Interview: the art of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Tom Francis

The office of one of DX:HR's key cybernetics magnates.

If you've been following our Deus Ex week stuff, you'd probably recognise Jonathan Jacques-Belletete if you saw him. Because he's not just the game's Art Director, responsible for its odd blend of Renaissance fashions and cyberpunk tech, he's also the model the player character Adam Jensen is based on. I asked him about the difficulties of making art for an open-ended game, whether Human Revolution is too futuristic for its own good, and the neglected status of cyberpunk.

PCG: I was joking with the guys that my first question should be: “Why is the main character so ugly?”

Jonathan Jacques-Belletete: Yeah, cause he's fucking ugly! Come on!

PCG: But yeah, I gather you were looking around for a face to base the character on and you had modelling experience, so-

Jacques-Belletete: That's not really- I wish that that's what happened-

PCG: That's what I was told.

Jacques-Belletete: Really? Who told you that, Andre?

PCG: Uh, yeah.

Jacques-Belletete: Freakin' Andre. The way that it really happened, honestly – it's funny because it's pretty obvious that it looks like me, but you guys are really the first bunch where everybody's asking me this question. Usually people don't ask, even though it's super obvious. It's never really been wanted that way, like, “Let's put Jon in the game”, not at all. It started with the poster. Jim, this awesome illustrator that we have, like a crazy genius artist, he had to do that. He had a really short period of time and he wanted someone to pose for it just to get the pose down, which kind of speeds up the process. So I posed for that, and then, being the crazy illustrator that he is, he's just so talented, that this ended up really being me and everything.

And also, we've never wanted to have a big brutish dude in a game, you know like a Marcus Fenix type of guy. A sentence that we always say is that “Adam can seriously kick your ass, but he goes home and reads a good book.” Then we wanted the Don Quixote thing with the little goatee and stuff. But yeah, definitely he totally looks like me. It's like a coincidence and it isn't. It's a coincidence because it's never been something that we wanted to do, and then it isn't a coincidence because Jim said “You wanna pose?” and I said “Sure.”

His natural poise gives away his modelling experience.

PCG: You talk a lot about the amount of detail that goes into the game's environments; it seems to me like one of the principles of Deus Ex is being able to choose your own path, and the natural consequence of that is that you don't get to see everything in the game. Isn't it kind of counter-intuitive to have a method that involves a lot of work for every square inch of space, and then a game that demands a lot of space in order to allow the player to have freedom?

Jacques-Belletete: The thing is that none of that was done at a compromise of the amount of areas you can explore or how expansive the game is really. What became a challenge, though, within all that amount of detail, was to make sure that we still had proper visual tools to kind of guide the player within all those different paths and everything. Now obviously some paths are really really hidden, we don't want to have like an arrow that points you to that direction, but we needed to come up with a lot of good ideas to make sure that the player can decode the image properly.

But apart from that the fact that the game has a lot of sections for you to either find or see or not see or whatever, and the fact that they're all really detailed and cluttered and stuff I don't think really affects one another. Also just thematically some placers are a lot slicker and cleaner just by design, by what they are.

The double-decker island, DX:HR's most futuristic touch.

PCG: In the presentation earlier, you went into quite a lot of depth about how the really futuristic looking stuff in the game isn't all that far-off present day. Obviously it's nice for us as journalists to know that, but players coming to the game fresh won't know it. Is there a risk that people are going to feel- not put off by it, but a little less engaged by a world that's so seemingly far from our own?

I think that obviously it's about how we balance it in the game. The portion that you just saw [featuring a double-decker city outside Shanghai] definitely has probably our most crazy advanced thing in the game, it's kind of like our Death Star. It's like, you watch Star Wars and there's all these cool things and suddenly there's this ball of metal that floats, and it's like, “What the hell”, you know? But you've been through so many mundane and contemporary places, in between and before and after and stuff like that. I think it counterbalances pretty well.

When you're in Detroit I think you really feel properly like the Detroit of today, with real technological stuff just added over. For example, there's stuff like the charging stations for electrical cars, and again you see all the logos on there, and you can read the instructions on how the whole thing would function and stuff like that. You look at the car designs and they're inspired by concept cars that are being done today.

For example, in the demo, when you're in the seaport, the immediate playing area is really like a seaport. It looks fairly, you know, like the thing could be fifty, sixty years old, but then you look, you tilt your head and there's that double decker city thing there. So I think it's this juxtaposition that we're doing all the time, I think it makes it work. I think that's what the anticipation is and I think that's also what Cyberpunk is. It's like, the old is there, but there's that crazy new that's grafted over it. And we have it at different levels, you know, the double decker is right there, but there's like all these little things left and right.

