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A Cyber-Renaissance In Art Direction

August 22, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Deus Ex: Human Revolution art director Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete speaks to Gamasutra about how he and his team envisioned the game's signature look, how layering meaning and metaphor makes for more robust art, and how the industry's fundamental approach to creating art to change in future.]

Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, art director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not satisfied with the industry's current approach to art direction. Not enough meaning or metaphor is layered into projects, he says.

We last spoke to Jacques-Bellêtete over a year ago, in an interview where he laid out how he and his team arrived at the game's unusual Cyber-Renaissance aesthetic -- born from the fact that the Renaissance is when "they started to understand the machine -- the human machine -- and how it works," he said at the time.

"Cyberpunk or transhumanism is where we upgrade that system, so in order to upgrade that system, first you need to understand how it works," he said. "So, it's almost as if the Renaissance was like the first stepping stone towards, you know, a cyberpunk or transhumanist era."

Now Jacques-Bellêtete turns his eye on the industry and explains to Gamasutra how things are and, in his opinion, how they should be. "I think true art direction is misunderstood in our industry still. I think we still see it as... 'Just make it look very, very shiny; shinier than the next game.' But that's not art direction," says Jacques-Bellêtete.

He's happy with what he's accomplished but can still see that there is further to go. "It's not up to me to say if we succeeded at that, but, as a theory, I see this being stronger. If you have the same tech -- all the bells and whistles -- but you really have a real art direction, then you have a winner," he says.

Between the gold and the black -- a pretty bold statement-- and the Cyber-Renaissance aesthetic, there are two things there that really stand out.

Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete: Yeah. That was the goal: to get our own thing going.

A trademark look?

JJ: A trademark look and, you know, get the analogies going, get the metaphors going. That kind of stuff. Art in games should not just be about being pretty; it should be about communicating, as well. I don't think we do enough of that.

Overtly or passively communicating? Visual metaphors?

JJ: I think it can be both. Even extremely overtly, I'm sure there's a game that could fit with that, somehow.

I'm thinking of BioShock, which tells the story of what Rapture represents very explicitly through the architectural style, through posters and banners, and that kind of thing.

JJ: They did a very good job of that kind of visual storytelling just with the environments, and they also do something else that I find very amazing -- that I'm a big fan of -- that I call "show, don't tell." You put something there that tells a story, but you don't say why; you don't tell the player to look at it.

In BioShock, remember the level where a lot of people were stuck in plaster? You'd get into a room and it'd be people sitting at a table, having dinner or done having dinner, and they're all stuck in plaster. It's like, "What happened there?" You've got to make up your own story about it. There's not a lot of that in games.

So, for you, was it about telling an explicit story through the art direction, or was it more about creating mood?

JJ: It was very much about creating a mood, because it's cyberpunk and has to be very moody. It's a visual archetype of cyberpunk to get something very thick with mood. But also, I find you can't just reproduce something; you need to put your own into it -- some of yourself, some of your gut, into what you do. I think that's what art is, fundamentally.

I'm not even getting to the debate of "are games art?" It's just, literally, if you consider yourself a visual artist, or creator, or whatever, you need to put some of your blood and sweat into it. My idea of bringing Renaissance into the game was a bit of that. This is my artistic statement.

At the same time, cyberpunk's been done a lot in the past. It's been dormant for quite awhile, and I wanted to bring it back with an edge. I saw this kind of correlation between the Renaissance era and the transhumanistic era. I said, hey, this works; but at the same time it's an artistic statement.

Which we could use. Right?

JJ: Yeah, absolutely.

We were talking about metaphor. How do you use art metaphorically in a game?

JJ: Yeah. That's a good question, actually. I do so many things just kind of instinctively, maybe. If you just look at the Icarus myth, the way we use it in the game -- that was back in the days when we started, and I was reading all sorts of fables and myths and stuff like that, to see if I could find a good metaphor. Then I read Icarus, which, obviously, I knew, but whatever.

You reread it, and it's like the perfect metaphor for augmentations for transhumanism because, basically, his father, Daedelus, augments him with wings. He starts flying, and he's having so much fun he's overexaggerating -- transhumanism won -- and he gets too close to the sun. He dies; there's a really good message there.

It's really overt in the trailers, but in the game itself we took the visual motifs of the myth -- the sun, the wings, the minotaur, the maze -- and, without getting into too much detail, we incorporated them quite subtly either between the different factions or certain architecture. If you look at Sarif Industries, the logo is a wing.

That's exactly what it is. I think that's what it's all about. People often ask me, "Yeah, but are people going to notice that?" I really don't care. I think that it's a creator's responsibility to lay it as thick as they can, to put as much things like that in their creations. I think that, if it's there, people's subconscious somehow register all of these details; even at a subconscious level, they feel the thickness of the creation.

Whether or not they actually understand the resonances, they will have a rich experience.

