Content Warning: This piece includes mention of self-harm, suicide and child abuse.
At the end of a road called Peach Street, somewhere around the Freeport area of Texas, an abandoned house sits beneath a copse of overgrown trees. Built at the turn of the century, it was once home to a young couple who were engaged to be married. But before the wedding, the bride-to-be was hospitalised in a serious accident, resulting in paralysis from the waist down. After the bride left the hospital, the wedding went ahead. The groom carried the bride over the threshold of their home, and together the newlyweds lived in romantic seclusion until their deaths.
The story of this couple may or may not be true. But the house itself is real enough, and at some point around 1981, fifteen-year-old Harvey Smith crept inside its long-abandoned shell, seeking evidence of this lifelong romance. “We moved super slowly. We tried not to break anything,” Smith says. “Rain had come in through the windows. I think there was a dead animal skeleton, like a dead cat or raccoon. We read through papers, like meaningless stuff, looked at their dishes. Nobody had lived there for a long time.”
Smith and the two friends who accompanied him found nothing that verified the rumours they’d heard about the house. But the experience of being in that space, surrounded by the detritus of people whose whereabouts was unknown, stayed with Smith all his life. “The tension was sublime. At any moment, it felt like somebody might call out from upstairs, or somebody might pull out and beat on the door.
“That kind of drama, even though it’s slow moving and nothing happened, it’s more powerful to me than the rollercoaster.” The rollercoaster is Smith’s analogy for cinematic action games, titles like Uncharted and Call of Duty which funnel the player down a linear sequence of explosive set-pieces. While Smith thinks these games are great, Arkane Studios, the company that he directs, specifically does not make these kinds of bombastic games. “You’re on a track, you can’t get out of the car, you’re rolling along. And at a certain point, you’re meant to feel your stomach drop. You’re meant to scream. You’re meant to go through some cold air. It’s all very carefully crafted, and that is a form of drama. That is not what I’m interested in at all.”
So, what exactly fuels Smith? Across some of the most critically acclaimed games of all time that he’s worked on – including the sci-fi conspiracy thriller Deus Ex and the fantastical revenge epic Dishonored – there’s a pull towards the kind of limitless experiences where it feels like anything could happen at any given moment.
“When I built some of the level design for the first Deus Ex, the little compound out behind UNATCO is modelled exactly after the satellite communications building compound that I worked at in Germany”
“In Dishonored, you can do things like skirt across the rug in this beautiful environment, and you hear a guard, but your health is low and your resources are down. You just duck under the table, and you’re hiding under the desk while the guard stops. He starts talking to one of the ladies cleaning the office, and they have a semi-comical conversation. And you’re hiding under the desk and you know that if you get busted, he’s probably going to kill you or you’re gonna kill him and her, the whole room’s gonna blow up into body parts and violence,” Smith explains. “It’s the drama of exploration and player pacing, and the potential of action, not action. And the longer I can drag out that delicious part – where it may or may not happen – the better.”
These types of games, known by their fans as ‘immersive sims’, are what Smith has spent most of his career making. He tested them at Origin Systems, designed them at Ion Storm Austin, and directed dozens of developers dedicated to them at Arkane Studios – most recently on the vampire-themed Redfall. Known for their highly interactive systems and intensely detailed environments, immersive sims are among the most ambitious games around. They’re also notoriously hard to make, and even harder to sell to a mainstream gaming audience. Today, Arkane Studios is the only developer of its size that still designs them, making Smith the most prominent torchbearer of a genre perennially on the verge of extinction.
Harvey Smith grew up in Freeport, Texas, an industrial town on the United States’ south-eastern shoreline. “You could stand in one direction and see the beach and the oil derricks [rigs] out on the water. In all three other directions you could see smokestacks with fire on the top, and boilers and chemical plants. It looks like something on the Death Star.”
Smith describes his early childhood as being “shattered” by a formative series of events. “I had the blue collar father, the chemical plant worker who was violent and eventually took his own life. But prior to that, there was a lot of abuse of various forms on my mom’s side of the family, and lots of drug problems”. Smith’s parents split up when he was young, and he went to live with his mother. “She was the centre of my universe, basically. And when I was six, she OD’d, and I watched her die.”
Following the death of his mother, Smith returned to living with his father. “It was all the stuff you’d expect from that side, but when people exchange stories, lots of people have had that story. ‘Yeah, my dad was a bit rough or whatever,'” he says. “When you’re a little kid and your mom dies, your world is destroyed. It’s the end of the world. In class, I would just stare at the corner.”
As Smith grew older, he eventually found refuge in fiction and fantasy, initially books, comics and films, and later tabletop RPGs and video games. His first games console was an Atari 2600, purchased by his father.
