Interview

Jonathan Jacques-Belletête

Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Deus Ex: Human Revolution art director

The virtual city designer discusses hyper-reality, air ducts, and how precision can be the enemy of vision.

By Anthony John Agnello • April 26, 2012

For yesterday’s piece on urban design in video games—“Perfectly Unlivable”—Anthony John Agnello spoke to Deus Ex: Human Revolution artist Jonathan Jacques-Belletête about that game’s rendition of a futuristic Detroit. Quotes from Jacques-Belletête were used in that article, but we thought the whole conversation was so interesting that we decided to publish a full-length version of the Q&A.

Adam Jensen may not be able to hit up Walgreens for spare light bulbs after he punches out mirrors in his Detroit apartment, but at least he lives in a detailed city that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes horrid in its futurism. Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, the art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talked in depth with The Gameological Society about making game cities feel like more than what they are, the futuristic feel of Scandinavian architecture, and how many air ducts is too many.

The Gameological Society: Walk me through the process of designing Deus Ex’s cities. How did they change from when they were first conceived to when they appeared in the game?

Jonathan Jacques-Belletête: We started by brainstorming with the core creative team about the places we’d like to explore, and we began drafting the high-level visual direction we wanted those different cities to take. The important thing at the beginning was to make sure that we had a twist on each location before going ahead with their final designs. We wanted to have something more than what those cities are already known for. For Detroit, the idea was to show the reinvention of the city through Sarif Industry’s heavy investment in the field of biotech research and manufacturing. If the city’s glorious past was about the automotive industry, it would now be revived through the cybernetic industry. We even decided to reinforce this concept by having old car factories turned into biomechanical assembly lines, which in turn creates a strong visual message for the location.

As for Shanghai, many games and movies have portrayed the city before, so it goes without saying that we wanted something different. That’s why it’s set on a suburban island a few kilometers away, and [the city has] a second floor. It looks and feels like Shanghai, but if you lift your head up, there’s this huge platform that acts as a ceiling.

I find too many people in the video game industry concentrate on exactitude instead of vision.

That vision didn’t change much from paper to the game. We spent so much time drafting and planning every single bit of their visual direction and setup that they came up very close to what we had in mind.

Gameological: What is your first concern in designing a game city? What does it have to do the best? Look cool, lead the player, offer the most variety?

Jacques-Belletête: My first concern was to make it look as interesting as possible. I find too many people in the video game industry concentrate on exactitude instead of vision. Having a super photorealistic in-game reproduction of a well known city is all well and good, but what does it say about you as an artist? What does it say about the themes and messages your game is trying to convey? Boring. We all know what a real city feels and looks like. In a work of fiction, I believe that it needs to be hyper-realistic. It must feel more than what it is. 

Gameological: Deus Ex’s cities nail the density of major downtown environments. You constantly feel packed between big structures and its difficult to get a sense of the place in totality when you’re inside, just like in a real city. At the same time, you’re cut off from most streets. They’re small places. What’s the key to making a game city feel real without having a real city’s scope?

Jacques-Belletête: That’s one of the biggest, most important challenges when designing cities for a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s not an open world, it’s not Grand Theft Auto, but at the same time, it’s not a corridor shooter. The player must feel like he has freedom of exploration, that he can be creative with the environment, and that there are a myriad of neat little things to discover. At the same time, we need to set limits and boundaries in the world and these boundaries must feel “natural.” We think a lot about what these boundaries will be. We try many different things, but there’re only so many possibilities. A great trick to make the city feel bigger and livelier than it actually is is with the sound. Having dogs bark in the distance, the echoes of police sirens, and people talking and babies crying when you get near windows of apartment buildings. The streets of our game don’t have cars moving in them. But with each opportunity we had, you can see moving cars in the distance—on overpasses, on the other side of fences, and other such places.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Detroit

Gameological: Adam Jensen’s apartment building is just blocks away from a blighted neighborhood run by a violent paramilitary gang. Where does he get his groceries? Should game cities consider the mundane needs of its characters, both playable and non-playable?

