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The Art and History of Arkane Studios

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The Art and History of Arkane Studios

Arkane at 20: originality clearly rules.

Arjan Terpstra

18 Sep 2020 ⋅ 6 min read

Arkane Studios is 20 years young this year. It's no secret Cook and Becker is deeply enamoured with the games and game art of the studio. Games like Dishonored and Dishonored 2, Prey or the newly announced - and spectacular looking - Deathloop all exude an artistic quality that's rare to find in video games.

Hold on - rare? Perhaps this sounds surprising in an era when most modern-era video games are fantastic-looking? Yet in a sense, they are: most studios take full advantage of the possibilities in graphics display, outdoing one another in their quest for the fastest frame rates or use of groundbreaking ray-tracing technology.
Dishonored 2 concept art
Dishonored 2 concept art
Today's incredible graphics standards trick us into thinking all games are equally great-looking, and yet this is entirely not true. How an object shows on your screen is different from what the object is, what artistic vision is expressed with it and what purpose it serves. Look at visual quality through this lense, and you will notice strong differences between games and game studios - and understand what sets Arkane apart from their peers.

Genesis

Started in Lyon, France in October 1999 as a small team of 'immersive sims' aficionados, Arkane Studios established itself by launching the game Arx Fatalis in 2002, an action RPG inspired by Ultima: Underworld. The game was praised by critics but didn't find commercial success, which led the studio on a bumpy road of doing projects for others, like Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006), a game built for Ubisoft, and work-for-hire tasks on BioShock2 for 2K. Around this time, studio founder Raphaël Colantonio moved to Austin, Texas, to set up a second production studio, one with better access to the games industry in the US. This setup would last to this day, with the Lyon office doing the heavy lifting on games production and the Austin office geared towards everything else.

The bumpy road ended in 2010 when Arkane was approached by Bethesda Softworks to work on a new game idea: a ninja stealth RPG set in feudal Japan. To Bethesda, Arkane looked well suited to bring this idea to life - RPG's had been Arkane's bread and butter since the start, expertly mixing top grade melee fighting with strong world-building. Arkane took up the offer, impressed Bethesda staff with the quality of the work they did and before long was acquired by Bethesda's mother company, ZeniMax Media, ending years of financial insecurity.
Dishonored2 screenshot
Dishonored2 screenshot
Dunwall

The name of that ninja stealth game was Dishonored. Needless to say the ninja's never made the cut, as Arkane adopted the initial stealth-fighting concept in their own, radical fashion. Out went feudal Japan, in came the Victorian-era Western European city of Dunwall, a place defined by the onset of industrialisation. Importantly, it's also a place much closer to Arkane's (literal) home than any story set in Asia. Dunwall is a city not unlike large French cities like Marseille, Nice or Lyon. Places that carry the weight of millennia - Marseille first appeared on maps as the Greek colony 'Massalia', around 600 BC. A weight the Lyon-based studio understood instinctively. History, to them, is everywhere around you - a big difference from US game designers, who have to work with a measly 200-odd years of historical reference for their world-building.

With Dishonored, Arkane found its feet as a quintessential French and European studio. Who else would write a timeline for its fictional city stretching back 4.000 years, like Arkane did for Dunwall? And who else could rely on their game artists to understand the implications of such an impressive timeline? France has a strong artistic tradition, with national art academies teaching 'les beaux arts' with an emphasis on classic skills development and a thorough knowledge of art history. This type of training works miracles when you want to establish a historic fantasy world that feels complete and internally coherent, like Dishonored's world does.
Prey screenshot
Prey screenshot
Science fiction

After Dishonored, this would be a pillar of Arkane's output: the world-building is well-grounded and built from art infused with ideas that go way deeper than the surface of an object. In 2016's Dishonored 2 the incredible Steampunk dystopia is explored further, adding the coastal town of Karnaca to the long list of unforgettable cities in gaming. In Prey (2017) the studio artists again proved their worth, but now in building a sci-fi setting that, paradoxically, carries the same historic weight as Karnaca or Dunwall. The game is based on an alternate timeline starting in 1963 and ending in 2035 that has the big power blocks of the Twentieth century (the US and the Soviet Union) work on a combined space project. This alternate history is carefully reflected in the architecture of space station Talos I, the game's setting, in that it combines things like US art deco upholstery and Soviet functionalism into a new and completely believable whole.
PreyCloseup
PreyCloseup
Player freedom

Apart from the incredible world building and art direction there's another thing that makes an Arkane game such a great experience for a player. Every game gives an incredible freedom to the player to find his or her own groove in the game. In Dishonored for instance, players take on the role of the assassin Corvo Attano. As Corvo, you were assigned missions, but unlike other games in the genre were free to pursue the mission goals in any way you saw fit.

Sure, your mission to find and kill a man wasn't anything new, but the game had you decide how you would approach that guy (use stealth to sneak into his house or destroy a wall to get to him), and by which means you would achieve his end. It's the same type of freedom you have in a Super Mario game: you can use any ability - jump, double jump, fly - to reach a platform, as long as you reach it. The studio is dead serious about playful creativity: when players learned of alternate ways of finishing a level during playtesting sessions, combining abilities in unforeseen ways, the team altered the levels to accommodate this type of play instead of altering or deleting the abilities.
Thug Weapon - Dishonored 2
Thug Weapon - Dishonored 2
Deathloop

Combine these two core strengths, and you get games that are hard to compare to others. There's a ton of stealth games, but not the same freedoms to always use an ability in ways you like. There's a ton of historical themes in games, but not all studios reach the same level of coherence in their world-building. And there's a ton of games that look pretty amazing in 1.000 frames per second, but lack the artistic distinctiveness of an Arkane game. Which is why we're absolutely sure the upcoming Deathloop game (slated for 2021) will feel well-established, aesthetically original and also super fun to play - in any play style we like.
Deathloop
Deathloop

Dishonored 2 Fine Art Print Collection

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