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Past And Future Tension: The Visual Design Of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Eidos Montreal art director Jonathan Jacques Belletete on delivering a believable Cyber-Renaissance -- complicated by setting it before the first game in the Deus Ex series but ten years later in the real world.

Chris Remo, Blogger

April 16, 2010

13 Min Read

It's been nearly a decade years since the original Deus Ex was released, and the game has been long-established as a classic of player-driven gaming that has, in the minds of many, yet to be equaled. At this year's Game Developers Choice Awards at GDC, a new teaser trailer for its second sequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, was revealed -- and was warmly introduced by Warren Spector, one of the instrumental creators of the original game.

Real-world technology has changed considerably in the years following Deus Ex, and that has implications both on the design of its sequel (what's possible on current PCs and consoles) and its world (delivering a believable visual look for a game set in the 2030s.)

Here, Gamasutra discusses the challenges and choices of these decisions with Jonathan Jacques Belletete, the game's art director, who also gave a GDC 2010 lecture on the game's art direction.

How did they arrive at the Cyber-Renaissance aesthetic? What meaning does the team mean to impart? And how does this jibe with the original game in the series? Though nobody working on Human Revolution was involved in the original game's production at Ion Storm, it looms large in their decisions.

Was it interesting for you guys to see Warren Spector get up there and introduce your first teaser [at the GDC Choice Awards]? As a person who drove the original Deus Ex, he seemed very gracious and very optimistic.

Jonathan Jacques Belletete: I've been on Deus Ex: Human Revolution for three years. We really started from day zero -- the four of us: the game director, the producer, and one of the lead game designers. Honestly, to see Warren, the way that he was, and the stuff that he said -- in those three years, it's one of the main milestones definitely for me and for a lot of us.

He gave us so much credibility in the way the he looked so genuinely excited and almost emotional about the whole thing. With us having worked so hard in the past six months on that teaser and stuff, it was amazing.

How much do you have to think about a teaser like that? It sounds like it was a major production to get just that going, aside from actually making the game itself.

I imagine at a certain point, you've got to lock in what this teaser is. And then the game's being developed too, but things might be changing.

JJB: Yeah, absolutely. When we started the main story, the main plot was really pretty much locked down. It's an RPG, so there are a lot of side quests and other side stuff to do, but the core of the story and the conspiracies and all the overarching high-level stuff was all down, and then Cody and [creative agency] Goldtooth did an amazing job. They're the ones who took all of our material, and there was a lot of stuff. It's a humongous game.

They went back to their studios and they locked themselves up for a couple weeks trying to dissect everything and seeing what the core elements were, and they came up with this amazing idea for the teaser that we loved. All of our themes are in there. All of our motifs are in there. A lot of important stuff from the story is there -- very quickly and sometimes just suggested, but there's a lot of stuff to be digested in the teaser.

We were really stoked about that. The CGI was done by Visual Works, which is the CGI studio of Square Enix, which we're so grateful for, because it's really the top visuals you can get for those kinds of things.

It's very deeply related [to the game itself]. You can almost have that scene in the game. There's something very, very close to that in real-time in the game. Cody and his gang, and all the folks at Square Enix, really made it happen, and they really got it. They really understood what we were trying to do.

You mentioned things to digest, and lots of things suggested in there. What was the thinking and the intention behind the Rembrandt reference?

JJB: Behind the Rembrandt reference, it's all the Renaissance thing, really. When we first started three years ago, before we started playing the game again because we're all huge, huge fans of the first one...

You know, it was a hard decision to quit [our previous jobs]. A lot of us were at Ubisoft Montreal and other places in very interesting positions with very interesting projects. To leave, it had to be very, very interesting -- and it was Deus Ex.

We're all huge fans. And we had to start a studio from scratch also to begin with, so it was a huge challenge. We knew it wouldn't be easy, but it was Deus Ex. Let's just go do it. The first thing we did as huge fans, even though we had played it -- I'd played it twice before, entirely through the game -- was to play it again that May and June of 2007.

Then, at one point, I had to go and really start concentrating on my art direction. After we decided what are the pillars, the core pillars of the game in terms of the stuff we don't want to touch, we really wanted to re-create that feeling, but to put our own texture around it.

Once we had figured that out with Jean-Francois Dugas, the game director, and François Lapikas, one of the lead game designers, and me and David the producer, I started doing all this research on transhumanism and posthumanism, which is one of the main themes of the game.

I started looking around and buying books and reading and doing research in Google, and I searched for terms like "anatomy," "cybernetics," "biology," and "genetics." Doing all this research, I started seeing images of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical studies and dissections and everything, and saw a very strong correlation with cybernetics and everything else.

That was the era when anatomy was first started to being understood. It was very rare to be able to dissect a human and understand, so when they did, major progress was made.

JJB: Exactly. It's exactly like that. It's like that's when they started to understand the machine -- the human machine -- and how it works. Cyberpunk or transhumanism is where we upgrade that system, so in order to upgrade that system, first you need to understand how it works. So, it's almost as if the Renaissance was like the first stepping stone towards, you know, a cyberpunk or transhumanist era.

So, that was very, very interesting, so we thought we might have something here. The game is cyberpunk; the game is Deus Ex. But at the beginning we said, "You know what? With the PCs today, with the consoles today, we could pretty much just do Blade Runner in real-time, with the same aesthetics." But then I said, "What would that say, really? What kind of life would that have?"

