Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s Jean-François Dugas on the series, augmentations and the future of gaming

In 2011 the Deus Ex franchise returned with Human Revolution, re-injecting the series with the transhumanist magic from the original. Now with its sequel Mankind Divided on the way, we speak to executive game director Jean-François Dugas about what lies ahead

The Deus Ex series is a rare thing in gaming. Combining choice-based gameplay with strong transhumanist themes, Eidos Montreal’s epic series lets us explore a near-future Earth where augmentations are common and morality is fluid. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also incredibly fun to play, and with the last installment, Human Revolution, proving to be such a hit, we’re excited to find out what next year’s release, Mankind Divided, has to offer.

We caught up with executive game director Jean-François Dugas to find out more about what we can expect, his thoughts on the issues the series raises and how he envisions gaming to progress in the future. A cautionary note, though: there are some light spoilers for Human Revolution ahead.

Mankind Divided has a darker tone than Human Revolution. Why did you decide to take this direction?

[Laughs] Because we’re depressed people! Actually what we wanted to do – well I don’t know how many Deus Ex games we’re going to do – but for me what is important is that each game we do has a subject or as a spin on the main theme.

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For us transhumanism is the main topic and the underlying question is what it means to be human and why are we doing the things we do, so it’s something that we try to explore in many ways.

We tackled Human Revolution as a kind of reboot, a re-imagining of the world and for me I wanted to focus it more on us as human beings instead of just conspiracies about if we really went to the Moon or not. We still have that kind of stuff in the games, but that’s not what interests me about them! [Laughs]

So the first game for us was to bring the concepts of augmentations forward, because there we didn’t invent anything – it already existed in some shape or form – and say, can we be everything we want to be? And is that right? Is that wrong? Are there any potential dangers?

So Human Revolution was more kind of the golden age for that kind of stuff, like, yes, it’s still expensive for a lot of people, but you know what? The future’s bright and we can be everything that we want to be.

Mankind Divided is more like, what if this beautiful dream goes south? And where does it lead us? And if fantastic technology like that is harmful because some people abuse it, whether it’s the masses or just a single individual or a small group of individuals – how can it shape a new reality? How can it shape the world to be different?

So yes, it’s an analogy to racism; it’s an analogy to segregation; it’s an analogy to people judging easily without having all the facts at hand and whatnot. There’s an analogy with the world we see in the 21st century, unfortunately.

Can the game help consider the moral issues of augmentation in real life?

I see the games I’m making on two levels: the first I look for is that I want an entertainment product that people will enjoy, like whether it’s first degree, you know, like ‘oh it’s a cool story, I have cool augmentations and I go on all these maps and I’m having a blast and when the game is over that was a nice ride’ kind of thing.

The second layer is, yes, I’m trying to have those questions to be put into the mix. Players that are more into the story, the themes, they really immerse themselves in the world. I want them to think about those issues; I want them to think about the potential of these technologies, but also the dangers. I want them to feel that, so players who are really invested in the world, I hope they can think and maybe go into where they stand, what they think is right, what they think is wrong, etcetera, etcetera.

What is really important is not to be judgemental, I don’t want to go and say ‘augmentations, it’s good, it’s bad; it’s not my place to say that

And at the same time for us what is really important is not to be judgemental. I don’t want to go and say ‘augmentations, it’s good, it’s bad’. It’s not my place to say that and we’re trying to stay and neutral as possible, trying to reflect the good and the bad angles and let the players decide by themselves what they think is right, or have their own opinion on stuff.

It was a bit controversial in the last game, but it was on purpose. When you were choosing the ending with the buttons and then it was just a cut-scene that was not showing where the world would go or whatnot. And to me at that point my take was that the story is over, and a bit like a book when they put it into a movie, seeing the movie of the book is rarely as satisfying as the book itself, because the book, you picture it yourself, you have your own characters, they have your own voices, and when you see it you’re like, ‘eugh’.

Human Revolution was like this big ride, with those moral issues, those ethical questions that were putting the people and the players in the middle of that, and at the end I didn’t want to show them what their choices were, because it was more a reflection with what you know about our species, human beings, what you explored through the game. Do you think that you made the right choice, and do you trust mankind to follow the path that you choose?

For me it was more kind of an intellectual or a more introspective kind of ending. I’m not saying that for the next game it’s going to be the same – at all – but at the same time I’m talking about this very specific example just to restate the fact that what I’m trying to do is make something that can be entertaining but also give substance to people who want to dig into this and make up their own minds about stuff.

If it was possible, would you choose to become augmented?

