Writing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to ‘hold a mirror up to the world’
Five years ago Eidos Montreal brought Deus Ex back to life with the release of Human Revolution, a game that was designed to (among other things) play with themes of transhumanism and why people make the choices they do.
Now the studio has released a followup, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, that purports to show a possible way those choices could play out: a near-future where mechanically-augmented people are segregated from the rest of society.
In a recent conversation, executive narrative director Mary DeMarle told Gamasutra that Mankind Divided was written to “hold a mirror up to the world” and expose it. That’s a notable challenge for any developer, and DeMarle says Eidos Montreal had to significantly change the way it operates and bring more writers in-house to produce the storylines, conversations and emails scattered throughout Mankind Divided.
From a certain perspective, that’s actually the easy part — the harder part comes in trying to reflect real-world issues in a respectful and meaningful way.
Mankind Divided‘s marketing initaitives have put a significant emphasis on the themes of segregation and discrimination that run through the game’s narrative, referencing real-world issues like apartheid and the Black Lives Matter movement in their promotional campaigns. The game and its team have received significant criticism over this, and DeMarle says criticism is valuable — when it’s fair, and fairly delivered.
What follows is our full conversation about the art and effort of writing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, one that sheds some light on how a game that treats with conspiracy theories, terrorism and fear is written in a time when the world seems awash in conspiracy theories, terrorism and fear.
How did your work on Mankind Divided change from your role on the previous game?
“What I’m often saying to the team is, our job is to hold a mirror up to the world. And expose it.”
DeMarle: As the executive narrative director for the Deus Ex franchise, that basically means I’m in charge of all the story and all the narrative created for Deus Ex.
So for Human Revolution that meant I was the lead writer and led a team of writers. And on Mankind Divided I’m leading an even bigger team of writers, and working with all the departments to basically make sure that the story is infused throughout the game, or that the multiple stories get put into the game, as the player experiences them.
Sorry, where are my manners. How are you?
Good! It’s quite hot today in Montreal, and it gets very humid on this coast. So I’m attempting to stay cool.
So what lessons did you learn from Human Revolution, and how have you applied them to this project?
Wow, that’s a big question. Well, a lot has changed. We always kind of talked about doing Human Revolution, and we’ve said that when we did Human Revolution, we…we kind of had to be naive. And when we did the next game, which is now Mankind Divided, we’d have to have courage.
So we learned a lot; we had no idea what we were getting into, really, when we started Human Revolution. Just in terms of like, how do you reinvent the Deus Ex license; how do you reboot it. And from that game we did actually learn an awful lot. And when that game ended, we kind of said ‘Okay, what did we learn from it?’ You know, we always go through that process at the end of the game, to say what did we do right, what did we fail at, what did we want to fix. So we went through that, and some of the things we wanted to fix this time around are…well, now I’m forgetting a few, because I’ve been on vacation for about a month.
Oh, I didn’t realize! Welcome back.
Thank you! So anyway, one of the things we definitely wanted to fix was boss fights. And we kind of just wanted to make some other improvements in the gameplay. We wanted to make the combat more visceral, more fun. Because we thought we got the stealth right on the last game, but the combat was a little lacking. So we wanted to make those pillars equal.
And then from a narrative perspective, we really wanted to go a lot deeper with story in the world. We still want to make the main story accessible, so you can play through the game and understand it; at a bare minimum, you can understand it. But also, the more that you dive into the world and the more you do sidequests, the more you’re going to discover so much more to this world.
And we really wanted to push the choices farther, especially like for the branching of the narrative and like, for example, in a lot of the sidequests we really pushed so that you can end a sidequest in like, ten minutes based on your choices, or if you push farther you can actually discover new characters and added intricacies to the plot. And then some of those can actually come in and actually affect your critical path experience. So we really wanted to push a lot of that forward.
What does that mean for your workflow? It sounds like quite a bit more work — how do you get it done in the scope of the game’s production cycle?
