Photo: Xbox Game Studios
Featured Feature

Power Fantasies and the End of Arkane Austin

Duncan Fyfe

When Warren Spector was a producer at Origin Systems in the 1990s, he had a business model. “I would start up four projects, two internal and two external, and I’d kill two projects every year that weren’t going well,” he says in Jason Schreier’s book Press Start: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry. “I would tell people that’s what I was going to do. ‘Be one of the projects that’s going really well.’”

Victorious in Spector’s system were Ultima Underworld and System Shock, the forerunners of what became known as the immersive sim. Games in this genre present an obstacle and allow the player to surmount it in multiple ways: climb over it, blow it up, tell it to move, swim underneath it, whichever way they choose. Over time, the tools got more inventive: possess rats and squeeze through a sewer grate, hack a robot to destroy something, transform into a coffee cup and roll underneath an obstacle.

Spector repeated his approach for the 2000 title Deus Ex, still the apotheosis of the immersive sim, by constituting two design teams and pitting them in conflict, which he later called “probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” In that contest, designer Harvey Smith triumphed; he headed up Deus Ex’s sequel and, in 2012, moved onto Dishonored, with the studio Arkane Austin. “Dishonored,” said Spector, “is the series that best captures the spirit of Deus Ex now.”

Arkane, which at one point operated out of studios in Lyon, France, as well as Austin, Texas, has spent most of its life iterating on the immersive sim, as has Smith, becoming the foremost developer in this genre. So it’s no surprise that Arkane Austin’s latest and last game, Redfall — a multiplayer vampire shooter either a conscious departure from the immersive sim or an attempt to graft it upon a more commercial business model — evidently performed poorly enough to shutter the studio earlier this year.

Immersive sims, despite their flexibility of approach, train players to be specialists. They can become a walking weapons platform, the queen of the shadows, the rat god who rides the wind. A studio of immersive sim experts can’t easily switch tracks and deliver a larger, more commercial title. But then, it’s not like they had a choice.

While Arkane had become better at making immersive sims through iteration, the games weren’t doing the business they once had. The Dishonored sequel from Arkane Lyon and Arkane Austin’s Prey underperformed. Whether or not it contributed directly, the quality that once made an immersive sim special — the ability to “play your own way” — has been absorbed pretty wholly into the broad open world playgrounds of Skyrim, Fallout and Breath of the Wild. “Most of the things that made immersive sims kind of cutting edge are everywhere in games [now],” Smith noted before Redfall’s release.

If those games that drew so directly upon the values of the immersive sim could be huge hits, then perhaps the people best in the world at making immersive sims could play in that space, too. Well, we don’t know, because although Arkane went into the open world for Redfall, its ambitions were more lucrative. Not only were they chasing open-world trends, it was also creating an online-only co-op games-as-a-service shooter in the vein of Borderlands, Destiny, and Overwatch. In Schreier’s account at Bloomberg, owner ZeniMax Media fancied the project would make itself a more attractive acquisition target for Microsoft, even as the change in direction confounded Arkane Austin hires old and new, who had signed up to work on single-player immersive sims. (Schreier estimates that during Redfall’s development, Arkane Austin lost 70% of the staff that had worked on its previous game, Prey.

That is a different, though compatible, explanation than the one Smith gave: “If you work on the same thing for long enough you eventually want to clear your head and stretch a little.” It makes sense for Smith since he has been working on these games since 1994. Though he added, “I think we will eventually go back to the very sealed immersive sim-like environments,” suggesting that “a little” might really be the extent of his interest.

But whether he was making immersive sims or not, there is the lure of getting back to a hit. “Dishonored was important to me because I was like, well, maybe I just got lucky that one time [with Deus Ex]?” Smith said in 2022. “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.” Redfall was a commercial play for a studio that was out of power and wanted it back, if not for the glory, then just to survive. 

Redfall feels (and is) a termination of the story Arkane has been telling across all of its games since Dishonored, not just with immersive sims but where power is the central theme. In the Dishonored series, the player is a powerful character — an empress or her protector temporarily embarrassed by a coup — but the game is less interested in the power accorded to them by their positions at the head of empire than the toys they get to play with. 

The true power, in so far as it is interesting to the designers, is supernatural, such as possession, teleportation, or slowing time. And it’s bestowed by a character called the Outsider. As a force, the Outsider is so enigmatic and grim that it’s logical to wonder if his powers are given at a price. What is the cost of a deal with dark forces, struck to advance your quest for the throne? 

Nothing much, as it happens. “There are many myths about how if you want power there is something to trade,” observed Raphaël Colantonio, who directed the first game with Smith. “When we started to design [Dishonored], we thought it would be interesting to tempt the player with powers, and if they decide to use them the world grows darker. Because it’s an interesting dilemma…. [But] we don’t want to punish players for having fun.” Though the Outsider cuts a brooding figure, he only a spokesman for the freeplay pleasures of the immersive sim: “How you will use what I have given you falls upon you… I will be watching you with great interest.”

