There are those couple games every year that try to be many things to a gamer. When you're a developer dealing was a property like Deus Ex, you're pretty much obliged to deliver a multi-faceted experience. It's one that includes deep character ability growth, an engaging story, hacking, and of course, a multitude of ways to diffuse a hostile situation. It's a tall order but Eidos Montreal took it upon themselves to revive the franchise. Another item on their task list was gracing us with an hour of their time over brunch during a visit to San Francisco. We spoke with Lead Game Designer, Jean Francois Dugas, and Producer, David Anfossi about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its connection to da Vinci, James Bond and the Icarus myth.
So after the first hands-on session with the preview build, I became less worried that Human Revolution wouldn't live up to the Deus Ex name, so much so that HR plays as much as an homage as much as it is a sequel. You start your first mission, and you're already asked "Would you like a sniper or would you like an assault rifle?" just like the first game. Yet many gamers don't want just an homage, so what has your team done to transcend that?
Jean Francois: It's interesting what you're saying because we've always been serious about reviving it, creating a Deus Ex game that lives on its own. The weapon choice scene you reference we did deliberately to resonate with the old fans, to bring them back to the
old game. After that it was just a natural evolution while keeping the original game in the back of our head, and using that subconscious influence. We wanted to recapture it, but there's no magic recipe about how to recapture it. I know it's vague, but we went with what just felt "right" to us. So it's comforting to hear that gamers like yourself are being reminded of the first game. It's a positive surprise because we did not have a Step 1-2-3-4 recipe to pull it off. It sounds SO cheesy, but we went with our hearts.
David: It was a long process as well, taking almost 3 years, and multiple iterations to find the right mechanics to obtain the Deus Ex experience.
So how did your studio get involved to begin with?
JF: It's a long, long food chain [Laughs.].
D: At the beginning it was a strategic choice. As you might know, Montreal is very, very competitive when it comes to attracting talented people to the studio. We looked at the portfolio because there are a lot of sleeping franchises. We saw Deus Ex and we
thought, "That's what we need to attract the right people." We started with that.
The arguable "dumbing down" of Invisible War might've been indicative of what console gamers might be willing to handle in terms of a game's complexity. With Human Revolution sticking more to the original Deus Ex, it does seem you're giving console gamers a lot more credit.
JF: I think the market has definitely changed since then. 10 years ago a lot of PC games allowed for a lot of complexity, and console games were more simple and straightforward. But since the continued growth of the console market, I think that line has blurred to the point that you can have the same experience on console that you can have on PC.
Even though there's a big trend of casual games on the market, I think there are more and more new people playing games who
eventually end up playing consoles and who will have the same open mind that PC gamers had in 2000 in appreciating Deus Ex.
On a side note, even if you've played a hundred first person shooters, you need to have an open mind with Human Revolution. In the playtests we've held in Montreal, we've had players from a wide variety of profiles, from FPS players, to 3rd person action players, to RPG players. We'd let them play the entire game. And it was very interesting to see console shooter players run around the game like chickens with their heads cut off. Many died quickly and easily in the beginning. And then the game forces them to start thinking, by encouraging them to use cover and to analyse the situation. It was great watching them change into level explorers and learning tactics on their own.
Our playtest schedule for each participant was often 6 hours for 6 straight days, and even after the sixth day, they haven't finished it yet because they keep exploring outside of the story. Yes, it's a long game.
D: And it's less about whether it's a PC game or a console game and more about its design and how you present your game to the
player. It's about how you convey your message and the story. It's much more about design and mechanics than the platform these
JF: As I said, it's definitely blurred today. There's very little question about what can be allowed on a console versus a PC. I don't see the difference between the two anymore. Maybe certain kinds of RTS games would be the exception.
In any given year, a few games go with a very movie-like approach with their opening credits, and it was pleasing to see that appear in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
JF: Yes, we try to be original as much as possible on all aspects. We always try to present something that is powerful and the
opening credits were no different. Our inspiration were the James Bond intro credits. Of course what we made has nothing to do
with James Bond; but they have a great sense of style that fits and are always interesting, so much so that the "James Bond Opening" is something you learn to expect and get excited about with the next film. It was an inspiration and motivated us to make the opening a truly important part of the experience as well as tell a part of the story. It sets the tone and puts the player in the right mood for the story.
Adam Jensen turns from this flesh and blood human into a what is practically a robot, and we wanted to do it with style. We did not want to depict it like a typical boring operation that's overly realistic. It's part of the story but we thought it would work great in the credits. It's a great gateway into the real game.
D: And it wasn't like we received an outside mandate to produce a game. This is our baby. You'll see how we put effort in the whole experience. We took special care in every aspect of the game, from the beginning to the titles to the ending.
The game takes about 40 hours if you do the sidequests and exploration. And I guarantee you won't have this feeling of repetition or boredom. We are very particular about providing variety. That's why it took us 4 years.
What was it like blueprinting the game? We're always curious how game developers map out and plan the pacing of a game, whether it does or doesn't have intentional lulls in the action to let the player catch their breath.