PCG: It did look really cool ingame. Usually when I'm being shown concept art I'm always, as a journalist, kind of thinking, “Yeah, I love concept art, but it doesn't look like the game, does it? Oh, actually that does look like the game.”

Jacques-Belletete: [laughs] Great, dude, thanks. Appreciate it.

PCG: You said that creating a design that's starkly different to other games can make it much more attractive to players, and you used Team Fortress 2 and Bioshock as examples. Do you feel like you've gone that far, alongside those guys?

Um, no. I don't think it's that far. Well, definitely not Team Fortress 2, that's for sure. Bioshock maybe. Probably. I don't think we'll be the judge of that, I think we'll really see what the product is really finished and what people really think and how attracted to it or repulsed they've been, but it's definitely something that we're really really trying to achieve.

Now, when you design something, it's always the same. You start with this really lofty idea, and what you end up with is never as concentrated. It was the same with the cyber Renaissance. It's like I said at the beginning, we tried to just coat it over everything. I'm not even going to show you what it looked like.

But you know, that's what iterations are there for. And when you try to make something new and it's never ever been created before, well, there's no points of reference, you're creating them yourself, so you do make a lot of mistakes along the way. That's why you need to be quite focused and believe into your own ideas.

But anyway, to answer your question, I hope it'll feel different. I don't think it's as much different as what I originally wanted, but there's definitely soul to it, and it's definitely not just trying to be a clone, that's for damn sure. I think a good reference of a team that I really really admire and I think they pulled it off amazingly well, graphically speaking – because the game, I loved it, but apparently other people didn't like it all that much – was Mirror's Edge.

PCG: From that description, I had a feeling you were going to say Mirror's Edge.

Jacques-Belletete: I remember, because when DICE were making their communication about Mirror's Edge, and they would pull out those screenshots of when you're playing on rooftops and stuff, and I was like, “No way, man, this is not- I- this is not going to look like that, I do not believe it.” It's like, this is 1:1, it's exactly what it is.

PCG: Yeah, that is the other game where the concept art looks just exactly like the screenshots.

Jacques-Belletete: It was insane. In terms of like – there's no way you could ever confuse that game with another game. Yeah, those guys. They are geniuses, really.

PCG: And that's quite cool because the concept of that city is not a sort of big, bold, complete inversion of what you know. It's not like Bioshock where you're underwater, it's not like TF2 where it's all like a cartoon, it's just this really clean city.

Jacques-Belletete: No, you're right, it's a very clean design also, which is kind of cool. The Scandinavians and whatnot, right? They're really close to all those aesthetics and it's really present in the game, which is awesome.

Concept art, or screenshot? Concept art.

PCG: The demo did call to mind Mirror's Edge at points because it had these – when you go through the streets of Shanghai you have the fogging effects, it's catching the colour of lights from the stores as you go past, and Mirror's Edge is a great one for having these washes of colour, where you go through a really green place and a really pink place.

Jacques-Belletete: Yeah. The great thing that they have is they have those huge lightmaps, they use their internal engine for radiosity, which, you could have like an orange painted staircase and the shadow is actually orange because of the bounce light and it is just beautiful.

PCG: It seemed like when the demo got into combat and he was firing his assault rifle, the muzzle flash seemed to colour the whole screen. Is there some kind of specific art direction you're going for with the way effects like that work?

Jacques-Belletete: Um... did it cover the whole screen? ...I need to go talk to someone. [laughs]

PCG: It just seemed like a very dramatic colour-blast.

Jacques-Belletete: The thing is that the weapons are all upgradable, and there's a lot of stuff you can upgrade them with, and the combat rifle was fully upgraded at that point, which is when you get this huge effect on the thing. If you saw how it is when you first find it, when you first bought it, there's quite a dramatic difference. So, obviously the last step, we're really trying to make sure you know that you're fully upgraded. The flame turns kind of blueish where at the beginning it isn't.

PCG: When you do a takedown move and it cuts to third person, it seems like quite a jarring difference. Obviously without playing it I can't judge, but the only point of comparison I have is Manhunt where, it was third person already, but when you did a special takedown it would cut to a camera's view. In that game I always felt like I wasn't really doing it, I was watching someone else do it because of that. Is there a way you try to avoid that?

Jacques-Belletete: We try and avoid that... It's a good question! I think it works pretty well. Obviously there's no quick time events or whatever. Once you've entered it... it's kind of like the gameplay is all about making sure you approached him without making any noise so you can do it, because the minute they hear you and you get into combat mode, even if you're still within the radius, you won't be able to do it any more. So that's where the gameplay is at, and your reward is that once you're there, and you haven't surprised him, there you go, you kind of chain into it. So... are you saying that the switch of view is a little weird? Or the fact that you're watching something happening in front of you is a little weird, or is it both?