Jacques-Belletête: [Laughs.] That is a seriously great question! The mundane should be considered and produced in a video game, especially one where you are trying to convey a vision of the future. I would even go as far to say that the mundane is the secret recipe that gives life and credibility to the whole foundation of your creation.

That’s the reality of a big production. Sometimes you have to cut, and you have to cut hard.

However, there are issues. Production time, production costs, and of course gameplay and level design constraints. These are the worst enemies for creating mundane assets and concepts in a game. At the beginning we had this whole vision of Adam living in a posh neighborhood full of cyber-renaissance inspired buildings and skyscrapers. But we eventually had to cut this out for those variables. So yes, Adam’s apartment building ended up peculiarly standing in the middle of a bad part of town, even though it’s a bit posh. And yes, now that you mention it, having had a grocery store in the map would’ve been amazing. But hey, there are a few convenience stores around the level!

Gameological: There was supposed to be a third city in Human Revolution. How would it have differed from Shanghai and Detroit?

Jacques-Belletête: There were supposed to be three other cities in the game: Bangalore, Montreal, and the Upper Hengsha map in Shanghai. Bangalore would’ve had quite a different feel, of course, being the Indian Silicon Valley and all. Montreal took place in one of our most famous neighborhoods called Le Plateau, which has a very unique architecture style that you only find here in our city, so that would’ve been pretty cool. Especially with all the ideas we came up with about how it would have transformed 20 years from now. And finally, Upper Hengsha was without question my favorite of them all. It was all about eco-architecture and eco-urbanism drenched in intense sunset golden lighting. Man, it was awesome! But you know, that’s what the reality of a big production is all about; sometimes you have to cut, and you have to cut hard. It always hurts a bit, but it’s necessary.

Gameological: Shanghai has far more small storefronts and other creature comforts that are non-essential parts of Deus Ex’s story than Detroit does. Why?

Jacques-Belletête: It was to get the Asian urban feel right. Asian metropolises are much more crowded with visual stimuli and stores per square foot than North American cities. And these outlets tend to be smaller and more compact, whereas in America, stores tend to take more space, but there are less of them.

Gameological: You’ve cited Scandinavian architecture as an influence on Deus Ex’s Detroit and Shanghai. What distinguishes modern European cities from American and Chinese cities? What specifically about that style of architecture lent itself to a game?

Jacques-Belletête: There’s an aesthetic foundation to Scandinavian architecture that is seldom seen here in North America. The very simple shapes, the clean angles and facades, the proper planning of facings and windows in relation to the daytime sunlight, the types of materials and colors, and the use of very large windows covering wide areas of a building. The idea was that by simply putting Scandinavian influenced buildings in Detroit, it would feel futuristic. Even though this type of architecture is not futuristic at all and dates back from the mid-20th century, when placed in Detroit, it made for some interesting and refreshing visuals.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Shanghai

Gameological: If real world Scandinavian architecture influenced Deus Ex’s cities, what other game cities or fictional cities, aside from Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, influence their design and layout?

Jacques-Belletête: We did our homework, looking at urban games like GTA, The Darkness, and Kane And Lynch 2, just to name a few. But they inspired us more in terms of level design and layout design than in aesthetics. As far as fictional cities in other types of works, I can’t really remember anything specific. Most of our ideas either came from real world references, or straight out of our heads.

Gameological: What is the essential difference between designing a city for an open-world game compared to a linear, level-based game?

Jacques-Belletête: I would say it’s the resource management. In an open-world city, your resources are a lot more spread out. Especially if exploration is a big part, like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. We can climb stuff, get on roofs, go into the sewers, enter buildings through windows, stack things together to reach high points, and even upgrade yourself to gain access to new places. You can see the map from the street level, and you can see it from up high, and this means creating the visuals in a very different way than in a game where the level is a sequence of set pieces.

All this puts an extremely different burden on the shoulders of many departments—level design, level art, programming, and art design—because the constraints tend to be more drastic. Everything has to flow together perfectly. There are a lot of things that you could do for sheer aesthetic reasons in a linear level, but that you cannot do in a game with levels designed for openness and freeform exploration. For example, because of the different jumping abilities you can unlock, there are specific heights everything you build must take into consideration. 

