Transhumanism, at its core, is about enhancing the human mind and body through the use of technology. Not using stuff like educational games to make learning more fun, but something more like jamming a 1TB drive into your frontal lobe to literally increase your memory capacity. That second one isn’t quite accurate and we’re a ways off being able to do anything even close to that but it’s the sort of issue that Deus Ex deals with, and it’s pretty neat. At PAXAus, Nick and Paddy had a chance to catch up with Mary DeMarle, the current lead writer of the Deus Ex series, and ask her some questions about the upcoming title Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
And yeah, we totally asked for this.
Nick: So, the plot’s sort of moving away from the personal aspect to more of a society focus, would you say that’s right?
A bit, yes.
Nick: Where does the inspiration for this kind of story come from?
That’s a really good question, especially since when you’re working on something for so long you can forget your inspirations, and then it becomes this daily slog of “Wait, where are we going with this again?” I think in a way, one of the things that we always try to do with a Deus Ex game is to ground it as much as we can in reality because we’re trying to show near-future kind of stuff. For Human Revolution, we were focusing on biotechnology, and we did a lot of research in that. When we went to do the sequel we said “Okay, we have to tie up the loose ends of this.” Even though we’re always looking at the transhumanism as an issue, now it becomes less like “Where is the science going?” and more like “Where is society going?” as you just said.
So, you’re looking at the issues of “What does it mean to be human?” and “If we’re already dealing with a divide, how do we deal with that tragedy?” And a lot of it is looking at – I hate to say it, because it is a dark world in our game – when you’re looking at the terrible tragedies that our happening in our world today, and what the reaction is to it, and how are people dealing with it? So, I wouldn’t say there’s any one thing that’s guiding it, but there’re a lot of different things and we’ve often talked among ourselves about the things happening in the United States with the military police, and the Ferguson incident, and riots and guns. Then when you look at Syria with the refugees and everything that’s going on over there, you’re finding these mirrors that are striking chords with the themes in our game – that’s what we’re looking for.
Paddy: The ending of Human Revolution was a little “obtuse,” there were a few different endings, as well – how are you going to be tying that up with the beginning of Mankind Divided?
Well, it’s interesting because when we worked on Human Revolution, we weren’t thinking about a sequel at all and the reason we chose the endings we did is because we wanted to reflect today’s world. I always think about how great science fiction is because it’s all about today’s world and yet we are safe to play in it because it’s not real. At the end of Human Revolution, we wanted to say, “You spent all this time playing this game and looking at these issues, but now we’re going to show you that these issues exist in the world today. That’s why we went into the live video, and we showed footage of the world today with the voiceover. Coming up two years later and we’re asking ourselves, “Well, now what do we do?”
We don’t want to settle on a single ending as canon because we asked you to really think about those issues and make a moral decision of your own. We didn’t want to say, “Well, thanks for playing, your moral decision is wrong.” So, what we did is we kind of looked back at it, and we said, “Okay when you’re looking at tragic events that have happened in the world, what happens to people?” You know, I still remember when the twin towers fell. I don’t remember what was being broadcast; I just remember the moment so intensely. When you’re looking at an incident like what happened at the end of Human Revolution – the Aug Incident, where the augmented go crazy and start killing people – we realised that a message got out that day. But only three people in the world really know which one it was, and that’s Eliza Cassan who broadcast it, [Adam] Jensen, and you the player.
So your message got out but it got out at a time when nobody was ready to hear it. Everybody was so focused on the incident itself that, by the time people were able to step back and listen, so many other voices started throwing in other things with disinformation going left and right. So, everyone from the Illuminati to people like you and I are saying, “I’m making up my own story because this is what I think it is.” As human beings, we tend to latch on to what we want to believe, and that’s how we’ve realised it. What we know, and what Adam [Jensen] has realised, is that the world knows that millions of augmented people went crazy that day. They know that many, many people were murdered and killed, they know that the Panchaea installation became so damaged that it collapsed into the ocean because of what went on inside it and that many people died in it, and some were rescued.
And there are rumors all over the place about what really happened. Everything from, “It was poisoned Neuropozyne!” to “It was a government conspiracy that did this!” to “It was the chip that was put out by Tai Yong Medical!” Even about the fact that one valiant man gave his life to save the world that day. That’s where we start in the story, Adam knows the truth, you know the truth, and now you realise that your job’s not done yet.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘Well, thanks for playing, your moral decision is wrong.'”