JF: What we do after we've identified the core mechanics and the pillars of the game is we then start to identify the themes we want to put forward and explore and then we start to brainstorm on the story itself. We then create the outline and placed 7 to 8 main "beats", and then we flesh out those beats. From there we start the blueprint process. What we do is stay in a room for weeks and weeks with the lead writer, other writers, the lead artist, level designers, art director and myself; it's about 6 to 8 people. By definition, blueprinting is a top-down process. We look at this first story beat that we want to tell and we ask ourselves, "How do we tell this?".
In the start of the game for instance, we want the player to understand what kind of a company Adam is working for and the people Adam is involved with. It's one of the reasons why we chose that walk-and-talk approach in the very beginning of the game. We definitely start broad first, making sure we know what we want the player to see, feel, and experience as well as the means to convey that, and we map that out on an Excel sheet from beginning to end.
D: You can imagine what our meeting room wall looks like at the end of the project, dominated by the blueprint and outlines.
JF: And that includes the various paths you take on choices and consequences. At one point you have to go into a police station to retrive something and you can convince someone to help you out. If you do convince him to help you, he might lose his job. If he does lose his job, he'll come back as a very angry person later in the game while you still have to solve a problem with him.
So with all these choices, the story does not converge into one single ending, right?
JF: There are several endings, yes.
D: The critical part takes 25 to 30 hours, but doing everything takes 40 hours.
JF: Actually in playtests we had one guy playing a map that normally takes 2 hours to go through; he took 12 hours on that map
across 2 days! The observers asked him why he took so long, wondering if he got lost a lot or if there was something he didn't
understand. He says he just wanted to explore everything.
Most anyone I ask about a game's polish period say they wish they can have a whole year or two to clean up the game, but of course they also need to think of the bottom line and get the game out the door at some point. With the game's release set, how happy are you with the polish time your studio set aside?
D: We definitely took our time with debugging. We were very comfortable with the time we set aside for polishing. I think this is the first project I've been involved in that has zero bugs.
JF: Don't get us wrong. A game is never 'finished' in the sense that there are always things we would like to improve or change had we had the time, but what you're going to play isn't a comprimised experience. There is sometimes that gap between what we want to achieve and what we manage to achieve, so in that sense it's never finished. There's obviously a lot we can do if we had another year, but what you have is undoubtedly a 'final' product that stands on its own. There's always things you want to improve, with all projects. I think anything creative is never finished.
And what are your feelings on DLC for the game?
JF: If we did DLC, it will certainly be brand new content, nothing that we intentionally held back in development. Any DLC we make will be able to stand on its own and won't feel outdated.
D: Yes, being outdated is the best way to kill a franchise.
JF: We've been very thorough in Human Revolution. We want to make sure that this franchise stays pertinent for a long period of time. It's not about making this one title and saying, "Bye-bye!" We want to take care of the franchise.
Do you feel four years was enough to spend on Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
JF: For me it was a sweet spot.
D: I do too. In fact we defined the time we needed to develop this game. We reached our milestones and it matched closely to what we predicted in the beginning. The end result is very close to that. We're very comfortable with the content and the quality. We're very happy with the result.
JF: What has been very special over the four years was the original PowerPoint included a speech to establish the concept and the vision of the game, and after these four years the same speech still fits with the end result. That seldom ever happens. Most part of the time, games change, veer left or right. I can tell you that 90% of what we were going to do, we did
Without spoiling anything, let's hone in on the theme that makes the game an actual "Human Revolution".
JF: Finalizing on that subtitle was a LONG process. In development, the title we hand in mind was something else.
D: We can speak about that, no? You can tell him what it was.
JF: The working title was DX3, but we originally wanted the final name to be Deus Ex: Echoes of Icarus. Both Echoes of Icarus and Human Revolution were the finalists. We went with Human Revolution for several reasons. First, it's easier to retain and 'Icarus' isn't a myth that everybody knows. 'Human Revolution' speaks more to people. Even though they don't get that the game is about transhumanism or what not, 'Human Revolution' can be a lot of things. It can mean potential, it can mean a stepping stone into our own evolution. It can be a lot of great discovery. It can be about wars. In the end it's about the new possibilities to be more than what we are right now. We can be stronger, faster, smarter, more powerful, et cetera. What we thought was the beginning and the end of who we are can be expanded into something else. It's the first step toward singularity. The Human Revolution stands for that. And it's up to each of us to decide whether to embrace it or be happy with our current state. So the Human Revolution in the title reflects that humanity is at a turning point in a lot of respects.
D: This is also the opportunity for people to try and control that, which is an important part of the game.
JF: The Icarus myth is all over the place. Since it's not part of the title, things about that myth are more subtle. With the black and gold color scheme, the gold represents the sun for instance. For Sarif Industries, the logo is a wing. Some people will get the symbolism while some people won't. We're fine with that as long as they like what they play and that they're compelled to discover. If after all that they understand all the analogies, then it's a great bonus for us and the player.
