A Cyber-Renaissance In Art Direction

By Christian Nutt

[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.


I feel that, very often, the art direction of games gets hung up on details. Take one sci-fi shooter versus another sci-fi shooter. They have a space marine with armor, and you can see the armor was intensely, lovingly crafted by a talented artist to specifically carry visual touches that they think are relevant; but, if you take a step back, the two games don't communicate much different.

JJ: Yeah, I agree. This is something that we did in Human Revolution. The amount of detail is pretty crazy at every level of the game in terms of the environments and the characters -- even if you look at all of the props. Something like 1300 props were all concept art-ed.

The style is very homogenous in the game; it's not a very photorealistic game. It's a stylized game because I truly believe that, if you have a proper stylistic visual language, that actually makes the world more credible -- not photorealistic, but credible -- because everything fits within the same visual language.

If you have a head that looks super photorealistic but then the texture behind it is not, to me there's a discontinuity there. But if everything fits within the same stylistic language, it feels more credible. Anyway, that's one of my theories.

So you need to get into a lot of details, to get back to what I was saying, and it's exactly that. To some degree, I can say that there's almost as much love that was put into designing the little tech props that go all around the game than put into the armors like you were saying or stuff like that. It's very thick at all the layers of the game: high and low.

From object to world.

JJ: From object to world; it's exactly that.

You talked about cyberpunk being done before, and it certainly has. Did you use any reference?

JJ: Yeah. You can't get around Blade Runner, obviously -- the canon -- visually, at least. Ghost in the Shell; Akira... It's very obvious when you look at the game, as well, that I'm a huge fan -- and also the artists that I work with -- of Metal Gear Solid and a bit of the Asian aesthetics in the game. A lot of people ask me: "It's so obvious that Square Enix are in there, visually," and I'm like, "No, this was all in there before they acquired us." This is stuff that we already loved. We did that ourselves.

Though Metal Gear did something similar, very few games have done what you're doing in terms of sticking to a reduced palette, and emphasizing that as a visual strength. If there's one series that's done that, it's Metal Gear.

JJ: I totally agree with that. Also, in terms of movies and other cyberpunk stuff, obviously we reread all the William Gibson stuff. All of those things are really important. And reading all of the things in transhumanism and cybernetics, because it's such a central theme to the game, was important.

Another good reference that is not cyberpunk at all, but was important for the whole Baroque/Renaissance feeling was the movie The Duelist. It's Ridley Scott's first movie, which is actually more in the Napoleonic era -- which is not Baroque or Renaissance at all, but it's got a way of treating the image that's really reminiscent of Vermeer's paintings or Rembrandt's paintings and stuff like that. Also, the movie The Girl With the Pearl Earring was all about Vermeer's painting. He was an early Baroque painter, so that was very good reference for that.

What's interesting about those is that they're one-step-removed references. Did you actually go to Vermeer, or did you go to the things that were influenced by Vermeer? Did you want to create a Vermeer-esque feeling, or did you want to create an interpretation of an interpretation of Vermeer? Do you know what I mean?

JJ: It's a bit of both. The thing is that, when you tell your guys, "We're going to mix cyberpunk with Renaissance stuff," it's like... [makes the sound of a heart monitor flatlining]. It's never been done. I couldn't walk into the office one morning with a reference from a game or a movie or whatever and say, "This is how you mix them." It just did not exist. Only so much iteration -- it looked really crazy, at first. It did not work, and at one point it started gelling.

My point is, those references -- let's say Vermeer. Sometimes, those things are not present at all in the game. We had to kind of dose them properly. The more a character, or the more an environment, is engrained in the transhumanist values -- are really pro-transhumanist -- the more Renaissance stuff is going to be there; and the more against transhumanism that character or environment is, the less there is going to be.

So if you look at the CGI trailer, for example, there are parts in that trailer that you pause, and it's Adam Jensen talking to David Sarif; it looks like a Rembrant painting, literally. I'm not talking about the actual reproduction of the painting The Anatomy Lesson from Rembrant; that is obvious.

But other scenes in those sci-fi offices -- with the way we did the lighting and everything, if you pause it, it looks just like a Rembrant painting. So that was overt. Other times, we're using it more as an inspiration than trying to make a scene look like a Vermeer painting or whatnot. There are places like that, but usually it's more of a global inspiration.