[Laughs] Let’s put it this way, now we’re in the 21st century, everything’s possible, and a lot of people are really passionate or really crazy about things, so I think we’re not too far away from the moment where we’ll hear that someone purposefully severed a limb to have a replacement that that person can soup up and pimp up and whatever it is.

So I think that is going to happen down the line. We see already a lot of crazy stuff that people do to their own bodies today, so this one is really easy to imagine.

One augmentation I would love to have is this beautiful small hard-drive that I could put in my brain so I could track down everything I learned, keep everything, not lose memories at all

To go back to your question, would I do that myself? Absolutely not. [Laughs] Unless I’m forced, because some things happen in life, but I wouldn’t do that kind of stuff. But one augmentation I would love to have is kind of this beautiful small hard-drive that I could put in my brain so I could track down everything I learned, keep everything, not lose memories at all and be able to have Wikipedia in my head or something like that. That would be amazing.

Do you follow science news when you are researching for the Deus Ex series, or do you focus more on fiction?

We go with both approaches. Not as much for Mankind Divided because a lot of the work and the research has been done for Human Revolution and so as Mankind Divided is set just two years after the last game, the logic for us is there’s not a big leap in the technology in two years. So it’s mostly a continuity of what we established with Human Revolution.

But back in the day, yes, we read a lot of books, watched documentaries, cyberpunk movies or novels – scientific stuff but also fantasy stuff.

But what is important to us is that, when I see both approaches, yes, we have the scientific research. W e have the collaboration with a guy called Will Rosellini, he was the CEO for a company called Microtransponder and helped us to credibalise our augmentations and make them make sense in the real world where the technology and scientific research is progressing, but at the same time since we’re a game and we want it to be entertaining.

So the idea is not that our augmentations need to be something that today is being developed to a certain extent or not, but it’s more about making sure that with the knowledge we have today and the progress we’re making that we can see those things happening down the line, because they are valid principles that, if we explore them, could lead us to those augmentations.

Back in the day we read a lot of books, watched documentaries, cyberpunk movies or novels: scientific stuff but also fantasy stuff

I would say that it’s a mix between fantasy and reality, but even when we’re in the fantasy realm we’re always trying to give some scientific justification for those things.

In Human Revolution, we saw incidental characters watching TV, but never playing video games. Do people play video games in the Deus Ex universe?

[Laughs] Because I don’t like video games, they’re bad! It’s a good question. There’s so much to do, there’s so much to build, there’s so many stories to put in place, there’s so much coherence of the world and everything, that sometimes, to be honest with you, we just forget or it was not a priority.

The only nod to video gaming in Human Revolution was the poster of Final Fantasy XXVII in Frank Pritchard’s office. So we acknowledge they exist, but it was not necessarily put at the forefront.

Human Revolution was hugely successful not only from a commercial point of view, but in the way people have kept talking about it long after they have finished it. Why do you think that has been?

Actually in a way I’m surprised. You never build a game thinking, ‘oh let’s do it this way so we can go on to achieve that kind of recognition’. You don’t think about that at all and you don’t know if what you do is going to have a lasting appeal or not.

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So for me it’s somewhat a surprise, a very pleasant surprise, and there are still fans talking to us to this day that say that what we did changed their lives in various shapes, and it’s always touching and really surprising.

But I think especially in the 21st century, with mobiles and everything, it’s all about our 15 minutes of glory, and basically what I mean by that is we’re centered around our own selves and we’re really self-conscious. And I think Human Revolution is all about us, it’s all about what it is to be a human being, it’s all about ‘how can we improve our own selves?’

So I think that, to a certain degree talks to a lot of people because whether you like science fiction, cyberpunk, whether you like guns or not, no matter where you come from, the themes that we explore, I think, are universal and they can speak to a lot of people regardless of how they lead their life.

But I don’t have a precise answer for you. I don’t know, just maybe everything happened at the right moment and maybe everything based on augmentation and cybernetics exploded after the release of the game and we see more and more YouTube videos about all that kind of stuff. I don’t know. Some of the players, maybe they just thought, ‘Holy shit! They didn’t just make it up, it’s happening!’ And maybe Deus Ex is more trendy than ever in that sense, I don’t know. Good timing! [Laughs]

You’ve said that Mankind Divided will have far more options in terms of gameplay and decision-making, and how that affects the story as you play. How challenging is that to effectively implement in a game?

Very challenging because, well, there are the gameplay choices in the sense that you go left or right;or you’re a stealthy or you’re a combat-orientated kind of player; when there are opportunities are you talking your way out instead so you can have a fully-on pacifistic kind of approach?

