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GDC Online: The Design Document That Made  Deus Ex: Human Revolution  Possible
GDC Online: The Design Document That Made Deus Ex: Human Revolution Possible
October 11, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

The team assembled at Eidos Montreal to create Deus Ex: Human Revolution wanted to build a narrative-driven game with choice and consequence to its gameplay, and brought Mary DeMarle into the project early, as its narrative game designer and lead writer, to spearhead efforts to join the story fundamentally to the gameplay.

"We wanted to develop a process that would force every member of this team to develop the game together," DeMarle said.

The team ended up developing what DeMarle called "The Blueprint" -- a meticulously detailed document completed over several stages, early in production, which laid the foundation for every gameplay encounter and story beat in the entire project.

"You get to choose, by the end of the story, how humanity is going to evolve," said DeMarle. "That becomes very important from a narrative standpoint, and from a game design perspective as well. Significant consequences have to be revealed."

"We want you to feel this story and this world is reacting to your actions. From a writing perspective this gets very complex very quickly," DeMarle said. "It's a massive amount of branching that's going on, which of course leads to a very important question... How do you ensure that branching narrative paths will coalesce into a coherent narrative?"

Defining The Concept

Four key people, the game's producer, game director, lead game designer, and art director sat down and defined the concept at the beginning: by playing games, analyzing the original license, watching movies, "and writing all of their ideas onto paper and plastering the walls" of a conference room, they arrived at a cohesive, high-level direction for the game that encompassed gameplay, narrative, art direction and more.

"I was there just to help them make sense of it at the end," said DeMarle.

"What we're doing here in the game concept, is defining the elements that give us an anchor on which every later creative decision will be made."

That lead to preproduction on the second Blueprint step, in which she created the story concept with the game director and lead level designer. This was "filling out what that world and what that story was. The bulk of it was on my shoulders," said DeMarle.

"The goal was to turn the high level story summary into a fully-developed conspiracy-laden story outline."

One thing that appeared at this stage, she said, was "an important thing that is often missed in games: the theme."

Uniting Gameplay And Story

While transhumanism -- the evolution of humanity by technical augmentation -- was the core concept of the game, DeMarle identified a need for "an underlying theme that is gonna unite" gameplay and story -- otherwise they'd stay separate, as in most games.

Since the gameplay is based on choice and consequence, the theme became "Why do we do the things that we do?"

"The story is about control -- every single main character has something they want to be in control of, including [lead] Adam Jensen," she said.

At this point the three developed incredibly detailed dossiers on the characters, corporations, the state of the world, and an entire historical timeline, "and eventually we were able to create the story outline from all of this," said DeMarle.

"By developing all of these elements, we were able to come up with a tale upon which the game could be built, but it wasn't yet playable."

While this was going on, production had begun, and the leads realized that if they were all being developed separately -- "even though we had meetings and the leads would talk to each other, but they weren't being built together" -- the project would not become cohesive.

"Entire Game In A Spreadsheet"

This forced them to complete the Blueprint -- an Excel document with every sequence of the game broken down into smaller and smaller chunks, with gameplay elements mapped specifically to each, intertwined with the narrative of each sequence.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, "Each gameplay sequence has events or goals that the story requires the player to encounter in order to fulfill the aims of the story," DeMarle said.

"Every gameplay sequence can be further broken up" into blocks that cover the moment-to-moment gameplay. Scripted events, exotic gameplay, dialogue, NPC behavior, and "most importantly, the choices and consequences" were tracked in this document -- for every single gameplay/story sequence in the game.

It's "the entire game in a spreadsheet," DeMarle said.

"You can identify all of the specific situations that have to occur," and focus the gameplay, determine the characters, and "and you can go so far into it that you end up with basically the entire game figured out."
"It really gives us a very clear vision of what we need to do. But I tell you, it's not easy," DeMarle said.

"We sat in meetings from 10 in the morning until 5 every day... With the key people for each sequence." This could change as different aspects of the game were touched on. "It was hard. We would present the goals of the story, and say, 'How do we make this gameplay?' and we would let everybody contribute."