The Atari 2600 entranced Smith. “I could just lose myself in this world. It’s very similar to a good drug experience, where you feel some things, but also you cease to exist for a while. Any anxiety you have, is just gone.” As for the games themselves, Smith was indifferent to most of them, but one that grabbed his imagination was Adventure, a fantasy game developed by keystone Atari designer Warren Robinett, where players had to retrieve a magical chalice from a kingdom prowled by three dragons. “The key was that it had procedural systems. The various keys to the various castles were rearranged. The monsters could spawn in different places, the items spawned in different places. So every time you played, it was different. And it made a narrative, like, ‘Oh, I left this castle and I went out and I found the sword in this location, and I killed the green dragon with it.'”
By 12, Smith had a group of friends who frequently played Dungeons and Dragons together, but his access to video games remained limited until age 20, when he joined the US Air Force (USAF) as a way of getting out of Freeport. “We had these laptops [manufactured] by Swann; very expensive because they would put them underwater, or they would take them up to high altitude, and put them in cold. They had to survive, and they were like $26,000 each” Smith says. “We used them for mission stuff, but we mostly used them to play Wolfenstein.”
“Deus Ex is the game that sort of put me on the map, which I only care about as far as it lets me do other things that I want,”
It was also during his military years that Smith first encountered Ultima Underworld, which immediately became his “favourite game of all time”. Developed by Blue Sky Productions (later and better known as Looking Glass Studios), Ultima Underworld saw players exploring a sprawling, subterranean fantasy world, and gave them a wide range of tools with which to interact with it.
Underworld was the prototypical immersive sim, and later iterations would expand upon the game’s propensity for giving players a wide array of tools to solve problems in innumerable ways. While most modern gaming blockbusters take place in vast open worlds, where players can visit dozens of locations connected by sprawling wilderness, an immersive sim is typically split into levels set on a single street or even in a single building. But it will give you dozens of ways to explore those limited spaces, and options to approach whatever goal the game has set out for you however you please.
Although it served as an escape from Freeport, Smith didn’t particularly enjoy military life, spending most of it volunteering for night duties in places like Florida, Saudi Arabia, and Germany. He left the USAF after serving his enlistment, and for the first time in his life, had the option to go wherever he wanted. After some deliberation, he decided to return to Texas, but to Austin rather than Freeport. This was partly because he had fond memories of camping around Austin with the Scouts. But Smith also had “one good friend” living in the city, a man named Steve Powers. Powers, who currently works at Arkane, had recently landed a job as a game designer at Origin Systems, the developer best known for the Ultima series of role-playing games.
Smith ended up hanging out with Powers and much of the Origin team, joining their softball team, playing tabletop games in their meeting rooms, and even going on a skydiving trip with Origin’s founder, the future billionaire and astronaut Richard Garriott. All the while, Smith was applying for every job he could at the company. Eventually, he landed a job as a games tester, and soon worked his way up to the position of lead tester on a game called Super Wing Commander.
Then came the moment that would define the rest of Smith’s life. “Over somebody’s shoulder in the department one day, I saw this game. And immediately across the room – you know how people talk about falling in love? I locked eyes with that game. I went over and I was like, ‘What is this?'” The game was called Citadel, although it would soon be renamed System Shock. It was the new title from the creators of Ultima Underworld, coming into Origin (who published games for Looking Glass) for testing. “I was like ‘Who do I have to kill to get on this project?'” Smith immediately went up to the office of his manager, Kay Gilmore, and pitched to her why he ought to be lead tester on System Shock instead. Gilmore gave him the job.
Smith spent ten months overseeing the testing of System Shock, and the experience was transformative. Not only was it a dream project, but it brought him into the orbit of Looking Glass, who were among the most forward-thinking game developers in the world at that time. “A lot of them had gone to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were super bright and super well educated. Instead of going to win math awards they had turned their focus onto video games.” Smith soon found himself chatting about games and their design with people like Doug Church, who literally wrote the book on immersive sim design theory, and Warren Spector, a veteran producer at Origin who would soon go on to direct the most ambitious immersive sim ever made, one which Smith would also play a key role in designing.
“They said ‘How about you work on this ninja game we’ve got called Dishonored, which is just [on] paper right now?'” Smith recalls. “We were like ‘What if it wasn’t ninjas?'”
