Deus Ex: Mankind Di­vided

De­sign­ing and build­ing a se­quel is no easy task. While play­ers want some­thing new and for­ward-think­ing to get ex­cited about, they also want to feel safe in the knowl­edge that what they’re get­ting plays by the same rules that they’ve come to know and love. Cre­at­ing some­thing that bal­ances the de­sire for some­thing orig­i­nal, while re­tain­ing the fun­da­men­tals of past games, is a jug­gling act that has the po­ten­tial to go very wrong should not enough thought go into the fun­da­men­tal pil­lars of de­sign.

This pre­cise prob­lem is mag­ni­fied dra­mat­i­cally when the se­quel in ques­tion be­longs to a fran­chise of the sta­tus en­joyed by Deus Ex. While many games boast ded­i­cated fan bases and are praised for their in­flu­ence over wider game de­sign, few have at­tained the hal­lowed sta­tus en­joyed by War­ren Spec­tor’s most fa­mous cre­ation. The task of pro­vid­ing a new Deus

Ex ex­pe­ri­ence, then, is a task of ex­tra­or­di­nary com­plex­ity. On the one hand it must feel like Deus Ex, but on the other it must con­tinue the tra­di­tion of in­no­va­tion, pro­gres­sion and the push­ing of bound­aries.

It’s a co­nun­drum that Deus Ex: Mankind Di­vided’s game di­rec­tor, Pa­trick Fortier, is well aware of, not least due to the fact that ex­ter­nal pres­sure on his team is even greater fol­low­ing the suc­cess that was Deus Ex: Hu­man Revo­lu­tion. Suc­cess gen­er­ates ex­pec­ta­tion and if play­ers were cau­tiously op­ti­mistic re­gard­ing Hu­man Revo­lu­tion, they’re now rightly and un­re­servedly ex­pec­tant re­gard­ing the qual­ity of Ei­dos Mon­treal’s next game.

Sat­is­fy­ing that ex­pec­ta­tion comes to down to un­der­stand­ing what makes a great Deus Ex game and ex­plor­ing new ways to de­velop and de­liver those fun­da­men­tals. Ac­cord­ing to Fortier, meet­ing those ex­pec­ta­tions is a case of mak­ing sure that the right ques­tions are con­stantly be­ing asked through­out the de­sign process.

“The ques­tion for us is how we make a great game from the core pil­lars of stealth, com­bat and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions,” elab­o­rates Fortier. “How we make all of that work as a co­he­sive set of ideas is what we spend a lot of our time think­ing about.

“We are al­ways ask­ing our­selves: How can we im­prove on level de­sign? What more can we do now that we’re us­ing a new en­gine? Can we add more ver­ti­cal­ity and di­ver­sity to en­vi­ron­ments? What can we do with the kinds of spa­ces we’re giv­ing play­ers? How does the nar­ra­tive in­form the game­play?

“If you’re guided by a vi­sion then you’ll al­ready have a per­spec­tive on things, what ev­ery­thing should look like and how it should feel to play. With that in place it’s fairly easy to look over a pro­ject and high­light things that you don’t think are right and then put time into those ar­eas that you’re con­cerned with.”

What a de­sign team is con­cerned with might dif­fer those is­sues and el­e­ments that a fan base con­sid­ers nec­es­sary to im­prove, though, par­tic­u­larly with a fran­chise that gen­er­ates this de­gree of ado­ra­tion. Know­ing when to take player feed­back into ac­count is a chal­lenge made eas­ier by pos­sess­ing a clearly de­fined vi­sion of the sort that Fortier men­tions, al­low­ing any and all com­men­tary and crit­i­cism to be viewed through a prism of ob­jec­tive un­der­stand­ing rather than that of a per­sonal, emo­tive re­ac­tion.

“If a piece of fan feed­back is con­sis­tent with that we’ve been talk­ing about amongst our­selves then that can act as ex­tra ev­i­dence that some­thing in the game is not work­ing,” con­tin­ues Fortier.

“There are items of feed­back that we won’t con­cerned our­selves with, though. We know how we want the first/third-per­son cam­era switch­ing to work when you’re in cover and we’re ded­i­cated to de­vel­op­ing that. If we get neg­a­tive feed­back re­gard­ing that then we won’t think much about it as it goes against some­thing that we feel

very strongly about putting into the game. We don’t let that sort of feed­back in­ter­fere with the core vi­sion we have as a de­sign team.”

