Interview: writing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Tom Francis

Adam Jensen: he's as much of asshole as you want him to be.

We're wrapping up Deus Ex week - our onslaught of features and interviews about the third Deus Ex game, and retrospectives of the first. In this last entry, I talk to the Lead Writer and Narrative Designer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution about how you end a prequel, what 'conversational combat' is, and how the writer of the first game got involved.

PC Gamer: So you're the lead writer, are there many others?

Mary DeMerle: Yes, we have quite a few writers. Most of them have been contract, so they haven't necessarily been on the project the whole time or through the whole thing. But yeah, we've had about six different writers helping with this. And that doesn't count [Deus Ex 1 writer] Sheldon Pacotti, who had initial input on it too.

PCG: What's been the relationship with him and the other Deus Ex 1 guys?

DeMerle: Well, with Sheldon, it was pretty interesting, because – I have to admit, this is my little fan thing. I remember when Deus Ex first came out, I was working in San Diego at Presto Studios, the game company. And at the time that it came out, no one had really read too much about it, and then all of a sudden everybody fell in love with it.

So I remember everyone in the office playing it, talking about it. And then that year, I think, I went to GDC, and Sheldon gave a talk, and I went to hear his talk, and he just was amazing as a speaker. I was like, "Wow, this guy is so smart and so good at story and everything." And I remember meeting him and introducing myself briefly at one point. But that was it. And then we started working on this project, and when I started working on it, and I knew that we needed to get some more writers on, I thought, "I wonder if we could contact Sheldon." But I'd heard through the grapevine that he was still involved and working for someone else. I didn't think he would. And then all of a sudden we got an email from Sheldon, and he actually sent it – believe it or not – he sent it to our Human Resources people, in which he basically said...

PCG: "Can I have a job?"

DeMerle: (laughs) No, he didn't ask for a job. He basically introduced himself and said, "I heard you guys were doing Deus Ex, and it's obviously something very dear to my heart." And he's like, "I'm not asking for a job, because I actually have a job, and I can't, but I'd be very curious." And the day we got that email, we were like, "Oh my God, let's call him," you know? So we called him and we brought him in. At the time that we got the email, we kind of had the story figured out, but we still had a bunch of approval to go through on it and stuff. So we said, "Let's see if we can get Sheldon here, and we'll tell him our story, and see what he thinks."

So we flew him in. It was really, really great. And from that point we communicated with him. We took him to dinner and we were telling him stories about how we started on this project, and how our big concern was that this is Deus Ex – "Don't fuck it up," you know? And we tell him this, and he laughs along with us. And then when we're saying goodnight to him, after this night of talking and stuff, he's like, "Okay. Well, guys, it was really, really nice meeting you. I just wanna say one thing: Don't fuck it up! "

And we were like "Oh God, now we really can't. You know, we were planning to, totally, until you said that, and now we're screwed."

But no, it was pretty fun.

Faridah Malik, Adam's friendly pilot with iPhone thighs.

PCG: What have you worked on before?

DeMerle: Well, I've been in the industry since '97. I started at Presto Studios, who did The Journeyman Project. I worked on Myst 3: Exile, and I worked on Myst 4: Revelation for Ubisoft. I also worked with Relic Entertainment on Homeworld 2.

PCG: Oh, cool.

DeMerle: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that. The guys at Relic are a lot of fun. And I did a little bit of work for Gas Powered Games on the Dungeon Siege 2 series, and then a couple of other things that never got off the ground.

PCG: That seems to be a common trend in the industry - a lot of what you work on never actually sees the light of day.

DeMerle: Exactly. And some of them you understand why they never see the light of day, but with others you're like, "That's disappointing."

PCG: Yeah, Jonathan was talking about the PS2 version of Assassin's Creed that he was working on that never came out. He was quite sad about that.

DeMerle: Yeah.

PCG: What did you like about Deus Ex 1, from a writing perspective?

DeMerle: From a writing perspective? Wow, that's... I mean, to me, really good writing is [when] the story really fits the game, and really draws you in, and makes you feel like what you're doing has meaning and is relevant. And some of that comes through in gameplay - so the whole idea of there being choice and consequences. But also I think it was just that ability to really feel that whole global conspiracy was coming and affected you and you were a part of it.

I will say that one of the memories I have of that game was right at the very beginning, when I'm on Liberty Island and I could go to the docks and talk to somebody who has information. And so I go there and I meet this character, and he basically says, "I'll tell you, but only if you promise not to hurt anyone." And the choices come up.

I'm looking at those choices... and I'm not a killer kind of player. I'm a pacifist kind of player. But I'm also not very good at playing. So when those choices came up, and I saw the one that said, "Well, I'm not going to make any promises," I thought, I'm going to say, "I'm not going to make any promises," because for all I know [the NSF leader]'s gonna get killed in the crossfire, and I don't know where he is.