Smith worked his way at up at Origin to a leading design role on a game called TechnoSaur. But the game was cancelled, and Smith departed Origin to join a startup named Multitude. There, he worked on a game called FireTeam, which Smith notes was “One of the first games with voice [chat], before Xbox had voice, even.” In 1997, Smith was exchanging emails with Warren Spector, hashing out scenarios for a game idea Spector had called Troubleshooter. Smith pitched an idea for a specific mission within this hypothetical game. “[Spector] was like ‘That’s the game I want to make.’ And when you’re directing a game, the more people on your team that get it, every one of them is like a general in your army.”
Smith was hired by Spector’s new studio – Ion Storm Austin – to be the lead designer on Deus Ex, which at the time of its development was one of, if not the most ambitious game ever made. It puts players in a world where every conspiracy theory of the nineties was true, and tasked them with unravelling those conspiracies. Crucially, they could approach this however they wanted, shooting up opponents with a wide variety of weapons, sneaking through high-tech facilities and the backstreets of cities like New York and Hong Kong, hacking advanced security systems to turn them against their operators, or using observation and dialogue to talk their way out of sticky situations.
Deus Ex represented a huge milestone in Smith’s career, but he has always viewed the project in very pragmatic terms. “Deus Ex is the game that sort of put me on the map, which I only care about as far as it lets me do other things that I want,” Smith says. “The more recognition you have in games, the more you’re free to do your own thing.” It was also his most practical project, in another sense. “Deus Ex is also the game where I did the most level design work, where my hands were on the mouse, and I was in the editor. I worked on something like sixty per cent of the levels,” he says.
Most of all, Deus Ex was where Smith figured out what was important to him as a game designer. “What I like is the quieter moments that can explode into violence. I like the fish tank part. I like watching the AI ecology. I like exploring. I like going through abandoned places and having a sense of what happened there,” he says. One level of Deus Ex encapsulates Smith’s more particular tastes – Nicolette DuClare’s Parisian Chateau.
“DuClare, who in the game is the daughter of an Illuminati council member, abandoned the house after her mother’s death and has not returned since.. “I had this vision for that. I wanted no fighting and I just wanted this sad person to narrate you through part of their life. In the end, I’m so glad we got that in there.”
Deus Ex was a smash hit both critically and commercially. Ion Storm Austin immediately set to work on two new games, and with Spector managing the overall studio, Smith was given the task of directing the sequel to Deus Ex, subtitled Invisible War. The follow-up had grander narrative ambitions than the original, but was hampered by being released on both the PC and the less powerful Xbox, resulting in much smaller, simpler environments.
Having gone through a divorce around the same time of Invisible War‘s development, Smith left Ion Storm and spent nine months recovering, before joining Midway Games, another Austin-based studio. Originally, the plan was to make a game inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, which would have “immersive sim values.” But Smith was persuaded by the CEO to instead helm a sci-fi tactical shooter called Blacksite: Area 51.
Blacksite had a lot going for it. A system that let you contextually command a squad of soldiers, levels of the game were set in American suburbia – which felt like a novelty at the time. The story itself was “a satire of America funding people and then calling them enemies later.” But the project was difficult from the start, and ended in disaster for Smith. “I was crunched to death [working] until midnight or one in the morning for six nights a week, for a year.” Then, at a point where Smith estimated the game needed another year to complete, Midway took him off the project and hired a “finishing producer” to get the game wrapped up as quickly as possible. “From my perspective, it basically got shipped at alpha [before the game was feature-complete]. It just needed like six or eight more months,” he says.
Around this time, Smith attended a games conference in Canada, which would have fateful consequences for his career at Midway. “I was talking to the press and I shouldn’t have been, and I was a little too negative [about Blacksite]. And you know what happens? You’ll do an article and then some editor will make up a headline, and then make up the most incendiary headline that they possibly can. It’s something I never said and then it goes wide,” he claims. “So I literally got fired from Midway for all of that.”
Smith describes this incident as a “very negative moment” which took several months for him to bounce back from. He soon found his way back into game development when another friend, Raphael Colantonio, asked him to join his company Arkane Studios. Based in Lyon (although the company would eventually open a second studio in Austin) the French developer had spent the last ten years creating its own, entirely separate strand of immersive sims from the cluster of developers that spilled out from Origin and Looking Glass Games, shipping ambitious fantasy adventures like Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah: Might and Magic.
Smith joined Arkane while the studio was shopping around for a new project. Ideas that he tinkered with included a pitch for a Blade Runner game, and toying with the idea of a fourth Thief game (another series of immersive sims with games previously made by Looking Glass and Ion Storm). In the end, though, Arkane ended up working with Zenimax Bethesda –developer and publisher of the acclaimed Elder Scrolls series of sprawling role-playing games – on a completely new project.
