Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the latest in a series of games that routinely tackles quite complex social issues by exploring the impact of technology on the human condition. While that sounds pretty heavy and potentially not much fun, it wraps its social commentary in a cyberpunk-themed, futuristic role-playing game that also has lots of robots, gunfights and explosions. To get to the bottom of how the studio behind it balances these seemingly incompatible elements, we spoke with Mary DeMarle, the executive narrative director and Patrick Fortier, the gameplay director at Eidos Montreal.
So, how do the two of you work together? Do you get along?
Mary DeMarle: I want to kill him every day.
How does it work? Given that you are responsible for gameplay and story, do you start on separate tracks and come together? Or do you start together?
DeMarle: In the conception phase, the way it starts is that we’re all together in a room and we start analyzing what we want to do. Since Mankind Divided is a sequel, we look at what we got right last time, and what we want to improve. We all kind of just share the ideas and start talking about the goal. We ask what the player fantasy is this time around. We share a lot of ideas, and then I start developing the story. Throughout the process I’m constantly bringing it back to the team, checking if it’s OK, and checking in with Patrick on gameplay.
Patrick Fortier: It’s a very collegiate approach between the narrative, the art direction, the level design, the game design, and then the creative director who is orchestrating all of that. The narrative is at the heart of everything. We look at what kind of story we’re telling. Art can tell a story, like the way this room is set up and the way things are laid out on the table, that all tells a story. Gameplay-wise, in Mankind Divided Adam Jensen is a different character than he was in Human Revolution. He’s much more accepting of what he’s become. He knows he’s augmented, and that he’s a weapon, so we have to think about how we translate that into gameplay.
Are you working together daily? Are you sitting down every day and reviewing what’s been done? Are you, Mary, the brand cop for this? Do you look at go, “This is Deus Ex and this isn’t,” or is that a shared responsibility?
DeMarle: It is a shared responsibility. I’m the brand cop when it comes to the narrative. Our creative director Jean François Dugas is the brand cop on a lot of things as well. He and I have our desks right next to each other and we’re constantly talking, and Patrick’s is right next to ours as well, so we’re always turning around and collaborating.
Why has it taken five years to get around to doing a sequel and dividing mankind?
Fortier: A lot of it was that the team started working on some new technology, and sometimes things are a little harder than you wish they were. You have good intentions and you think you’re going to be ready and we realized that maybe the tools weren’t quite there. Just doing little things in that situation becomes hard.
DeMarle: It’s a complicated game to make. What we really wanted to do is push the narrative beyond just the branching storylines, and that’s hard in and of itself. You could be writing a scene which is a two minute conversation when you play it, but the script is 20 pages long because we have to take into account all of the branches and all of the dialog that might have been heard, or not heard. That takes a lot of time and a lot of fine-tuning. Also at the same time we’re spending a lot of time with the environments. There’s a lot of detail and a lot of clutter.
Why is that more important now? That level of detail? Is it what we expect as gamers, or is it just the ambition level?
DeMarle: There are multiple answers to that question. From the get-go with Deus Ex we said we want to be detail-oriented, we want the clutter, and we want the branding. We came up with like a hundred different brands for the game because that makes you feel like it’s a credible world. The power of the game is that you’re going into this world and you want to be immersed and see these things. The more you can make it feel alive and real, the better the experience is when you’re in there.
Fortier: I think as an industry we’re growing up, too. We’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now and we’re getting better. I don’t mean just us, I mean as an industry as a whole. People are more mature now, they’re in their forties and fifties and they don’t want the same things they wanted when they were in their twenties. They want to deal with different themes and more serious things that they can relate to from their lives, and then translate that into the medium of video games. Players are starting to pay more and more attention to it now.
Stealth used to be a mechanic, but now it often feels like a moral choice that relates to the subtext of the story. It seems like storytellers have more of a responsibility to tell a more nuanced experience morally. Is that the case?
Fortier: I completely agree with that. I played Uncharted 4 recently and the stealth mode helped me to do a little more in the game because I didn’t want to go around shooting everyone as it doesn’t fit with my relationship with that character. With Deus Ex that’s always been something that’s very important. You can go through the whole game and not be seen by anyone and not kill anyone and the game’s never going to force you to do that.
There are a lot of games right now, the new God of War is a good example, that are very much reflections of the lives of the people making them. In that game Kratos is older and has a kid, and that’s because the team has gotten older and are parents now. Is there anything in Deus Ex that’s a reflection of your lives?
DeMarle: I don’t know if I can pull specifics out, but one of the things that I really like about Deus Ex is the shades of grey that we get to explore in everyday life. In my life, I’ve noticed that things don’t seem as simple as they used to be and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that people are more complex, and I’m more complex, and issues are more complex. I like to get to know people and explore these issues. So I’m bringing that into the characters and into the writing.
I don’t know of any other big things. The loss of my parents in recent years is a big factor, but I haven’t yet been able to work on that in these stories, but I think as we age as gamers and we age as game developers we are going to start dealing with those kinds of issues and we’re going to want to see those kind of stories and experiences because they’re just deeper than the experiences we have when we’re younger.
Movies and games seem to be crossing paths. Movies are becoming more and more about spectacle, whereas games are becoming much more nuanced in recent years. Do you think this trend will continue?
DeMarle: This is why I like telling stories in games, because you step into someone else’s life and you can suddenly understand that person and see a different view of life through that person’s eyes. In a game it’s all about experimenting, especially our game. It’s about freedom, it’s about trying things out and seeing the consequences of the things you try.
Fortier: I think in the further future, that’s the kind of technology that’s really going to change the world. When you can really, truly experience things from another person’s point of view. Throughout human history we’ve always made stories and other things to project an image of ourselves. This can be movies, TV, games – but really, you can never truly understand something as much as when you experience it. If technology can give me memories of an episode in your life and I can experience it, that would completely change my life. We’re not at that point yet, but if you look at video games and VR and the way we’re all connected through social media, we can look at the convergence of all of that think about getting to a point where we can really and truly share the human experience.
DeMarle: And we should try and have fun doing it.
So this sort of relates to the game too, right? The game is called Mankind Divided and even though it’s set in the future, it’s clear that you’re really trying to say something with this. So… what is that?
DeMarle: Well… it’s funny, I don’t think we set out to say something other than to let you experiencethis story and this world and see the repercussions of it. That’s what we’ve always tried to do with this franchise. We don’t want to tell you what to think, we want to show you all sides of an issue and let you think.
Fortier: You don’t want to make a sequel and retell the same story. Human Revolution explored transhumanism and it was all about the dream, right? It was the renaissance, and about how everyone’s going to be augmented for lots of different reasons, whether that’s sports or culture or politics and you’re going to craft yourself and be who you want to be… and it’s going to be wonderful. But there’s another side to that as well. When things turn bad, people start reacting in very human ways: fear, isolation, and refusing to understand the other side of something. People can take advantage of that and it’s another very real, intimidating side of the story. So we wanted to explore that with Mankind Divided and look at how the world could be affected by this and look at what can happen in the wake of tragedy. The world wouldn’t become paralyzed by this, but deeply affected by this. That’s what we decided to look at, and translate it into all kinds of things throughout the game.
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