Deus Ex 3′s Producer On Hollywood, TV & Videogames

By David Valjalo on March 7th, 2013 at 2:00 pm.

Following his exploration of that murky world of game-to-film adaptations, movie brat David Valjalo finds himself in deep debate with Deus Ex overlord David Anfossi, talking cyberpunk, Sergio Leone and why the forthcoming Deus Ex film will break the trend and be one to watch.

A couple months back I harped on and on about How Hollywood Should Adapt Videogames. In that feature I addressed – and glossed over – some of the principles in film theory and history that I felt should have a bearing on any move big film studios make on our beloved videogame IP. It got some people talking, a few people arguing and one chap in particular thought it appropriate to chip in with his own musings on the topic. That chap happened to be none other than David Anfossi, the super-producer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the games I had chosen as a case study.

I’d previously interviewed Anfossi on the turf of his studio Eidos Montreal and – without completely betraying my obvious man-crush – it was clear during the short time we spent chatting about Human Revolution (it’s strengths and… boss battles), that he was a professional, sharp-thinking producer who had assembled a dream team of talent to create one of the most cinematic and coherent action RPGs… ever. He was also very opinionated and, refreshingly, open with it. Ask him a question, he’d tell you what he thought, at length, without a PR grasping an NDA or tranquiliser gun in sight.

Eidos Montreal, from the left to the right: JF.Dugas (Executive Game Director), C.Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson, David Anfossi (Executive Producer) and Mary De Marle (Writing Director)

After he’d read the feature, Anfossi and I began trading emails and observations on the topic – with him passionately leading the charge. What followed, as I detail below with his full consent, was an insight into how one of the game industry’s premier creatives sees the route to successfully adapting a game for the big screen, and his own grand ambitions for one of gaming’s most beloved properties. Our exchanges took place sporadically over the past month as – understandably – Anfossi is presently a very busy man (he believes the game industry is currently facing changes on the scale of what “the automotive, movie and music  industries experienced some time ago” and that the future is all about “distribution” rather than new hardware).

The first exchange between Anfossi and I involved his initial, gut reaction to my feature. Anfossi believes that while feature films are an exciting frontier we should also consider “the evolution of TV series compared to films.” An issue I wrestled with in my original feature was quite how a feature film would condense, compress and adequately represent the multi-stranded nature of games that are packed to the rafters with side-quests and peripheral narratives. Anfossi’s solution, for Deus Ex in particular, is to look outside of feature films altogether. “I think for games based on a ”complex” story and addressing [many] themes, a dramatic evolution of the characters deserve more than two hours…” he says. ”For example, the world of DXHR could easily give birth to a TV series of 12 episodes that would fully support the points mentioned and allow viewers to have a complete and satisfying experience. It would be, in my opinion, the best way to share the world we created. Maybe one day.”

I find it strange that Anfossi would choose television as his platform of choice, considering the in-production Deus Ex film, and ask him to elaborate. “What I’m trying to say is that the game industry has remained [ingrained with] old principles and did not see coming the advent of high-quality TV series. And it is a general lack in our industry, of staying in a bubble without looking at what is happening outside.” He may be evangelistic for television but he’s still clearly passionate about the developments of Deus Ex’s move into motion pictures. “Regarding the adaptation of DXHR, it is more about working from the universe [we've already] created than trying to duplicate the game, which is the perfect approach. This leaves the field open for a story that fits this [film] format of “rapid consumption”, in other words, two hours in length.”

But, again, Anfossi loops the conversation back to that overt passion of his: the TV series. “If we wanted to meet the 25-30 hours of the [game's] story, we would have to change the approach and choose a TV series format. It is certain that an episodic format (24 x 1h episodes) allows a better development of characters, of the story and also keeps the viewer in the DX universe for a longer period… I’d definitely like to have the opportunity to participate in the creation of a series taking place in the universe of DXHR.”

Regardless of the medium, Anfossi says there’s one crucial deciding factor that will determine the quality of any adaptation: “The level of participation of the creators of the universe. I honestly think this is the criteria that can make a big difference in the final result. And it is our approach regarding DXHR.”