“It’s great to get that feed­back in as it al­lows us to fine tune what we’re do­ing, but we don’t take any­thing for granted and we don’t de­vi­ate from our orig­i­nal vi­sion for the game,” in­ter­jects pro­ducer Olivier Proulx. “That kind of feed­back is just a tool for us to use, it’s not some­thing you rely on to make a great game. If we start lis­ten­ing to ev­ery com­ment we get and started act­ing upon them then that’s when you start in­clud­ing things like a Homer Simp­son car be­cause some­one out there thinks it’s a great idea [laughs]. We want to avoid that.”

Har­bour­ing such a staunch vi­sion has also meant that the de­sign team are able to pre­dict which el­e­ments might not go down well with play­ers. One of the most con­sis­tent points of con­tention with the de­sign of Hu­man Revo­lu­tion re­volved around the na­ture of boss bat­tles, many of them forc­ing you to en­gage in di­rect com­bat and aban­don en­tirely the stealth ap­proach through which the rest of the game could be tack­led.

Fortier and his team knew that these bat­tles stood at odds with the wider frame­work sup­port­ing Hu­man Revo­lu­tion and we’re fully ex­pect­ing play­ers to com­ment and crit­i­cise along pre­cisely those lines. In the end the de­ci­sion was made to com­pro­mise on the orig­i­nal vi­sion and in­clude the boss fights be­cause with­out them there would be too many nar­ra­tive holes to fill through­out the rest of the game.

Hav­ing learned from that ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, the prom­ise is now of boss bat­tles that ad­here to the same de­sign phi­los­o­phy that in­forms the rest of Mankind Di­vided. Ap­par­ently, it’s pos­si­ble to go through the en­tire game with­out killing any­one - mean­ing non-lethal so­lu­tions to con­quer­ing boss en­coun­ters are avail­able. How this works in a nar­ra­tive sense is un­known, not least how the plot and char­ac­ters will re­act to one player killing off a boss while the next sim­ply tem­po­rar­ily in­ca­pac­i­tates them. What­ever the case, the idea is to pro­mote player free­dom at all times.

“Player free­dom has to be there front and cen­tre, oth­er­wise it just wouldn’t feel like a Deus Ex game,” Proulx ex­plains. “I think we’re get­ting more com­fort­able with work­ing on the fran­chise, not least be­cause of how much the team has learned from work­ing on Hu­man Revo­lu­tion and look­ing at how it has been re­ceived.

“Around that free­dom there are nar­ra­tive and game­play beats that we have to in­clude in or­der to move the story for­ward, be­cause with­out them there would be no di­rec­tion at all and that’s not great for a game that wants to de­liver a strong nar­ra­tive.

“There are a lot of sit­u­a­tions that you will come across should you de­cide to ex­plore your en­vi­ron­ment away from those nar­ra­tive beats, in­clud­ing see­ing things be­fore they’re re­vealed via a set mis­sion or con­ver­sa­tion. You might come across some­thing by ex­plor­ing on your own that don’t re­alise is im­por­tant un­til much later in the nar­ra­tive. If you’ve al­ready found it then that’s fine and that’s a re­ward earned for

you ex­plor­ing off your own back and not wait­ing to be told what to do.”

While the un­cov­er­ing of el­e­ments that don’t be­come es­sen­tial to pro­gres­sion un­til fur­ther down the line has typ­i­cally been an ef­fec­tive means of im­bu­ing play­ers with a sense that the game world is open to in­flu­ence, it’s im­por­tant to make sure these mo­ments are treated with sub­tlety. Noth­ing works to shat­ter the sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief more quickly than be­ing able to see be­hind the cur­tain and un­der­stand the pre­cise me­chan­ics gov­ern­ing how the world and its con­stituent parts are af­fected and guided by your ac­tions.

As soon as that mys­tery is re­moved the ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes me­chan­i­cal as you work to push the rel­e­vant but­tons that you know will trig­ger the de­sired re­sponse. As Fortier un­der­stands it, avoid­ing this kind of nar­ra­tive break­down comes from mak­ing sure mo­ments that seem in­signif­i­cant sport as much depth and sub­stance as the more dra­matic, ob­vi­ous nar­ra­tive beats.