From the narrative perspective, one of the things that happened was we…well, on Human Revolution we had a number of writers, but they were mostly all contract. Some of them worked in-house for the whole time, and we had one who was in London, but we had a lot who were just there for short periods and left.
So this time around we had a bigger in-house narrative team. We had a lot more writers, which suddenly meant a lot more managing of writers. And then to tackle the world and how much deeper and bigger we wanted to do it, we kind of had to split up and create new teams.
So for example, we had a sidequest team. We had a sidequest team on Human Revolution too, but it was really small. And here we had a much bigger team who really worked independently. They had one writer assigned to them and he dealt with a lot — he basically wrote most of the sidequests. And yet he worked very closely with the sidequest designers, the implementers, et cetera.
We also had specific writers working on the debates — the social boss fights, as we call them. We had a level designer who kind of headed up the environmental storytelling, so her job was to populate the Prague city hub with stories that were going on, come up with ideas and then work with the narrative team and the art teams, et cetera to get things dressed correctly, get emails to go in there, that kind of thing.
And like, the critical path was in the hands of certain people, and then we had what we called the “living, breathing world” team, and they were the ones going in and actually putting in all like, the monologues and the dialogues you overhear and stuff. So one of the ways we approached it is by putting people in charge of different things, and then my job was to ensure the consistency: to ensure that everyone was telling the right story, from different perspectives.
That’s interesting. Do you think it’s a good idea for studios to have in-house writers, rather than contractors?
It’s funny, I’ve been in the industry now 20 years and my opinions on that continue to change and develop.
I definitely think it’s very important to have writers in-house. If you’re doing a very story-driven game, you have to have writers in-house. And the writers who are in-house will end up doing more than just the writing; they actually have to help implement and get their writing into the game. Get the dialogues into the game, from an under-the-hood perspective. Obviously they’re not part of the sound team putting the actual .wav files in or anything, but still.
And by doing that, as a writer, I think you learn so much more. I’ve done both: I’ve done freelance and I’ve done in-house. And when you’re freelance, you’re living in the ideas of the story. Everything that you’re putting down on paper you’re believing is going in. But when you get into the actual creation of the game, you start to discover ‘Wait a minute, it’s not working out the way I envisioned it.’ And it’s a lot easier to get what you envisioned in correctly when you’re working side-by-side with the level designers, and the level artists, and all of the other team.
Because it is a collaborative medium. In order to create the story, the world is telling the story. So having people in-house, having writers in-house, I think, is critical.
“If you’re doing a very story-driven game, you have to have writers in-house. And the writers who are in-house will end up doing more than just the writing; they actually have to help implement and get their writing into the game.”
Having said that, I still believe there are roles for freelance writers as well. I’ve always worked with freelance writers for specific aspects of things. Like, for example, all of what we call the “conspiracy DJ” recordings. All the radio recordings. That’s something we gave to an outside contractor to write. We could give freelancers books and things. We could even give some of the critical path storyline dialogues to a freelancer, but they have to come through the hands of the narrative director, who is more in tune with what’s going on, so they can make sure everything works correctly.
Was there ever a time you felt differently? What changed your mind?
I started in-house, then I quickly went freelance. But the reason I ended up going back in-house was because as a writer wanting control over the story, I felt I had none as a freelancer.
I wasn’t present during initial meetings and I never understood why things would be changed. So when the final product would come out, I’d look at it and think, ‘That’s not what I wrote. Why did you change it?’ And I wouldn’t be privy to any of that. So that’s really when I decided to go full-time in-house, and I’ve now been at Eidos more than ten years.
Would you recommend other big-budget productions retain dedicated in-house writing teams?
I do, but I also have to make a distinction: It depends on how story-driven your game is. If story isn’t the main focus of your game, you certainly don’t need someone in-house. You can have a freelance person who’s very well-versed in the game industry to write it. But when it gets to be something like the kind of games I’m creating, where narrative infuses every aspect of the game, that’s when you need somebody in-house.
