By John Walker on June 14th, 2011 at 2:00 pm.
During E3 I sat down with Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s director, Jean-François Dugas, and lead writer, Mary DeMarle. With the game nearly complete we talked about the experience of creating a game in such a renowned series, the transhumanist literary inspirations for its tone and design, and how characters nearly had deer legs. We explore the process behind how you can maintain multiple paths, whether it really can be just a straight shooter, and learn that the game was influenced by Johnny Mnemonic.
RPS: What would you say about the original Deus Ex did you want to avoid in this game?
Mary DeMarle: Well, honestly… I liked the second game.
RPS whispers: I did too!
DeMarle: I know all the flaws, and I know why people didn’t like it. But I did like it. But the one thing I didn’t like was that I felt they tried to play the factions… they tried to be so neutral that they lost any character. It’s not that I think you need to try to make a moral statement by this, in fact I think what we’re trying to do with our story is get you to think about it, and make your own decisions. But in that one I think they were so trying to be level – at least when I played it – I didn’t care about either side, I just tried to play to get the best advantage out for me. So one of the things I wanted to do from a story perspective was to get you to care about the character of Adam, and the people in the world, so that which side you choose would have value.
Jean-François Dugas: Going back to the original game, I thought that the combat mechanic was broken in some ways. We thought in the original game, when you were in combat, that squads were breaking off really quickly. After a bullet or two the guy was starting to run because he was scared. It was an interesting concept, but I felt you were losing the intensity of the moment. I wanted to bring it back in Human Revolution – I didn’t want the player to feel cheated, to think “my stats were not good enough”, so even though I’m close to you and I’m aiming at you I’m not hitting you! It works well when it’s turn-based, but in a first-person shooter it’s super-accurate. Putting this artificial system on top of it – I feel there’s something that doesn’t work nicely there. We went to a shooting mechanic that’s more immediate, more intense, but still tactical, you still have to think about what weapon to use, what kinds of ammo you have, what enemy is in front of you. We wanted to give augmentations that would improve your ability when you’re in firefights, but not artificially diminishing you. So let’s start normal, and give the players the opportunity to be on normal.
RPS: This must have been a daunting project, just to approach.
[Much laughter from all]
Dugas: We said, “Sure, why not!”
[More, slightly cynical laughter]
Dugas: Actually it took me six weeks before saying yes. I knew the lure of Deus Ex, the fanbase, the cult behind it. I was a fan too, I played it back in the day, and it was one of the most striking experiences I’d had in a long time. And I was like, okay, reviving the franchise, you need to be ready, because – like you said – it’s going to be a daunting task. And after six weeks I said, you know what, I think there is something to do with that franchise. Let’s jump into the water and learn to swim.
RPS: But presumably you don’t go in thinking about being Looking Glass/Ion Storm, you go in thinking, we’re going to be ourselves?
Dugas: We didn’t try to imitate other people, we tried to be ourselves, and bring our own essence into this project.
RPS: I don’t think there was any doubt that Looking Glass/Ion Storm had a bias. With the Thief games, and Deus Ex, Spector and his team were biased toward non-lethal routes. Do you have a bias in this game?
DeMarle: I know that I personally like to play stealth, but that’s because I’m not very good at combat! But I wouldn’t say I have a bias toward it. I tried, at least from a story perspective, to bear in mind that that’s a viable way of playing, and the world needs to reflect that. And the characters need to reflect it.
Dugas: I don’t think I have a bias either. I like to play stealth, I like to go through those maps, either to take down enemies or not, and have the feeling that none of them realise I was there. It’s a really good feeling – you feel like you’re eavesdropping, you’re the small camera in the corner that sees everything, but no one realises the camera is there. But as we developed it, it was important that all those aspects would be rewarding in their own rights. If you’re the type of player more interested in shooting stuff, then it should be rewarding as well. You shouldn’t feel like, “Oh my God, to enjoy this game I need to do this.” Especially as we’re giving the choices.
RPS: Is there a chance people will miss out if they just shoot their way through the game? Are they going to lose out on something?
DeMarle: The way we built the story, is we’ve layered it. We created the critical path first, so what is the bare minimum you need to know to fully understand the story by the end, if you do breeze through it. So for people who blast through the game, they’re still going to get the critical information they need. What they’ll end up missing out on is the layered in additional story. They may miss the back story information. But they miss it only in that they didn’t pick it up, but I don’t think they miss it, because it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing from their experience.
Dugas: It should flow naturally.
RPS: So someone playing it as a straight shooter will get to the end and have had a satisfactory experience?
Dugas: Absolutely, absolutely. Even if you play it as a straight shooter, it’s still a Deus Ex game. So you need to be careful, more tactical in your approach. If you just jump in the melee, and there are several tough enemies, it’s going to be a nice challenge.
RPS: The way you play the game is going to influence the paths you can take. Are you influencing players to take the best routes for the way they play?
Dugas: The level design has been about iterations. When we were building the way the different paths give different outcomes, it was one layer at a time. We began with the initial intentions, validating this, and building on top of that until we got things right. It was really about iterating and nothing else. After that, when it was playable, we were playing the maps and looking at how the story was playing out in the missions, and sometimes we were seeing new opportunities that we didn’t exploit. We said, “Gosh, we need to address that.”
RPS: What is the motivation behind the game’s colour-scheme, this very smooth, almost untextured world. It’s a very distinct style.