So I chose that, and the character said, "I'm not talking to you any more." And I was like, "Wait! Wait! No, wait!" And it made me realise that: wow, my choices have consequences in this. And I think that's one of the things I liked in that game, in that you felt almost immediately the repercussions of what you were choosing to do.

PCG: It's interesting that you pick up on that, because one of the things that surprised me watching the demonstration was that the guy failed the conversation. And I know Deus Ex had moments like that, where you could fail to get what you wanted, but it's very rare in games for a social path to be closed by you saying the wrong thing. Even in BioWare games, you get a good ending and a bad ending, but it's not a dead end. So is that a conscious focus for the game?

DeMerle: Well, certainly in the conversation gameplay. So we have different types of conversations in the game. The one we were showing you there was the conversation gameplay, which has that gameplay component about it. So yes, it was very much a decision that you could fail the conversations. I actually would like to see a lot more of that kind of thing, because I feel that it was such a strong moment for me in Deus Ex to know that my path got closed because of my decision.

I actually don't like it in a lot of roleplaying games where you get these choices and then it's like, "Okay well, I followed that path. Let's go back and do the other thing," and then you get all the information. To me, that's fake: it's not what a real dialogue is like. And so I like moments in the writing of our story where we can do that. Where we can say, "You've got to choose this or this."

PCG: In Mass Effect 2, at one point you're given the option to tell Cerberus, "Screw you guys, I don't wanna work with you." But you can't actually change-

DeMerle: Yeah, exactly, because you still keep working for them.

PCG: They say, "Well, you have to." It's like, "Oh, okay."

DeMerle: Yeah exactly. I mean, obviously you have to limit it in the game, because you can't have too many branches, so we do limit it in our game. We have the thing where there are certain dialogues that you can play again and again because they give you certain information, but then there are the other ones - and to me, the other ones are the more fun.

PCG: During the conversation the player lost, the options on-screen at each stage were Insist, Advise or Pinpoint - are those always the same?

DeMerle: Yeah, well, in the conversation gameplay, the philosophy for these is that you have to convince a person to do something for you, or to help to get to your objective, or whatever. But it depends on the individual that you're dealing with, and their personality, and what they would play to.

So I wouldn't say you're picking emotions - in a lot of games, you're picking, like, "Am I gonna be tough? Am I gonna be nice?" - it's not that kind of thing. It's more of a psychological gameplay based on the individual character you're dealing with. So maybe this is a character who will respond to being humiliated, but this character isn't, so with that character that's not a choice.

So it's more about the psychological aspects of it. And then hopefully, if we've done it well – and so far we've had really good reactions to it – you can tell instantly from the behaviour of the character whether that's succeeded or not.

PCG: So are the actual options you have during the 'conversation games' different depending on who you're talking to?

DeMerle: Yes, they change per person.

PCG: I take it there's no visual representation of their attitude towards you? Like, in Oblivion, you have Disposition, which you have to get to 100...

DeMerle: Well, you know, as we said: the game is about augmentations. So there's a particular augment that you can get that will help you get more hints on that.

PCG: Was there anything about JC Denton as a protagonist that you wanted to capture with Adam? That you liked about the way that guy worked?

DeMerle: Good question. I mean, we are dealing with that universe, so we wanted to maintain some things. I mean, visually, you can obviously see we went with the glasses and the trenchcoat. And we captured - we hope - that same kind of gruff character voice. Though Adam is a different character. I mean, maybe there are similarities between the two; maybe those similarities are intentional for some reason; maybe not. But he is a distinct character of his own.

Adam Jensen: he's as much of asshole as you want him to be.

PCG: How much of that character is determined by the game, and how much do you get to make up?

DeMerle: That's a very good question. I think when you're writing a story for a game and when you're dealing with a hero character, you have that conundrum. That's a debate in the industry that goes on: do you give a character a personality, or do you let the player do it? I think the philosophy we took - which I think is the right one, but, you know, we'll see – you're playing a player fantasy, so you want to embody a personality.

And that's why we developed an Adam Jensen who has a rich back story and has things that happened to him. But that's the past, and as a player you are becoming that person, and once you become that person you're the one who's deciding how he will develop and evolve.

I always laugh about the time when we played some of our first demos. I know who Adam Jensen is, okay, he's my Adam Jensen. And then I'm playing him, and then I thought, okay, I'm sneaking up on these guys, and I wanna see what that lethal takedown is like. And I did it, and I was like, "OH MY GOD!"

PCG: "Adam! How could you?"

DeMerle: Exactly! That was the reaction I had. I was like, "Oh my God, that was so violent! My Adam Jensen can't be that violent." But it was a really key moment to me, because I realised he can be that violent, and that other people might make him that violent.

