Deus Ex: Human Revolution Interview – Jonathan-Jacques Belletete Talks Designing The Future

Richard Walker

To fans, Deus Ex symbolises one of the most well-defined, dark and intricate realisations of the future yet seen in a video game, so for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, how does one attempt to redefine something that has become so ingrained in the minds of players as a definitive vision of the world circa 2052?

Jonathan-Jacques Belletête, Art Director on Human Revolution recently sat down to talk with us about creating an entirely new vision for the prequel to the previous Deus Ex titles, taking events back to 2027 with a distinctive and fresh cyberpunk style, bathed in a Renaissance-inspired black and gold colour palette.

We found out the reasoning behind such a bold design choice, as well as finding out more behind the design from the buildings to the augmentations that protagonist Adam Jensen will be playing with in the game. We talked inspirations, influences and how to create a convincing version of 15 years in the future.

What other inspirations besides the overt Blade Runner influences and cyberpunk style have informed the development of Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

There is tons. It's such a big game and we have been working on it for years, so on the art side, it was important that it had to look like cyberpunk, but we wanted to bring our own flavour to it at the same time, our own signature. That I would say that the main point of that is the Renaissance, the Icarus myth and all that kind of stuff, which has a really strong link to both the Renaissance and the transhuman era, if you can say there's such an era. Once we realised this, we thought what if we could have this kind of Renaissance aesthetic with the cyberpunk aesthetics? It was hard at first, but we're happy with it now and we've coined this term 'cyber-renaissance', which we really should copyright! (laughs)

That was the main thing, then we had to make sure that everything we designed and everything the concept artists designed, I wanted it to be based on real stuff. As talented as our concept artists are – and we have some of the best in the industry – when you create a world from scratch, we all need to think a bit like architects or interior decorators, graphic designers, urbanists and all that kind of stuff, which we're not. So, we didn't want to come up with too much stuff just off the top of our head, so we have all these crazy books on architecture, interior decoration and city planning, and we started from there. Our influences came from architects and what they're planning over the next 10-15 years, which looks even more sci-fi than the visions in the 80s and 90s of what the future might be like, which are so passé now.

So, doing away with those hard angles and corners you'd find in that dated 80s and 90s version of the future?

Yeah. It seems like in the video game industry, we're really kind of circular and the industry itself is kind of its own reference, which I think is a really bad thing because we're just spinning in circles. You want to make a new game, before you start you look at other games. And I do look at other games, but it's the last thing I'm going to do. I like to look at all sorts of things, like go to crazy art shows and even operas, I'll buy all sort of crazy books and whatever to see what artists out there are doing, get inspired by that and then funnel it down into the medium, but we're really the professionals in the video game language. So, yeah, we were talking about angles and it seems like in games that as long as you make 45 degree angles everywhere, you're in the future, and yeah, make sure everything is metal. Just... no! Look around at what people are doing today! It's way more futuristic than that totally dated sci-fi vision that we've had for 35 years! I'm sorry, but you really have to look around at what's happening around us. It's getting really crazy.

Human Revolution is set 15 years in the future...

It was 20 when we started the game! (laughs)

Do you think that it's a realistic vision of the future in 15 years time? You watch Blade Runner now for instance, which is set in 2019, and you think, will things really look like that in eight years?

Yeah, things could go that way, but then also, they might not. What we did is a lot of homework talking to specialists, reading a lot of books on the technological curve and the way things are going. If some of those people are right we are going to see some really crazy shit in our lifetime in the next 30 or 40 years. We pushed the boundaries a bit in certain places because we wanted to have fun designing the game and we wanted the players to have fun as well. But most of the stuff is things we saw in one form or another and one the things that me and the Games Director joked about when we had a dinner together. We would build up a game and laugh about high tech we will be in 2027, maybe that's actually what will happen or probably not, but it would be kind of funny if we looked and thought, oh my god, look at how futuristic we thought the world would be, but then how much funnier would it be if we looked back and went, wow, we're so much more advanced than that! It could happen!

But yeah, LA is not going to be this kind of gigantic oil refinery-looking thing, and okay, cars don't fly but if you look at the car design, we're way more advanced than that today. Look at the TVs; they're small, 4:3 boxes! So, that's what I mean. Maybe some of the big, high level concepts are not going to be there in 2019, but some of the low level things are way more advanced today already.

In terms of researching future tech then, was there a lot of delving deep to see where weaponry and robotics are heading in the next 15 years?

Yeah, we did quite a bit of that. For example, our computers in the game kinda morph into different positions and we found out that a company is actually working on those things with memory materials that use nano particles to remember different positioning in space, so the phone or whatever actually morphs right in front of your eyes into a keyboard and things like that. They say in about ten years, so that inspired us for our computers. Even with the augs; we met with one of the main specialists about all that and the credibility and the explanations behind all of that.

In terms of the series, Human Revolution is a prequel, but how many references are we going to see from previous Deus Ex games?

I'm not going to tell you how many there is, but there are definitely cameos, links and connections, of course. So, if you're a new player, you don't have to have played the first or the second to get the full experience and enjoy it. However, if you are a fan of the series you'll have some good fun and laughs.

Anything as high profile as a nod to JC Denton in there?

Denton was born in 2028, the year after Human Revolution takes place. But that doesn't mean there’s no references.

Baby Denton then perhaps... Can you tell us a bit more about the thinking behind the game's distinctive art style?