“From a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive Deus Ex is all about choice and con­se­quence, so we’ve spent time think­ing about how we can add even more of that in the minute-to-minute ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Fortier in re­sponse to prob­ing on how he makes sure the player’s ac­tions as Adam Jensen feel nat­u­ral as op­posed to for­mu­laic.

“Yes, we have these big de­ci­sion mo­ments that run through the main sto­ry­line, but what we’ve spent a lot of time fig­ur­ing out is how to bring choice and con­se­quences into the rest of the game and dur­ing those mo­ments that you’re not ob­vi­ously asked to make a de­ci­sion on some­thing im­por­tant.

“Of­ten we’re look­ing to add this sort of thing in a way that you might not even no­tice as a player. You might just start talk­ing to an NPC, you an­swer some of their ques­tions and that might add some new piece of in­for­ma­tion that you didn’t have be­fore. Per­haps that in­for­ma­tion could be help­ful much later down the line. It could act as a joker in your pocket that other play­ers don’t have or didn’t know even ex­isted be­cause they didn’t de­cide to talk to that per­son that you spoke to

at that time. Be­ing able to trace back the ac­qui­si­tion of in­for­ma­tion and items of this sort, through events that seemed triv­ial at the time, is a re­ally nice feel­ing.”

The world within which such events are scat­tered is dif­fer­ent to that de­picted in Hu­man Revo­lu­tion. Where Adam Jensen’s en­vi­ron­ment was one of con­fi­dence and ex­cite­ment at the new fron­tier of­fered by hu­man aug­men­ta­tion, his in Mankind Di­vided is al­to­gether more cyn­i­cal and sus­pi­cious.

Set two years af­ter the events of Hu­man Revo­lu­tion, the ‘aug in­ci­dent’ - in which those hu­mans with aug­men­ta­tions were hacked and forced into a state of ag­gres­sion that un­der­mined the idea that body mod­i­fi­ca­tion was safe and de­sir­able - has re­sulted in the seg­re­ga­tion of so­ci­ety. No longer feel­ing safe in their own cities and coun­tries, those with­out aug­men­ta­tions have forced their gov­ern­ments to herd aug­mented hu­mans into their own ghet­tos. Re­sul­tantly, civil­i­sa­tion is split into two tiers of ex­is­tence and, pre­dictably, this serves only to ex­ag­ger­ate the sit­u­a­tion and fur­ther em­power a cli­mate of fear and dis­trust.

While the rift be­tween the two sides is stark and ob­vi­ous, the ideal path for Ei­dos Mon­treal is to not com­ment too starkly on the rights and wrongs of the pol­i­tics. In­stead, the goal is to pro­vide a back­drop and a pro­tag­o­nist through which the player can de­velop their own un­der­stand­ing and view­point.

“It’s a harsh world that we’re ex­plor­ing and a lot of the themes are very heavy given that the seg­re­ga­tion is chang­ing the na­ture of the world and cre­at­ing what is es­sen­tially a pop­u­la­tion of sec­ond class cit­i­zens,” says Proulx.

“Jensen is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter within this con­text be­cause he is aug­mented him­self, so the ‘nat­u­rals’ don’t want to ac­cept him. But, oth­ers with aug­men­ta­tions don’t ac­cept him ei­ther. When he goes into an aug­mented ghetto he’s not all that welcome be­cause he’s so shiny and his aug­men­ta­tions are so ex­pen­sive and so­phis­ti­cated that he’s not re­ally part of the gen­eral aug­mented pop­u­la­tion or the dif­fi­cul­ties they face.

“As a player you’re ex­plor­ing both sides of the seg­re­ga­tion coin and try­ing to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing. It’s up to you to come up with your own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what is hap­pen­ing and why. Jensen’s char­ac­ter re­ally al­lows us to ex­plore these wider themes in way that doesn’t force the player into a cer­tain way of think­ing, it’s re­ally up to you to work out what you think about this whole sit­u­a­tion.