You know, it's been seen over and over -- maybe not perfectly executed in real-time in a game -- but still, what would it say? And it really wouldn't be from us. So we wanted to put our own soul, if you want, in the game's visuals. We had that whole idea of cyberpunk and Renaissance, and then we coined the term "Cyber-Renaissance," basically. It was really cool.

At first, designing the costumes and characters, we went through a lot of weird, cuckoo-looking things until we really nailed it to a credible, cool-looking thing -- you almost literally would want to wear those clothes, and you can see that happening in about 20 years. And not everybody wears that in the game. It actually goes with the [social] classes.

Not the entire game feels like Cyber-Renaissance. There's a lot of very contemporary stuff, and there's a lot of also very cyberpunk-ish stuff that we're used to seeing in other cyberpunk literature or movies or whatever. So, all this kind of intermixes and kind of makes our own flavor, really.

Do you consider from a timeline perspective why the world looks different here than in Deus Ex? Someone from your team said they were concerned about the changes Deus Ex 1 made going into Deus Ex 2, where it went into this far-flung future. They were concerned about the break there. Do you have similar concerns about your own game?

JJB: Oh yeah.

Do you weigh on that in terms of the break between your game and Deus Ex 1?

JJB: Absolutely. We thought about that. We knew this was a concern and we had to spin it right, with the fashion and and everything. I see it in two ways. Fashion is really something that comes and goes. There are different styles that disappear and come back. If we want people to have those kind of cool clothes in 2027, I think that's our own business.


JJB: You know what I mean? If we make it work, if it looks credible...

Right. If you sell it...

JJB: Exactly. Then after that, it's not the whole world that has that Renaissance thing. It's just very key ideas. There are [characters] on the anti-transhumanist side and the pro-transhumanist side, and there's the gray side, which is [the game's] morality. All the ones who are on the pro-transhumanist side, those are the ones who really strongly use the Renaissance theme.

So for those characters, it's almost an affectation. It's a deliberate choice on their part to adopt this statement.

JJB: Yeah. Exactly. And that is conscious on our side, but also it's a kind of brushstroke we want to have for those areas.

Visual signal.

JJB: Exactly. They're motifs. They are patterns. That's the direction we chose [for a particular area], but a lot of the game also doesn't look like that.

And why [choose Renaissance]? Because the Renaissance was the golden era. It was an age of discovery and an age of enlightenment.

How does that fit with the dystopian cyberpunk thing? In the Deus Ex timeline, the big collapse is in the early 2030s. We're right before that. The phrase that we use in the game is, "It's not the end of the world yet, but you can see it from here." It's almost as if it's the end of that golden era.

There's still a bit of frivolousness. It's still very dystopian, because major parts of the game are very gloomy and heavy. It's all there. You feel there's still that aspect of [how] people can actually afford augmentations. Augmentations can also be just stuff in the brain, implants. It doesn't mean that everybody looks like cyborgs. There's some of that, but there is also hidden stuff. It's right on the edge of breaking down.

That's what happens in the Deus Ex timeline, in the background story. The economy totally collapses, and then there is a series of earthquakes, and then the big quake, and [so it goes]. People can't afford all those augs anymore. People lose their jobs. And that's what brings you into the universe of DX1. That's how we see the transition.

Augmentation might look a bit more technologically advanced in our world even though it's earlier, but honestly, all we did is we really do our homework. We bought a whole bunch of books on the technological curve and where things are going. If you look at the computer screens or TVs in Deus Ex 1, they are really '90s-style little screens and everything.

Your game is pre-nanotech, right? So presumably you have more of the overt technological, bolted-on kind of stuff like that like Gunther uses in the first game.

JJB: Exactly. Gunther is part of our era.

Whereas simultaneously, in the real world, we have advanced technology ten years further than where it was when Ion Storm made Deus Ex 1.

JJB: Absolutely.

So, you kind of have to deal with those two things, and there might be inevitable dissonance.

JJB: Exactly. That's exactly what we had to deal with. Our display technologies today already looks more advanced than what you had in Deus Ex 1 -- there's that kind of stuff, as well as what the computers look like.

All sorts of aesthetics in terms of technology are a lot more evolved than some of the stuff that was in Deus Ex 1, so just by default, by having done our homework with that and having [improved] our visual designs and technological designs in the game, it does give it a bit of a slicker and more technologically advanced environment.

But the data is there. We took real stuff that's happening now and some real projections of the technological curve for the next 20 to 30 years, so we feel really confident about that. And also, it can be explained that there's a huge collapse, and maybe a lot of those things can't be afforded or built anymore in 2052 for a lot of people.

You can even invent stories for yourself. Maybe some part of the universe in 2052 still has those things; you're just not visiting them in the game. That's a good way to spin it.

That's almost to a reverse parallel to the Renaissance thing, because the actual Renaissance was after a similar period in human history.

JJB: Yeah. Absolutely, [how there was] the Dark Ages, then the Renaissance? Yeah. It's a bit of the reverse. But also, I'm seeing us a bit in that transition right now. We are kind of in that new transhumanist world right now, with cloning and stem cell research and all sorts of things

There's are a lot of people who are against it. When the Raelians said, "We're cloning [humans]," as crazy as they are, they still had to show up in front of the Senate and explain why, which is a bit like Galileo having to explain his stuff in front of the Inquisition and to the church.

It is reversed in one way, and it is kind of not reversed, in the sense that there is the same transition from being ignorant of the transhumanist world to stepping into that golden era of managing your own evolution through technology.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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