The following is an interview with Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Artistic Director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, transcribed from PAX East 2011. Jonathan provides insight on how Deus Ex: Human Revolution was initiated, the meaning behind the unique gold and black color palette, and much more personal insight on the game’s development.
It was late spring 2007, so you know; a bunch of guys from Ubisoft Montreal created a new studio in Montreal for Eidos. We were approached by the powers to be about this project and it was really, really hard to refuse. The challenge was huge; putting together a new studio and bring back Deus Ex. It didn’t really scare us as much and we understood that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We all kind of jumped in during a stressful summer. We played the first two games along with buying books on trans-humanism, conspiracies and watching all the movies out there to gauge where to go. That is really how it started. Understanding what made the first game successful was the number one goal.
We knew that we wanted to bring our own flavor to it. Before bringing in our own flavor to the game, we needed to know what made the first one so great and that we could reproduce it. I think the first main homework that we gave ourselves was to nail why people fell so passionately in love with the first game. Once we thought we had it then we started making our game.
When you started on this project, how much did you guys play through the first game?
The hardcore fans say we should know every single line of the first game or we don’t know what the hell we are doing, but that is ridiculous. It is tough; there are so many things you have to consider when making a reboot of a franchise. There are just so many ways to understand the franchise properly and knowing every single line is not necessary. That being said, we were four or five guys the first few months. We all played the heck out of the first game and not all of us played the second one, [laughs] I for one did not play the second one again, but I did when it came out. Some of the other game designers did though. We broke it down to the gameplay pillars and everything; we also made sure we understood it.
When you say pillars, what were those that you wanted to bring from the older titles into Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
There are four of them, we have talked quite a bit about them. There are two main ones and two support ones. The two main ones are combat and stealth. In the game, we want the player to be able to oscillate between one or the other. There is not one place or level that is molded for one type of gameplay, it is up to the player to choose what they wish to do or the tactics to use. The supporting ones are hacking and social. Basically, what it made in the first one, every challenge could be solved with one pillar or a combination of them. For example, if there was an environmental hazard due to electricity, it was probably a breaker box that you had to turn off. You could use the hacking skill with the multi-tool or break something with force or even a staircase to bring you all around. That is what the pillars are all about and how we want to use them in Human Revolution.
The art of the game has many influences; cyberpunk, trans-humanism and others, but where does the heavy use of gold come from?
It is kind of funny how things come together through your ideas. We had this idea from the beginning, called the cyber renaissance. We obviously knew the game had to look like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, but cyberpunk hadn’t been made for awhile in other media. Even William Gibson has not been writing about cyberpunk. It has been kind of dormant, so we wanted to bring it back and give it a new kick. Come back with a statement. That was when we realized the link between the Renaissance and trans-humanist eras. The Renaissance was about understanding humans and trans-humanism was about upgrading humanity. In order to upgrade a system you have to understand how that system functions. If you look at Leonardo’s dissections, trans-humanism is about the same thing mechanically. So we said lets merge the two together, taking influence from Baroque and cyberpunk to create the new kick. From there, we said sci-fi is always blue or gray and de-saturated, very clinical in aesthetic. We wanted to give it a much more earthy tone to achieve the humanistic feeling in the game. Also to look different from other bluish sci-fi of recent media. First that was the choice for the color palette, but later on, we looked at the black and gold color palette that just became very cool to us. We also realized that the color palette is unique and never been done in video games. They just create warm lighting and even with dark shadows. It was just weird how everything seemed to fit together without trying to make them fit.
So you really didn’t have to change much from the beginning?
No, not really, it just all flowed. The pieces were just blocking together to create something whole. We still did have to make it work, but that is where the real challenge is.
This being an all encompassing, worldly story, how do you make it succinct through all the different environments?
The game is very stylistic; it is not fully photo realistic. It has a language that is mostly built through how the textures were created. No photos were used to create the textures, everything is hand created through very advanced shaders. Everything is procedurally made and that gives the game a theme that runs through its entire creation. Again, if you are in Shanghai, the Asian themes are very present, but also, it was important for us not to fall into clichés. The music and dress is not stereotypical. If you were to go there now, people dress like us. It was just weird; we have those reflexes to do that. The first concept art showed the pedestrians dressed in ancient clothes. People just don’t look like that, let alone in thirty years when the game takes place. They wear jeans and t-shirts, just like us. This being said, the themes are heavily transformed and adapted to the locations, but the art direction stays very, very constant. In terms of the world, textures, and models. We used very few ninety degree edges, beveling is constant as well. It gives the environments a slick, gummy berry feel [laughs]. Everything looks rounded and looks almost like a graphic novel. You can see that we weren’t striving for photo realism.