So if you had to pitch a GDC talk, right now, about the biggest challenge you faced on Mankind Divided and how you dealt with it, what would that sound like?
That’s a tough question, especially since I’ve been trying to spend the past month forgetting my biggest challenges! Right now, I think if I look back on the project, one of the biggest problems we had — that I had — to deal with was just planning and schedules.
It’s like, you’re never one hundred percent sure how to get things done. We had so much we wanted to accomplish, we were creating a new engine at the same time as we were creating this game, and it was very very difficult to see how we were doing. Games are about iteration — everything has to be iterated and iterated upon. And the only way you can do that is if you can actually play, and when you have an unstable engine for a long time it’s very difficult to do that. So by the time you’re finally ready to play, then you’re going up against scheduling, and budgets. And that’s when it becomes a super challenge.
I think for us, and particularly for me on this project, that was one of the hardest things to deal with. And then I would also say that probably a talk I’d be more likely to give at GDC would be about how to manage — because our writing team did get big — how do you manage so many different voices, and so many different stories going on at the same time. Allowing the writers — and not just writers, because it’s the level designers and the artists who are creating this story as well. So how do you enable all those voices to be unique and heard, and still not overshadow the overall voice that the story needs to speak with. And that is a very difficult thing.
Hmm. So how’d you do it?
That’s a good question! I’m not 100 percent sure that I did.
You have to start to trust. Communication is key, as it always is. It’s one of the hardest things in any industry, is to make sure we’re all communicating correctly. And sometimes you have to…a lot of it is because since you are collaborating, you have to put your ego aside and listen. And also allow others to have a voice, but also try to create a safe atmosphere for criticism.
And that’s a very hard thing to do, a very hard skilll to develop. And then you have to communicate with all the different teams and set your boundaries, as to what you will accept. Because it’s such a subjective thing: Why do I feel this crosses the line, and why do I feel this doesn’t cross the line? That can be really subjective. So you have to kind of really know your boundaries, and trust your instincts.
So who’s the ultimate arbiter of what crosses the line and what doesn’t?
The ultimate voice, where the ultimate line is drawn, is with the game director, Jean-François Dugas. He is ultimately the one who makes the final call.
But we work, the way our team works, we have people in charge of different departments. So I’m the one who makes the call on the narrative, but when he objects to my call he can overrule it. And it would be the same with the art team — the art team will present something, the art director will make the decision, but that goes through JF as well and he’ll make the final call.
It must be tricky. This game seems to be trying to reference and reflect a number of real-world issues — I’m thinking of apartheid, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the like. These are emotionally-charged subjects; how do you handle that?
Well, it is a big challenge. From the beginning of this franchise ten years ago, we started dealing with — well, the first thing we did was we started researching. We researched where technology is taking us. And what is happening in the biotechnology field. And that’s where we hit, by totally layering it into our research.
And we looked at everything from scientific articles and things to philosophical articles and social commentary articles. So we did a lot of research in the beginning, in order to lay the groundwork for what Human Revolution was. And once we finished Human Revolution, we took that farther. So we begin by putting in all of – by kind of putting in all that focus into the initial research.
And then we say to ourselves what our job is, and what I’m often saying to the team is, our job is to hold a mirror up to the world. And expose it.
And allow — because one of the precepts of Deus Ex is, we don’t tell you what to think. You have to make your own decisions. You live it. And we try to present all sides of that issue to you. And that does get very challenging, as a writer, because you have to be constantly questioning your own biases, many of which you may not even know you have.
So you have to kind of always be looking at things from all sides. And present it from one side, then look at it and figure out okay, how do I present it from the other side? And it’s a very difficult thing, and a lot of the time you do run into situations where people on the team will be like, this is too controversial. We can’t put this in. This is too much, we can’t do that.
And then we kind of have to talk that out, and say, if we approach it with as much respect as possible, and if we remember what we’re trying to do here is tackle deep issues and show the world is shades of grey, and always allow the player to decide, not try to inflict a judgment. But it does put us into scary territory.
