DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED
CAN PURE HUMANS AND THE AUGMENTED EVER CO-EXIST?
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.
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