Deus Ex: Human Revolution Shows Ambition in Storytelling
Mary DeMarle has run through this speech before.
As she addresses a roomful of journalists preparing to play a three-hour demo of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the game’s lead writer lays down a few items to set the mood — a series of quick hits that distill the essence of the game and set up its context and its main character, Adam Jensen.
“Mankind’s humanity is changing,” DeMarle says, explaining the rapidly changing world of 2027, Human Revolution’s setting. “There are multiple paths and solutions in the game based on play style. The player is choosing how Adam Jensen is evolving, and that will have an effect on how humanity will evolve.”
Despite the fact that these are the same points about Human Revolution that have been used to explain it for quite a while, much of what DeMarle is saying could be considered somewhat profound. Human Revolution might be about conspiracy, and it might be about shooting guys and modifying your body, but it’s also about a future in which humanity is figuring out exactly what it means to be “human.” There are interesting concepts at play here, and it’s hard not to be struck by the subtle ambition of the project.
At it’s heart, Human Revolution, as the title suggests, is about change, it seems. And if the title wasn’t enough, the game is a visual bombardment of change, both in the world at large and in Adam Jensen in particular. Early on, he becomes the embodiment of the game’s transhumanist revolution. He owes his very life to the mechanical augmentations that are taking root in the world around him, which are rapidly changing the world.
All of the visuals of Human Revolution are tinged in a color scheme of gold and black — light in the darkness, DeMarle explains.
“The black deals with everything falling apart — the gold is the glamor, the spotlight and the glitz,” she says.
It reflects the theme that Human Revolution uses carefully throughout, both in its writing and its visuals. It’s a theme of Renaissance, of turning a corner into a new era. DeMarle points out that many characters are dressed in clothing reminscent of Renaissance-period clothing, which is meant to convey visually that these people are supporters of the transhuman revolution. They’re on the cusp of the new world, but there are just as many characters dressed in clothing more geared to look like modern fashions — people rooted in the now, or perhaps in the past, who are resistant to the movement forward.
It’s striking that a game would even be attempting this sort of theme integration. Lots of games have subtleties meant to lend to their stories, and some games have really great stories. But a game whose designers lightly adjust its entire color scheme to convey a specific message?
But Human Revolution isn’t just telling a story to a passive viewer or reader. On the contrary — player choice drives the story to an intense degree, so much so that the player experience will dictate which of the game’s multiple endings (DeMarle won’t say just how many there are) he or she will see. Those decisions change the story right up to the final moments, and the player decides the ending as much at the conclusion of the game as at the beginning.
“We didn’t want to come to a point in an ending where it’s like, because you made a decision way way back, you’re stuck with this ending. We wanted to make it that you actually get to choose the ending, but at the same time, we do want the ending to reflect the things you’ve done along the way,” DeMarle says. “So hopefully we’ve succeeded in giving you the choice to drive it but also having the ending reflect some decisions you made along the way.”
For a game so open, Human Revolution presumably had a lot of constraints on it. A prequel to the original Deus Ex, the game had to set up its predecessor/successor in a way that made sense. But the game is called Human Revolution, and it casts the player in the role of catalyst for that revolution. DeMarle says that from a writing standpoint, Eidos Montreal went into the project leaving itself a little wiggle room.
“When you’re creating a story that’s a sequel you first start with the game itself,” she says. “We knew the themes and the subjects we wanted to deal with, and we actually did a lot of research in real world into transhumanism — the technology, where’s it going. We knew we wanted corporations to be a big theme, so we looked at a lot of corporations and their history. When we were developing characters we looked for real-world examples that we could kind of emulate or take parts of and combine into new characters.
“It wasn’t that hard because obviously we were setting up for Deus Ex 1, but we’ve got 25 years between the end of this story and Deus Ex,” she says. “We wanted to make an ending where you feel like you change the world, but does that contradict what’s in Deus Ex 1? No, because you’ve got 25 more years and the world can change in a heartbeat, as I think 9/11 taught us.”
All that change, however, presents an intense challenge from a writing standpoint — not to mention that the scope of the world, and its approximately 25 hours of main storyline, demanded a huge amount of material to be written. DeMarle says that over the course of the game, nine writers worked on various portions, ranging from the third-tier conversations — those of random characters reacting to the player’s actions in the story — to e-books that can be found and read, to boss fight “conversation battles.” One such battle, in the hands-on preview, required Jensen to talk a man holding a hostage out of taking her with him, or killing her.
But it was the endings that required the most time and effort, she says.
“I think I remember some writer of games saying coming up with one good, satisfying ending is hard, so coming up with multiple is really hard,” DeMarle says. “So yeah, probably for me the endings were the biggest challenge of the whole game. We kind of knew where we were going, we knew how the story would resolve , but we had to kind of come up with those specific things, and nailing those down took a lot of time. It was figuring out the logistics and then figuring out how to make it happen and getting it right.”
Human Revolution is certainly not the first game to have multiple endings, or to put a heavy emphasis on its story. But a few hours with the early portions of the game suggest that DeMarle and the other writers at Eidos Montreal have certainly taken what they’re doing seriously. There’s a lot of ambition in the title, both in telling its story, and in the way that story gets told. And while it’s up to the player to ultimately make decisions about how Human Revolution plays out and how the world is changed, it remains in shades of black and gold — the game itself, a hopeful revolution in interactive storytelling.