The commercial games market is pretty risk-averse and has a tendency to do the same thing over and over. If we look at these consoles that tend to have a lot of horsepower, there's so much that can be done with them artistically that is not, broadly, being done with them artistically.

JJ: Yeah. At the end, art does not even need all that much power. My point is: tech and art are two different things. Tech does not allow you to do art. I mean, it goes hand-in-hand, meaning if you have really great tech and you have good artistic ideas, perfect. But if you have great tech and no interesting artistic ideas, you're no better off.

A thing that I really believe in is that games that are based on really, really crazy tech for their art at one point get old and start looking dated -- because tech at one point looks dated.

But games that trace a line in the sand and go for a very hard-corded visual style and make a statement can be remembered forever for that style, because the art is not going to grow old like the tech. A painting, even though you might not like it... It's not like, "Oh! Now we can do so much better than that painting." That's not true. It's not a tech. I don't think we understand that enough.

I can think of examples of games that you look back on... Parappa the Rapper or Vagrant Story are two examples of PlayStation 1 games that...

JJ: Technically, they don't compare anymore, but artistically there's a statement. That's what you meant, right?

Exactly. They have a statement; they have a cohesive aesthetic.

JJ: Exactly. And that's it. A game that you're tripping on today just because of its tech -- which is fine -- well, five years from now, you won't be tripping on it anymore, whereas now I can actually say that I remember Parappa the Rapper. That was so awesome.

It calls images directly to mind.

JJ: I could actually frame it in my room somewhere, and it would look kind of cool.

That's a game where they got a visual artist from outside the game industry. That's not to say that visual artists in the game industry don't have talent or ideas. I think it's more that people get into schools of working, or methods of working.

JJ: I think the problem is that we're a little circular in our industry. I think we self-reference ourselves too much. I think that's the problem. We look in the mirror too much, and a reflection looks the same all the time. I think we need to do that: hire people from outside the industry. They don't have to be there for the whole three-year development. You hire them for three months, they do some funky, crazy stuff for you, and then you funnel it down to what you know how to do, which is games. That's what we do.

I think we should start hiring fashion designers to create the clothing of characters in games, crazy artists, street artists to do all sorts of things -- give them monthly contracts or whatever. Also, I think that artists and creative directors need to start to go see stuff that are not games, like operas, and crazy art shows, and all that kind of stuff. They need to know what's going on in the street.

This is a game about a person undergoing these transhumanistic changes, and that has to be reflected in the overall aesthetic somehow, in terms of a world that fits that kind of story. How do you evoke a world where this could be possible?

JJ: You mean for Adam Jensen himself, and what he's going through personally?

Yeah.

JJ: I'm not sure how much I try to make the world reflect the inner fights that Adam has. I think I should have done that, though, now that you're mentioning it. (Laughs) It's true; I really could have played on that for the environment and all sorts of things.

This is a game about identity; at least, that's my take on it.

JJ: A part of it is.

But you'll see a lot of techniques reflect that in film. But in games that's less of an aesthetic technique -- trying to reflect the character's frame of mind.

JJ: Visually speaking. Absolutely. A place where that happens is in Adam's apartment. When you get into Adam's apartment, it's one of the great moods of the game, I think. I like to call it "Adam's museum". If you take the time to walk around, there are so many little details.

There are the get well cards that are still there from after his operation, all of the cereal boxes that we designed painstakingly, because he loves cereal. He's got books on "how to cope with your new cyberaugmnetation" and stuff like that. His plants are dying -- he hasn't watered his plants in a long time. He's been living there for almost a year now, but there are still boxes everywhere. So that easily reflects his state of mind. That was an easy one in his apartment.


Personal spaces -- that makes me think of Heavy Rain. Did you play Heavy Rain?

JJ: You know what? My Heavy Rain is still wrapped!

That's a shame; you should play it.

JJ: I know!

I mean, it's not exactly subtle. Let me go back: It is not subtle at all. But the beginning of the game is very happy, and then the game takes a dark turn.

The first environment is the personal living space of the family, and it's bright, airy, cheerful, colorful, precise, and modern; and the second environment -- the reason I thought of it is that their boxes are still packed. They just moved to this crappy house: crappy wallpaper, gray, bleak, sad.