The game does a great job in fleshing out the main character Adam and that's assisted by having backstory exposition with just a few scenes in the beginning. It's interesting in a way that makes you want to learn more, but I don't know if there'll be more exposition into Adam's past later in the game.
JF: I think the best way to make it compelling is to give up a bit of the background and leaving it to the player to imagine those referenced events. I think it's more powerful. The things that are untold are more powerful than forcing it through a conversation between Adam and another character. I think it's more interesting and more compelling for the player to picture a background story for themselves.
D: It's part of the immersion. It's my personal opinion, but using flashbacks to introduce a character is the easy way but not the best way. In our game, there'll be a lot of things that the player will access to get backgrounds on the characters and their motivations in the story. Sure, there'll be information about characters through the documents and emails you read in the game but there'll also be a lot of information about people just by talking to them, like the the cop I mentioned before. When you ask for his help, this creates a conversation about his relationship with Adam. You can approach this mission in a different way where you never meet this guy. Even something like walking into Adam's apartment will paint a vivid picture on his past, including some unresolved issues.
JF: To a certain extent, but we leave a lot to the player's imagination. Your play style will determined how much you discover about other characters.
How much backtracking should the player expect in Deus Ex: HR?
JF: Not counting the Detroit city hubs, there is very, very little backtracking. Definitely very little during missions. At least when you do go back to the city hubs, you'll discover new locations. The game does move forward proactively. But if you are a completist, you can backtrack at the end of the mission and try to find all the details that you think you might have missed; it's your decision. It is interesting going back to a crime scene and talk to police officers as they investigate the same area your previously had gun battles in. You might learn something. But once you go into the chopper at the end of each mission, there's no coming back.
What kind of a task was it for you to settle on the game's distinct look, particularly with the color scheme?
JF: It goes back to 2007. We knew right away we wanted to be distinctive. Back then we had no clue on how we wanted to be distinctive but we knew we wanted something different, something compelling that would distance outselves from the competition.
We started to explore the trans-humanism themes and stuff like that and research alongside the art director. We started to follow a lot of work by Leonado da Vinci, about the human body and geometry. It was interesting to dive so deep into trans-humanism and to be led into the Renaissance. Our art director thought it would be interesting to blend the science fiction with these Renaissance themes.
That's what we started to do during the pre-production. At first it was really goofy because we were thinking of all the patterns and architecture of the Renaissance and put it in the game. The result was very goofy and clumsy, but the idea was there. But through that we found some very practical and good ideas. We continued to flesh it out so we eventually found good recipes, and some visuals did stay. For instance, some apartment windows were made to look like cathedral windows. Sometimes these visuals are
very subtle, but it helps to support the story and the flavor of the game.
The Renaissance look became less literal and more of an analogous theme. We see a connection with trans-humanism with how the
Renaissance explored the human body and how to heal ourselves better, giving us longer lifespans, making it a big stepping stone
in our evolution. We think with modern technologies blending with the flesh, we're entering the next big stepping stone into our evolution.
I said before that the gold represents the sun in the Icarus myth, but it also stands for the lighting of the candle in the Renaissance. The presence of black means, among many things, the conspiracies that go on in the shadows of the story as well as the dystopian future.
So it's definitely been more of an association with di Vinci than with Blade Runner.
JF: Yes, but don't get me wrong. Blade Runner was a huge influence but we did not try to replicate it. We were interested in some of the aspects that really worked for the film and we wondered how we can be inspired by that.
D: The fog, the smoke, and the cluttered look are all from Blade Runner.
It's rare to have a game like Human Revolution where it uses both first and third person views. I will admit it was tricky to get used to switching between the two at first.
JF: We have tweaked and fine tuned the camera movement a lot in the past year. Getting in and out of the cover involves efficiency even if that means not having a transition like a camera zoom or pull when going from first to third person view and vice versa. You can't have a pretty camera transition in a fierce battle. We tried to make it as smooth as possible so as not to make it jarring. It's not about setting it up pretty. You want control, whether you are in cover or you want to be on your feet in first person. Gameplay always trumps style at the end of the day.
Finally, how did you come do decide on the decision/choice-based conversation mechanic in the game?
JF: What was important for me was that we didn't want the player's decision making process to be organic. I wanted to stay away from either/or decision making which tends to veer towards good or bad results, and the real world is too gray for that. I wanted you to be exposed to something and you have to deal with the situation where your decisions affects the human beings around you. There are many ways to get what you want in this game and it's up to you on how you involve others in getting those things. You might think that you're making the best decisions, the ones that benefit the most people, but it may not pay off at the end of the game. We don't tell you clearly what are the benefits or drawbacks of each choice you're confronted with in a given time. I think it's more compelling that way. Maybe people won't like it. They may see it as too unpredictable. When you have an either/or situation where black and white is clearly laid out, it makes it too easy to guide your character down one specific path. But we know our approach makes the game more of an experience as opposed to a simple series of if/then goals.