JJ: That's exactly it. And people often -- in playtests or even in hands-on demos -- people will tell us they can't really put their fingers on it, but it feels so crafted and lived-in. For example, we invented literally a hundred companies with their logos and everything to put everywhere. I think it's exactly that; they felt it, somehow. It still reached them in their experience. That flavor still came to their mouths, if you can say. They can't really express it, but they played this game and there's this thick layer of believability.

I think it's all those extra efforts of layering all these crazy things that I'm talking about. At the end, do this. We need to get our industry out of [the mentality] ... "Look how much better this metal shader is than this other game!" That's not art; that's tech. Art is a message, is a direction, is a flavor.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Daneel Filimonov
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I wish more art directors were influenced the same way Jonathan was. I love that he has a deep inspiration, and that he brings it out through subtle (or not so subtle) metaphors. This is truly inspiring!

matthew diprinzio
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The 23rd can't come soon enough.

Guy Costantini
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I just shared this with all the artists I know. This kind of article is what makes Gamasutra so great.

Ali Afshari
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This was a good interview and I'm even more excited now for the game after reading about some of the thought put into the visual's what hooked me initially.

Bart Stewart
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"If you have the same tech -- all the bells and whistles -- but you really have a real art direction, then you have a winner."

I see the point being made here, and I don't diagree entirely. But isn't there a danger of taking it too far -- of so strongly emphasizing form over function that "real art direction" is used to paper over a lack of depth in the gameplay?

To reference a well-known game design model, if art direction satisfies the need for Aesthetics, doesn't a great game still need significant attention paid to Mechanics and Dynamics?

Christopher Enderle
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I saw his reference to "tech" as mainly encompassing the actual technology, like motion blur and HDR and normal maps and such, rather than gameplay and system design, so I don't feel like what he talks about poses any danger to depth in gameplay.

Carlos Sousa
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You have pointed an interesting issue Bart, the answer would probably be the most obvious, as I would think, it's all about balance.

I would make an analogy of the fun factor of a supposedly perfect VR apparatus, what I mean by this would be to consider the most realistic representation of vision, audio and perhaps data glove hardware setup, but, in this context, all the player can do is explore the environment, there is no story, no other characters or players, just the player and the "realistic"environment... Soon, maybe after 15-30 minutes, the player/user would probably be bored since there is no objective, no story, no goals, no conflict, thus no defined intention but wonder about... Like: "Wow, this is beautiful... So what?" There is no fun.

And that's where I think the subtleness of art direction comes in, like mentioned in this interview... Good art direction is not only about visual, or sound, it's about creating the mood, giving a slight enlightenment of the world the player finds himself in and *suggest* things that should or would happen, and when this is well done, the sense of "danger" eminent, or conflict about to happen, this adds up the player expectation, thus intention and willingness to take action... And a good art director will be able to grab all those references from the past, movies, paintings, stories, tales, mythology, comic books, street art and reality, bring some of that background and feeling, that players somehow will identify (some of them called clichés), even though they might not be conscious about it, for that moment in the game. Take all of that and add in all of the variances of culture and subjectiveness of individuals... This should be very difficult to achieve!

also, I would like to mention, of course, one could consider that if interactiveness is also an art form, as about the endless discussions of games as a whole being an "art form", then game mechanics would be part of this too, part of aesthetics (aesthetics is not only about visual), the dynamics and the harmony of temporal connections of events, like hard paced deathmatch frenzy or just a zen fly through...

So, this is what I think is meant to differentiate art from tech.

Just my opinion though.

Justin Potts
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This interview just took a game on my, "I'll probably get around to checking it out in some form at some point" radar to, "I'll be picking up a brand-new copy".

This is the kind of design consciousness I can get behind.

Great interview!

Nick Harris
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I'm very pleased to hear that. More people need to encourage developers with a day-one sale or pre-order. This culture of "waiting to pick it up in the inevitable Steam Sale" is as obnoxious and counter-productive as Piracy - possibly more so, as the latter may never have paid for the title if that had been their only option.

I too am awaiting the arrival of Mr Postman.

Jan Niestadt
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Look, this is completely offtopic, and I'm sure Deus Ex is a great game, but I see nothing wrong with deciding to wait for a sale; that's just supply and demand at work. It's up to the developer to convince me that paying full price on day 1 is worth it, I'm under no moral obligation to do so.

Ali Afshari
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For sure, Justin...I pre-ordered the Augmented Edition through Steam and I bought another AE for the PS3...yeah it's a little overkill but I enjoy gaming ;)

Michael Kolb
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Yeah I purchased the Aug Ed of the game just for the Art Book and Special Features making of. After playing the game for about 4 to 5 hours I've come to the conclusion that everything just feels all interconnected and polished (story/art/mechanics/sfx/tech).

cherie bellingham
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This article is truly inspiring to a student who wants to be an artist in the games industry. thank you