Deus Ex: Franchise Evolution

Deus Ex 3's writer on the WGA, preorder exclusives and why games writing is a team effort

Deus Ex is a legend among games – perhaps as much for the franchise's swift fall from grace and subsequent disappearance as for the adulation around its original. In the eight years since Invisible War, the game's star has perhaps only risen, however – and that was enough to see Square-Enix plan to reboot it with the upcoming multi-platform prequel Human Revolution. met up with Eidos Montreal's lead writer Mary De Marle to discuss the issues inherent in bringing a brand back to life, as well as the current status and obstacles affecting games writers in the industry today.

Q:As much as it is a game, Deus Ex is a brand, and one that's built up quietly over the years and been made almost stronger due to its absence. What's the strength of that from a commercial point of view?

Mary De Marle:The interesting thing about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is it is a part of a brand and is a part of a game that came out ten years ago, but the brand itself has had a lot of time to... Well, there haven't been a lot of games in it. After it had the one sequel, it kind of lay dormant for a while. And I think the brand brings to Human Revolution a lot of depth and a lot of really positive things that we can draw from to pull forward, but because we've also been ten years since the last game it's a real chance to inject new life into the brand and to make it into something that will continue on even farther into the future.

Q:What's your role specifically – purely a writing one or has it folded into actively designing the game too?

Mary De Marle:My role goes a lot beyond just pure writing. In fact, if I was to describe my typical day there are some days in which I don't get any writing done. My role as the narrative director so to speak is to both create the story and also figure out how to get that story implemented in the game. Through that, I end up working with all the other departments – with the artists, the level designers, the animators, the voice actors... It's to kind of ensure that the story, with all its richness, is being told in more than just dialogue. When you're investigating an environment, I'm kind of working with the artists. Let's take for example [protagonist Adam Jensen's] apartment – we needed to reflect Adam's personality so I sit with them in an initial brainstorm and say "here's who Adam is and how can we reflect that in the art design and the set dressing, so to speak." How do we do that through animation, how does the character model express that?

So we spend a lot of time in meetings, and I spend a lot of times approving designs from the standpoint of does it fulfil the needs of the story? And it's interesting from that respect, in that sometimes I find myself sitting in a character model and I'm in a room with members of all different departments and everyone is looking at this character concept from their area of expertise. We're all commenting "does it work?" So I spend a lot of time doing that. And from a writing standpoint, I do get to do a bunch of writing, maybe too much, but I'm also working with a team of writers and giving them a canvas on which they can paint. I'm also making sure that they're maintaining the correct tone and consistency so all these voices don't end up sounding like nine different voices, but instead a consistent voice through the universe.

Q:Do you feel that game writing, and the stuff that spins out of like character design and thematic consistency, gets the wider recognition it deserves?

Mary De Marle:It depends on, certainly, the game you're working on, the team you're involved with, the studio you're working with. I think the way we tend to approach that is not every game needs a story. So if you're identifying right from the get-go in your initial design discussions that story is very important, then it's important to give credence to that. You have to put your money where your mouth is and allow the writers to have more say in things. In a lot of games, it's true, in my history of writing a lot of times the writers joke about what they do. One of them says "I'm a script doctor" and another "I'm a word monkey." Because a lot of times people always thing that all you have to do is sit in front of a keyboard typing and you'll have a dialogue in an hour. And that's not it. So, no it doesn't always get the recognition from the other departments that it should. I think a lot of people think they're all writers and they're not, so there's that. But I also think that the writers often have to realise that they're not the only ones writing the story.

A game story is written by everyone on the team, and if the animators don't portray that story the way it's supposed to be, your story fails. The biggest mistake a game writer can make coming in is to say "they hired me as a writer to come up with the story so they have to listen to everything I have to say." The truth is they don't, because other people have valuable ideas, they're the ones bringing it to life. It goes both ways.

Q:What about outside of the games industry – is the Writer's Guild of America, for instance, encompassing games writing in the right way? Their awards have been... surprising, to say the least.