"There were times when story changed to accommodate gameplay. The story team would have to say 'all right, we can make some adjustments,'" she said. However, "sometimes, the gameplay ideas had to change to accommodate the story."

For three months, every day, they met. They didn't just generate the document, DeMarle said. "In the end what it gave us was a true sense of ownership for everyone on the team. Everyone realized that their ideas mattered. And if they weren't chosen, they knew why. And they understood the goal."

The document, however, was "so clear, that two years later we'd look at the Blueprint and there it was," whenever a question came up during production.

Still and all, "it didn't give us the final product; it was just a design on paper."

Beyond The Blueprint

Gate Meetings, held during production, were the next step. For milestones like first playable, the leads approved the builds "to ensure that the creative directives were understood and being met."

It also functioned as a "form of peer review. What that enabled, is it enabled every single person to bring their own creativity forward... bring their own creativity to the table and find the solutions."

She summed it up this way. "Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a very ambitious project." The goal was to create an "immersive, very story-driven game that would react to player choices in significant ways."

In the team's quest to "recognize story as being a central part of the experience," the Blueprint became essential. However, DeMarle warned, "a process is a process, it worked for us, but it may not work for everyone else. It worked because of our ability to see that every aspect of the game were all part of a greater whole."

"You hear that story is a necessary evil," said DeMarle. "We didn't see it that way. It was this philosophy that enabled us to create not just a cohesive, story-driven, branching game, but a cohesive and immersive world that allowed players to get lost in that experience."

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Game Designer


John McMahon
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Not to knock them, but DX:HR basically hit bullet points of things that were in DX1.

Player has a pilot flying them around? Check.

Hub levels? Check.

AI? Check

Player confronts Illuminanti's plans? Check.

Trench coat? Check.

Glasses? Check.

Deep voice? Check.

Death sequence that player can delay or avoid for NPC? Check.

Even though the mechanics are different, the story beats, and characters involved are ripped from DX1 instead of an original story, it copycats it.

Also, what the hell kind of writing allows for a document that spells out a supposed secret of the game in the first room the player moves in? You'd have to be an idiot not to see the big flashing signs that says 'cliche'.

I loved playing the game, but the story? Meh.

Given that part of the game was outsourced, confirms my thoughts that the game was rushed and there was no clear, unifying vision for the game as a whole.

Jonathan Gilmore
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It certainly isn't unusual for a sequel/prequel to carry on a lot of the themes and motifs from an earlier entry, so I don't see recurring things like shades and the illuminati being part of the story as a problem. Hub worlds are pretty standard for an rpg, no?

Anyway, I actually enjoyed the story tremendously, such that I would often agonize over the small choices. I.e. when the helicopter pilot comments on your augs and you can say how you like having them or you don't. I thought there was actually a lot of opportunity to role play as well. Sure, it was in spots, but by being lethal/non-lethal, your dialogue choices and some of the choices within missions gave you the chance to play the game as a vengeful truth seeker, cynical corporate stooge, goody two-shoes, etc.

Also, the basic story as a revenge/betrayal story, imo, was pretty well told within the game. I read God knows how manyemails within the game as a result.

Chris Moeller
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I found it interesting how they did the dialogue in the game. I had started a small RPG, and the branching dialogue becomes fairly unmanageable, very quickly if you don't have a good system, so I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for this game!

I didn't really care for the game overall, a bit more than duke nukem, but I thought the customization / rpg elements would have been a lot stronger.

Joel Nystrom
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Show us the Blueprint goddammit!

Ted Brown
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I'm super appreciative of all these keynote summaries from game writers. There are some great ideas on how to tackle the process of writing a collaborative story that's woven into a game. Thanks!

Eric Geer
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I've played a lot of bad games in my life, and I thought this game was reaching for the top of mt. crappola It took the idea of "fun" out of the idea "game." I guess it is an accomplishment of sorts, but still don't know how they managed to do so.

Ole Berg Leren
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Then you have to define your idea of "fun" and your idea of "game", because I wholeheartedly disagree.