When it comes to role-playing games, few things are as important as story, choice and dialogue. But when it comes to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game Eidos Montreal hopes will enhance the series' legacy, story, choice and dialogue are the most important things. This is where lead writer Mary De Marle comes in.
Speaking to Eurogamer ahead of the game's release, Mary reveals how videogame writers meet the challenge of the modern-day RPG, and dishes the dirt on how developers create spiralling conversation trees and simulate sophisticated player choice. She also discusses how conversation boss fights can be won and lost, and even leaves room for a word on Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
Eurogamer: Many consider Deus Ex to be one of the greatest games of all time. What was your knowledge of it?
Mary De Marle: When the first one came out, everybody was so enamoured of it and talking about it and playing it. I remember going to GDC that year and listening to Sheldon Pacotti, the writer of both the first and second game, and just being blown away by everything he had to say. So it was a real big influence on my career because I saw it as the shining pinnacle of pace and story development possible.
The second game I played much later, so my memories of it are fresher than the other one. When I got hired to work on this it was one of those moments when you felt like your career has come round in full circle.
Eurogamer: What inspired you in coming up with Deus Ex's story?
Mary De Marle: I came onto the game about four months into it. There were few things that were determined. They determined already they would do a prequel to the first game, they would set it in 2027, and it would deal with mechanical augmentations rather than nano ones. And a couple of other things that gave me the initial direction for my research to take.
I started then researching into everything from where is biotechnology today and where will it be in 18 years to possible conspiracy groups. So a lot of my inspiration, believe it or not, came from non-fiction and writings about transhumanism, the singularity and where will we go, and is technology going to lead us to heaven or hell? Even reading about Howard Hughes and Bill Gates to see what kind of people they are.
A lot of that fed the initial idea. I'm a drama junkie, as I like to say. I can never get enough of story because I'm very curious about characters and interpersonal things. So everything I've ever read both in science-fiction and fiction and every TV show I've ever seen feeds into it. It's difficult to pinpoint anything in particular. This project, the focus was on the non-fiction at first.
Eurogamer: How did Bill Gates' character influence this project?
Mary De Marle: Here we are dealing with both high-powered CEOs and innovators who've changed the industry. It was really just getting his background, where he started, how he got to where he is, and then combining that with others. We actually looked at Richard Branson, too.
None of the characters in the game are Bill Gates, nor are they Richard Branson, but reading their lives and their backgrounds gave inspiration for some of the lives and backgrounds of our characters.
Eurogamer: Player choice is important in Deus Ex, but from your point of view it must be difficult to accommodate that. How do you achieve it with writing?
Mary De Marle: From a broad picture of just story, and all the different branchings on that, overall our story from a very high level is linear. You go from A to B to C. But we identify early on moments of choice and consequence where you can make a decision that will change and affect the lives of the people around you and the world around you.
Before we started writing the story we knew what the story, basically, was, but then we worked to say, 'How do we manifest that story in the game through the level design, and where are those key moments where their lives would be changed? And then, if so, how can they be changed, and where do we see the repercussions of those changes?'
So from that standpoint, it wasn't just me alone. It was working with a bunch of people to spur those ideas and to get it all down on paper before so we had something we could always refer to that we wouldn't forget three years later.
Eurogamer: But what about the dialogue? How do you write dialogue for all these permutations?
Mary De Marle: First of all, when you're writing a dialogue, it's often moments in the writing process where you're debating, should the character say this or should he say that? When you're trying to write a dialogue in a film or a book, you make that choice right away and then you follow that dialogue to its natural conclusion. But in a game like this you actually get to go, well, I don't know. Let's try them both. The challenge becomes, how do you link them back in together?
So in one way it gives you a lot of freedom to explore things you normally wouldn't, which is fun. But the challenge becomes not so much about what the character says, because you take it from the character himself and his personality, but identifying all the possibilities of things the players could do.
For instance, I might have a very solid opinion of who Adam Jensen is, and I will play him non-lethal and nice. And I have a hard time thinking, well, he could be an asshole at this moment. So the challenge comes from breaking that convention to think of those possibilities, rather than actually dealing with the possibilities when they come through.
But luckily I've got a lot of different personalities on the team who don't want to play Jensen as the nice and non-lethal person, and they point them out for me. Sometimes.
Eurogamer: Huge twists are popular at the moment. Is there one in Deus Ex? Do they work as well in games as they do in books and films?
Mary De Marle: I can't get into the specifics on that because I don't want to give away the story, but for me, as a writer, when you're trying to come up with a story you want to have surprising moments because you want to engage the imagination of your audience.