Mary De Marle:Personally, I kind of get mad about the WGA writing awards because, rightly so, to be a part of that guild you have to pay membership fees. So what they're actually doing is they're supporting their membership by putting in a reward for writers that are members of their guild. If you have worked on a game and you want to submit for a writing award from the WGA, your writers have to be members of the WGA. And if they're not, then you can't be considered. So I think you end up getting games nomination and everyone's "why was that nominated but this game wasn't?" The reason is that the writers weren't members of the guild. They have a right to do that because they are a guild and they are recognised in the work of their members. But to tout themselves as "this is the award that you want to get if you write in games, that is not true, because they're not recognising all the games that exist it.

Q:Is there a sense that there are other efforts to raise recognition of game writing and narrative design?

Mary De Marle:The WGA isn't the only one who has writing awards, and I think more magazines often do things like that. I think there's still a lot of work that has to be done to push writing in games, but I have to admit that after working in it for 12 years I'm not exactly sure how to do that.

My own personal struggle when I started in the industry, I started working on a title – it was supposedly well known for its story and its writing. I'm not going to mention names here, but we were a license, and the people who'd created the original were the ones who were recognised. So we had a meeting with them, and the company president was there. We were going around introducing everyone, and my producer says "this is Mary, she's the writer." The president looks at me and goes "you're a writer?" I say "yeah." There's an uncomfortable pause, and then the producer starts to introduce the next person, but he interrupts with "but... but... you're a writer?"

So I reply "yeah... I'm Mary, and I'm a writer." Then he says "but... what do you do?" [Laughs] He really didn't understand, because their company had never hired a writer, and they didn't understand that writers could have a role. And that was 15 years ago. So for 15 years my journey through it was first to get people to understand that they need writers, and then make them realise that you need different writers than screen writers because of the different sensibilities. Now it's about educating writers themselves to say "we write something different and we have different edicts that we have to follow because we're writing in a different genre." So it's been an interesting career. I definitely think that things are lot different now than they were 15 years ago, and the struggles that writers are facing are a lot different – but I still think we could always go farther.

Q:What are the additional challenges in writing for a very passionate fanbase that quite vocally expects and believes certain things of the game?

Mary De Marle:When you're writing something that has such a loyal fanbase... games are very personal, and that's the other challenge of writing for them. As I said before, you as a writer, you don't own that story. A lot of people own that story, and the people who play it own that story. They get very passionate about it and it becomes their story, so they get very upset if you make the slightest change to their story. So you always have to be very aware of that, and always do what you can to assure them that you care about it too. At the same time, some things you have to block out because it's very difficult to write something that's going to suit everybody. So you have to follow your passion, do what feels right about the story and the characters, and then hope that you've made the right decisions. Hopefully you'll do a good job of pleasing most people.

Q:You're making some missions in the game locked to pre-order incentives. How confident are you that the retail benefit of that practice is worth the risk of some players feeling they're missing out on something?

Mary De Marle:I know that when they announced the pre-order exclusives there was a huge backlash from the fan forums because everyone was saying "oh, you're making us pay for extra content." I was shocked, but I thought differently – I saw it as the main story that we created for this game was exciting and good on its own. And here we're giving you a chance to go even deeper with it, so to me it was surprising that there was that backlash. I saw it from the glass is half full perspective...

I think that, as a writer, I'm always trying to do the best job that I can on anything, and I'm not going to short-change someone who didn't pay the extra money to get a good extra bit. I'm going to make something that it is as satisfying for those people. Their experience is their experience, and it's important that they enjoy it. They won't' necessarily feel the lack, they're not going to sit there and feel the lack, think something doesn't make sense – they're going to enjoy it on their own and then I'm going to work extra hard for those who do get the extra content to make them feel that what they got was worth the additional value.

Mary De Marle is lead writer at Eidos Montreal. Interview by Alec Meer.