Gameological: Real sewers aren’t nearly so convenient as Deus Ex’s. How much was the reality and functionality of utilities—electricity, waste disposal, ventilation—taken into consideration when making the game?

Jacques-Belletête: Ha! Not much consideration, I guess. Especially for the sewers and the ventilation. I mean, Deus Ex is pretty much a game about walking into air ducts. Put as many of them as possible all over the place!

Photo of Jonathan Jacques-Belletête courtesy of the man himself.

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  • Effigy_Power

    In my first apartment, I had some pretty neat IKEA furniture that I set up while the junkie next door puked into the hallway, so I don’t know what the deal with the neighborhood is.
    But seriously, I think there is space for both approaches, which really depends on the game itself. Deus Ex wouldn’t have needed a full cityscape in the same way LA Noire didn’t need it. Realism springs from the interaction we have with our virtual surrounding, not just from plain sight.
    Mass Effect 1 showed that quite well with its randomly generated surface maps. While driving the Mako was in itself sometimes fun, a large amount of directional choice is meaningless without interaction.
    On the other hand, if the aspect of the game is mobility a la GTA, then large stretches of non-interactive landscape are fine, as the interaction here is the act of traveling itself.
    I don’t think you can make a clear cut between what approach is the superior one until you have seen the entirety of the game.

    PS: Does the Gameological Society have virtual CancerAIDS? Because I don’t want none of that.

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      I think we settled on “Continue? n/n” for our version of the firstie response.

      I agree with ya.  There’s not much point in having huge exploreable areas if there’s nothing to actually explore in them.  ME1′s planets were boring as hell, except for the occasional Thresher Maw.

      Lower Hengsha in DE:HR was a lot of fun, IMHO.  Perfect balance of feeling like part of a big city but not TOO big that travel becomes boring.  Also, revisiting it with different parameters (this time you have to hide from the guards) adds some really fun variety.

      • Effigy_Power

         Well, the deciding factor is obviously if there is travel aided by vehicles or not.
        Liberty City is a drag to walk through (I admit I did that more than once), but driving through it is fun. Mind you, even that has its limits. LA Noire (it’s not having an easy time here, LA Noire might be the Gameological Society’s negative Dawes) has a map so vast that even driving through it is boring and tedious.
        Deus Ex (of which I wasn’t really much of a fan, partly due to the to me extremely off-putting voice performance by Timothy Olyphant… seriously… it was like quiet Batman, partly because the setting just isn’t my usual thing) is a walker. You can run, sure, but the moment the map is bigger than what would be considered more than a hefty stroll, tedium sets in.
        Vampire:Bloodlines, a game that has some pretty striking similarities in the way the map is utilized, suffered from that. Walking forth and back through the same long-ass streets devoid of traffic really killed it for me.

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          LA Noire didn’t need that massive map at all. I think they must have chucked in the golden film reels and classic car collectable achievements at the last minute when they realised most of the map is wasted. I got through the whole story without seeing one of those reels.

          Driving around in the fun GTA-style was discouraged because police cars running down pedestrians is frowned upon for some reason, so I usually got Phelps’ partner to do all of the driving unless the game forced me to drive. And game developers, the whole ‘follow this car but don’t get spotted’ mission is never, ever fun.

  • AuroraBoreanaz

    I have to say, I loved the art style in DE:HR.  I rode the elevator to Sarif’s penthouse a few extra times just to check out the view through the windows, and my first glimpse of Upper Hengsha’s floor above me had me in awe.

    It’s really too bad there wasn’t time for the extra cities.

    • Effigy_Power

      It was undeniably pretty (I only saw it in a video).
      It might be interesting to have an article about the most beautiful vistas in video game history, regardless of the quality of the game.

      Wrestle that up real quick, will you, John? ^_^

      • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

        Hey, that’s a good idea!