Dugas: When we started the project we knew we wanted to be different, to look different and original, and we hoped that people would love it. After that, okay cool, that’s what we want to do, how do we do it? We had no freaking idea! But it was the starting point, setting a high-level objective. We started by brainstorming. The transhumanism them is very present in the game. We brainstormed about that not only for gameplay and story purposes, but also from at art standpoint. And very quickly we started to fall on Leonardo da Vinci work from the Renaissance that was really reminiscent of the transhumanist technologies. We started to connect the dots, and see, well, maybe the Renaissance could be integrated into that cyber-punk world. For us to give that flavour it was important that it was helping to support the story, the characters.
RPS: So how does this come though?
Dugas: When we nailed this pattern, those colours, those kinds of things that shape certain characters, always when they have those references they’re pro transhumanists in some ways. When they don’t have them they’re either on the fence or against it. Early in the preview code the first mission you have impurity freaks, and when you look at those guys they’re inspired by the Dark Ages, more conservative, and we try to play with that to support their intentions. And the black and gold – it also goes back to the Renaissance. At the time the lighting was candles. It’s also to represent the Icarus myth, with the augmentations, when you try to be better than you are it can be great, but there’s a danger that you burn your wings. And the black is if you fall back into the sea, the dangers of augmentation. It’s also all about the conspirators in the shadows, manipulating the events of the dystopian world. All those parts of the art direction are there to support the themes, and the experience we want to give.
RPS: Deus Ex is one of very few games that has inspired me to read books and explore philosophical ideas. What are the literary references that have influenced this game?
DeMarle: I know when we first started working on it, we lifted a lot of writing on the singularity, and on transhumanism, and we read a lot of Kurzweil…
Dugas: Joel Garreau
Demarle: And we looked at a lot of the philosophical thinking about where is technology combining with human biology techniques. So we didn’t necessarily look at the great philosophers of the Renaissance, we looked at now, and the theorists of today.
Dugas: We have been inspired by a lot of real science books like that, but also by the classics, Bladerunner, Ghost In The Shell. We went into some underground anime, we even went back to Robocop, to Johnny Mnemonic – even though it’s not a very good movie there are some ideas that can be really interesting. We really covered everything we could.
RPS: Was there ever a temptation to go in a more Cronenbergian direction?
Dugas: We wanted it to be uncanny, not disturbing.
DeMarle: Some of the early designs were – well, if you’re going to redesign a human leg to make it faster, you’re not going to model it on a human leg, because human legs aren’t fast. But animal legs are, deer legs are. It was pushing in that direction a little bit, and I think we pulled back from it because it was a little bit too weird for us.
Dugas: But it was still more uncanny than disturbing. Cronenberg can be really deeply into some fucked up stuff.
RPS: So no guns made out of bones in this game then?
Dugas: No, no. So we shot more for the uncanny aspect, like mechanical arms, you can twist the wrist in weird ways and what-not. And it was also to keep the theme of transhumanism alive in the mind of the players, because there is always something that’s off, that’s weird, so we constantly keep the theme alive.
RPS: How much do you explore this idea of being detached from your own humanity through the augmentations?
DeMarle: The way we’re exploring it is, we have the central conflict that you’re trying to solve, and you have various people you encounter along the way, and various factions – I hate using that word, because it makes you think of the wrong things! – but you have different organisations who support certain views, and who believe certain things. So as you go along you’re exposed to those different things. And then we use side-quests. We didn’t want side-quests that say, “Go save someone’s cat,” or “Go kill a thousand rats.” So the side-quests tell you more about Jensen and his background, or they explore the issue from different sides, maybe you’re getting involved with somebody who is dealing with some problem with augmentations. So we can expose to you the differing views on this. Is this good for society to go in this direction? Is it good for mankind to go in this direction? And then certainly through emails and books that you’re reading – we have tons of books in the game. In fact, we should have had an achievement for reading every single one. No book is repeated. Then there’s two different types of books. There’s the XP books, which are the scientific ones that tell you more about augmentations and how they work, which give you experience points. So we explore it those ways as well.
RPS: So when you announced the game the reaction was, well, not great. People were excited about new Deus Ex, but upset that it wasn’t by the original team. There was a general atmosphere that you wouldn’t do a good enough job. How did you as a team protect yourself from that?
DeMarle: For me, when you start working on something, it’s very easy to isolate yourself, because you’re just focused on just getting it done. And we were doing something that was so ambitious, and we are big dreamers. We build something and we think, “Oh, it’s simple.” And then when we dive into it we start to discover, “Oh, it’s a little more complex than we thought!” So what I’m trying to say is that eventually we were so busy that we had no time to focus on what people were saying.
Dugas: We were naïve, and very busy. Those things combined together.
RPS: The perception seems to have significantly shifted now, people are far more hyped up. Have you been following this, or have you tried to avoid too much communication with the player base?
Dugas: No, we’ve never shied away from showing the game to Deus Ex fans. At first we were really nervous. Internally we thought we’d managed to make a real Deus Ex game, and it was starting to shape up and come alive. We were not one hundred percent confident, but enough to be able to show it. And when the players played it, Deus Ex fans especially, they were like, “Wow, it feels like Deus Ex.” Even some of the original developers of Deus Ex were presented with the game, and they said, “Yes, this is Deus Ex.” And we were like [giant sigh of relief].
DeMarle: Sheldon Pacotti, the original writer [of Deus Ex 1] – actually he contacted us. When we first started we knew we’d need more writers. And I thought, “I’d love to contact Sheldon”, but I knew he had a job, so I didn’t even bother. And then all of a sudden he contacted us, three months later, and said he was really curious and offered advice. So we were immediately, “LET’S CALL SHELDON!” So we brought him in as the story consultant. He sent me an email recently saying, “It looks like you guys are really going to revive this license. Great job.” It was really great to get that from him. And to get his input on the game.
RPS: Thanks for your time.