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Latest comments (5)

Stephen McCarthy Studying Games Technology, Kingston University11 years ago
i think the Augmented Edition come with it, with or out pre-order.
so it only the people getting the base game who get it free with pre-order.
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Bruno Brøsted Incident Manager 11 years ago
The pre-order incentives is because the product is not strong enough else there would be no reason to do this. With the Deus Ex 2 being such a HUGE let down many Deus Ex fans are gonna hold out for reviews before buying.

If the released "game play" videos are anything to go by then the third Deus Ex game is gonna put the franchise in the grave since it's simply not a Deus Ex game. The actual game my surprise but I for one am gonna wait for reviews and by this I mean real reviews not the release day commercials.
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Micah Ian Wright Game Writer 11 years ago
Hi, as the Chair of the Writers Guild of America's Videogame Writers Caucus, I'd just like to correct some common misconceptions about the WGA's Best Videogame Writing Award that the games press seems intent on spreading.

First off YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A MEMBER OF OUR GUILD TO WIN OUR AWARD. Only five of our 35 team-member nominees (on the six nominated games) were members of the Videogame Writers Caucus or the Writers Guild of America.

We do ask that all entrants join the Videogame Writers Caucus (VWC), but that is NOT the same thing as being a member of the WGA. The WGA is a federally supervised union of film, television, and videogame writers which provides portable health and pension benefits for professional writers. You can't just "join" the WGA, you have to work under a WGA contract first. The VWC, on the other hand, is a working group of professional writers dedicated to raising the profile of the videogame writer, improving the working conditions for all development crew, and setting industry standards as far as work and payscale and deliverables for game writers. The VWC is a volunteer organization made up entirely of working videogame writers.

When we ask writers seeking to nominate their games to join the VWC, they are asked for a nominal $60 yearly fee. This immense sum covers their subscription to Written By Magazine, the official magazine of the WGA, and helps fund the work that the VWC does, such as sponsoring the Game Developers Conference in Austin, throwing three annual parties for all videogame writers (not just members of the WGA or the VWC) — one at San Diego Comicon, another at GDC Austin, and a third at the WGA Building when we host a yearly panel of all the best writing nominees (which we held last night). For someone not in the guild, a yearly subscription to Written By magazine alone costs $100. Anyone complaining that they’re not getting their money’s worth out of a magazine written by and featuring the best writers in the entertainment business hasn’t read the magazine. Additionally, members of the VWC can attend most WGA events, such as screenings of films with discussion groups afterward with the film’s writer, writing seminars given by our non-profit branch, and can even take themselves and a guest to see free movies during the nominations & awards season just by showing their VWC membership card at the box office. Again, take your spouse to go see two movies for free a year, and you’ve more than paid for the $60 yearly fee.

More importantly, though, the WGA is a Guild primarily supported by the mandatory union dues of our film and television member-writers. A writer who works on, say, Pirates of the Carribean 4, will contribute 2% of their salary to the union, which in the case of a film like that might be in the range of $100,000. The idea that anyone thinks the WGA is somehow getting rich off of $60 dues fees from videogame writers is laughable.

The reasons we created the WGA videogame writer award are threefold: (1) we wanted to honor the craft of the game writer/narrative designer, (2) We wanted the game companies to begin to fairly credit the writers on their games, and (3) we want to know who all the best game writers are so we can sit down with them and find out what their concerns and ideas about improving work conditions in the games industry are... and then to implement those ideas. Each year our goals are met more and more often by the games industry.

For example, if a game does not have a credited writer, it’s not eligible for our award. The first year, several games which people believed SHOULD have won our award were not eligible because the Developer didn’t bother to credit the people who wrote those games. That’s an insult, and as a guild of professional writers, we’re not about to give an award to either a mystery person, or to a company which can’t be bothered to honor the workers who made their game. Last year only two games were denied entrance due to this requirement... down from over two dozen who weren't eligible the first year we gave out the award four years ago. Game Developers are recognizing that they need to credit the writers in order to be eligible, and have begun to do so. Mission Accomplished!