Those are the systemic choices, but it’s difficult because we’re very story-driven and a lot of the choices are narrative-based, meaning that well, if the player does A, then what is the outcome of A? If he does B, how do we support B? If he does C then how do you support C?

And when you are later into the game and you’re at an event that reconnects to the previous one that I was just talking about, was the player doing A, B or C and what were the possible outcomes? And how do we play out those outcomes to involve this current situation? So, yes, it’s a lot of thinking, it’s a lot of headaches, it’s a lot of mapping out.

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But the choices, the consequences and the long-term or the short-term impacts, in the end it’s really complex just because the overall approach is not systemic, even though the basics for gameplay – stealth, combat – that is systemic, all the rest is not.

We’re hand-crafting every one of those choices and we build the consequences; it’s all hand-crafted. So our tool to be able to cope with that and still make sense of things is that we have a process that we call the blueprint. We’re basically building the game on paper even before we build the 3D maps or all the features, and we have the story – the high-level story is already laid out – and with the blueprint we’re telling the story bit-by-bit through the gameplay, through the narrative. We’re going, ‘ok Adam Jenson is now going to have to discover this and he’s going to go there’, so what if the player decides to do this, or do that?

We should leave that choice to the player and now we understand and we explore how all those choices would affect the continuation of the adventure and we all build it up on paper and we know the consequences, we know where it links to, so when it comes to write the actual dialogue, the actual missions, to build the actual mission scripting, we know where we’re going.

We’re basically have at least 80% or 85% of the puzzle figured out in advance so when we build it we’re more dealing with production issues instead of ‘oh my god, what we built doesn’t make sense’, because we made it make sense on paper before building it.

In Mankind Divided we’ll be visiting some new locations, including Prague. Why did you decide to pick this city in particular?

Sometimes it’s really, really personal to some people in the team, sometimes there’s a very silly justification. Sometimes it’s like, when you analyse it after the fact, let’s say Human Revolution and all those locations, yeah it makes sense, they talk about this and they talk about that.

Sometimes it’s true, yes we talk about this or that and some other times it’s like, you know what? The answer is just because. [Laughs] Like for example Montreal, in the last game, we put it in the game just because it’s Montreal and we were living up here in Montreal for close to 20 years and we’re like, ‘you know what? It’s about time we put our fricking city in our game!

So that was the only justification and after that, of course, you go a bit in the story and everything and it all makes sense, but the initial impulse is just like gut instinct or just the feeling of what we want to do.

We’re hand-crafting every one of those choices and we build the consequences

So for Prague, after Human Revolution one of the things that we were like ‘you know what? We missed that’ is that there were no European countries portrayed in the last game. You were going to America, you were going to the North Pole, you were going to Asia, but Europe was totally non-existent. And even when we were on Human Revolution and we were finishing it, we knew that if we were making the next game then definitely the next game would go to Europe. We didn’t know back then which country or which city it would be, but we knew we would go there.

So when we started to brainstorm we just looked at different ideas and looked at different cities and asked, what is the potential? What is the richness of the place? And things like that. Eventually Prague, since it’s one of the places in the world that’s kind of on the fence between the Western world and the Eastern world, going back to the Cold War and all these things. We thought it was a rich city because it kind of has a foot grounded in the past, but it also has a foot grounded into the future.

There’s a lot of richness and also the backstory of that place, with everything that happened in the past 70 years with the wars that we know and the myths and legends like the golem of Prague and all those things, they were naturally fitting with the theme of Mankind Divided that we wanted to explore. So there was this natural connection between the two, that’s why we decided to go with that city and make a story in there.

The original Deus Ex game was very influential for later video games. Do you think that Human Revolution and Mankind Divided can have a similar impact on future games? 

I think we can have an impct, but a different impact. If I look at Human Revolution, in the last five years it’s one of the games that had an initial impact on players that a lot of games don’t necessarily have. So in that sense I think we can have an impact because the subjects we are exploring, the way we put them in the game, the way we make people live an experience beyond just shooting at people or passing straight on by them.

But in terms of impact for game design and for how Deus Ex the original was groundbreaking at the time, I don’t think we can achieve that anymore just because we’re a series of games that are part of a series that was built by those guys back in the day and we’re following the same kind of principles.

Even when we were on Human Revolution and we were finishing it, we knew that if we were making the next game it would go to Europe

In that sense those things already exist, we cannot reinvent them again. We can push further, we can bring it beyond, we can explore avenues that maybe were not explored in the original game and have an impact, but a different impact. Deus Ex, their impact was more on the gameplay side of things, in which it was one of the very few games back in the day which was allowing you to play with systems, that were allowing you to choose between A or B and to have the world react to those actions, because until then most of the games, sometimes you had choices, but they didn’t matter because the world was never reacting to them.

