Deus Ex: Human Revolution Interview
with Eidos Montreal's Mary DeMarle
With a mere few months of development time left on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's crunch time at Eidos Interactive. Despite the game's looming early 2011 release date, the company's being fairly cagey about sharing details, demoing the game only to select members of the press and not allowing any hands-on time. Even now the team is keeping fairly mum about the game's specifics, aside from reiterating what we've already heard about its unique art direction and faithfulness to the franchise. This month at Eidos Interactive's Montreal studio, lead writer Mary DeMarle took time off from the crunch to offer us more insight and to chat about writing for one of the most-anticipated sequels in gaming history.
AtomicGamer: How did you become involved with the Deus Ex project?
Mary DeMarle: I was working at another Montreal game company when Eidos decided to open up a studio here. Of course, everyone started speculating about whether or not they would attempt to revive the Deus Ex franchise. Several months later, I heard they were looking for someone to lead the narrative direction on the new project and, through various connections, landed an interview with David and JF. It was quite a fun interview, as I remember, because we all knew what they were working on but no one was allowed to actually say it! So we did a lot of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean" kind of banter when asking and answering questions.
AG: Are you a fan of the original game?
MD: Of course! I remember when it first came out: I was working at another game company (Presto Studios in San Diego) and everyone there started playing Deus Ex and raving about it. Later that year I went to GDC, the big Game Developers conference in San Jose, and discovered that Sheldon Pacotti, the original Deus Ex writer, was giving a talk about it. His talk was amazing and really opened up my eyes to story possibilities (and writing challenges) in games.
AG: Where do you think Deus Ex: Invisible War went wrong and what do you see as the most important aspect of the Deus Ex franchise to preserve?
MD: I actually liked Invisible War, though I recognize why people say it's not as good as the original. For me where it failed was in how they handled the various factions. I think they wanted you to form an emotional or intellectual connection with one side or the other, and discover real consequences when choosing to help advance its agenda. But in the end, no one really made you regret or pay for any betrayal, because it would have cut off too many story and/or gameplay possibilities. Consequently, (at least for me) the game became more about figuring out the order in which to betray all sides in order to maximize my personal reward, rather than about forming real emotional connections. But the option of having choice and living through the consequences of that choice -- that's essential to the Deus Ex franchise.
AG: How do you research a Trans-human/Renaissance/Cyberpunk script? What books, movies, other media informed the story concept?
MD: That's a HUGE question! Especially because there isn't any one way to go about it. Knowing we wanted to focus on the future of technology and human evolution, I initially started reading a lot of nonfiction. Books and articles by futurists like Ray Kurzweil or Bill Joy. Science and Technology magazines talking about current day developments in medicine, science, and the biotech and prosthetics industries. Also, I looked at biographies and/or histories of famous inventors, world leaders, CEOs, corporations, and humanitarian organizations to get a feel for the kind of people and companies we wanted to depict in the game. Of course, being an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader, in my spare time I also started reading a lot more of cyberpunk novels.
AG: Did you have anyone in mind who you envisioned Adam Jensen to be like when you started writing him? His voice sounds a little like Christian Bale.
MD: Not really. I basically knew I wanted to depict a "blue collar hero" -- someone who isn't rich or famous, and who isn't out to get either of those things. Someone who's just trying to carve out a decent life for himself and for the people he cares about by doing something he's good at. From there, I started thinking about what character traits would define this person, how they might be expressed in his everyday life and actions, and what experiences he might have had in his past that amplified or strengthened them. In truth, I don't think Jensen is like Christian Bale at all. His voice just sounds like him to a lot of people.
AG: What are the challenges in writing a character whose actual methods and personality are determined by the player?
MD: Off the top of my head, I can point out 2 big challenges, although I know they're just the tip of the iceberg. The first is to create a truly memorable character; one that everyone, regardless of their individual personality or play style, will want to identify with, enough to embody for 20 to 40 hours of gameplay. That means coming up with a strong, very distinct personality to begin with, BEFORE ceding control of that personality to players. The next big challenge then becomes writing dialog for this character that stays true to his personality while simultaneously enabling players to choose the direction they want to develop him in. To give a very simplistic example, suppose you are giving players the opportunity to choose between two completely different attitudes in a conversation -- being an "asshole" or being "nice". You still have to find a way to maintain the character's integrity while satisfying both options. And maybe, that leads to the third real challenge -- being able to let go of how you see the character, in order to come up with different approaches in the first place!
AG: What comes first – story or level objectives?
MD: Personally, I don't believe there's a right or wrong answer to that question. Many game developers think story development should come after the level objectives are defined, while many others feel the exact opposite. I believe it can work either way, as long as you don't miss the next, more important step: working together across disciplines to merge story and level objectives into a final gameplay experience. At Eidos, we developed the story outline after the high-level game mechanics had been determined, but while they were still being refined. Then we locked representatives of the game design, level design, story, and artistic teams together in a room for weeks on end. The goal was to examine the proposed story outline level by level, and brainstorm gameplay ideas and challenges that might best express it. Sometimes the story changed as a result. Sometimes new objectives were added. But the key for everyone was to remain flexible so that we could emerge from the room with a set of guidelines to use when diving into the more specific step of designing maps and levels.
AG: How do you collaborate with design on a day to day basis?
MD: Every day is different for me. Some days I work closely with level designers to explain the high-level story needs for their individual levels, some days (at a much later stage in production) I listen to them explain the immediate-level stories they've come up that need dialogs, texts, and/or scripted events written to support them. Other days I work directly with artists to provide a clearer understanding of the message their visuals need to convey. I've also worked with the voice director and actors to help them get the best performance possible. I end up reviewing a lot of diverse story elements every day -- whether they be scripts and in-game text materials written by other writers on staff, or visual concepts and character designs created by artists.
AG: How do you (nuts and bolts) approach writing a story that could go in four or five directions at any given time?
MD: I drink a lot of wine! Seriously, though, I don't really know. I spend a lot of time just thinking up possibilities, daydreaming, and hoping my head won't explode trying to keep all the details straight. It's actually one of the most fun aspects of my job because it is so challenging. You have to constantly question everything, and come at things from five different directions at once. And then you get to write all down the possible outcomes to discover where they can possibly go. It's really about opening up your creativity and not being afraid to take chances.
AG: The game offers multiple ways to solve every problem – how different can the story become based on your choices?
MD: To answer that question, I first need to point out that stories in games really break into 2 parts: the overall, high-level narrative (or plot), and the immediate-level, player-driven experience of plot. From a high-level perspective, Human Revolution's plot is mostly linear, in that we have a very strong narrative that you need to progress through from beginning to end. There are multiple endings, of course, and along the way certain characters and/or events may get removed or unfold differently depending on decisions you make during key moments. How the story really plays out differently, though, is in each player's immediate-level experience of it. You get to choose how certain conversations play out, and what kind of information you get from them. We also have side-missions that can reveal additional layers of details about Adam, the world he lives in, the underlying conspiracy, and important story characters -- if you choose to accept them. The story information and details you'll pick up as you choose whether to play combat or stealth during a mission, whether to engage in conversations with various characters, or use hacking skills to open up new exploration possibilities -- these decisions can make your story experience in Deus Ex very different from someone else's.
AG: It looks like our time is up. Thanks for meeting with us.
MD: Thank you!