Secondly, we have succeeded in raising the profile of our game writer nominees and winners. When Hayden Blackman left LucasArts earlier this year to start his own company, every article about his departure mentioned that he won our award, and several of them used the WGA's press photo of Hayden holding up his award for "The Force Unleashed" as the image they ran with those articles. Other companies have run advertisements touting that their game was "Nominated for a WGA Best Videogame Writing Award" or "Winner of the WGA Best Videogame Writing Award." An award like this, given from the largest group of working professional writers in the world raises the writer's stature and provides career access that they might not otherwise have, both in the games world and in the film & TV industry. It's DIFFICULT to win a WGA Award, and it's considered a major achievement by other writers. Plus you get a cool statue for your cats to constantly knock off your mantle!

Now, we do have some rules, and those rules can tend to limit who gets nominated for our awards, but not for the conspiracy reasons which float around in the blogosphere. First off, we’re not giving an award for “Best Videogame of the Year!” — if you want that, go watch the Spike Game Awards. We’re honoring the specific craft of writing for games. To that end, we need to see a script with a list of writers’ names on it. For one thing, we need to know WHO wrote these games: we’re not clairvoyant... we can’t magically peer into some Developer’s internal business structure and divine who wrote what. Because of this requirement, however, some game studios have refused to submit a script, even though we’ve gone to great lengths to make it easy for them to do. Bioware, for example, refused to submit a script for either Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age this year, and that’s too bad, because both games would have likely been finalists. Obsidian, on the other hand, DID submit a script for Fallout: New Vegas, and now they’re a finalist and might win the award on Saturday night. Similarly, Take Two Games refused to submit a script for Red Dead Redemption. Why? We don’t know. Maybe they hate unions, or maybe they just hate winning awards, or maybe they have enough statues on their mantle. No way to know. So another game gets what would likely have been their nomination. Are we happy about it? No... but rules are rules and our rules are clear and very fair.

Some people in the games press say that we should simply play all the games and make our judgments that way. That’s what the Writers Guild of Great Britain does, these people complain. Well, first off, only BRITISH writers are eligible for that award, and there are many fewer British-written games than there are American-written games. Our judges are all members of the VWC, and thus, professional, working videogame writers. I can’t demand that our judges sit down and buy and then devote 80 hours to playing every videogame that comes out at retail... not when they’ve got jobs and lives to lead and they can read the entire script in 2 hours or less. Does that mean gameplay doesn’t get taken into account? Of course not, like I said, we’re all working videogame writers and most of us play as many games as we can to stay current on our industry, so our experiences playing these games inevitably come into our decision-making processes when we’re judging the scripts, but we do focus on the game's WRITING when judging.

All in all, I think we have a pretty fair and clear set of rules. $60/year for all the benefits of being a member of the Videogame Writers Caucus seems quite reasonable to everyone who’s ever paid it (most other games industry awards are FAR more expensive to submit for and you get nothing other than an entry form for your money). Most importantly, however, ANYONE is allowed to submit for our award. If Mary De Marle wants to submit her Deus Ex: Human Revolution script for our award next year, she is certainly welcome to, and we would love to have her. :)

Micah Wright
videogame writer/narrative designer
chair & steer committee members, WGA Videogame Writers Caucus
IGDA member

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Micah Ian Wright on 3rd February 2011 10:24pm

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Show all comments (5)
Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 11 years ago
If $60 in revenue from a few dozen people looking for nominations is so unimportant to the overall revenue of your organization, why don't you simply stop asking the nominees (or those submitting for nomination--I'm not quite clear on your process here) to join? It seems to me that giving up a few thousand dollars a year in revenue is a cheap price to pay for the added legitimacy it would give the award. And I'm sure you could acquire many more members through outreach in other ways.

That's not to say you can't, in your reply to a nomination request or when you inform someone he or she is nominated, throw in a brochure or a link to a website touting the advantages of membership. But you really need to sell to the rest of the world that membership is neither required nor considered when it comes to the award itself.
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Tomas Matousek Localisation Coordinator, Activision Blizzard Ireland11 years ago
Sounds intriguing, the original Deus Ex was a smash, which can't be said about Invisible War, hopefully a good story will be backing up SQEX titles! :)
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