Nick: How do you approach writing a story for a game that is different from the first title but still ties into its multiple endings?
Well, luckily we have a process within the studio where we go through phases, like conception, pre-production, production and so on. During conception a small, core group of us get together – lead writer, gameplay director, the art director, etc. This time we asked, “What did we achieve with Human Revolution?” “Where are the threads that are left?” and “What do we want to do in this one?” So, we spent a couple of weeks going over those and by the time we were done we had the fantasy that we wanted to play. We know that we want Jensen to be at the next level, and we know where he left off – now he’s got to take this fight to the Illuminati. How’s he going to do that? He’s going to become part of this network; in order to fight the people in the shadows, you need to be well connected. It was a matter of asking how can we do that?
So, we started speccing a story out in that direction and then it’s just development after that, you build the characters, you build the plot and you still filling in those gaps. It’s iterating and iterating and iterating. When you’re building a story for a game, you are building it in levels. The first thing is getting the characters, and then get the critical path down, start building side missions, start looking at the world, what are the stories in the news, what are the stories in the world and among the people? You just build it from there.
Paddy: As you said yourself, Transhumanism is one of the biggest themes of the Deus Ex world and it’s seen in the game as something of a “fear of the other.” Where do you look to for information about Transhumanism and what’s it like creating a world that’s so deeply afraid of it, almost treating it as criminal?
For Transhumanism itself, we started looking at the modern technologies and the experiments that are going on at MIT, Professor Hugh Herr is one of the big names involved with it. You look at the readings of Ray Kurzweil and how he doesn’t believe it’s going to lead us to hell, he believes it’ll lead us to heaven. You look at a number of different things and you kind of pick and choose from there to determine where it’s going. You’re also dealing with Cyberpunk, which is inherently a dystopian world, so you do kind of end up putting that negative spin into it and for that you kind of look at your own beliefs too. I’ve been asked everything from “Do you think the world is going to end up that dark?” to “How do you feel about Transhumanism?”
For me I kind of look at it and I see the hope that’s there, I see how it can change people’s lives. I also know I can’t stand it when my computer does something weird and glitchy, and I get angry, and I don’t want to deal with it.
Nick: You’re worried that your arm will start twitching, and you’ll be like “What? What is this!?”
(laughing) That’s right, people have asked me if I’d get augmented. I have a hard time going to the doctor in the first place, and now you want me to go see an Aug specialist as well to get my software updated? That could be tough. So you look at those different ideas for inspiration and the fear of “That damn computer virus that’s ruined my entire hard drive!” You just extrapolate.
Nick: Within the idea of “What it means to be human,” there’s also ideas like “What does it mean to be male?,” “What does it mean to be female?,” and “What does it mean to be trans?” In a world where you can augment your body into whatever you want, is there even an identity that you could be labeled with at that point? Is that going to be present in Mankind Divided?
It is such a huge thing when you really get into it, you kind of have to pick a central focus for the main story and then all those other things can be deal with on the side. So, the direct answer to it is that you might find side people who are discussing it, it isn’t likely to be on the main path, but there is stuff there.
Well, it’s just that the representation of women in this world hasn’t been great. In Human Revolution, you had the whore houses and brothels – in [Mankind Divided] society is becoming more and more augmented, so being a female versus being a male – is there really that much of a divide anymore?
That’s a very good question; I’ll admit that it’s not one that I really thought about, but I’m definitely going to be thinking about it now. We tended to look at things during Human Revolution more in terms of “What does it mean to be human?” That’s what Deus Ex has really been all about. In Human Revolution, everyone needs to be in control of something. As a human being, we need to be in control and every character in that game is defined by what they need to be in control of; Serif was about biotechnology, Zhao Yun Ru was about the market, Jensen was about personal choices and he needed to have that. In [Mankind Divided] we’re looking more at what does it mean to be human in the wake of a tragedy like this, dealing with the fear and looking at the idea of do you let yourself be guided by your emotions or by your reason. But I’ll definitely be thinking more about that sort of idea in the future!