A TV series would be the best way to share the world we created

The idea that a videogame’s creative team can be of service to a film crew might be contentious for some, but Anfossi’s view is that he and his Eidos Montreal colleagues are “not just working in the gaming industry” as it stands. “Our job is to create deep worlds, strong characters and stories that deal with universal themes. DXHR asks questions, makes the players think, forces them to make decisions. Our first goal, obviously, is to deliver an experience to videogame players, but our approach allows us to easily expand our universe into other media, to share it with other audiences.”

Though he singles out the novel Deus Ex: Icarus Effect as a good example, he doesn’t quite perceive the general cross-media ambitions as having yet been a “great success”. His ultimate, personal goal, he adds, is to create “a meta-narrative with all different mediums supporting a same story at different levels. For example we could imagine a movie introducing the story of the PC game while mobile games could extend the story of characters of the PC game, and graphic novels giving an idea of what comes after the PC game, etc…”

Anfossi’s cross-media long-view of his projects put me in mind of some of the most enterprising film directors of our generation – a Ridley Scott or a James Cameron – and when I asked him what his filmic inspirations are it’s no surprise to find those names both at the top of his list along with Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Sergio Leone (whom he applauds specifically for his reinvention of a genre and unmistakable casting and stylistic choices, which he describes as nothing less than “pure genius”).

“[Those directors] were able to define a genre, inspire several generations and are perfectionists in all aspects of their work,” he says. “But it is their uncompromising approach that attracted me the most and that I apply in my own field.” Anfossi wears his cinematic inspirations on his sleeve – as is evidenced in any one moment of Human Revolution – but, ironically for the man behind one of the most definitive science fiction worlds of recent memory, his main inspirations come from a quite ancient format. “I read a lot, and it’s definitely my favourite medium,” he says before name-checking William Gibson’s cyberpunk classics Neuromancer and Count Zero along with Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, Humanity+ magazine and Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution as the key tomes that helped him conceive and produce Human Revolution.

With such a range of influences on Human Revolution (he also name-checks films like Solty Rei, Akira and Ghost In The Shell) I ask Anfossi if, retrospectively, he sees his work on the game as paralleling that required of the film’s creative team, with his own game itself a sort of adaptation. “What do you think we have made with DXHR? We have developed an experience in an existing universe and that is exactly the same challenge. Even before we started designing the game, we spent two months replaying the first two games in the franchise. This allowed us to extract what we call the DNA, the pillars of the franchise. We also determined which references – which films and books for example – best represented the themes of the game and the messages we wanted to pass on to the players.

We also had the chance to come into contact with members of the original team (eg to check the consistency of the DXHR story versus the established universe). This is a very important step in my opinion. These are important factors that began the design of the game itself. Without this information, the team would have gone completely “off” the DX universe. It should be the same for the teams in charge of adapting a game to the big screen and nothing less. The success of an adaptation/remake/sequel is directly linked to the homework you did before starting the conception of the specific elements of the film. We did our homework and we were able to identify the good – and less good – aspects of the first two games. Then we could frame our design and concentrate our energy on the right places. It’s all about preparation.”

I was pleasantly surprised by the approach of CBS Films

As a producer with a clear vision for how a game adaptation should function and develop, I ask Anfossi if he is happy with the direction things are currently moving in with the Deus Ex film. “Before CBS Films were confirmed, I had many misconceptions about this type of partnership. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the approach of CBS; They came to visit us very quickly to be briefed on the DXHR universe. Roy Lee and Adrian Askarieh were among the visitors and we have kept in touch ever since.”

“Since that time a director has been selected: Scott Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill. And again, that was a nice surprise, because the first action on the part of CBS Films was sending these two creative guys to Eidos Montreal to meet us to discuss the first draft of the script and of course be briefed on the DXHR universe.”

“We, JF.Dugas (Exe. Game Director), Mary De Marle (Writing Director) and myself have freely exchanged our opinions with Scott and Robert. We have not only discussed the script but also the basis of the creation of the DXHR game. And this is where the encounter between these creative makes sense: capturing the spirit of the game and the motivations of the team behind the game. This is what will make the difference at the end. It also helps that Scott and Robert have both completed the game two, three times.”