Speaking of graphic novels, do you have any involvement in the Deus Ex comics?
Yes, of course, obviously the story is written by a comic book story writer, the art is not made by us; it is made by Trevor Haristine. The cover art is made by a good friend of mine, and one of the top illustrators in the world [Jim Murray]. We followed the book every step of the way. The main writer of the game approved everything. I oversaw all the art of the game, but that being said, it is a comic book. Comic books have their own rules, if you will, for comic book readers it is designed to be very action oriented. The pace is different, definitely, but it is totally Deus Ex: Human Revolution and we are completely happy with them.
Working on this project for four years, starting a new studio, how do you stay focused on and excited about Deus Ex for so long?
I think passion is a big part of it. I was actually answering a written Q&A recently for another website and I was saying that in the Montreal gaming industry, you don’t stay. You can move to the company next door, it is very prolific there. All those people that stayed for four years, they were super passionate about it. I know that one thing I did was put all my goddamn eggs in one basket, which is not a thing anyone should do. But, by having done this, I have been single-minded for four years, which is not a good thing. It helped me make Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Maybe in the future, I will try to be a bit more balanced, even in huge projects. But again, it was make or break, we had no choice. There was a lot of pressure being the Deus Ex franchise. It was also our first game as a studio. We just had to make it.
How big is the team?
At this point, it is much smaller. The art is finished, my job has been done for about 5 or 6 months. I have been focused on making sure people hear about the game. But, at peak, we were about 140 or 145, not counting outsourcing for different things. Some concept art and modeling was included in that outsourcing. It is not massive, like some that reach 400 or 500, but it is not a small team. It got really big, really hectic.
You are almost there though, right?
I know, like I said, it is content full and code complete. But when making an action RPG that lasts for about 20-25 hours, we have to play test it quite a bit. During those play tests, we bring [testers] over for a week and they snoop a bit around, but whatever. So we know that the game could last a lot longer. This is just a huge game, there is a ton of debugging and polishing that needs to be done. That is what is going on right now at the studio. The release date is August 23rd, so now we have time to give the players the best product possible. There are no other reasons. The expertise at Eidos Montreal is a great place to develop games and a lot of the best games have come out of that city. But, the RPG experience was not there at all. None of the big companies had ever done a huge RPG like this. There were a ton of veterans on the project, but we are no BioWare or Betheseda. We just needed to understand what that beast was all about. We had to make plenty of mistakes, and I would be lying if I told you that we didn’t make any. My point is that because of this, I think we needed a bit more time. The sequel, if we do one [laughs] I did not say that we are doing one, [laughs harder] but the polishing phase would be much shorter. We now know how to finish off such a content heavy product.
During the four years, Square Enix purchased Eidos. Did having that pedigree RPG publisher help out at all?
No, not one bit. It is really amazing how Square Enix came in, looked at the project, and said “You know what, you know what you are doing.” I also think that the reason they wanted to acquire us, they wanted to get the western flavor. If you want that to be the case, you would not want any of the Japanese influence in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge J-RPG fan, even down to the obscure Atlus titles, so it did not have anything to do with my personal tastes. They left all the control with us. People said that the art style and characters had a Japanese feel to them, but that was me and my team, way before the acquisition by Square Enix occurred. We developed our own signature with the game, but when people learned about the acquisition, they tried to make their own assumptions. Trust me, everything was there prior.
People always try to draw their own opinions.
You’re right, but they are always in extremes. I read all sorts of things. Like they force them to change everything. This is why this looks like this and so on. I was reading this and it was totally wrong.
Finishing up, is there anything else you want the readers of GamingBits to know about Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
Wow, that is a great question. I am really rarely asked that question, wow… You know what, I could say stuff more towards my people. This was made by a bunch of amazing, incredible guys and girls. I love them to death. It would have never been possible without them. It is such a huge endeavor, I can’t believe they toughed it out for so long [laughs]. I can’t believe that I toughed it out for so long. We had so much trust and support from Square Enix. It was not the normal business talk. There are things we were allowed to do that would not have been possible anywhere else. It was freaking amazing. I hope everything stays the same for future projects.
Thank you very much for your time.
Many thanks to Square Enix, Eidos Montreal and Maverick PR for making this interview possible!
Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC in North America on August 23, 2011 and in Europe on August 26, 2011. For more details on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, visit the official website at www.deusex.com and check the official Deus Ex Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DeusEx.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – extended trailer:
(see here on YouTube)