“In [Mankind Divided] we’re looking more at what does it mean to be human in the wake of a tragedy…”
Paddy: Adam Jensen during Human Revolution was very much being portrayed as the good guy, but he could also very easily be the villain, depending on your perspective. He is fighting for augmented people, but he’s also fighting on behalf of the corporations who have every intention of using this technology for the wrong purpose. How do you feel about him?
When we created him, in the games industry there’s always the question of “Should the main character be an avatar?” There’s no personality, no history, no nothing, the player just embodies them and does what they want. Or should they be a character that you’re kind of living with and guiding? When we started Human Revolution, we wanted to see if we could do both. We wanted to have a character that was very strongly built; I spent a lot of time building his character, his personality traits, his backstory, and kind of getting a good sense of who he is. But then, as soon as the player takes control, suddenly he’s a blank slate, and it’s up to the player to decide how he acts.
My Adam Jensen is really cool. He is a good guy, he’s very caring, but he’s been hurt by the world and my Adam Jensen is non-lethal because he’s been through a terrible event where he experienced the violence first hand, so he’s non-lethal. But that’s my Adam Jensen.
Paddy: Oh… My Adam Jensen shot everyone in the face.
Yeah, exactly! I knew we had succeeded when some review of the game had said that after they had played the game and really loved it, he had all the makings of a sociopathic serial killer. Here’s a guy who always talks very non-emotionally, he’s got a mirror in his bathroom that shows he’s obviously got a lot of pent up aggression inside, and he lives in an apartment building surrounded by dark alleys with prostitutes. He could easily be going out and being a serial killer every day and could be getting away with it!
Paddy: Are… Are you giving us insight to the story that players aren’t aware of yet?
(laughing) No, no, not at all! It’s just that this guy said all this and that the next time he played he was going to see if he could play like that and then he could. I was like, “Okay, Adam Jensen is not a serial killer,” but I think it’s really, really cool that people can make him that way… if they want.
Nick: Leading on from that, how do you offer that choice? You have that grounded character of Adam Jensen, how much choice do you then give the player?
It is a delicate balance to try and do it; I know that when I’m writing the dialogue trees, and I’m putting choices in there, you have to remember to include what the player would want. So you create choices like “Do I want to be the jerk, a nice guy, or a professional guy?” You have to know that if you’re going to choose the jerk option, you have to do it the way Adam Jensen would do it. You have to recognise that this is a game about choice and consequence; we have to open up the possibilities for you to do what you want, but then we have to show you the consequences and in a way that doesn’t judge you. We don’t want to judge you for it; we want you to see that consequence and decide for yourself if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
“You have to know that if you’re going to choose the jerk option, you have to do it the way Adam Jensen would do it.”
Paddy: Human Revolution was pretty “corridored” regarding the story, it lead you on a pretty direct path towards the ending. Is Mankind Divided going to be different in that respect, are you allowing for a much more branched out story?
Yes, we’re trying very hard for that. One of the things that we looked at, once we said that this was a game about choice and consequence, a lot of that was done through the gameplay in Human Revolution and not in the story. We did have moments, like how you treated and talked to Wayne Haas, he might come back later, and you might have to deal with the repercussions of that. And the same with the hostage taker, if you let him go, and we played with those ideas. They didn’t really affect the main story line, so with [Mankind Divided] we said “We want to push it, we really want to push it as much as we can.”
So, we’ve tried very hard from the start of this project to have things that you’ve done from the beginning coming back and having an affect on the story and we have moments in the game, not at the end but midway through, where you have to make a choice and you cannot do both things and the story changes depending on how you do it. Which was a real challenge to write, you reach a certain point where you ask yourself “Okay, the player’s here and what does he know now?”
The ending also isn’t a case of being able to save right before making that end choice, it’s literally the decisions you’ve made along the way will change what choices are presented to you at the end. The side mission scripts are so long but you as a player, based on your choices, may only experience a little bit of it because that’s all you want to experience.
Paddy: One last question: What’s your favorite game?
I tend to be someone who doesn’t choose favorites, but I will admit that I love Resident Evil 4 – me and my shotgun! I love Resident Evil 4; it was great, even when they suddenly switched it up and I wasn’t Leon anymore, I was the girl – loved it.