Augmenting the Deus Ex: Human Revolution story

GDC Online 2011: Lead writer and narrative designer explains how Eidos Montreal integrated every part of the sci-fi action game, from story and gameplay to designers and writers.

Who was there: Eidos Montreal lead writer and narrative game designer Mary DeMarle delivered a Tuesday-morning presentation titled "Building the Story-Driven Experience of Deus Ex: Human Revolution."

DeMarle stressed the networked nature of the Eidos Montreal team.

What they talked about: DeMarle opened with a disclaimer, saying she doesn't like to spoil stories at all but that there would be some in her presentation. That out of the way, she recapped what Deus Ex: Human Revolution was all about: a story-driven but open-ended action role-playing game set in the near future, where humanity has figured out how to use technology to enhance its own biology. Additionally, DeMarle said there was a development focus on giving players choices, not just in how they play the game, but in how they evolve the protagonist of Adam Jensen and how they evolve humanity itself.

Giving players choices was the difficult part, DeMarle said. The studio had to make the choices meaningful, giving players side quests based on their decisions that would reveal things about Jensen or the world of Deus Ex, with branching plotlines and an abundance of dialogue entirely dependent on a player's previous choices.

"It's a massive amount of branching that's going on, which leads to a really important question," DeMarle said. "How do you ensure in a story-driven game that branching paths will coalesce into a coherent narrative?"

The answer was to hire a narrative designer from the very beginning, DeMarle said. Her job was to work with the game's director to know and understand the goal of the game and to write a story to fulfill that goal. As conflicts come up during the course of development, it's the narrative designer's job to work with all the other departments on the team to communicate the story vision. When everybody understands that vision, they can use their own creativity and their specific specialty to bring the vision forward in the best way.

However, DeMarle said just having the position doesn't guarantee the story will coalesce into a coherent end product. To achieve that, the team developed a "blueprint process" that started with defining the game concept. The game's director, producer, lead designer, and artistic director got together early on to lay the foundations on which the rest of the game would be built. The four developers moved into one office they called "the fishtank" and hammered out the game design.

DeMarle showed the original pitch slides Human Revolution's developers used to get the green light from Eidos. The slides laid out the focus on choice, the setting, the features, and Adam Jensen's role as a mechanically enhanced agent embroiled in a corporate war who will determine the fate of the world. Character interactions, the multipath level design philosophy, and the four pillars of gameplay (combat, stealth, hacking, and social approaches) were all included from the very beginning, as was a high-level synopsis for the story.

Originally, the game's story has the hero working as a security specialist at a corporation when commandos kidnap the scientist he's supposed to protect. He's augmented to help retrieve the scientist and eventually learns of a plot to kill augmented humans and realizes that his mechanical advantages are also his Achilles heel. While some of the details changed along the way, DeMarle said the blueprint had the high-level story summary in place before she came on board.

The game's theme was originally transhumanism, encapsulated by the quote "Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above." However, DeMarle said one of the first problems she noticed with the game when she came on board was that the gameplay theme (choice and consequence) didn't match that story theme. Her solution was to change the story theme to examine more closely the question "Why do we do the things that we do?" Every main character has a different desire for control--whether it's control of the market, society, or their own choices--that was used to examine the question of why people make the choices they do.

That made for a great story, but DeMarle said the narrative still needed to be more deeply connected with the gameplay. During preproduction, the technology, art direction, sound design, and gameplay were all being developed independently. A key part of the blueprint was then forcing those individual pieces to work together.

DeMarle pointed toward the game's Detroit level, which has a story element involving Jensen taking down anti-augmentation extremists holding a manufacturing plant hostage. On a gameplay level, players would have to infiltrate the plant, secure a prototype, and take down the extremist leader, each of those goals containing its own series of tasks.

By breaking down each of those tasks, DeMarle said it became clear how each part of the sequence should be handled, from the choices that will be offered (and the consequences of those choices) to the scripted events, cutscenes, and gameplay focus of every segment. DeMarle showed off the Excel document that served as the final blueprint, which had essentially the entire game laid out, from what story points happen when, to the specific gameplay criteria and conditions in play at every moment of the game.

The entire team would then go through the blueprint, working together to make sure that every department's needs were being met. It was difficult, DeMarle said, and it meant no group would always get their way. However, if DeMarle and her writers didn't get to tell the story exactly how they wanted because the gameplay designers insisted on having an action sequence at a certain point to serve pacing needs, at least everybody would understand why. Cross-department communication like this was encouraged throughout development to ensure that all aspects of the game worked together, and DeMarle stressed that it allowed everyone to bring their own expertise and creativity to the game.

She gave a few examples, such as the anti-augmentation terrorists, which the art department originally had dressed up in medieval-style armor. While the group looked cool, the animators said the design wouldn't move right in practice, while the writers questioned how the group of impoverished thugs were able to afford the complicated equipment. The artists then came back with another approach that met the concerns of the writers and animators but still kept the medieval theme, albeit with monk-like robes and haircuts.

