Last year I interviewed Eidos Montréal art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête for PSM3 magazine (RIP) about the design of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It didn’t make it into the magazine, but was too good to waste, so here it is in its entirety.
The game has a very defined art style. You can tell it’s Deus Ex just by glancing at a screenshot. Was this something you planned all along?
That’s the first thing I said when I started on the project. I wanted the game to be very distinct. Exactly like you said – you see one screenshot and you know it’s Human Revolution. I wanted it to stand out from other games. I’m not saying it’s better than other games, of course; just that it stands out. Games have a tendency to, purposefully I think, try and look like each other, and I don’t like that.
I found it interesting that you were heavily involved in the promotion of the game, which is unusual for an art director…
Because I’m a spotlight whore. [laughs] Nah, but really, it just sort of happened naturally. It was never planned. The first talk I gave was at GDC 2010 about the game’s art direction, and there were so many articles and interviews about this part of the development process that it all snowballed from there.
Marketing were really happy with how I presented myself – they thought my passion really showed through when I did interviews, and they just started sending me all over the world to promote the game.
I also think it’s great for the game – and the games industry as a whole – because so many interviews have revolved around our game’s aesthetic, which is a crucial part of it. Art in games is not just about tech – it’s not about shaders, ambient occlusion, parallax mapping or anything like that; it’s about ideas. Visuals aren’t just about being pretty. They have to communicate with the player.
I also have to thank JF (Jean-François Dugas, game director), because I know a lot of directors that would’ve just said, “Fuck that shit! I wanna be there!”, but he’s great, and he was happy to stay back and let me get on with it.
How did you make the environments feel so convincingly ‘lived in’?
Well, I’m very glad you noticed that. I always wonder if people will. This is exactly what the plan was; I wanted the world to be detailed and feel like a real place.
Our plan was really crazy. When I approached David (David Anfossi, producer) early in the production, I told him that I think I’m gonna need to design like 1,400 props for this game – anything from cool sci-fi machinery, which is a given for a game like Deus Ex, to keyboards and coffee mugs. I wanted every object to have its own concept art. I even wanted a different set of furniture for each different office space.
It’s just crazy. He could have turned me down right then and there and said that wasn’t necessary for a game, but we actually believe as a group at Eidos Montréal that this kind of thing is entirely necessary. Our world is made up of details. We had to invent a hundred brands and company names, as well as their logos. This is expensive to do, but it really adds to the immersion.
Even if some players don’t notice this stuff, subconsciously they’ll register and it’ll make the world more believable. We had tonnes of concept artists. More than your average game, I think. We even outsourced a lot of it.
I found myself looking at desks and lamps and wishing I had them at home. Did you hire furniture designers?
No, actually. Our concept artists were never part of a specific field, like fashion or mechanical design. But I definitely think that’s the way the industry should be going next. It should be like the movie business; you don’t hire a fashion designer, but you give them a contract to produce something for the film. Then they might work with you for a month or two, laying the visual groundwork for your concept artist.
I had some of the best concept artists in the industry working for me – and most of them are friends of mine – but as good as they are, they’re not really professional fashion designers or industrial designers or engineers, so it was difficult to get that really cool, contemporary credibility out of them. I think we need to start contracting real designers for games. Our team really pulled it off, though. It took a little longer than normal, but the results speak for themselves.
The game looks futuristic, but not too futuristic – was this a difficult balance?
In some cases, we just let ourselves go wild. I mean, I don’t think there’s going to be a two-tiered city in China in 2027. That’s completely out of this world. But I think to have one place like this in an otherwise credible world totally works. This is something the Japanese are really good at if you look at anime, where the world is almost exactly like ours, but with one thing that’s just a little bit out there.
When we started the game it was 2007, and the game is set in 2027, so it’s only 20 years in the future. Some people think it’s too futuristic, some people think it’s not futuristic enough. There are very few designs in the game where I just let one of the concept artists come up with something in his head. I was always looking at real-world design for inspiration. I wanted every object to have a basis in reality, to make them feel real.
Some people say the tech is too advanced – and it might be – but I read a lot of Ray Kurzweil, and he thinks tech will be even more advanced. One of the things JF and I always say is that in 20 years we’ll meet for dinner, and we’ll put on Deus Ex and have a good laugh at how more advanced things are than we imagined.
