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GDC: Creating  Deus Ex Human Revolution 's Cybernetic Renaissance
GDC: Creating Deus Ex Human Revolution's Cybernetic Renaissance
March 11, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 11, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, GDC

“We took some pretty different aesthetic choices on this game, and it wasn’t easy to bring it to where we are today,” said Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, art director of Eidos Montreal.

“We started from nothing, literally,” he said, referencing the fact that there were 5 people in the dev team initially.

The first thing they did was go back to original. “That was very, very important. We all started playing it thoroughly, and then somebody voluntarily played the second one, just to make sure,” he joked. “It’s amazing how it sucks you right back in, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 years old.”

“So going back to the original, what is the art direction of DX1?”
It wasn’t really cohesive, he said. It had cyberpunk, but didn't really have fully-realized aesthetics.

You’ve got to find your own voice. “Don’t expect anything original from an echo,” he said. “If you really pour your soul into what you’re creating, changes are if you’re successful and your team is behind you it can really turn into a work of art.”

So they went with two high-level visual values: illustration over simulation, and the idea that design distinctions create desire.

“We’re not trying to make it super photorealistic,” said Jacques-Belletete. “It’s more about making it credible, not like making it a simulation. Games that have realistic characters, you talk to them and they might stand in front of some low-fi poly” and the juxtaposition just doesn’t work. “Let’s try to illustrate the world instead of trying to simulate it,” he posed, “and make it more even through the world.”

He then showed a screenshot collage of 8 or so games, including Gears of War, Fuel of War, GRAW, Killzone 2, and Turok, saying could all be from the same game. “In order to help us be different from that, we set two main analogies and metaphors for the game.”

These analogies were the Icarus myth, and the idea of a cyber-Renaissance. The Icarus Myth is easily described by the cyberpunk idea of transhumanism – people transcending humanity through physical (cybernetic) augmentation. Icarus was “tripping over transhumanism,” said Jacques-Belletete, “he’s having too much fun, he flies to close to the sun, and it burns and he falls to his death. So I thought that’s my metaphor.”

Then comes the idea of a cyber-Renaissance. “Why would you try so hard to mix such eclectic variables together?” he posed. Essentially, he just saw a lot of parallels between cybernetics and the learnings of the Renaissance, from the discovery of Geometry to the new breakthroughs in the study of anatomy. “If you want to upgrade a system, you first have to understand how a system works,” he said, and that happened during the renaissance.

It took two years of trying to combine archetypes of cyberpunk with archetypes from the Renaissance, finding that he was working against the native talents of his team. The key elements to explore were balloon sleeves and pants, ruffled collars, and renaissance patterns. “We tried a lot of things and it just didn’t work,” he admitted.

“I’m not kidding, we really had friction on the team because of that, because of that vision. I thought about giving up many times, because these guys are some of the best in the industry, and who am I to tell them what to do? Then I started looking at fashion, real fashion, which is something I think we don’t do enough.”

“My concept artists have drawn huge guys with guns for 20 years, and I’m asking them to do fashion,” he opined. “If I had to start over again, I would’ve hired a real fashion designer, if we had enough money.”

But fashion proved a breakthrough, allowing them to keep a consistent, different visual style. “Why is it that in our industry we try to put everything into our realism and everything, and they still look like zombies? Then Disney puts mouths on a coffee cup and a pot and it’s like ‘he has a life! They’re telling me a story!’”

Heavy Rain is the most uncanny valley game,” he said. “I mean it’s gorgeous, but those people are scary!”

When making a new game art style, “it’s about finding a visual constant, and it’s about being as original as possible,” he said. And if for some reason it doesn’t work, “at least I can say we went for something original, and not just a mere echo.”

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Aaron Green
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Hey all the best to the guys on getting this next one right.

I'm a big fan of DX1, it was a great demo experience, then finally buying the game straight after lived up to so much anticipation of the full story. It was honestly a fantastic piece of escapism. Some of the political articles were a bit to dig through and understand at the time, but the game still does extremely well against Half-Life 2 and beats the pants off of Fallout 3... man I hate that game.

I'd love to see DX3 be careful of DX2 syndrome though. DX2 was as physical and experimental in game play as DX1, but way too exploitable. I upgraded my robot hacking skills enough to take over a guard sentinel and mowed down every last man who held a gun in the level. I put the game down at that point and accidentally forgot to pick it back up because I sort of knew how I could destroy the experience. Naturally, I'm not a rule breaker, but I shouldn't be able to destroy the game flow as a reward for using my brain... I'd prefer some other reward that gets me some extra cash, or a room with upgrades that I can use in the future, or whatnot.

All the best though, I'm looking forward to it!

Benjamin Marchand
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DX1 was wonderful because it told a story while playing. Actually it was an interactive movie with awesome dialogs and philosophical reflections. Also things happened when you didn't expect them. Anybody who remembers hearing the voices of the guys in black at the entry door of your brother's appartment, realizing that there was someone in there, while you were sneakingly searching documents in the living room, knows what I'm talking about.

The adrenalin caused by the quick choice to make (flee by the window or face them) was priceless.

The game has realism in its scenario, taking references over worldwide contemporary facts.

Terrorism, conspiration, security, corporations ... All of these themes are well known cyberpunk lore, and they were glorifyingly put in this game.

DX1 is not a game, it's more like a clever interactive cyberpunk novel. And cyberpunk fans loved that, as cyberpunk came from novels.

DX2 was just a dumbed down tech demo. No more soul, only poom-poom action using cyberpunk as a blurry background.

I really hope that behind all these hours spent on DX3 visual design, Eidos will not forget that in cyberpunk, all is about the scenario & ambience.

edit : just look at some quotes of DX1 dialogs :

Mature, philosophical, introspective. This is what makes DX1 a real adult game.

Brandon Sheffield
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I think they're spending a lot of time with ambience, and this is part of the reason for the focus on visual design. In some gameplay demos they showed, there were bioware-style branching dialog trees and suchlike, so I think you can expect at least an attempt on the narrative side. As for whether it'll be compelling and well written, I have no idea yet.

Kevin Kissell
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I very much enjoyed DX1, had replay value for years, so if they can re-imangine the game, than they will have a marketable product.

Aladin adi
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he game has realism in its scenario, taking references over worldwide contemporary facts.

Terrorism, conspiration, security, corporations ...

is really cool