In the audience Q&A portion of the session, DeMarle was asked about why Human Revolution's oft-criticized boss battles did not give players the same breadth of choices they have elsewhere in the game. She stressed that the outsourcing studio did a great job doing what they were told to do, but admitted the ambitiousness of the project meant the developers simply didn't have time to meet all their goals, and the boss battles fell short as a result.

Quote/Takeaway: "A process is a process. Our process worked for us. It may not work for everyone else. Our process worked because of our ability to see that every aspect of the game was all part of a greater whole. A lot of time when working in games you hear things like 'story is a necessary evil.' Or 'gameplay is a necessary evil.' But we didn't see it that way."--On the importance of viewing everything as part of the greater whole.

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Discussion

37 comments
Mortilla
Mortilla

Loved the game. Epic story. GOTY contender, no doubt.

freak9
freak9

Excellent game , great story and graphics . . . I wish the end had little more fun . . . 10/10 from me :) . . .

TehUndeadHorror
TehUndeadHorror

Hope they do a Witcher-style version 2 with improved boss battles and extended ending, would be epic.

spddar
spddar

i am a die-hard deus ex fan. But the game is more amazing than i thought. It should be the game of the year obviously.

pidow
pidow

All aspects of any game should be paramount....nothing left for chance and all the I's dotted and the tee crossed. Not making us wait for patches or quick fixes, good quality games period.

prince__vlad
prince__vlad

so what is that ? She talkes about the story AFTER months the game went out? WTF is that ? What is the purpose of this article ?

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

Good article and good work philosophy. All games should tie in every aspect of the game to theme, story, and character. Unfortunately, most games out don't take the time to do this. I like that they really made an effort to get everyone on the same page as far as design goes and asked the right kinds of questions, like 'how can the gameplay fit the story we're trying to tell?' I wish there were more games like this and designers who took this kind of cohesion seriously. The choices you make in this game actually feel like they mean something because they not only apply to how you tackle a situation, but they tie into the world of the game and the story at hand, and that is a rare accomplishment for gaming these days.

Cybrian
Cybrian

Straightforward and interesting article. I came away with the impression that while there's coding involved in game-mechanics, now more and more it seems the process of creating a 'storyline' and the writing of game 'narrative' has itself become a particular type of code. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may seem lifeless to describe writing a game as simply a formulaic 'scripting of narrative styles and elements', but it's a practical approach to a task that calls for the 'ordering of a set of creative attributes' to produce a coherent pre-determined end-result: the story itself retains whatever creative life it possesses...the 'narrative code' just lays out the map on the telling of the tale. As for the Boss Battles...is it possible they 'watered' down the intensity of the confrontations because (IMO) it's no longer a game staple that "boss battles are supposed to be very difficult because it's the climax of the game?" After all, for many players it's the process of actually getting to the end of the story that provides the pleasure and the challenge - the struggle inherent in game play is itself the focus, not just "getting to the boss level." Games are no longer as cut and dry as surmounting a series of obstacles in order to qualify for a final showdown that serves as a conclusion to the story.

G1Ga-B1T3
G1Ga-B1T3

Being on my 4th play through, which I seldom make it through a game these days, the next best thing I can hope for is a Director's Cut that crams in the cut content, and hopefully, fixes the drawbacks on not only the boss fights, but their character development as well. Other than that, this is a crucial piece of science fiction history right here.

questersson
questersson

When word first came out about DEUS EX I could hardly Wait to play, Best time I ever had with a PC game, Next was Invisible war, Not as great as the first, but well worth the wait. Now its been nearly 2 years & the waiting is over, But I need to Up-Grade my OS to play, But all good things come fore those that wait, Right?

Chunkman
Chunkman

Very solid game. When checking it out, I knew I would either really love it, or totally hate it. I feel I took a gamble when I went out and bought it, but I made the right decision. It's one of those games that has the power to suck you into its universe and completely immerse and often surprise you. While no single component was a homerun, each facet of the game (gameplay, visuals, story, audio/soundtrack) were all so consistent with each other that a sense of continuity was established to make the world (and game) so compelling. Stellar game design from a Canadian dev!

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

@karenwen They did. I've seen dev comments saying Montreal was going to be a full hub and they actually had that one half built, and there was going to be another besides that, but it would have just taken way too long. Which is understandable, the hubs in this game are really huge and detailed. I don't know how, storywise, they can fit another game into this series, but I definitely want to see another game of this style from these developers.

Mortilla
Mortilla

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

TheLemonGelati
TheLemonGelati

This was actually my most anticipated game in a good couple years. The first Deus ex is one of my favorites, so I followed HR closely as it was being developed. Look, I know why the comments are made concerning the "Boss Battles", the obvious lack of choice, but to be honest I didn't have that much of an issue with it. I died a good 5-6 times at each Boss but I just enjoyed fighting a hard Boss for once. It's rare anymore and you have to admit For The Most Part, bosses today are not very challenging. I have a good 50 hours or so into the game and I felt completely satisfied when it was finished. The world was fun, it was engaging, it was challenging, and I had a blast; hacking, searching rooms, and buying augmentations. Not to mention the soundtrack is top-notch :-).

R083R70
R083R70

Fantastic game, I was more enthralled by this game than almost every other game I've ever played..... which is exactly why I almost broke my tv once the ending rolled around. I hope so much that they will fill the whole in my heart with the questions that need answering and the results of my actions.

