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.
GamesIndustry.biz 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.