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Inciting A (Human) Revolution: The Deus Ex Interview

Deus Ex: Human Revolution director Jean-Francois Dugas and producer David Anfossi discuss the unique challenges involved in returning to the world of Deus Ex, from modern level design philosophy to player-driven narrative.

With Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal faces a similar challenge to what Bethesda Game Studios had when developing Fallout 3. The team is developing a modern multiplatform follow-up to a classic hardcore PC-oriented franchise whose reputation has arguably greatly exceeded its original reach in the years since release -- and in an endlessly sequelized industry, gamers default to skepticism about such projects, whether or not they were part of the series' original fanbase.

So it's down to Eidos Montreal to instill their intended audience with the confidence that the studio can pick up where Ion Storm Austin left off with 2000's Deus Ex and, to a lesser extent, its 2003 sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War. The series is characterized by an extreme devotion to systems over scripting and player choice over hand-holding -- qualities that aren't always prized in an era of ballooning budgets and attempts to emulate Hollywood rollercoaster-ride action extravaganzas.

Earlier this year, Gamasutra spoke to Human Revolution's art director Jonathan Jacques Belletete about the game's unique cyberpunk-meets-Renaissance style.

Now, director Jean-Francois Dugas and producer David Anfossi discuss the unique challenges involved in returning to the world of Deus Ex, adjusting modern level design mentalities, and approaching narrative as part of a player-driven gameplay experience.

The original Deus Ex from Ion Storm was very much part of a lineage, a continuum of a particular kind of PC developer working within a particular design ethic. As a new team with a different legacy, how did you approach coming in and saying, "Okay, now we have to make today's version of that"?

Jean-Francois Dugas: When we started, basically we said, "You know what? We need to go back to the first two games and play them extensively and try to really analyze and identify what the core values were, what made those games so special." We did just that, and then after that, we started to work on our game.

One of the first mottos we had was to respect the core values of the story. For us, that was really, really important, so it drove forward all our design choices for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Obviously, we see it as a reboot of the franchise, we see it kind of a new game, with a new character, a new story, and all that, set in the same universe with the timeline of Deus Ex.

But we really wanted to bring that great experience that Deus Ex was ten years ago to a new generation of gamers who might not know it at all, and I think that's what we're doing. We're trying to come back with the choice and consequence, the different gameplay pillars that allow players to play with a different style; they want to be Rambo, they want to be the sneaky agent, or they want to be the tech guy -- this is what we're doing.

It's interesting that you describe it as a "reboot," because it seems like a lot of the messaging so far has been to describe the game as more of a direct prequel.

JFD: We respect the timeline -- in the 2020s there were all the chemically augmented people and all of that, and that's the era we're exploring. Basically, our game is a new story. It's a conspiracy that you have to unravel. Of course, there are some similarities with the old Deus Ex games, and probably some tie-in. Well, more than "probably." [laughs]

Right. In the demo I saw, you have a guy named Tong, and presumably he's related in some way to Tracer Tong from the first game, so there must be some fairly direct connections.

JFD: With Tong, I don't want to speak about anything, but there's something about that character. I don't want to spoil anything at this point.


A lot of first-person games have become more directed and scripted, more about spectacle, in the last several years. Games in the Deus Ex style are not very common these days. What kind of experience have your designers had? Did it seem like they had to readjust their level design mentality for this?

JFD: A little bit. A lot of games we worked on in the past, and for a lot of other developers too, you're used to thinking that every single bit that you build, players need to see, because it's so expensive to be making a game. I will spend three months on something, but if a player doesn't see it -- "Oh my God, we cannot do that. We can't afford this."

But Deus Ex is all about the things you might miss. At first, to be honest, it was hard to convince the team and say, "Yeah, you're building this," because they'd say, "Yeah, but the player might not see it." It's not about that.

What it's about is the consequence of choice, letting them play the fantasy the way they want, letting them explore the maps and find creative ways to achieve their objectives.

This is the heart of the experience. At some point, everybody got on board with it, but at first it was tough to get all the people on properly, because they are not used to making that kind of game.