So the personality can adapt and change. And in developing him as a character, that was one of the first challenges I had. The way that I do it is I always define a character by three or four key personality traits, and hopefully you come up with some that are in conflict with each other, because that's really interesting.

And then I sit there and say, "Okay, that's the trait. How does it manifest itself?" So, for instance, if a character is a very curious person, he might be the kind who's always in your face. But he might be the kind who sits at the back of the bus and just watches people.

So I defined an outline, and I presented it to the team, and I said, "Okay, so this is Adam Jensen, and here's his traits, and here's how they manifest." And it was really cool, because you're in a room with, like, 30 people, and you know they're all different, but every single one of them was like, "Wow, that's me, and yet better – I mean, I'm not quite the superhero yet." So I hope that we succeeded in creating a character who feels very alive and can be embodied and take on the traits of others.

PCG: What were the three or four traits?

DeMerle: Oh, I can't tell you. First of all because I can't quite remember, they've become so part of it. But all of that comes out in playing it.

PCG: I can't not ask about Tong...

DeMerle: [laughs] So you caught that one, did you?

PCG: Yeah... that was intriguing. ( The demonstration I saw had the player searching for a hacker named Tong, but when he found him, it didn't appear to be the Tong we know from Deus Ex 1)

DeMerle: Well, I've gotta ask you, what did you think?

PCG: Well at first, I actually kind of thought it could be Tong, the Tong from Deus Ex. It would be kind of an interesting twist if he used to be an asshole.

DeMerle: Yeah, also the timeline might be a little hard to reconcile.

PCG: But my guess is a brother, and through his associations with the unsavory element of the augmentations industry he gets himself killed, and that's why Tong is against technology.

DeMerle: Ooh, interesting, I like you. Well, I'm not gonna tell you too much. Now I'm gonna back up a little bit. One of our intentions in this game was to create a new story with new characters, so that we would have characters that are not a part of Deus Ex 1. But we also wanted to kind of put some of the threads and some of the foundations for characters who will eventually come in. And that one - I won't tell you how it relates, but he is one of the strongest ties that we do have in the game.

The Limb Clinic, whose outgoing spam is much like today's.

PCG: When was JC born, relative to this game?

DeMerle: Two years later. 2029. Yeah, I think Paul Denton's, like, eight years old.

PCG: What was the embryo in that first teaser trailer ?

DeMerle: I don't know if... I'm gonna stay quiet on that one. [Laughs] Wait 'til the game's out. You can ask that question then.

PCG: You were talking this morning about the player taking sides in the augmentation revolution, and getting to decide the evolution of humanity. But obviously a game that takes place twenty five years later has augmentations in it.

DeMerle: It's true... if you remember, they're being phased out.

PCG: Well, in favour of other augmentations.

DeMerle: Yes, yes, that's true.

PCG: So presumably the player doesn't entirely decide the fate of humanity, in that he can't ensure augmentations don't take off.

DeMerle: Well, what I would say about that, without giving anything away: the game takes place 25 years before. The world can change overnight. 25 years is a short period of time and yet a long period of time. And as an example of that I'd say no one predicted 9/11, and it changed the world. And that's all I gotta say about that. [laughs]

PCG: Invisible War had a hard job because it had to lead on from three different mutually exclusive endings, and it decided to just pretend they all happened. So presumably you've got an even harder job, where you want possible endings but you already know what's going to happen.

DeMerle: Yeah, it's true. But what I would say is... well, I don't want to talk too much about the endings. Certainly, there are multiple endings. One of the things I want to say, because people have said “That must be a very, very difficult challenge, because you know the future's set,” but my answer to that is yeah, you know what? Orson Scott Card was one of my favourite writers, and he wrote Ender's Game, which was an amazing book. And 10-15 years later he wrote Ender's Shadow, and when it came out I said, "I'm not gonna buy that! It's the same story! It's this marketing ploy to create the same story but just from a different perspective."

But then I broke down, and I did get it, and I was shocked, because even though it was the story, it was a completely different story, and it gave a completely different view of what was happening. So having said that, I think when you look at it from that kind of a perspective, the ending possibilities are exciting. Like I said, we started 25 years before the end. It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here. How does the world get to that ending? There are various possibilities, and each one could lead anything in a certain direction.

PCG: I know Shanghai is in there because it's where one of the main cybernetics companies is based, and they've made this two-tiered island - why are the other cities in there? Because it's Detroit, and I seem to remember Montreal...

DeMerle: I'm only at liberty to say Detroit. There might be... I mean, there are other cities, but yeah.

PCG: So why did you choose Detroit?