So just in general I try to incorporate those surprising twists. I try to make sure when I do put those surprising twists in, you think about it you're like, oh, I should have seen that coming. It's a goal to strive for in any kind of writing you do.
Eurogamer: Will there be landmark decisions players have to make that affects the overarching story, or is it more about smaller decisions that influence side quests?
Mary De Marle: It's a combination of both. We identified some key moments where those big changes could occur and we tried to incorporate some of those. But also, when you're playing a game it tends to be a very personal experience and a lot of the most memorable moments come not necessarily out of the story but from the things you have done and how it has changed the world around you.
So in those instances, those small things are just as important as the big ones.
Eurogamer: We hear a lot about the sophistication of dialogue systems. Just how sophisticated is Deus Ex's?
Mary De Marle: First of all, we have various levels of conversation interactions in our game. We have some that are very simplistic: you walk up to individuals in the environment and they tell you things, but there's not much of an exchange going on.
And then we have main dialogues where you get to choose and direct the conversation and play it the way you feel like playing. And we have side quests where you can gain what you want out of it and you can affect it that way.
And then we have what we call conversation boss fights. These are the most sophisticated and most complex to write in the game. They're part of the gameplay. You have an objective to complete and one of the ways you can complete it is by, in a social manner, trying to convince someone to help you.
The whole idea behind this is having to read the character you're interacting with, read their facial expressions, their body language, and listen to their tone and what they're doing and understand the psychology of this character in order to determine the best argument you can use to persuade them to your side.
It's a complex system. You might want to be the mean player who verbally punches this person out, but that's not going to achieve your objective, so you have to put your goals aside and really read the needs of the other character and figure out their personality to figure out what is the best psychological approach to take to defeat them.
And you can lose this. If you lose this conversation it shuts out an avenue to explore because this person will not help you at all. But if you win it suddenly your path through becomes very easy.
Eurogamer: Are there any examples of this you can talk about?
Mary De Marle: In our E3 demo, you're in an island near Shanghai and your goal is to locate this hacker. You've been directed to go to a nightclub because its owner is part of a black market operation. The owner, Tong, probably has the information you want. So your goal is to get to Tong.
But he's not just going to talk to anyone, so you have to find a way to do this. You can do it by exploring, through secret stealth, or you can talk to one of the bartenders and convince him to let you speak to his boss.
Right from the beginning, he's like, who are you and why should I do this? He starts trying to say there's no way I'll do it because you're not important enough and we don't care about your goals. As you start looking at it, you start reading the personality of this guy and you start realising he's trying to stop me from this by either bull*****ing me by lying and telling me the boss is nowhere near here, or he's maybe trying to put me down by saying I'm a foreigner and what right do I have, or he's taking this other tack.
Every time he does that you have to counter his argument in a way that will make him go, oh, well OK, that didn't work, so let's try this. Ultimately you're able to convince him or not.
More on Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Face-off: Face-Off: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The truth will change SKU.
Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Praxis makes perfect.
Preview: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Ten hours played. Your questions answered.
Missing Link add-on detailed.
Eurogamer: Are videogames approaching the same level of sophistication in terms of narrative and story as the kinds of films that end up winning Oscars, or is there still a long way to go?
Mary De Marle: There's great potential to go beyond what films can do. The difference games have versus movies is, when you're playing a game you're an active participant and what's happening to it is happening to you. There's an aspect of it that's so much more personal once you get into it.
The way we've told stories in the past through film is, the author of the story is in complete control of it and they can craft something that pulls on your heartstrings. They know the craft and they know the way to give information, reveal it, hold stuff back, characterise their characters, and they know they can feed this to you in a way that makes sense, that builds that questioning inside you to say, 'Where's this going? What's happening?' The revelations are very powerful and hit you when they hit you and make you feel an emotional response.
But games, we have the dilemma that we can't control what the player is looking at and seeing, and we have to find new ways of doing it, and find new tools of storytelling that enable us to have those reactions.
The more we're working on it we're getting better and better at it, but we have to work more closely with the other members of the team. All sides have to understand we are working together to create a powerful emotional experience and there are times that execution is very important and there are times when the gameplay is what's going to have to do it. So, how can we work together to get that?
Eurogamer: Will Deus Ex make players cry?
Mary De Marle: There are certain times when it struck me and really made me go, wow, and gave me a chill. I don't know. I certainly hope it will. But I won't know until people play it.
I certainly hope it will and I think it explores some pretty interesting issues and if we can manage to get you connected to those issues and get you to feel those issues, then we will succeed in stirring some kind of emotional reaction.
Will we? I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping we do.
Mary De Marle is narrative designer and lead writer on Deus Ex: Human Revolution.