As for the more, like you said, spectacular aspects, I think by making great systems, like cool augmentations to use and having great enemies, it's going to give you those "wow" moments that make you think, "Oh my God -- this just worked into that, and it was really awesome," while keeping the spirit of multiple pathways and solutions alive. We're trying to balance it out -- keeping what Deus Ex is and bringing in a new generation of gamers.

There are different various to player choice. Games do it differently. One way is branching, like the scene you showed in the demo -- you guys have decided on a number of different discretely authored options, like convincing the guy to let you through the bar, or finding a particular keycode. Then you have the approach of just populating the world with a bunch of systems and saying, "Whatever happens, happens." Are you falling more in the former category?

JFD: In that sense, since we're going with a very detailed art direction, and we push the envelope in terms of the world art, there are not as many physics objects as in the first game. In the first game, basically everything was a physics object. But we do still have those, and you still can play with them, and figure out ways to use them as weapons or whatever you want.

There are some funny things we found. We have sticky mine bombs, and during a play test back in March, one player was struggling with an enemy, and at some point, he threw a sticky mine, but then he moved forward with his gun and the sticky mine got stuck to the gun, and then he was pinned. He was moving around and going, "Ahh!" and then, boom! It exploded. [laughs] We never thought about those things; it was not part of our plan. The day that happened was the first time I knew it was possible.

So, we still have that kind of spirit, but we put a lot of effort into the maps themselves in terms of how you can express yourself through the themes and possibilities. It's not just, "Hey, you have to choose to do this or that." It's more subtle than that. You just play, and you have certain situations to deal with. Maybe if you tried something else, it would have been a different experience. We're trying to keep that alive in all aspects. Even though the physics system aspect is a little bit toned down compared to the old games, it's not to the point that it's non-existent.


You said you've spent a lot of time with the first two games. How do you compare them to one another? As you know, Invisible War has a certain reputation among some players. But as someone who's looking at them from a developer's eye to figure out what works and doesn't work, what conclusions did you reach?

JFD: The first thing I would say is the immersiveness, if that's a word. The immersion of [the first] game was really strong. You were this special agent, you worked for a governmental organization, and the world was really well set. It let you play the way you wanted; you felt very creative in the way you were solving problems. At the time, it really stuck me -- "Whoa, this is amazing." That's one of the biggest, strongest aspects of the first game.

The second game, even though a lot of people say it's not good, actually is not bad. I think it's a really good game. I mean, they toned down some things.

They did a lot of things differently that some people didn't appreciate, but when you look at, for instance, the level design -- with all the multiple paths and multiple solutions -- those aspects were more consistent in Invisible War than in Deus Ex.

Deus Ex was really open in the first few maps, and then it started to become more and more linear with [fewer] options, while Invisible War did a better job at staying consistent throughout.

David Anfossi: Personally I prefer the story in the second one, but one point for me is that they lost something when they decided to remove the strong character. You know you're J.C. Denton in the first one, and you can pass through the story's conspiracy with a very strong character, but you don't have that in the second one. For me, that was bad. But in terms of actual story, it was very strong.

On that note, how do you approach story in this game? It's often difficult to convincingly marry narrative and gameplay, especially as gameplay gets more open-ended.

JFD: Huge headache! [laughs] But seriously, we have a process where we build the story beats. Obviously, we start with the game design -- what mechanics we want to have, what the players' possibilities are. Then we build the story, the eye-level story, and we split it in two story beats. At some point, we may have seven story beats, and then we ask the question: What is the player going to need to do to get to that point? Then we build the smaller stories within the main story as we go through.

We have a system -- we're calling it the blueprint -- where we separate the idea of "What are we trying to say here?" and "What is our objective?" That's not necessarily an in-game objective, maybe it's just what we want the player to experience. We refine that and eventually say, "Okay, the player should retrieve this thing." Okay, how should he retrieve that? Who's going to face them? We just refine it. We have massive Excel spreadsheets that tie in what gameplay you'll do and the story elements you need to cover.

It helps us to tie those together, because the thing we don't want is a story that'll ruin the gameplay. We want players to experience them as a whole. Obviously, if a guy spends an hour playing with a box and just trying to just jump over a thing, there's no story there. I mean, there's the story of a guy struggling in a corner. [laughs] But that's pretty much it, and we can't help it.

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