DeMerle: I think Detroit just made a lot of sense when we started out, because you're dealing with a time frame in which the American empire's crumbling, and certainly in the Deus Ex history it will crumble very shortly after our game comes out. There's two things Detroit represents as an American city. It does seem like the symbol of the American empire that's falling, because it was the start of the auto industry, and this great thing, and then it was effaced...

So, a) that symbolically fit into all the themes of our game. And b) when we were looking at augmentations and thinking, "How would this industry take off?" we realised, well, if they're gonna mass produce these they're gonna need these factories, and what better place to go than the place that revolutionised factories, and is now losing its industry? So that was I think part of why we settled on Detroit.

PCG: Robot arms making robot arms...

DeMerle: Yes, exactly! You know? And I think that, actually, part of the David Sarif story is the idea that he got his company to really take off by seeing that, "I can go and buy one of these other factories that are failing, and convert them."

Detroit, tomorrow.

PCG: [Art Director] Jonathan was saying the Renaissance art style started out being blanketed over everything, and then later they restricted it to certain characters and certain areas. Obviously it's a throwback fashion, did that influence your writing of those characters, and how they talk?

DeMerle: I would say not necessarily. I mean, on one level, perhaps. When I came on the project, I really liked the analogy of a Cyber Renaissance, because as Jon was saying, the Renaissance was a period of great scientific innovation and discovery, you had a lot of resistance to it from the establishment, and the great thinkers of that time who pushed it forward. And now here we are at a time when we're re-opening that Renaissance into the age of the machines, and so in that respect the characters who embody that innovation may be similar to that of the Renaissance. I told you how I built up Jensen's key traits: for every character, I start with the key character traits and then that creates the character and the backstory that made them that way. So for me, what drives the character is in terms of themselves and their traits, and how those manifest.

But I would say in terms of the Cyber Renaissance, one thing that is fun is the fact that we're creating not just the characters and plot, but an entire world. Jon had a slide up with all the major franchises and logos and he said, "We came up with all that stuff." And we really have. And one of my writers the other day was saying, "This is amazing, I don't know any other game I've worked on in which we've been asked to come up with the names of street signs." Because it's important, and because those names manifest our themes as well, potentially. And even the name of the building that Adam lives in, there's a reason behind all these things that may tie into the mythology.

PCG: I noticed in the demo that the aircraft you arrive in is named the B-EE, and the club you're going to is the Hive, and-

DeMerle: Oh, god, I never even saw that! See, these are the kind of things I like! No, I have to admit, because I do have a bunch of writers, I forget why it was the B-EE. But one of the writers did that – that was independent.

PCG: Invisible War obviously is not as well-liked by fans of the original game. But when it came to the plot, it actually tried to give you more choice than Deus Ex 1. In Deus Ex 1, once you discover UNATCO are part of a cover-up, you have some leeway over when you do it, but you have to switch sides. Whereas in Deus Ex 2, you were choosing who to work for all the way through. To an absurd extent, really, because no matter how many times you betrayed a faction, they'd always trust you with their next mission. Where on that spectrum is Deus Ex 3?

DeMerle: Well, I did enjoy Deus Ex 2. I did see that it was inferior in many respects to the first one, but it also had its strengths. I would say that I recognised the intellectual move of trying to give the player that freedom, but it failed, I think, on a story level. Because, me? I played the middle. And then you're left with, "Well, that was completely unsatisfying, because I played the middle."

So I would say that our story probably emulates the first one a little bit more, because I think that you also need those emotional hooks to grab onto, and it's an emotional hook in Deus Ex 1 when you discover your company is evil and you get the opportunity to side with the others. It's a strong emotional hook. And I think that's what is missing from the other one, because that was exactly true. It's like, "Well, I screwed you over several times and you still keep trusting me." No one's going to keep doing that.

PCG: At one point, I actually ended up killing Chad Dumier's wife, and he was just kind of annoyed.

DeMerle: Yes, yes!

PCG: I just kind of turned on this gas chamber - I didn't really think it through. I was just experimenting. And then you get back and he's just a bit pissed off. "Oh, I can't believe this, this is terrible, you're an asshole. So, your next mission is..."

DeMerle: The other thing I hate about that is how they can all just contact you. We've tried very, very hard to explain all the contacts. That was my pet peeve. How did they know that I just did that? With ours, we explain, so you know.

PCG: Excellent. Well, thank you very much.

DeMerle: Thank you! And I hope that when the game comes out you'll really enjoy it.

That pretty much wraps up Deus Ex week. Even just looking back over all this stuff to put it up on our site has got me excited all over again. A Deus Ex game! That might not suck! It pays to be cautiously optimistic, of course, but with so much going for it it's hard not to get carried away. All that remains is for you to ask any questions you still have about the game in the comments, which I'll answer to the best of my knowledge. Fire away.

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