“It’s a big chal­lenge for our team to tackle these themes in a way that of­fers ques­tions for the player to an­swer, rather than pre­sent­ing them in a way that doesn’t al­low for per­sonal in­ter­pre­ta­tion and un­der­stand­ing.” Build­ing an en­vi­ron­ment that re­in­forces this po­ten­tial for per­sonal in­ter­pre­ta­tion is key. While dif­fer­ent ar­eas must sup­port the ideals across upon which game­play is de­signed, they must also work to fur­ther en­hance the nar­ra­tive in sub­tle ways. The art of show-don’ttell is one that games have his­tor­i­cally strug­gled to get right, but it’s one that is es­sen­tial to de­liver for a game that is as fo­cused on the in­ter­play be­tween in­ter­ac­tion and out­come as this one.

“There’s con­stant back and forth hap­pen­ing be­tween nar­ra­tive and game de­sign, so fig­ur­ing out lo­ca­tions that makes sense for both is cru­cial,” re­as­sures Fortier. “We wanted to ex­plore game­play that uses en­vi­ron­ments that sup­port more ver­ti­cal­ity this time around, so we need to find and de­sign lo­ca­tions that fa­cil­i­tate that in a way that is also jus­ti­fi­able from a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive.

“Only once there’s a nar­ra­tive be­hind a lo­ca­tion, and a rea­son for it to ex­ist, can we go about de­sign­ing ev­ery­thing else around it. Lo­ca­tions need a pur­pose in the world and the de­sign of those lo­ca­tions needs to make sense. That in­cludes mak­ing sure the way it is guarded makes sense for the nar­ra­tive en­velop­ing it, as well as hav­ing the po­si­tion of ev­ery ob­ject be re­al­is­tic.”

The idea, then, is to start from a base of what would work in terms of nar­ra­tive and then to build el­e­ments of game­play on top of that - never the other way around. If this ap­proach can be ex­e­cuted skil­fully and prop­erly then the out­come should be a nat­u­ral co­he­sion be­tween the de­ci­sions you’re mak­ing, the re­gions in which you’re mak­ing them and the way you can go about ex­e­cut­ing them.

This, of course, was the kind of unity that the orig­i­nal Deus Ex man­aged to de­liver in a way that opened play­ers’ eyes to the po­ten­tial held within in­tel­li­gently de­signed sys­tems of choice and con­se­quence. Fortier is adamant, how­ever, that any pres­sure to cre­ate a game of equal stand­ing to Spec­tor’s orig­i­nal comes more from in­ter­nal de­sires than it does from ex­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tions.

“We have a vet­eran team and ev­ery­body ap­pre­ci­ates what it means to work on a ti­tle such as this. There’s so much at­ten­tion to de­tail and so much depth put into ev­ery as­pect of de­sign and pro­duc­tion and that it­self adds a whole lot of pres­sure to what we’re try­ing to do.

“Sim­ply by try­ing to do the best we can do re­sults in there be­ing a huge amount of pres­sure, but it comes from within the team. Each depart­ment is try­ing to push things for­ward and do things bet­ter than they did them be­fore. That in­ter­nal pres­sure is more ob­vi­ous to us then look­ing out­side and tak­ing into ac­count the whole moun­tain of pres­sure that comes with any new Deus Ex game. We don’t think about it from that per­spec­tive, in­stead we pres­sure our­selves to stay true to our orig­i­nal vi­sion.

“Over­all, how­ever, we have taken so much con­fi­dence from what we man­aged to achieve with Hu­man Revo­lu­tion that we feel we re­ally un­der­stand what we’re do­ing and how to get there.”

Un­der­stand­ing how to get to a goal is of­ten the most chal­leng­ing part of any prob­lem, the plan­ning phase be­ing the quin­tes­sen­tial el­e­ment to any suc­cess. Fortier’s re­as­sur­ances that his team’s un­der­stand­ing of this se­ries is bet­ter than it has ever been only serves to in­crease the pres­sure on Mankind Di­vided and fur­ther en­hance the ex­pec­ta­tion sur­round­ing it. Ei­dos Mon­treal might be able to block out the ex­ter­nal pres­sure dur­ing de­vel­op­ment, but it’ll be harder to ig­nore post-re­lease if this next chap­ter in Jensen’s story is any other than the in­tel­li­gent and di­verse spec­ta­cle we ex­pect it to be.

The Os­car Pis­to­rius fan club is ter­ri­fy­ing

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