For example, when you were starting the game and were exploring the offices where you were working, and if you happened to go into the ladies restrooms, there was someone telling you ‘you should stay away from there, there’s the men’s restrooms’ and you were like ‘what?!’ Never had a game before acknowledged what you did at a specific moment like that and I think that was extremely imaginary for a lot of players, because it was like, ‘wow, what I do matters’ and that was groundbreaking at the time.

Now we’re continuing that kind of philosophy so it’s not as groundbreaking.

Where do you think videogames are heading in the future?

Where are they heading? It’s a good question. It’s a question that gives us a little anxiety! [Laughs] Well I see it two-fold in the sense that there’s more variety than ever in how we’ve seen in the last six, seven years with mobile and all those portable options and whatnot.

So there’s more people who will play games in the future, but I don’t think all those people will play all the same games, and I like to do the analogy with movies in which there are comedies, there are horror movies, action movies, dramas etcetera etcetera, and you have a public for each one.

I think we will see a bit more of the segmentation; the people who play mobile games, the people who play more of the sports-oriented games, the ones that it’s more like a personal adventure for, like reading a book – I think we’ll see a bit more of that.

I also believe that for the console and the games we know them to be, it’s going to be more and more polished, more realisation, more exploring. So I think the industry in that sense is going to mature.

I also strongly believe in virtual reality, I think it’s going to be the next ground-breaking thing in our industry. I had the chance to experience some of the options out there that not

released to the public yet, and they’re far away from the virtual reality of the eighties or the nineties where it was just kind of a gimmick, it was not doing anything as valid or anything meaningful to the experience.

I strongly believe in virtual reality, I think it’s going to be the next ground-breaking thing in our industry

But with what I experienced in the last two years, it’s amazing and it’s always bringing me back to David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ movie, in which the characters have this plug in their spinal cord or something like that; they go in that imaginary world. Eventually the lines go between reality and the virtual world and people get confused on that, and I think we’re eventually going to get there.

Virtual reality to me is probably the first real stepping stone in that direction. I think it probably reinvents the gaming experience, like wow, it’s so tangible, we’re able to live different emotions. With some setups and some scenarios that we could have seen in the last 20 years of gaming, just put them back in virtual reality and you can almost have a heart attack! [Laughs]

I really, really believe in it, I think it’s going to be the next big step in our industry. The progress is much slower today, the game design evolution, it’s more like baby steps all the time. We’re actually limited by the physical devices we have, but our imagination is not limited and the fact that virtual reality now makes you feel like you can touch the world and you can experience it because you’re being in there, I think it’s going to be crazy. I want to see that, and hopefully I will still stay in touch with reality!

Do you think there could ever be a virtual reality Deus Ex game?

That would be nice. I think it’s a franchise that would be perfect for that because even in the current console generation with PS4, Xbox, that we’re going to ship, and even on the 360 before with Human Revolution, our game, we are always saying that it’s all about details, it’s all about the show-don’t-tell and having those elements to tell your story.

We were always going the extra mile, for example to put stickers on all the little objects just like in real life. When you have a computer you have the logo of the computer, if you have a speaker for your music then you have a logo on this, on your mouse, on anything, so we were going the extra mile to build all those corporations and put all those little tags on all the objects.

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Images courtesy of Eidos Montreal.

And it was on 360 and everywhere else, we went crazy, into a place where you can barely see it, so you can imagine in a virtual world that would be crazy, our passion for detail and our passion for telling stories through the environments would just be advanced to crazy levels.

So yes, I think that it would be a very good idea for the future.

Finally, what’s your favourite feature or aspect of Mankind Divided?

It’s a good question because at this point we’re still developing it and I’m very close to it, so I see more of the problems than the quality at the moment! [Laughs] Well, we changed the engine and now we can have way more visual fidelity than before, so that is really, really exciting for the show-don’t-tell that I was just describing. I think we’re going to bring that the next level, so that is really cool.

I feel that with Human Revolution, although it had a lot of great qualities, the production values of the game were all a bit rough around the edge. The render of the game – the artistic direction was beautiful – but the technical qualities behind it were not necessarily matching the quality of the aesthetics and this time around the technology is on a par with our artistic ambitions, so that is really, really cool.

The other thing that is a bit more of a gameplay-esque aspect is that we redefine how you are the human 2.0, from how you use augmentations and how we will define the controller scheme to have a much more visceral and much more fluid experience. That is something that I’m really happy about.

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