I wanted a stylised game. I didn't want a photo-realistic game. I'm not into photo realism and I don't even think it's worth it really. I think to make a credible world it needs to be homogeneous and to be homogeneous, it needs to be stylised. When you look at a game where they try to make photo-realistic characters, the face may look photo-realistic, but then there's a prop behind the guy that looks very low-res and not very realistic at all. That to me breaks the illusion. I prefer to have it very stylised, but also have it very even throughout the entire creation. I think that’s what makes the work very credible and so that was one of my main goals.

That kind of gold filter, the gold tint to the game's visuals, is that part of the cyber-renaissance remit that you have in Human Revolution?

That’s exactly what it is. If you look at paintings from the Baroque or Renaissance, you have the daytime painting, but then at night when they would paint up in their studio, it would be all candlelit, so it's very black and gold. If you look at the Rembrandt stuff it's like that. So, we were very much inspired by that and then also in retrospect the black represents the cyberpunk aspect of the game and the dystopian setting, whereas the gold is the Renaissance. So many of the themes in the game are about the human body, like transformations and so on, so the gold is like the skin. Its very humanistic as a colour.

Does the palette ever digress from the pervading black and gold colour scheme?

Well, it's the main colour scheme of the game. We especially used it a lot in communication so that’s why it seems to be very saturated with it. But there is definitely environments that have their own palette that completely switch from the black and gold, but it is the prominent one.

Are we going to get to see much of vehicles? Are there going to be mechs and things that you can take control of?

In the security hubs, you can hack into the computers and if you have the passwords or if your hacking software is augmented to the proper levels in its own little tech-tree, what you can do is shut down robots and you can turn them off or you can also turn them against enemies. You can do that, but you can not actually control them per se. There are no vehicles or driving. There's none of that.

In terms of the augmentations that Adam Jensen can acquire, have you really pushed any of his abilities to new extremes? Was there anything too extreme that had to be cut?

What we cut is not the tech of the aug itself, it was more the style. Like at the beginning, we went really crazy, because often when there's cybernetics in games or movies and sci-fi stuff, it's always faster, stronger, more resilient. It just exactly recreates the anatomy of the human body, which at the same time recreates its limitation. It would be so much better if our limbs could twist in all directions and spin around; stuff like that, right? So, why recreate limitations? We had this idea, this direction at the beginning of making Jensen really fluid, like with the Brazilian fighting style of Capoeira with all the moves they have, and we animated it and tested it in the game, before realising – you know what? - it's just not Adam. He's an ex-cop, ex-SWAT, blue collar kind of guy, so it didn't fit with his personality, which led us to come back to a more aggressive, less balletic routine, which I think was cool, but it didn't really fit the character.

Will we see that more fluid, graceful moves being used by other augs in the game?

Other characters in the game? Yeah, most probably. There's different augmented behaviours in the game, presented to you through other characters.

How are social interactions with other characters presented? Is there a dialogue wheel or do you pick from a number of predetermined options?

It's your more regular RPG-esque dialogue choices, where we do have a kind of wheel thing, then we have what we call our 'social boss fights', and there's a fair amount of those in the game, which is really a very psychological thing, so those are people that you have to get something from, you have to get them to give you information. It's not about solely making a choice, like trying A then B. It's really about reading between the psychological lines, so if you encounter someone who reacts when you really push or you threaten him, it might not work with them, so you need to read how the person stands or how they look at you, like in real life. If you make a mistake in the kind of attitude that you adopt, again you really have to read how the person reacts and you can also get augmentations that help you in reading heart palpitations, sweating and that kind of thing, so you'll know if you're heading in the right direction with that character. I think that really belongs to Human Revolution. I don't think its been done before. There's so many ways those conversations can go with those characters, but of course, we have the more traditional RPG dialogue trees too.

Where would you like to see the franchise go if you were to develop subsequent Deus Ex games? Would you continue with this prequel timeline or would you like to explore the story post-Invisible War?

Not to say that we have a sequel planned - although that's the idea – personally, I think there's so much space between Human Revolution and the first Deus Ex – about 30 years – and so much great stuff that's been written by Warren Spector and Harvey Smith (the original creators of Deus Ex). They're broad lines in the story, but I think we could conceivably have a game set in 2033, then in 2040, which is personally what I would do, but that's really just my personal opinion.

And I have to ask about Thief IV. Are you allowed to tell us anything?

I cannot tell you anything, apart from the fact that it's really Thief's turn now and they're going to be under the spotlight, you know? We're pretty much done, we're ramped down, so now they're ramping up with more people. It's a great team; the art director is a good friend of mine, so the game is in really good hands, and that's all I can tell you. It's their turn, man! They're on the main floor taking up all of the space and we've got less now!

As you're winding down development on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, what's left to do on the game between now and its release this August?

Mainly just debugging and polishing, but now it's progressively less and less polishing, because it's almost there now. We're in May already, so by the time we do our submissions, the printing, shipping, delivering... It's really just debugging now. My job is done! That's why I'm here talking to you guys.

And all those delays, they we're presumably so you could simply polish the game and make it the best it can be?

It really, really is just that. It's such a big game. It's probably one of the biggest games to come out of Montreal, which has become known as one of the great game development cities, right? I think it's probably the first RPG to come out of Montreal and this game has been made by extremely smart, talented, passionate and dedicated people. We knew what it meant to make this game and do an RPG really well, but we really had to learn and get into what it meant at a production level, so all those delays were completely about just making the best product possible.

Presumably there was a bit of pressure in wanting to please the fans of the previous Deus Ex games too?

While putting a studio together at the same time, because we basically started with nothing. We must have been crazy!

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set to launch on August 23rd, 2011 in North America and August 26th, 2011 in Europe. For a look back at some stunning Deus Ex: Human Revolution concept art, click here.


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