Morgan in an orange jumpsuit walking on a platform away from a creature in Prey.
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Fun wins, as it usually does in game development, but the original Dishonored was the last time Arkane was so indifferent to the narrative cost of power. Prey, directed by Colantonio, was built around the idea that the player should be tested on whether they deserve the extragenic powers they have been given. If they were found to have used them irresponsibly, they were destroyed. Prey, Colantonio told Newsweek in 2017, dealt with “identity, empathy and who you are…. What does it mean to be human?” (Hedging, designer Ricardo Bare added: “You can play it as a science- fiction action game. It’s super fun; the aliens are super deadly.”)

Not coincidentally, perhaps, as the games embraced nuance the studio’s commercial fortunes declined. Colantonio later said Prey sold horribly and he left Arkane in part over a corporate directive to title the game Prey — in reference to an unrelated IP owned by the parent company — over his objections. “I’m grateful that a company will give me the means to make a game and trust my ability with so many millions of dollars… but there is a bit of the artistic, creative side that is insulted when you tell this artist, ‘Your game is going to be called Prey,’” he said. “I’m not in control of my own boat at this point.”

In Dishonored, power was fun for its own sake, and when you got your characters back on the throne, a glossy if hazy golden age followed. But everything Arkane has made since Prey has been concerned with the idea of destroying power at its source, even though power is the thing that gives the player means and trusts in their ability.

The change is best observed with Dishonored’s Outsider, who at the peak of Arkane’s success was an esoteric but in practical terms benevolent stand-in for the game designer: here are your tools, go have fun, as power is play there should be no punishment for it. After Prey and Dishonored 2 didn’t sell up to expectations, the Outsider found himself on trial for his life in the latter game’s DLC: Death of the Outsider. The case for his murder is not well prosecuted, only that he represents a great wellspring of power, and that some of the individuals he chooses to let draw from it might inflict harm upon the world. “The Outsider’s gifts come with a price,” grumbled a character, which has been historically untrue.

But there was a price, the DLC reveals, one heretofore not glimpsed by the player: The Outsider, far from being a happy champion of play, was forced into his position as a child by a cult of wealthy weirdos. So power never came at a price for the player, but for the game designer figure, there were strings attached. There is a purity to the push-and-pull of the designer-player relationship, but the designer does not often get to be in that position without giving something up. The Outsider does not have to die at the end of the game, but in any event, he is removed from his role as a human transformer of supernatural power. Nobody should have that power, is the final message of the Dishonored series; nobody should make games.

Billie from Dishonored leaning up against a large mechanical contraption with wheels and gears.
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

The wealthy weirdos, a favorite archetype for this sort of thing, returned in Arkane Lyon’s Deathloop, where the power they had cultivated was of immortality on an island where a single day repeats itself eternally. The point of it is that there are no consequences to the free exercise of power — the design philosophy of the first Dishonored, in other words. But in the world of Deathloop, this philosophy reveals itself as grotesque and hedonistic. The player takes on the role of Colt, who is given a share in this power, but as we learn, we were complicit in its creation. His moral imperative is to master the power only for the purpose of destroying it — or revel in it, which is perceived as part of the same deadened hedonism that animates the game’s enemies. 

Therefore, a player should play a game only for the sake of ending it, which is quite the opposite philosophy to, say, a game-as-a-service hero shooter. But in Redfall, with its always-online vision of Massachusetts as populated by immortal vampires, the object once again is to end power by killing vampires, not to celebrate it. Though the player possesses certain special abilities, the power — the advancement in human evolution that players spent Dishonored, Deus Ex, Prey, and BioShock cultivating in themselves — is now in others, and it codes them as enemies. “Come out,” some roaming goon mocks the player, shortly before they are shot in the head. “Don’t you want to be something better?” Yes! In fact, that used to be the whole point.

Redfall is existentially mixed-up, a narrative about the rejection of power while also simultaneously a gambit by Arkane to get their power back. It’s easy to chalk Redfall up as a wrong turn in the evolution of the immersive sim, an attempt to extrapolate its principles to a demonstrably more popular genre. Except that Microsoft, which acquired Arkane’s parent company ZeniMax in 2021, packaged the announcement of Arkane Austin’s closure with three other studios, at least one of which had recently delivered a critical hit. The message was muddled, as if to say that the success or failure of a studio ultimately weighs little on its survival. Or rather, the message was muddled so as to say nothing at all, for the prerogative of power is not having to explain itself.

Arkane’s games have always been about power, not power bestowed by weapons or equipment, but concentrated in the individual. Killing the Outsider — and for that matter, spinning up a studio-saving hit in a buzzy, profitable genre — was a kind of fantasy that in the wake of Arkane Austin’s closure looks even more fantastically remote. “Could we kill God?” they ask in Death of the Outsider. “You found a way to kill God?” Can the individual become empowered enough to transcend and escape the systems that could kill it? 

Arkane Austin made great games, on the whole, but it makes for a bad story of its own. Its lights were turned on and then off, in such a way as to emphasize how far out of its control Arkane's own fate had become. The end gave the lie to the premise of the immersive sim: Ultimately, it did not matter how they played it. The player is dead and the Outsider exists eternal, unknowable.

Duncan Fyfe is a writer and game designer. He lives in England.

Success! Your email is updated.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.