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Inciting A (Human) Revolution: The Deus Ex Interview
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Inciting A (Human) Revolution: The Deus Ex Interview

July 26, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Benjamin Marchand
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Thanks for this interview.

Jean-François seems to be both methodic and imaginative, which is a good seal of quality :)

Just one thing that tickles me : they are working on gamedesign and player tools first, and then on story. Shouldn't it be the inverse, especially for Deus Ex ?

What made DX1 so memorable was its story, and particularly its mature, realistic dialogs. There were tons of it. DX1 had resonance with the short term future (and even our actual present). That's what made the game so immersive, imho.

Darius Kazemi
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Ben, I disagree with you. I love the story in DX1 but without the gameplay I think it would've been completely forgettable. And vice-versa: the story and gameplay tied together very well. That's one of the things that makes DX1 one of the greatest games of all time.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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As I remember Deus Ex, there were many many gripes I had. Sneaking wasn't so great, for instance, all-out combat just didn't feel right and many little things. Invisible War improved on so much if you look at it from that Fix-It-To-Make-It-Better standpoint.

Reason why Invisible War just was so forgettable compared to Deus Ex is (and not because Deus Ex was "fresh" and unknown, nor was it lower expectations) that Invisible War didn't have powerful levels. It lacked those unique moments that Deus Ex had so many of. I mean for example when you sneak into this secret lab in the first game, and you are on this glass floor, looking down about 30m or so at scientists taking apart aliens (was it Area 51?). That was a really powerful image alone, and it created a sense of "Whoa..." that just stays in your memory. Or the time when you steal the electro sword from the secret chamber, look at the DMG of the weapon and it's like "Damn, I'm a Jedi". Somehow it felt like in Deus Ex, the level designers were more willing to think big and create contrast.

I wish them the best with Deus Ex 3, though I'm (of course) skeptic that they can live up to the partially unrealistically high expectations. All I have to say to them is: Deus Ex makes or breaks with the level design. DON'T MESS IT UP GUYS!

Simon Ludgate
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I'm surprised the interview didn't touch on the RPG game elements of the first game that were stripped out of the second. That's one of the major reasons fans of the first didn't like the second. The "consolification" of the second game, which was built for Xbox rather than PC, was another major knife twist in an already blood-seeping wound from where the RPG elements were cut out.

Frankly though, I can't see Deus Ex 3 hailing back to the original, it'll likely be far more like Invisible war: grossly simplified for console users, without any of the depth of breadth that made the original a classic. They leave hints for it throughout the interview, like the part where they indicate that interactive physics objects will be few and far between: to me, this spells "pinfully obvious interaction moments" like a barral strategically placed to blow up those three soldiers who are scripted to run towards you at exactly the right time for you to blow everything up.

Kevin Patterson
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@simon - I had a chance to see some cam filmed gameplay from Human Revolution, and it seems more in line with Deux ex 1 than invisible war. It was very impressive.

I loved both Deus ex games, and they both had their issues. Deux ex 1 was far more open and RPG like, where invisible war was simplified a bit but had a better focus on story.

I have high hopes that the new game will have elements of both of the prior games, and wow us. From the little i have seen, it looks like its going to be a great title.

Bart Stewart
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"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."

This describes exactly the key challenge for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

The original Deus Ex was released for the PC in 2000. Since about that time, game designers have become increasingly obsessive about controlling every moment of the player experience. The result has been a trend toward simplifying gameworlds -- the more freedom the player has to do things that the designers didn't explicitly enable, the greater the fear that some players will find that part of the game too hard or too easy and stop playing.

But the core design philosophy of games from the Looking Glass family (which includes the original Deus Ex) has been exactly opposite that trend. Rather than simplifying options in order to shrink the space of possible user actions, Looking Glass-style games start from the belief that "play style matters," which means designing systems that allow gamers to overcome game challenges in any of several possible ways. Even BioShock, which simplified game mechanics down to a choice of ways to kill, still offered choices. Still, Eidos saying that their goal is "keeping the spirit of multiple pathways and solutions alive" is a positive note.

The questions that were asked in this interview were good ones. But from the responses, I'm still not sure the designers at Eidos entirely embrace the Looking Glass approach. (To be fair, that may not be completely up to them.) For example, when saying that they will "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" -- does that mean DE:HR is designed to let players build their character as only one of those "classes," and that's the way all game challenges will have to be solved? Or does it mean those options are available (to varying degrees, based on aug/skill choices) for *every* challenge, as in Deus Ex? I'm not assuming either of those possibilities; I'm simply saying it wasn't clear to me which way Eidos is going here.

Another question I'd have like to have seen asked would have been: what does it mean to "update" Deus Ex for a "modern audience?" In other words, I'd like to know more about what the designers at Eidos think are requirements or constraints for games today that weren't part of the original Deus Ex.

I have other concerns keeping me somewhat skeptical about DE:HR. One is the consistent emphasis in interviews on artwork over physics -- i.e., form over function. I don't mind pretty, but it shouldn't be what matters most. I also suspect that running on a console will impose comparatively cramped levels (as in Deus Ex: Invisible War) as well as an unnecessary exclusion of the quicksave/quickload capability that is part of a "let the player control the play experience" philosophy.

Still, I haven't heard anything yet that turns me off completely from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It still might be an enjoyable "reboot" of one of the all-time great computer games. So there's a win for the Eidos Marketing department. :)

I guess we'll find out in "early 2011"....

Benjamin Marchand
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@Darius : Yes, for sure ;) But I meant that if they're building the story around technical choices, instead of building technical choices around story, I'm afraid of it to shrink the overall storytelling. But well, we'll see !

Rob Wright
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I agree with @Benjamin Marchand and disagree with @Darius Kazemi (not that that makes Darius' take wrong, just sayin'...)

I'm replaying Deus Ex now. It's very strange -- the story is still superb and the leve design, as @Dolgion references, is outstanding even though the graphics no longer do the environment and setting true justice. My issue with the game is the combat -- it's weak, and that's putting it politely. Aiming and using weapons is clumsy, and the AI is pretty bad. You shoot an enemy a few times and they start running around in circles panicking. Not good. Plus, while the "choice" game mechanic was great 10 years ago, we've come along way since then and now DX1 looks extremely dated by comparison. Which is to be expected, of course.

But the story is so great that it succeeds even today in spite of these other shortcomings. Weak combat can be overcome with a strong narrative, at least in this case. That's why it's still a good game a decade later.

Tim Johnston
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Deus Ex 1 fused so many elements together so brilliantly that its hard to name a game that has even come close to its level of depth. Many of the criticisms leveled here are valid - combat was awkward and buggy, inventory system was laborious etc. But, what DX got so right was the weaving of its pre-apocolyptic narrative with a richly detailed environment full of surprises and nooks/crannies of content that was exclusive to your personal playstyle. In an age where replayability is an afterthought, it would be incredibly refreshing to be served a game that really did drop you into a sandbox full of narrative and gameplay potential that was dictated by your own pacing and preference. If the game system is robust enough, those "wow" moments can happen on a micro level rather than a macro one. I will gladly sacrifice the set pieces and scripted events in lieu of those small moments thruoghout the experience that continually force younto evaluate your choices, your alliances, your interactions, etc. If DXHR can succeed in balancing a bit of sandbox with a bit of linear, thriller narrative, we will be talking about IT for another 10 years. U wish all those at Eidos the absolute best of luck and please do NOT release this game until its everything you wanted - and more. Trust me, the true fans will be there when it drops.