With the long-standing and widely known interest in adapting Deus Ex for the big screen (Anfossi and his team have previously been involved with proofing proposed scripts in the past but there were “legal and business discussions that had to stop some options”), I ask him why he thinks the IP has such a strong, long-lasting appeal. “It’s a criticism [and a satire] of today’s society and the prejudice of power and lies  of the authorities in the [supposed] name of our security. That said, this element was not our main focus – we were more interested in questions about our nature as humans, how technology is affecting what we are… Those are themes that affect us all and are very current. I think that is what has interested DXHR fans.”

When I ask Anfossi what key elements would have to be present in a perfect Deus Ex film (he optimism shines through when he tells me the perfect film is currently “in progress”), he singles out the “archetypes of cyberpunk” along with the “DXHR signature. This is our signature, it is unique and recognisable but also the treatment of augmentation and the credibility of the near-future setting, these are core strengths of the DXHR universe. The movie should revolve around the same main themes of the game: the question of our nature as humans, how technology is affecting what we are.”

Over the course of our month’s worth of exchanges I have my initial feelings about Anfossi confirmed – that he’s a professional with a clear vision for how the Deus Ex franchise should, and can, prosper in games and beyond. Before leaving Anfossi to his day job, which I’m told has nothing to do with Thief 4 as it’s “not under my supervision, I can’t comment”, I ask him if he thinks the game industry can offer any lessons of worth to the world of cinema, rather than them just running away with our favourite franchises and massacring them for a quick buck.

As ever, Anfossi is honest and upfront: “We do not have lessons to give to anybody,” he says.”The videogame industry is very young and I would even say that we still have much to learn from other industries. We have a format/length that allows us to build our universe, our characters and our stories well, if the creative team is very disciplined and committed to the content it creates. Moreover it would be interesting to ask a creative team of a videogame to work on a game driven by a two hour story. I’d like to try it! My conclusion, though, is that regardless of the industry, it’s all about talent.”

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46 Comments »

  1. InternetBatman says:

    There’s far too much of the author in this. Let the person speak for themselves without contextualizing every sentence they say. Also textboxes.

    • simonh says:

      Ditto, textboxes make sense when you’re flipping through a magazine, not when you’ve already clicked through the break on a blogpost.

  2. PsychoWedge says:

    I absolutely despise meta narrative. I hate it when a story is diverted over 42 mediums and I need a backpack full of different devices to even be able to experience them fully. I don’t want to watch a movie as an introduction to a game, I don’t want to have to play a shitty game on my smartass phone to learn what happened in a story gap in the main game, I don’t want to have to read some comics to learn that a NPC has an actual character which is just not shown in the game, and so on and on. Even worse is the more and more popular becoming… strategy… of having one of these affecting the other (BiowEAre’s last efforts for example). Maybe I’m just to fucking old for this. Well, maybe not maybe but probably… xD

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      I agree. If there’s anything trans-media it should be background details printed in the manual included with the game, not smushed across five different shops. But manuals are soooo unfashionable nowadays, so I guess tie-in novels and comic books will have to do.

      • tobecooper says:

        But they can’t even do background details. I’ve read some tie-in comics and they were all crap. You can’t do anything interesting in tie-ins, because they have to tie-in. They have to repeat the original either in plot or themes, and the final result is boring beyond reason. For publishers it’s printing money, for readers it’s burning money.

        • Tacroy says:

          I dunno, depends on the tie-in comics. The Avatar (Last Airbender version, not USB Aliens version) had some really great tie-in comics.

          • tobecooper says:

            Oh, there are exceptions to the rule, and Dark Horse definitely knows what it’s doing. But the comic was created some time after the end of the main animated series, wasn’t it? They had more free reign than the usual tie-ins created at the same time as the thing they tie-into.