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

Human Revolution is a good game and I liked how they diduch of the game,story choices, inventory management, augmentation and the stealth aspects but I wish they would have dropped the boss fights. The way Deus Ex is designed it didn't make any sense to add bosses and have them be unavoidable fights that only end in death [to the bosses]. I was lucky to get past Barret but I lost my nerve as I was approaching the next boss..... I ended up going back to New Vegas for Honest Hearts, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road......

karenwen
karenwen

After beating this game once (on 2nd playthrough now, going to use no praxis points this time), I can't help but think that they had plans for more locations, with more story and a much bigger game overall.

Just feels that at some point, they had to cut out a lot of stuff to meet deadlines. I'll admit that the game is still excellent though, and is my personal GOTY.

NitehawkFury
NitehawkFury

I guess the work they put into it really shows why it was as immersive as it was. There are obviously things that could have been done better, but as as whole, it's a very good game with an eye towards powerful storytelling. I hope that we continue to see games like this, but maybe without the boss fights.

SY_shoot
SY_shoot

what is game of the year ? is that like those best guitar player lists ? :) I played this game 2 times, first time I was quick, second time i played every quest, hanged out in a bar getting drunk... I had a lot of fun, yeah, OK, i'm gonna start it again now

Kayweg
Kayweg

Solid enough game. The exaggerated enthusiasm about it is a bit beyond me. Maybe it takes less nowadays to get people excited. I ended up rushing thru, just to get it over with....ignoring several side quests along the way. At some point i noticed 11 unassigned praxis kits. Guess i didn't need them ? Sure made character development feel a bit pointless. Hacking (while interesting in the beginning) becomes routine, and did you really need that extra 10mm pistol ammo or 25 credits from that locked office ? I sure didn't. Story is ok in my book, but again...nothing that had me at the edge of my seat. GOTY ? Don't be silly.

DanielL5583
DanielL5583

@OJdaLIONKing Though, to be honest, I was half-way through Persona 4 when I finished it... I guess that must be why I found it short.

MERGATROYDER
MERGATROYDER

Given the amount of development time that went into this title, I knew they would deliver a solid game. They new what worked in previous titles and engaged it heavily.

HollowNinja
HollowNinja

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of the best games I have played in a long time.

Andy2181
Andy2181

I actually think this game is underrated. I'm close to the end in it, and I honestly think it deserves a 9.5/10. its very long, and the augmentations are amazing. And the dialogue options make it much alike mass effect, which is awesome! The only bad part, I would say, are the boss fights. Kinda stupid.

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

@daniel5583 That's the odd thing. I keep hearing about how much shorter it is, but I played all 3 deus ex games in a row. Overall, I spent a similar amount of time in DXHR as I did in DX1. It may not have had as many missions in a row or as many hubs, but instead there was a huge amount of things to discover and interact with compared to the first game that it came out as a pretty long experience for me. Then again, I also think that DXIW gets a bad rap and is actually a pretty good game, so maybe I'm in the minority. Lately, PC fans have been making me want to bang my head on a wall any time they say anything, even though I myself prefer PC to consoles.

pokecharm
pokecharm

that sounds like a nice job to have, make sure everyone is on the same page ;) interesting take on the collaborative side of things.

GamerNerdTalk
GamerNerdTalk

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is my personal Game of the Year. And the best game I have played this generation. I honestly loved ever aspect of this game. :)

simonpm
simonpm

Yeah DX:HR was a good game. Things they completely missed the goalposts on though, were: Bossfights, the last level Panchaea (felt like i'd stepped into dead rising), a messy abrupt wrap-up to the story. Other than that, not bad at all.

DanielL5583
DanielL5583

The perfect revival of a classic series. This game was amazing until the end. The only problems I had with it were that the bosses, as interesting as they were, were kinda bland, and that it was very short. VERY short. I expected it to be longer. Oh well, at least we'll be getting some DLC to continue it later!

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

I didn't really see as much branching as this claims to have had, but then maybe it's one of those things you don't notice until another playthrough. It's no Mass Effect in that respect. In any event, I was a little skeptical of this game before it came out, but thank god I picked it up anyway. It's close to if not my favorite game this year (so far) and a great continuation of the franchise.

kvan33
kvan33

I enjoyed Deus Ex, but the story was hardly exceptional. In fact, I didn't really see much branching opportunities as far as the main story could play out until you get to the very end.

Darth_Starwind
Darth_Starwind

Any game developer who can keep personal choice in a coherent state with the main story line gets a A in my book. Deus Ex, the Mass Effect franchise, and Dragon Age: Origins/Awakening have achieved high marks in this area in my opinion. Heavy Rain should also get a nod despite it not being an RPG.

Tony_Wartooth
Tony_Wartooth

If that's the case, why does the story suck so hard? It's bland and rushed. Learn to Irrational Games.

siarhei
siarhei

Good inside look. The game turned out great, and that's all that matters.

FlyingKoopa
FlyingKoopa

Well, I guess they just done what they had to. Nothing special, just a normal game build process.