PCG: It's kind of the change. When you're playing a first person shooter, you're in control of every action. When you press 'fire', there's not much difference between that and pulling a trigger, whereas here you're pressing 'fire' and he's doing a whole series of moves and you're watching it happen.

Jacques-Belletete: Yeah, I guess you'll have to be the judge of that really. I think it's like, you know the Bourne identity game or even like the latest James Bond, like those games, their takedowns were pretty involving, pretty much along the same paths.

PCG: I thought the idea of going into the third person to take cover was going to feel weird, but actually when I watched the demo it seemed quite natural. I don't think there's any other way to do it with cover, is there? Because the player has to know exactly how much of himself is exposed.

Jacques-Belletete: Absolutely. I'm happy to hear that. It's always felt rather good and natural to us, so yeah, getting all the flak from, uh-

PCG: It's definitely one of the things that fanboys freak out about. Including me.

Jacques-Belletete: [laughs] That's cool.

PCG: Was there anything you liked about the art style of Deus Ex one?

Jacques-Belletete: Well the story that I tell all the time, when I bought it in 2000 my computer couldn't run it at the time, like it had my old old Pentium, so I bought it and I played it at work. It was a sunday afternoon, I think I bought it at 1:30, then at one point I blinked, and it was three in the morning. I'm not kidding. It's really in my top three best games of all time.

I think that's really what Deus Ex is. It's the visuals, it's the music, it's the mood, it's the places they put you into, it's the stories, it's the people you talk to, it's all those things, right? And how the gameplay mechanics chain into one another, and all those choices making it your own fantasy. If you wanna be Rambo or James Bond... I would always be the James Bond, once I was done unlocking everything I would just go shoot everybody, you know, making sure you've got everything.

I think that's really what gives it the essence, and the role that the visuals play in that is that, like I was saying in my presentation, they recreated, or created the cyberpunk archetypes. I don't think it had a very present visual message. I don't think it was trying to convey something very specific, visually, like an emotion or a meaning or whatever, but it was creating the world it had to create in terms of cyberpunk. When I realised that after studying it, I said, “well, you know, those are the things that I gotta make sure that I have in the game, right?”

So obviously our game is not grey and blue, in the sense that we chose a colour pallette for some very specific reasons, and it's not the same as the first one. But all the cyberpunk visual pillars are all there just like in the first one. Then we made sure that we brought back the trenchcoat and the shades, which people really like.

It's funny because focus testing cyberpunk and all that kind of stuff, we had a lot of surprises. We focus tested in London for Europe and we focus tested in LA for North America. Nobody knows what cyberpunk is anymore. That was really, we were like, “What? Come on, guys, what the hell?”

Human Revolution's vision of Detroit.

PCG: You mean they didn't know what the word means, or they didn't recognise the style?

Jacques-Belletete: No, they didn't know what the word meant! They had no idea. I'm not kidding, and it's unanimous. Cyberpunk has kind of disappeared. If you look at cyberpunk literature the latest thing really has been the Matrix. In videogames, even, I would say the closest thing to cyberpunk for a long time is probably Metal Gear Solid, in the sense that it's near future, it's anticipation, it kind of deals with the same themes and stuff.

But man, apart from that, sci-fi in games is always really kind of... sci-fi . You know, it's the Halos, the Killzones, and the Mass Effects, all that kind of stuff. Based on the first one we just made sure that we did justice to Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell and all that kind of stuff. They were the canons, really.

PCG: The Deus Ex 1 art style was slightly all over the place by the end of the game, because they'd started to introduce so many different elements. You had the Greasels hopping about, the Karkian things, and neither of those were particularly well modelled. The Greasels were interesting at least because they weren't the standard mutant thing, but I know what you mean about it not having an artistic message.

Jacques-Belletete: Yeah, yeah. But hey, it worked. It totally worked.

PCG: It seems like if you ask anyone who worked on Deus Ex – well, Warren Spector anyway – he always says that they didn't do anything well, they just tried to do everything at once. Have you taken that philosophy on?

Jacques-Belletete: To be honest with you, I think just rationally, we have no choice really. Don't get me wrong, we're trying to do everything as best as possible. It'd be wrong to have the opposite approach. Now, this being said, there's no way that we could have a stealth as good as I think we have and at the same time always have crazy scripted events a la Modern Warfare 2, where they probably spent six months polishing each one of those events, you know? It's just not possible.