            Recently, I’ve read the first issue of Deus Ex comic tie-in which I thought was just dreadfully bad (art, writing, story, ‘tie-innes’ – everything was lacking). I’ve also read Dead Space ‘prequel’ which was very standard. If read before the game, it would make the game’s story even more boring than it was. If read after the game, it just makes the comic even more superfluous.

          • Liudeius says:

            I’m not a viewer of Avatar, but being an anime, wouldn’t that manga be the story on which the anime was based, and therefore, if anything, the anime would be the tie-in version?

          • tobecooper says:

            @Liudeius
            Despite the looks it’s American, so no manga there.

            @thelongshot
            I didn’t know they did anything before DH. And it was good, you say?
            Well, that’s definitely cool.

        • thelongshot says:

          Can’t reply to the proper post a couple children down, so I’ll do it here.

          For Avatar, there were comics published in Nickelodeon’s magazine during the series run. They were later published in a TB, which I haven’t gotten yet.

        • Josh W says:

          It seems to me that the usual problem with transmedia is that they chop things out of the original work in order to justify the “must read” existence of these tie ins, and then those tie-ins are made in conditions of severe creative constraint and lack of freedom in adding your own themes to the setting, expanding it.

          In other words, you make a good story, chop a chunk out, then don’t give someone the tools or freedom to make that story built around that chunk work.

          Or alternatively, you prematurely fill in gaps that don’t need filling, and writers looking for somewhere to attach try to create mysteries that they solve, often in fairly uninteresting ways.

          I suspect that many brilliant tie ins could be created if people just let someone license a world into their novel or game that fit it, so that people could start with the match, the stories that work together, and then build the links. Game tie ins that come out the blue and can make the franchise their own tend to be much better conceived.

        • Phendron says:

          Transmedia as an afterthought is often very shoddy, but I find transmedia designed from the ground up is fascinating and has a lot of potential.

          Godkiller is a great example of transmedia as a core concept.

    • Maniac says:

      I quite like the idea of being able to get *more* out of a universe through several mediums, be it films, series, books / novels / comics and other funky stuff such as ARPGs, but I do agree that it should never be diverted between, but when you can explore more of a universe through many mediums, I dont see why its a negative in any way whatsoever, but ofcourse, if there are plot-gaps and holes and whatnot only explained in these other mediums, and you *need* them all to get the experience you should’ve had in the first time, its bad business.
      But personally I love the idea of trans-media exploring a universe / world, different characters, different locations, etc.
      Meta narrative / transmedia /whatevertheshit-you wanna call it doesnt have to be detrimental to the experience or franchise, it can be the exact opposite, despite not really having been proven very well thus far. We can only hope Deus Ex is the one that breaks the current fad of tacked on extra gimmicks and whatnot to squeeze money out of fans.

      • PsychoWedge says:

        Sure, having things happen in the same universe is fine. Not only fine, it is great. I like StarWars. And yes, 90% of what is released is mediocre or outright crap but there are the 10% that are good, very good or even brilliant. So I can still watch my old vhs tapes of Eps 4-6, enjoy a game of Rebellion (although I might be the only person on the planet who likes it xD), fly like a motherfucker in my TIE Fighter and blast those rebellion scumbags to pieces and read a couple of books.

        That is absolutely fine.

        The meta narrative, and I stand by that statement, is not. In whatever way, shape or form. But meta narrative and transmedia usage of a universe are two different things.

        A bad example is ME3 with Vega and the asshole assassin of TIM whose name I can’t even remember. Both had comics or a movie or something that introduced these characters. The game did not. So not only had I one of the most boring characters of Biowares entire portfolio on my ship, I also got a villain that just irritated me to no end.

        Using Bioware further, a good example for transmedia usage could be Dragon Age 2 and that strange anime movie they made. Since I didn’t like DA2 and think the movie is a piece of crap the example lacks somewhat in regards to the actual quality but not for the example itself. ^^

    • ankh says:

      I firmly believe that if every meeting was required by law to include at least one miserable cynical person shit like that won’t happen.

