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.
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.
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.
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.