“They said ‘How about you work on this ninja game we’ve got called Dishonored, which is just [on] paper right now?'” Smith recalls. “We were like ‘What if it wasn’t ninjas?'” Instead, Arkane pitched a wildly imaginative fantasy setting based on Victorian England, where an industrial society had harnessed electricity by burning whale oil, and where an amoral god known as the Outsider messes with society using dark magic. “We just did what we love to do, and to our utter surprise, they were fully supportive every step of the way. The weirder we got, the more they were like, ‘wow, this is very distinct’. Most publishers aren’t like that. Most publishers are like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, can you maybe set it in Detroit instead?'” he says wryly.
“My relationship with Arkane Lyon and Austin has been so strong, dude. In January I will have been there for fifteen years. No job I’ve ever had has lasted three or six years prior,”
Dishonored was a project that defied the odds in many ways. A decade on from the highs of Deus Ex, immersive sims were in a slump. Primarily a genre designed for PCs, the platform had become a secondary consideration to consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation over the course of the 2000s. Though they were cheaper and more readily available than the PC, they lacked the power, control scheme, and to a certain extent the audience to make immersive sims commercially viable on them. “At times, it’s been hard to get games funded,” Smith says. “Because games are very expensive. Publishers and executives want sure bets, although there’s no such thing.”
Dishonored, however, proved that the immersive sim still had an audience, and that you could make an aesthetically weird, mechanically complicated, productionally expensive game and have it sell well across PC, Xbox and PlayStation. “Dishonored was important to me because I was like, well, maybe I just got lucky that one time? Dishonored was like, boom, the whole world paid attention. When that happens to you once it’s awesome. When it happens to you a second time, it validates all the bad moments.”
Arkane followed up Dishonored with a sequel, which placed the emphasis of the story on a female character, the Empress Emily Kaldwin, and doubled-down on the first game’s nuanced systems and intricate level design. One of those levels, A Crack in the Slab, sees players exploring an abandoned, southern gothic mansion in two separate timelines: one where the mansion is pristine and opulent and buzzing with activity, and a second years in the future when it is a crumbling, abandoned ruin. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of,” Smith says.
Dishonored 2 is a masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of the finest games ever made. Still, its sales were markedly lower than those of the first game, and combined with similarly underwhelming performance by Arkane’s next game, Prey, it was a stark reminder of the uphill struggle that is making immersive sims. According to Smith, the challenge today is very different from the hardware limitations that stalled Immersive Sims in the noughties. “Most of the things that made immersive sims kind of cutting edge are everywhere in games [now],” Smith says. “Everybody does environmental storytelling. Everybody does visual and audio-based AI to some extent.”
Hence, for its next game, Redfall, Arkane Studios is taking the ideas that underpin immersive sim design, intricate 3D spaces and highly interactive systems, and fusing them with ideas that haven’t been done before. Redfall, which sees players hunting vampires in a small Massachusetts town, will not only be Arkane’s first game to take place in a contiguous open world, it will also be the studio’s first game to feature cooperative multiplayer, with up to four players able to explore Redfall at the same time.
“It’s been the hardest project I’ve ever worked on,” Smith says. This is partly due to the pandemic, which like many other companies saw Arkane and Bethesda adjusting to a work-from-home structure. It’s a change in working life that Smith strongly supports. (“I feel like it’s a thing workers have won,” he comments.) It has also proven a challenge bringing open world and multiplayer to an immersive sim-style game. “If you look at like the Dishonored missions, it might be [across] a couple of streets, and a couple of buildings,” Smith says. “Imagine if you had to do all the streets at that same level of fidelity, with every room detailed: who lived here, a sense of the place, from that mission all the way across town to the other one, even though there’s no missions between.”
Nonetheless, Smith is excited for the potential the open world offers, and the flexibility brought by the optional multiplayer component. “[In] single player, there’s lots of exploration and stealth mechanics, lots of environmental storytelling, and narrative in every square inch of the game,” he says. “I personally think the game is best with two people, because it still has a lot of that, but you’re working with somebody else. When you add three or four people, suddenly it’s like a party. It’s a completely different game with a different pace.”
What Redfall will ultimately mean for Arkane, and the trajectory of immersive sims in general, is yet to be determined. But the studio is already the most successful developer of immersive sims in the industry’s history. Redfall will be its seventh game within or orbiting the genre, five of which have been released in the last ten years. It’s an unprecedented run of stability for a developer specialising in this type of game, a stability that has been reflected in Smith’s own life. “My relationship with Arkane Lyon and Austin has been so strong, dude. In January I will have been there for fifteen years. No job I’ve ever had has lasted three or six years prior,” he concludes. “It feels like an amazing run. I’m not saying in terms of how great the games are, because other people can decide that. But an amazing run in terms of my life.”
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