And they say writers come on board too late in a game’s development. Mary DeMarle, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s narrative director, was on the project from its inception, and her work on the game has long since completed: when we speak, she’s been on holiday for a month. Here, we discuss the challenges in weaving story around a vast, complex world that puts player choice at its centre – and the perils of dealing with real-world themes in a game whose planning began over four years before its completion. Why did you choose Prague for the primary setting? Deus Ex is all about travelling the world, but in Human Revolution we never got to Europe, so we really wanted to for this game. The more we looked at Prague, the more we started feeling it was a really good fit. It’s such a city of contrast – the old and new. Then one of the writers discovered the myth of The Golem Of Prague, and although there are many versions of that myth, the one that really resonated with us was the one where the Jewish community created the golem to protect them. When we saw that we were like, ‘Everything in our universe resonates with those themes’. The hubs, especially Prague, are more believable places than the equivalents in Human Revolution. How hard a task is that for a narrative team? Yeah, it was kind of... [laughs] quite challenging in that respect. And this time the narrative team is bigger. We had a team that was devoted to sidequests, and we had the critical-path team working on the main story. Then we had some people who are devoted to the living world, and filling that in. And someone devoted to environmental storytelling. Sometimes someone would steal somebody else’s apartment for their story, and we had to move things around. The debates are considerably improved this time around. How did you make that happen? In Human Revolution we had a random component: we didn’t know what ‘attack’ the NPC was going to throw out. He had three things he could say, and we didn’t know which one would be coming. We took a little bit of that out to try and make it so we could control the flow a bit. We tested it with the team – we had this internal document so you could actually play it in text form – and then we would get feedback and tweak. Out of everything in the game, they’re some of the things that get the most rewriting. The acting feels a little uneven. Would you agree that Elias Toufexis is excellent as Adam Jensen, while others exist in his shadow a bit? I think you’re probably right. Elias has been doing this character for a long time now. We were making Human Revolution for four years – it wasn’t just a three-month session for him – and he tells a joke about how if he’d known when he auditioned it was going to be a fouryear job he would have been a lot more nervous. So he’s really gotten into that character. He knows it; we can get him into a session, and he just delivers it every time. With the other actors, sometimes it’s just that we’re doing pickups of scenes. You have the whole scene [and need to change something], but you don’t do the whole scene again, you just get the pickup, and that throws some of the quality off. I do agree – I think we got the best we could get, and everybody did a great job, but it’s hard to get that same level of quality across the board. Moral ambiguity is a central theme, but very often you’re dealing with topics where there only really seems to be one ‘right’ decision. How do you make the player question their natural instinct to be good? We get asked that a lot, because we’re dealing with topics that, in people’s minds, are very black-and-white. How do we approach that? We don’t ever want to make a statement for you; we want to let you see all sides, and let you decide for yourself. That’s hard, because you have to approach an issue that you might feel very strongly about, and try to find the other side of it. It’s a very tough job – it makes you aware of your own biases as you’re writing. Mankind Divided deals with themes that have inspired particularly fierce reactions in parts of the game community. What’s your reaction to that? We’ve been working on Deus Ex [games] for ten years, dealing with the topics of oppression and segregation. With Mankind Divided, we took it further. We started work on this game right after Human Revolution – before a lot of these things came to a head [in the real world]. We’re writing about sensitive topics, but we’re doing it because they’re a part of our universe – and our universe is about holding up a mirror to the [real] world. I think it’s very important that we face up to these issues. The videogames I want to work on are games that have depth, and have meaning. We don’t want to offend people, but we live in a society where everybody will react differently. I can only portray, to the best of my ability, what I am seeing out there.
That said, when the Paris attacks happened, I was at home thinking, ‘Oh, God, are we doing this correctly?’ I went back into work on the Monday and said to the team, ‘Look, we’ve got to take a second look at how we’re approaching some of this, and make sure it’s online with reality’.
“We’ve been dealing with the topics of oppression and segregation for ten years. Here, we took it further”