The Art Direction of Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Every year GDC is an exciting, informative event, and every year one or two things stand out: last year's sudden public shirt-doffing by extremely-ripped Independent Games Festival winner, Dan “Data” Tabar, for instance. This year, one of the best offerings at the show (that thankfully didn't involve partial nudity) was a talk by Eidos Montreal's Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, art director of the upcoming Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
It takes a brave team to attempt a sequel to 2000's much-revered Deus Ex, and an even braver man to follow in the wake of 2003's much-maligned Deus Ex: Invisible War. Although the general gaming public seemed to enjoy the latter game, die-hard Deus Ex fans more or less hated it, making the possibility of creating a third installment that winds up agreeable to both fans and generalists especially challenging. The Eidos team knew going in that a big part of making Human Revolution work would be creating an aesthetic that captured the spirit of the original game while bringing something new to the table, and that's what Jacques-Belletete came to GDC to discuss.
First, a little back story for those who don't know: Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the first Deus Ex, set 25 years before the events of the first game. It enters the world at the turning point of its bio-mod-centric age, having gamers take on the role of security specialist Adam Jensen, an agent assigned to protecting America's most cutting-edge biotechnology. Fittingly enough, Adam himself has not one, but two mechanical arms, as well as other enhancements he's obviously ambivalent about. The game's philosophical approach is a synthesis of two seemingly unrelated things–-Renaissance Humanism (characterized by its transcendentally Classical approach to science and individual expression) and modern transhumanism (the “betterment” of man via cybernetics and other technology). What sounds dry on paper, looks fantastic in 3D, as Jacques-Belletete demonstrated during his talk.
The first thing he showed us was how the look ofHuman Revolution draws from several sources, including the cyberpunk look of the first Deus Ex as well as movies like Blade Runner. That means lots of night scenes, ample fog and/or smoke, clutter galore and a sense of “could almost be the present day” near-futurism. While following these sources covers the artistic legacy of the game, it fails to add anything new so after casting around for further inspiration Jacques-Belletete settled on—of all things—the Renaissance, with its Leonardo-esque imagery of autopsies, medical experiments and other imaginings of human-centric technological advances. In addition to this, the overreaching (and extremely elegant) metaphor for the game is the myth of Icarus, the story of a young man given the power to fly using mechanical wings, who is eventually destroyed by his inability to control such power.
The game's concept and its art stand for both the potential and the danger involved in human augmentation and as such, blends beauty and unseemliness in almost equal measure. The characters in Human Revolution were the first big challenge, especially the main character, Adam Jensen. His two mechanical arms cry out to be seen, but creating a sleeveless default costume that didn't make him look, as Jacques-Belletete said, “like a douchebag” proved to be nigh impossible. The art team began with Renaissance fashion, co-opting the ruffled collars and puffy breeches of that bygone era wholesale, only to realize the resulting characters looked utterly ridiculous. The goal then became to create a hybrid of Renaissance clothing and present-day fashion and to that end, the art team drew inspiration from many far-out fashion designers. It was this approach that finally worked; the mixture clicked, and the result is truly spectacular. Both main and incidental characters are sexy, believable and fashionable and Adam Jensen is well, cooler than hell. Really—with his sunglass implants and Don Quixote goatee, if he doesn't become a automatic entry in the game hero pantheon, I'll eat my big velvet hat.
Anyway, in addition to the characters, Jacques-Belletete and the Eidos art team is also incorporating the Renaissance ideal into all aspects of Human Revolution's art direction. The Renaissance was all about investigating how things work, figuring out how to upgrade systems and this sensibility is being infused into all elements of the game from characters to environments to presentation. Enemy designs—especially armored ones—have a vaguely conquistador look to them and environments look like something out of Minority Report, with more embellishment. One of the coolest insights into Human Revolution's environment construction (as seen in Adam Jensen's own apartment) is that the team took elevations (top-down floorplans) of Baroque churches and used these elaborate outlines to create things like doorways and windows. It's a subtle thing that creates a design unity felt on an almost subconscious level. Even on this low-frequency level, every element of the game's design is completely intentional and the team never scrimps; witness the fact that every one of the game's 1100+ props, no matter how common an object, is concepted and created from the ground up, the better to suit the world it lives in. The team also created over 100 logos, signs and phony corporations just to add to the game's overall flavor.
At the end of the talk, Jacques-Belletete showed a short video montage of some of the fully realized game environments which were impressive enough on their own. Then a new mix of the original Deus Ex main theme started to play over it and I felt a shudder go through the audience. OK, maybe it was just me, but if the artwork revealed at the conference is any indication, Deus Ex fans have a big something to look forward to—as soon as Eidos Montreal commits to a firm release date. For now, all that's known is that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is due to come out some time this year.