        • Effigy_Power

           Yeah, I am full of those.
          This one’s for free.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Lists are good because they spark discussion, and not just of the “that shouldn’t be on the list” or “you omitted this” varieties.

          Other list ideas:
          - Trippiest levels
          - Most awesome weapons
          - Most creative multiplayer
          - etc.

          As for “Most Pointless Loot,” Bethesda games have that locked down, right?

        • Effigy_Power

           Finding a crappy Iron sword in a dungeon that would chew you out if you used gear like that? Yeah…
          - Most misleading covers
          - Most unlikeable protagonist
          - Most wasted voice actor

          Stuff like that.

        • KidvanDanzig

          @Merve2:disqus clearly you have not borne witness to Dragon Age 2′s numerous and exotic tattered scarves

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @KidvanDanzig:disqus: I just can’t get into the fantasy RPG genre. I tried with Oblivion, and that didn’t work out so well.

          But if these scarves are as numerous and exotic as you say they are, then perhaps one could make a sort of meta-game out of collecting them.

        • Effigy_Power

           @Merve2:disqus : Your inventory and storage would be full by Act 2… there seriously are a lot of scarfs.
          Mind you, before a patch, the game-loot consisted mostly of shields, which didn’t stack in the inventory.
          Still, those are junk-items designed to give you money in an inventory that cares nothing about weight.
          Constantly finding low-grade armor and weapons in Skyrim is probably worse.
          Then again, MMOs have to be stacked with the most nonsensical loot-rules… how else would you be able to pull a 12 pound copper breastplate from the corpse of an 8 ounce bird… how did the bird even acquire that? Did it eat a person? Was it wearing it?

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      DE:HR was just a beautiful game. The view of Upper Hengsha from Tai Yong medical was breathtaking.

      • AuroraBoreanaz

        You call everything breathtaking, don’t you?  Including the world’s ugliest baby…

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Did I really call something else “breathtaking” today? I may need to fix my internal thesaurus.

          Also, babies are just ugly in general. Stupid wrinkly bastards…

  • ShitMcFuckensteinAVC

    PUT A BIRD ON IT!

    • Effigy_Power

      Where I come from, we call it a boid.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    For fun, alt+tab between this story, and the AVClub’s newswire on Lars Von  Trier. IT’S LIKE TRAVELING THROUGH TIME.

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      Ugh.  Even if the rest of his films are amazing masterpieces of cinema, I still can’t stomach the idea of watching one after reading about Antichrist.

      I don’t do well with sex and violence mixed together.  Not at all.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Antichrist is definitely his most intense and grueling movie, with sex and violence combined in probably the most jarring, unpleasant way possible. It’s still pretty good.

        But that shouldn’t totally turn you off of him totally… He makes some great films. Dogville has some sex and debasement, but the violence is pretty distinct from it. And Melancholia is basically a heightened evocation of a feeling (you can guess which), that’s kind of intense and weird and miserable, but contains no sex or violence.

        ANYWAY, this is a digression. I mainly just want you to alt-tab between that story and this one to see into Jonathan Jacques-Bellete’s FUUUUUTUUUUUURE!

        • AuroraBoreanaz

          Oh, NOW I get it…they’re even wearing the same glasses!  Heh!

  • ChristopherCLara
    • ShitMcFuckensteinAVC

      Is Amazon seriously using Spam bots?

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Did Gameological just get its first spambot? This is an important milestone, folks!

        • Effigy_Power

           Ech, this place is so mainstream now. Like, totally. Let’s all go and buy things like good little sheep. Like, super-lame…

          Now, imagine that in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess… I can’t imagine this type of crap in any other voice anymore.

        • MattmanBegins

           I JERK OFF EVERY TIME I SEE FEMALE SHEPARD!

          (makes check mark on clipboard)

          Aaaand we’ve gotten that one out of the way now, too.  Any other fixtures we should take care of to make this place feel more like home?

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @MattmanBegins:disqus: I thought it was Miranda that people fapped to…y’know, the whole “Ass Effect” thing?

        • Effigy_Power

           Jack… Jack all over. With fervor.

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          Nope, Grunt. Sobbing is optional.