The goal is to have a really good shooter, and a really good stealth game, and a really good RPG. This is it. We can't get around this. Now this being said, we do a lot of stuff. You take Grand Theft Auto, right? You decompose it into all of its little things, and you take them by themselves, and they're not as good as the sum of their parts. That's just the reality of doing a game like that. I think it's just rational, and it'd be lying to say that if you just take our first person shooter, it's going to kick freakin' every single FPS's ass out there, I'd be an idiot to tell you that.

But it's a very solid first person shooter no matter what, and you can play the game just shooting if you want, that's the nature of Deus Ex.

PCG: Deus Ex 2 seemed to have more of an artistic direction than Deus Ex 1. It's a very clear vision of the future, but people seemed to react really badly to it. How do you feel about that?

Jacques-Belletete: Yeah, this has definitely worried me more than "how much are we following the first one?", because yeah, we are taking some liberties and some aesthetic choices.

[long pause]

I mean, there's no purple!

PCG: [laughs]

Jacques-Belletete: You know, with technology, we read so many books - all the Ray Kurzweil books, and all the technological curve books - about where things are going. You just look at display technology. Today is already where way more advanced than most of the things we see in Deus Ex 1.

There's that, the technology is more advanced, but it already is more advanced in a lot of parts than in Deus Ex 1. You just look at web 2.0 and that kind of stuff and it's way beyond what you say in Deus Ex 1. The game came out in 2000 so they were probably designing it in 1998, 99, so there's that.

That doesn't worry me all that much, I mean hey, what the hell? Obviously we're doing everything to please the fans, but we need to get a lot of people other than the fans, it's just the nature of the games industry. This game needs to make money, right? I'm not going to make screens that are 4:3 ratio just because that's what they had in the first one. It makes no sense, we're already way beyond that today, so I need to follow suit.

Now, as far as the Cyber Renaissance, well, it's somewhat of a reboot of the franchise. Notice that the number 3 is not in the title. A lot of people have no idea what Deus Ex is. The fans think that the whole universe knows what that game is, but it's just not true.

PCG: Yeah.

Jacques-Belletete: And trust me, I was one of those people. The first focus test was a big eye opener, so hopefully the aesthetic choices that we made is also to try to have a very tangible flavour that'll attract a lot of people also.

The office of one of DX:HR's key cybernetics magnates.

PCG: What games have you worked on before?

Jacques-Belletete: I started in 99 as a concept artist at a startup that was called Diad. It was like a PC startup, we did little PC strategy games, stuff like that. Then I did a whole bunch of Warner Bros and Disney stuff and everything, like Monster's Inc, and things like that, the licensed games. Then I worked on - have you heard the game Wet?

PCG: Yep.

Jacques-Belletete: Before it became Wet, because it went through quite a few cycles, and I worked on quite a few of those. Then Ubisoft called me with an art director position on Assassin's Creed, but the PS2 version at the time. Which is quite interesting, because most people don't know that there was a PS2 version. The great thing about it is that there was no way you could port the 360 version on a PS2, so it was really a game on its own. It had it's own art direction, it happened in a totally different area with a different story, different characters and everything. That was before the next-gen consoles came out. They had the devkits and everything, but when they realised how strong the license would be, they said, you know, we'll focus on just one communication, and they cancelled the current gen version. Which was quite a bummer because I think we had something really... It would have been one of that last stroke of PS2 and Xbox games, it would have been a really good one I think.

Then after that we did a whole bunch of spin off pitches for Prince of Persia and everything, which ended up being shelved, and I did Far Cry after that.

PCG: Far Cry 2?

Jacques-Belletete: No, the first Far Cry, and the Predator Far Cry. That was at a time where, four or five years ago, Ubisoft were a little like, “Man, is our licenses getting a little stale? Do we need something new?” So me and Jeff, the creative director on Far Cry, had about two years to come up with a whole bunch of new IPs, like a whole bunch of new ideas.

PCG: Man, I bet that was-

That was a great year and a half, we had everything we wanted. Came up with some good stuff... and then Avatar was starting, and the new Rainbow Six: Vegas. They needed an art director on Avatar and a creative director on Vegas, and they were a little short on people, so they took us out of our incubations and they put Jeff on Vegas and I was art director on Avatar.

Then these guys called us for Deus Ex. We really had no reason to leave Ubisoft. Everything was great, I was like this close to finally meeting James Cameron, one of my heroes. I think two weeks after I left they flew down to LA to go and meet him. Jeff was on a great game also, but it was really Deus Ex. We're huge fans of Deus Ex. This is it, there's no better game to design, so here we are.

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