Why did you choose to go back to a time in the Deus Ex universe where augmentation technology was just emerging, as opposed to when it was commonplace like in the original game?
Good question. It all started with the idea that we needed to reach a new audience with the game. We needed to ease them into the world, and a prequel is perfect for that. For one, it would be closer to our time period which would make it a little more approachable. Then, of course, there’s the fact that it happens before the other games, so if you haven’t played Deus Ex or Invisible War, it doesn’t matter.
This was one of the reasons we took the number out of the title. For the first two years it was called Deus Ex 3, but we removed it because if you see the number three, and then you hear that it’s part of some big series, you might feel pressured to play the other games first. Or if you’ve never heard of it, you might be confused.
We also thought that the idea of exploring the early golden age of cybernetics and transhumanism would connect with people better, because this is actually what’s happening in the world right now. So much of the debate about the ethics of body modification that you see in Human Revolution is going to happen more and more in reality, I think. When soldiers returned from the Vietnam War and they’d lost limbs, they’d hide their prosthetics. But now we have soldiers returning from Iraq, proudly displaying what are basically their augmentations.They can even make them stronger.
I saw this amazing photo the other day of a guy on a subway platform. He’s wearing these cool basketball shorts and sneakers, but he has fucking robot legs!
That sounds a lot like the gangs in Detroit…
Exactly! He looked badass! So by creating a universe based around these real world issues, we help introduce people to the world of Deus Ex.
There’s a very clear Metal Gear Solid influence in the game, from the visuals to the way the stealth works, and I know you’re a fan of MGS and Hideo Kojima. What do you think that series does so well?
One of the things I respect the most about those games is that they’re not trying to be photorealistic. You never think they’re trying to fool your brain into thinking that what you’re seeing is reality. That’s something we’re trying to do so much in the West. If the guys who make Call of Duty could press a button to make their game look exactly like real life, they would, but a Japanese developer wouldn’t.
They like to create worlds that are extremely credible and rich in detail, but make it look like a bit like a fantasy. That’s exactly what I believe in as an art director, so that’s something that’s always influenced me in the Metal Gear games. Even in Metal Gear Solid 4 – you look at the characters, the textures and the skin are so advanced, but you can still see that they’re very stylised. That’s what I really believe in.
Characters shouldn’t just be personified by their costumes, but also by their faces. Adam’s face is very sculpted, and it’s the same for the other main characters. In the West we design these really beautiful, elaborate costumes, but the faces are always kind of ‘mushy’, and you can’t tell them apart if you take away their clothing.
There’s a certain simplicity to the textures too. I think in the West we try and make textures too high frequency, with bump-mapping and all that, and we put grime and grit over everything. The Japanese don’t do this, and it’s something that’s always influenced me. That’s a big thing I’ve taken from MGS.
I once wrote a feature where I separated Western game heroes from their bodies, and it was nearly impossible to identify them…
[laughs] You did that for real? I never saw that! Holy crap! That is exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong – we still make amazingly good characters, but it’s all in the costumes. Like the Assassin’s Creed costumes are amazing designs, but generally, if you just look at the faces, you don’t know who they are.
But I think if you take Adam Jensen, or Federova, or Megan Reed from our game, you’ll recognise them right away from just their faces. My goal – if we ever do sequels – is that I don’t wanna change them. The tech might improve and the skin might look more realistic, but they’ll have the exact same recognisable shape.
Did the effort of creating the environments limit you to just two cities?
The reasoning behind having two city hubs was absolutely nothing to do with the effort of designing the world. I don’t think I could live with that! This was a global production decision. We did actually have to cut a whole city hub, though. I won’t get into details, but that was really heartbreaking.
Was there anything else you had to cut?
We had this awesome robot that was supposed to be cleaning the windows of the Tai Yong building in Hengsha – and it was even incorporated into the gameplay – but it just didn’t work that well, so we dropped it.
You’ve already gone back in time. Would you like to make a Deus Ex game set even further in the future than the original? Does the idea of imagining a much more distant future appeal to you?
Yes it does, absolutely. Even if it’s not a Deus Ex game, it totally does. I could put as much effort into imagining a distant future as I did a near future. I love to imagine how humanity will live in a hundred or two hundred years. So much of what I read while researching Human Revolution talks about that. I’m not even sure if we’ll even really be humans any more. A lot of great sci-fi has imagined that in hundreds of years, human beings as we know them today just won’t exist at all.