but you can imagine a reality where people would actually follow a religion like that. I mean, unlikeable as the Overseers are, to some extent they’re right! The Outsider exists and he’s playing unhealthy games with the lives of human beings. It’s a very interesting thing to explore in a game, and I think the fact that we love to tackle subjects like these is just one of the reasons players love spending time in our worlds.”

And with that, I’m going to go replay Dishonored. Again.