    • Fox89 says:

      I don’t see anything wrong with experiencing a universe over multiple formats, as long as each one is self-contained. Flesh out the universe and characters in spin off media, sure, just don’t split a single story into them. Imagine if Mass Effect 2 was a comic. That would suck! On the other hand, if I could buy a comic that showed me what Tali got up to between games, or about how her mission in ME2 went before the Normandy showed up, that would be fine.

      That sort of thing is a nice way to flesh out the universe and characters in a way that maybe wouldn’t work in the original format. I think it would be hard to justify funding a game based on Tali’s research mission. And it would be weird including it as part of ME2 because you control Shepard and co at every other point. But a comic? That would be perfect.

      So no, I won’t dismiss trans-media stuff off-hand. It can be done well and very appropriate. It’s only when you start chopping bits that should be a part of the primary story that it becomes an issue.

      • Vorphalack says:

        I think there is far too great a temptation for the writers of whatever spin off attempt to get too involved with the plot from the main story in order to remain relevant. The first time I encountered something like this was when watching series 1 of Heroes. They produced a web comic which ran parallel to the TV series, and made the unfortunate mistake of continuing the story off screen. So half way through the series we get characters appearing out of nowhere without a back story, characters being written out / killed off in the comic, events in the TV series referencing things that never happened on screen, etc. It wasn’t until a friend told me this comic existed that I was able to make any sense of it, but I still didn’t read the comic as I just wanted to watch the new episode after work, not play hunt the plot over the internet.

    • Lagwolf says:

      I agree. They should stick to what they are good at and not water down the product.

    • Clavus says:

      I really like exploring stories and universes through different mediums and platforms, as long as it adheres to a few rules. One is that every single one should be able to be enjoyed on its own without relying heavily on the knowledge of events that took place on a different medium.

      The Kingdom Hearts games were terrible in this respect: a ton of important story shit happened in the games that were spread over Playstation and handheld consoles.

      A good example, although not fully intended as a cross-media experience, is The Witcher. All the books that were written over 10 years ago are a direct prequel to the game series. Reading them gives you a ton of info about the backstory of the world and the characters, but it’s not required to understand and play the game.

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      I’m reminded very much of the matrix sequels, what with the terrible game that tied into the film and the animatrix. Not a bad idea, but a bit of a jumbled mess in the execution

      • Phendron says:

        The Animatrix was amazing, I found it painted a full picture well beyond the films.

        • tetracycloide says:

          On the contrary, it painted a very incomplete picture but that’s what made it awesome: that it was a collection of very narrow examinations of the matrix concept from wildly different perspectives.

      • tetracycloide says:

        As popular as it is to bash the Matrix sequels on the internet they really don’t have anything to do with the subject at hand. We’re talking about transmedia tie-ins. Additional films in a trilogy that all share the same overall plot absolutely do not qualify.

        Also the animatrix was awesome, possibly better than the first film, what the hell is wrong with you?

    • Vercinger says:

      So true. If you create something for a certain medium, put everything you come up with there. There’s no reason not to just add extra stories as expansions to the game, rather than moving them to a medium that many players likely won’t care about.

      • tetracycloide says:

        There’s nothing inherently wrong with putting out content in different mediums if they’re done well and stand up well on their own. The problem is when you have 50 products in 30 mediums and they’re all basically just marketing pitches for one another.

  3. woodsey says:

    Well I guess it’s nice that they’ve got a good attitude towards it, but I don’t really care.

    Games have more potential than films ever have done or will, as far as I’m concerned, and there’s never been a single game that I’ve said, “hmm, I’d rather watch this”. There have, on the other hand, been lots of films where I’ve said, “hmm, I’d like to play this”.

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      I don’t know about that, I thought Final Fantasy XIII looked like a great film. Never got the chance to see it, though, hopefully it’ll come on TV soon.

      • Ragnar says:

        Final Fantasy XIII was actually a lot of fun to play – the game is probably the most exciting JRPG I’ve played, and I loved that it could be strategic and difficult without wasting my time – but wouldn’t make a very good film.