JJ: So there's like a narrative of the moods of the characters and what they're living through...

...being portrayed through the environmental design.

JJ: Yeah, yeah. I think -- probably unconsciously -- whatever environment that we design for a character or situation probably reflects a bit of those things. Yeah, maybe not as strong as I could have done.

But I think that that's something that's not really common in games, period. As you get through a game, particularly very linear games, environments get more and more wowing. The goal is usually to have this environment be cooler than the last.

JJ: And we have less and less of even that in games, I find. It's still there, but not all games do this as much anymore.

Well, they're not as linear and can't guarantee that you're going to see environments in progression. I don't know if it's due to production changes in terms of how art's created, but there's more consistency, maybe.

JJ: Yeah. It also has to do with the production stuff. But I think that's it; that's why there's an art director. That's his job.

But 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. Art direction has to be about meanings, it has to be about metaphors, it has to be about visually communicating stuff -- all of this stuff you've been talking about. And you just said it yourself: there are very few games that do that.

Gaming is an intensely visual medium, and the player is intently concentrating on these visuals for a long period of time, and probably more intently concentrating on them than in any other medium. So we've got to communicate meaning more directly to the player using visuals.

JJ: Absolutely. A lot of the answers are in movies or TV shows or books. They just need to be adapted because, obviously, our medium is interactive. Most games are 3D where you can look all around, so it changes how those things need to be implemented, but the solutions are the same. I think there's an education that needs to be done.

Do you encourage the members of your team to look afield? That's something we touched on earlier.

JJ: I do, but it's really hard because they're so not used to doing those things. That's the thing. It's a hard education. It's funny because -- I don't know if you've ever read Disney's biography. It's very interesting because, when he started in the '20s and early '30s, animation was really considered nothing. There had never been a movie made. It was always the little minute-long things that were between big movies. He's the first one to have that vision that, "Hey, I can make a long movie with that."

Animators were just kind of weird people doing stuff that created moving things, and he's the one that had this vision: "No, no! This is just like movies. Really, let's get trained." He would get industrial designers to come over and teach the animators about industrial design; architects... The animators were obligated to attend those classes.

For animation today, it seems very obvious, almost a hundred years later, that you go outside and to the zoo and draw animals and learn your anatomy and learn about architecture. But back then, it was unheard of. He was known to be almost crazy to push all that stuff, but he was the one who created and started what animation became.

I think that this still hasn't happened in whatever form that it has to happen in the video games industry. We're still too much stuck into what we know as just games, and we need to get more people that have other artistic perspectives. We need to bring these people in and teach us stuff and do stuff with us and things like that. We're professionals about -- like I said -- funneling these things back to games. That's what we know, but there's a lot of stuff out there that we don't know. We need people for that or need to educate ourselves.

People have been struggling with the fact that the ground keeps shifting technologically every few years, and I think that maybe, this generation, we're getting our longest time to sort of be robustly focused on one set of problems to solve with less ground shifting.

JJ: That's why I hope that this generation is still going to keep on going for awhile. I think it still has a lot to give.

Especially if you're not concerned with the fact that tech is not the answer to aesthetic concern, I can't see why you'd really care for the generation to push forward.

JJ: Well, I do care! I want to have the latest bells and whistles, but they're not a crutch. Fair enough if I have them, and I do want to have them. I see that as being mandatory. But, to me, it's just one part of the equation.

If I have the same tech -- the same super high-tech thing as the super high-tech games out there -- and I have an edge on the vision, then I consider that we have the superior product. I'm not saying that this is what we have now, but I'm saying this as a theory. 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. This is what BioShock did with the Unreal 2 engine.

It wasn't even Unreal 3.

JJ: Or Mirror's Edge -- Mirror's Edge is Unreal. It looks nothing like other Unreal games, and that's what it's all about. To me, that game beats them visually by miles because they said, "Okay, we have all the bells and whistles, but we have our own visual direction or visual communication."

"We'll go in the opposite direction."

JJ: Yeah, and then it stands out. Then, is the game good? Was it a success because it made money? I'm not talking about this right now; that's not necessarily my job, and it's probably not because of that that Mirror's Edge did this or that. But at least the art director did exactly what he had to do; that's your job.

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