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.
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.
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.