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."
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."
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."