        FF XII, on the other hand, would have been far more enjoyable as a film, as the story was actually pretty good, but the repetitive, boring, semi-automated gameplay really got in the way of being able to enjoy it.

      • Ninja Foodstuff says:

        There was a film based on final fantasy and it was flipping awful

        • The Random One says:

          That’s because it wasn’t a Final Fantasy movie, it was just a bad sci-fi movie with Final Fantasy on its name.

          Granted, it might not have been a good movie if it had a plot consistent with the games, but at least it would have been consistent.

  4. karry says:

    “I find it strange that Anfossi would choose television as his platform of choice”

    And i find it strange that in these days some people still expect a decent character development from a movie. Havent been to the movies for 10 years, TV is where its at today, good stories need time, actors need time to get into their roles, writers need time to figure out how to write this type of story better. No surprise that any decent TV series only comes into its own in 2nd-3rd season. What can we expect from a 90-minute crappy cash-in movie ? Not much.

    • Vercinger says:

      I scrolled to the comments section to say this. I’ve gotten more enjoyment out of TV series than out of movies.

      • The Random One says:

        I haven’t, but the only difference between TV and movies is the budget they get. A good writer and good actors go a long way.

  5. fupjack says:

    My… enjoyment? of the Deus Ex story has grown in my mind since I finished it, enough that I’d like to see that same story – with the same general sound and visual design – in a movie. If you had asked that while I was playing it, I would have just shrugged, expecting the game to be the best part and a film just a lesser copy.

    I can see now that could be different, though whether that’s just because it’s been a while since I looked at the game itself or because I’ve had more time to absorb it, I don’t know.

  6. cjlr says:

    I am contractually obligated to mention my uncle’s role in this game whenever it comes up. Well, no, I just joked to him about it one time. Still, he looks nothing like the characters he voiced, so wouldn’t be repriving any live-action roles.

    As for REAL comments… You guys up there covered it pretty well. Especially the cynical ones. One one hand, it’s a no-brainer (for producers or us consumer shmucks): take something liked, and make more of it. The problem is walking the fine line between welcome additions (something that adds depth) and unwelcome ones. The unwelcome ones are the ones that cover things that really ought to be in the main work, or, God forbid, are exclusive somehow (time- or vendor-, f’r'ex). Fill-in-the-gaps storytelling versus fill-in-the-intentionally-gaping-plotholes storytelling.

  7. Smashbox says:

    “and why the forthcoming Deus Ex film will break the trend and be one to watch.”

    I literally laughed out loud (LLOLed).

  8. SuperNashwanPower says:

    What happened to that STALKER TV series that was meant to be coming out? Did it just go off like a can of old tuna?

    EDIT: website http://www.kinostalker.com/ the first link at the bottom is the trailer :) Better than youtube’s shit 240p version

    • analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

      Haway man, you can’t mess with STALKER. They(TV/Film execs would give the creative people a PC and a copy of SOC/CS (NOT COP) to research….

      Commissioning executive ‘Where are all the creative people, we had a meeting scheduled’

      Lackey ‘Handed in their notice, they are going to do a Kickstarter, they said ‘we are going to do something worthwhile with our time with some eastern Europeans’

  9. Strangerator says:

    I think for some games, which basically give the player no agency, a movie adaptation would be fine, although I view it as the same brand of IP recycling that brought us Battleship: the movie. It’s almost like some people have become so impressed with their non-interactive cutscenes that they want to extend them to feature length. But don’t we really just play games for the “game” part?

    I’m also waiting for QTE to be somehow incorporated into movie theaters.

    Joking aside, I think games like The Walking Dead would be exceptionally brilliant as interactive movies. Basically people in the audience would vote for which actions to take at key moments, and the story would unfold based on viewer inputs. I have some vague inkling that this has been tried before, but now that gaming is more mainstream I’d like to see it tried again.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    The DX:HR boss fights are cool, in one of them you can shoot Rihanna.

  11. analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

    They need to imagineeeer a future where every box/crate/low wall is so repellant that no one would ever seek cover behind it.

  12. adam.jutzi says:

    I must have missed what Keith said…

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