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.

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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.
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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