          Jack bothered me in ME3. How did she grow all of that hair in a 6 month timeframe??

        • Effigy_Power

          I was bummed out by ME3 more or less discarding so many relationships as “Hey, there’s an NPC you can dance with”…
          Romancing Jack in ME2 was awesome, complicated and confusing… I mean… that bitch has issues. But in the end my redheaded Shepard peeled her out of that leather and they made sweet, sweet love. And the reward is “Hey Shep, wanna dance?”…
          Bla.
          PS: The hair was pushed out by biotics. I just feel it.

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          @Effigy_Power, Jack was totally badass in her recruitment mission cutscenes in ME2 but in reality as a squad mate she was weak as piss. So all that attitude she kept throwing at my Shep when I went down to engineering for a friendly chinwag was too offputting as it was basically all bullshit (as you said, that bitch has issues). Being Australian myself, tapping Miranda was more my cup of tea anyway. That said, as soon as Miranda went missing off the Normandy in ME3 it was hello Liara.
           
          As for Jack, I considered the possibility of hair extensions, but didn’t think of biotics. I am willing to swallow the concept of mass effect fields, quantum communications, ancient robot space monsters etc, but unexplained accelerated hair growth? No, fuck that Bioware.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I romanced nobody. There ain’t nobody good enough for Shepard. She’s the first human spectre, damn it! She deserves a man-harem full of Chippendales dancers! (Or whatever the 2183 equivalent is.)

        • Effigy_Power

          I really wanted Samara… and ME2 made you feel tantalizingly close to achieving it, but she never quite buckles, so that was sad.
          Asari don’t really do it for me otherwise, but Aria T’Loak is pretty badass… when it comes to Bioware games, I tend to fall for the badass chicks… which is why I was so mad that Morrigan didn’t want anything to do with my female Dalish.
          DA2? Isabella… all the way… once again only because Aveline wasn’t interested though. Aveline might be the best female NPC I’ve ever seen, I really crushed hard on her.
          In retrospect I should have incinerated Guardsman Donnic…

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @Effigy_Power:disqus: Even if I couldn’t romance Samara, she was probably the most interesting character in ME2 to talk to. For some reason, I found the whole concept of Justicars really fascinating.

          Just out of curiosity, did anyone spare Morinth at Samara’s expense? I wonder how that would have turned out.

        • Effigy_Power

          @Merve2:disqus : I did in an alternate playthrough. The crew mentions how Samara (who Morinth is posing as) behaves a bit differently now, but in general people seem oblivious. The only difference is that Morinth will, as a matter of fact, have sex with you.
          Which is bad.
          Since she’s an Ardat Yakshi.
          Which means she kills you.
          Really. No saving throw either.
          Game.
          Fucking.
          Over.

          I wouldn’t recommend it.

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          @Merve, My male Shep was a total man slut but my lady Shep, Soda Shepard to you, also seemed to share the high standards of your lady Shep and didn’t romance anyone. Or maybe it was because she was a total renegade space racist. Anyway, went with Morinth over Samara just because I could. Unfortunately, as @Effigy_Power mentioned, you get the critical mission failure for trying to root her. In ME3, *not really spoiler*, Morinth sends you an email early on basically saying she’s fucking off somewhere and you never hear from her again.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @Staggering_Stew_Bum:disqus: In that case, I’m happy I kept Samara over Morinth. Death by sex is not how I imagined Shepard biting the dust.

          The romance options for a male Shepard are somewhat more interesting than those for a female one. I’m seriously considering replaying the ME series with a male Shep just to see what the romances are like. I’m particularly interested in Tali, or as some of my friends call it, “suit sex.”

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          @Merve2:disqus Yeah, death by sex isn’t an ideal ending for Shep but she went out with a smile on her face and you can’t ask for much more than that.

  • http://www.imadeshopping.com/ lunwen

     http://lnk.co/IL4JS

  • The_Badger

    Amazing art design! Truely breathtaking, when I first arrived to the police station in Detroit I was mesmerized by the lights, lamps, ads etc. Truely beautiful!