“We’d been working on the train station explosion for years, when all of a sudden the Paris attacks occurred. And that weekend…I just had a moment of like, ‘Oh my god, are we really doing justice? Are we handling this the right way?'”
This game is about many, many different subjects, one of which of course is terrorism and terrorist attacks. And I tell this story that, we’d been working on this — we started this game right after Human Revolution. So long before so many of the news stories that you now hear almost every day came out.
And we’d been working on the train station explosion for years, when all of a sudden the Paris attacks occurred. And that weekend, when the Paris attacks occurred, I just had a moment of like, “Oh my god, are we really doing justice? Are we handling this the right way?”
Because we think we’re experiencing it, but we’re not sure. And it does give you those moments of pause. Where you’re like, “We need to double-check. We need to go back. We need to make sure we’re handling this with as much sensitivity as we possibly can, but still be true to what we’re trying to do.”
So that’s kind of a philosophy that we try to instill. And I think the core team has that belief themselves. But we’re also there to provide each other with checks and balances.
How did that work out? Did you wind up removing anything from the game because you were concerned about handling it in an effective and sensitive way?
No, I can’t specifically say that we cut anything out. We had created this story, and then the rest of the time in development was just iterating on it and fixing what we felt wasn’t working. And at that point we were so committed to what we were doing that I can’t say there was anything necessarily that happened that would cause us to say “Whoa, we gotta cut that out.”
And I admit, at that point, it becomes…now, with the game coming out, and Brexit hitting, it just feels like…wow, this is just scary how much the world is starting to resemble our game.
I did go to Europe the week after the Brexit vote, for press stuff. So I was there the week after, and they were all playing our game the week after that vote and it was…quite interesting.
I think Mankind Divided has gotten a fair bit of public criticism over the way its marketing materials have referenced real-world issues like apartheid and Black Lives Matter. I gather you’re not involved with the marketing side….
No, I’m not.
…But when you’re writing a game that touches on topics and subjects that people have very strong feelings about, how open are you to criticism about that?
I think there’s a way to do it with as much…okay, let me start by saying that one of the earliest lessons I learned in my career is that you cannot please everyone. And people will react — I mean, we are creating art, I believe. I believe we are creating art. And people react to art in different ways. And that is actually, I think, one of the beauties of art and creativity, is it touches people in different ways.
So I learned that really early on. Having said that, I still realize that we need to approach the creation of anything we do with as much respect as possible. At the end of the day, if I feel I have done everything I can to present something with as much respect as possible, then what I feel is it’s the responsibility of the audience to actually get in there and play it. And understand the piece itself, before they’re commenting on a knee-jerk reaction to something.
Everybody has a hot-button topic. And there are very real causes for those hot buttons. But my philosophy is that I am trying to approach something with as much respect as possible. And there are reasons why I choose to put in the things I choose to put into those stories. And I do not want to offend people, but I recognize that it’s inevitable sometimes. And for that I apologize.
It certainly seems like a tricky issue. Games are art, and art exists to be interpreted, but the question of what constitutes fair vs. unfair criticism doesn’t always seem to have a clear answer.
It is an interesting topic. People definitely have the right to express their opinions, I always believe that. And as a creator, it’s my responsibility to listen to the criticism and judge it based on what I’m attempting to achieve.
Do you think trying to make art shields you from criticism? Or, in a broader sense, if game developers are trying to create works that can be appreciated as art, do you think critics should give them a break?
No, I don’t. I don’t think games should be shielded from criticism, and I don’t think art should necessarily be shielded from criticism either. I think criticism is something that we learn from.
As a writer, one of the first things I was told, in a writing group, was that you should listen to the criticisms of other people. But you need to filter where it’s coming from, and filter it according to what you’re trying to achieve. But you do need to take it in.
So if nobody criticizes, I will never learn. But the criticism has to be fair, and fairly delivered. And that’s something on me to evaluate, as the artist. Is that criticism valid or not? And if the criticism is given with the same respect that I, as an artist, try to put into my work, then I need to listen to it.